Grand Committee

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Thursday 25 April 2024

Educational Trips and Exchanges

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Question for Short Debate
13:00
Asked by
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the importance of educational trips and exchanges from England to other countries, and the measures needed to facilitate them.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interest in languages as set out in the register. My first point, however, is that this is not just about languages; the importance of educational exchanges and trips abroad applies to many other areas of the curriculum, including geography, history, STEM subjects, art and sport. But I shall focus on languages in summarising why these trips are so important.

In fact, the DfE itself gave us one of the best and most thoughtful reasons why learning a language is so important in its document outlining the aims of the key stage 3 curriculum. It says:

“Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures”.


Yet the EBacc boost has stalled and barely a month goes by without yet another university announcing cuts in its modern language degree courses, which in turn weakens the supply chain of MFL teachers. This vicious circle is damaging to our economy and to individuals and their employability, with UK businesses saying that our school leavers and graduates do not have the language skills that they need. On top of all that, there is a stark correlation between the lowest take-up of languages at GCSE and the regions with the highest unemployment and skills shortages. Levelling up would benefit enormously from a boost to language learning.

How do trips and exchanges help? The Association for Language Learning has reported a positive impact on educational outcomes. Trips and exchanges raise motivation as well as achievement, encourage development of life skills, and help students see wider perspectives and develop and international mindset. University students who have spent a year abroad are more likely to gain a first or 2.1 degree and are 23% less likely to be unemployed six months after graduation, compared to people who have not spent a year abroad as part of their course, whether they are linguists or not.

Against this background, the APPG on Modern Languages, which I co-chair, heard detailed evidence from stakeholders on the problems that they are up against. The decline is worsening fast: data show that 50% of schools are now cutting trips and exchanges, rising to 68% in deprived areas—a massive increase from last year, when it was only 21%, though that was bad enough. Much of the educational benefit is being eroded, as a result of schools moving to what we might call cultural leisure tourism, with stays in hotels rather than exchanges in schools and families. I do not suppose that your average 14 year-old staying in a hotel with 30 classmates spends much time immersed in a language or practising their spoken French or Spanish.

The reasons for this decline, as presented to the APPG by teachers are fourfold: post-Brexit paperwork for travel and border checks; the increased burden of DBS checks; the lack of, or conflicting, official guidance; and, lastly, access to opportunity and funding. The impact of all this is unsustainable pressure on staff time and increased costs for schools and families; inequity, with some families having to pay more for the same trip; and the risk of a stressful journey, with delays caused by border checks.

Based on all this evidence, the APPG submitted a six-point plan of action to the DfE. I know that the Minister has seen this plan, as well as the reply that we received from Damian Hinds, the Schools Minister. However, we think the response rather weak, and I appeal to the Minister to work with the APPG to achieve more before another whole cohort of students loses out on what should be one of the most inspiring and stimulating parts of their education.

There are six practical steps to turn things around. First, it is not just a problem for the DfE to resolve. I see the Minister sighing with relief. The problems are rooted also in the Home Office and the FCDO. We need cross-departmental leadership and a designated Minister to co-ordinate this work. I believe the Minister would have exactly the right attitude and clout for this. What is more, she could rely absolutely on active help from stakeholders across the sector. The ALL, the Association of School and College Leaders, the Association of Colleges, the British Council, the School Travel Forum, all the relevant embassies and cultural institutions and, of course, the APPG would pitch in to support her. I have also had supportive contact with ABTA, the school travel organiser, the Boarding Schools’ Association and the Sutton Trust. That is quite an alliance.

Secondly, the paperwork and costs must be reviewed. We should look at bringing back the list of travellers scheme, which allowed non-EU nationals to travel without a visa or ETIAS to EU member states. We should also explore bringing back a new group passport scheme. Where passports are necessary, we should reduce their cost; £53.50 is just too much for some families for an under-16 passport. The bilateral agreement with France on easing travel rules for educational group visits should be extended proactively by HMG to all EU countries. We should not wait to be approached, as suggested by one Home Office Minister; it is in our interests to make it happen and we should ensure that the arrangements are reciprocal. Last week, the Government—and, indeed, the Labour Party—gave very short shrift to the European Commission’s proposal for a UK-EU youth mobility scheme for 18 to 30 year-olds, saying that we now prefer to deal bilaterally. If we really are too squeamish now to deal with the EU, can we at least see some proactive bilateralism?

Thirdly, we need clear and consistent guidance to help teachers plan trips. The FCDO travel entry information must cover school groups that include both UK and non-UK nationals, while accurate information on visas—including Schengen visas—and discrepancies between the advice to schools from local authorities and that coming from the FCDO must be ironed out.

Fourthly, I turn to the burden of DBS checks, where—happily—there seems to be some welcome progress. Checks already carried out by another organisation, such as the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, are now allowed without people having to go through the whole process again. Schools are also now free to decide whether an enhanced DBS is always needed for every adult in the household. However, these changes are not yet common knowledge in schools, so more needs to be done to communicate them.

Fifthly—I know that this is a big ask, given what the Minister has said on this topic previously—the Turing scheme should be reviewed. The new, more streamlined application process has been welcomed, but schools tell us that they also want multi-year funding cycles because a single-year cycle is impractical for many schools and colleges and their international partnerships. We know from experience that reciprocity helps the future MFL teacher supply chain, which badly needs boosting.

The easiest way of doing this, of course, would be to rejoin Erasmus+ as a non-EU associate country. I implore the Minister to respond positively to the invitation earlier this month from the European Economic and Social Committee for us to enter into negotiations to rejoin Erasmus+. The reason for leaving it given by the UK representative there was that the UK’s language skills are just too poor to justify the expense, which seems to me the very reason for being in it and which would pay off in the long term.

Sixthly, and finally, our plan of action proposed a number of initiatives to incentivise participation, for example, rejoining or creating a UK version of eTwinning; promoting more energetically the quality assurance schemes to support teachers and schools, such as those offered by the School Travel Forum; the LOtC Quality Badge; and the British Council’s International School Award. I salute the Minister for being here today to reply on these matters, many of which fall outside the remit of her department, but I very much hope that she will agree to initiate the cross-departmental action needed to improve the situation I have been describing. I look forward to her response.

13:09
Earl of Effingham Portrait The Earl of Effingham (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for raising this important debate.

It is increasingly apparent from reading the newspapers that our current generation of schoolchildren live in a challenging world. Most recent research from NHS England found that 20%

“of eight to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2023”.

Today’s front page of the Times warns us:

“England is worst in the world for under-age drinking”.


It is therefore essential that we do everything we can to help our schoolchildren understand that there is a big world out there that offers amazing learning opportunities away from their smartphones and peer group pressure.

I will offer some examples. Households in India spend roughly double the amount of time cooking at home versus the UK. Some 58% of households in America own listed company shares, versus around 20% in the UK. The Dutch and Germans spend approximately twice the amount of time that the UK does doing physical exercise per week. Food education, financial education and physical education should be three of the four pillars of a child’s learning, so giving our children exposure to how other nationalities operate is key. Learning a language also improves brain and memory functions; it boosts creativity and self-esteem and helps with future career opportunities. Probably most importantly for these trips, social interaction with new people in a fresh environment challenges us to step outside our comfort zones, which is a foundational life skill for the future.

I had the opportunity to visit an academy recently in one of the most deprived parts of the UK. It is achieving 15% Oxbridge entrance and 65% Russell group entrance. However, one focus area that the principal flagged and that I picked up on was that a lot of these pupils did not make eye contact when engaged in a conversation. Thrown into an overseas exchange, however, they would have no choice other than to do that. By giving our schoolchildren this opportunity, they can take away the positives of the experience and build on it incrementally. There will be less pressure on schoolroom disruption and a greater desire to learn, which will rub off on fellow pupils. In later life, with a better education under their belts, there will be less pressure on the NHS and the state.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government aim to ensure that we maintain the momentum of these overseas trips and exchanges, aside from responding to requests to continue collective passports and to win agreement to replicate the list of travellers scheme.

13:12
Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on enabling this short debate to take place and am pleased to take part. What a pleasure it is to follow the noble Earl, Lord Effingham.

I begin by agreeing with all noble Lords who have not yet spoken, including the Minister, because the value to young people of educational trips abroad is incalculable. In my short contribution, I will emphasise the importance of musical exchanges between our country and our neighbours. There is a richness of immense value to musical exchanges, as music is a language that knows no geographical boundaries. When an orchestra goes to Italy and plays an Italian piece of music, there is no need for an interpreter.

I am more than happy to declare that my interest in this subject derives from the fact that, year after year, I spent the summers travelling in Europe with both my children, who were members of the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra, conducted then by the redoubtable Adrian Brown. My daughter rose to become the leader of the orchestra and my son was the leader of the cellists, and we went to every country you could consider in Europe. For many, if not most—we are talking about schoolchildren—it was their first experience of being abroad, and certainly their first experience apart from their parents. The benefit of the exchange that took place was beyond measure.

We are now a third country and treated accordingly. The ease of freedom of movement has disappeared. The Independent Society of Musicians talks about

“the enormously damaging impact that Brexit … had on musicians’ ability to tour in Europe”

and has emphasised

“the need to resolve post-Brexit mobility issues for touring creatives”.

I have previously referred to the problems for youth orchestras. On the other hand, I am delighted to bring to your Lordships’ attention the fact that, eventually, some progress is being made. The Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra has now restarted its yearly summer tours. Last year, it went to Ravenna and this year it is planning to take 80 young musicians to the Czech Republic. Another youth orchestra, the Kimichi Symphony Orchestra, is planning to visit Kraków in October this year, which is a significant date.

However, I want to draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that some problems still make life difficult, such as the sheer time it can take to cross the border into France. Every single person has to get out of the bus and have their passport stamped, and the risk is that the coach drivers who operate and drive under rules and regulations cannot carry the young people to their destination in one go. I understand that last year the orchestra reached Ravenna and it was touch and go to get there in one go, as it were. From October, the situation will get worse. The new rules the EU has introduced mean that photographs and fingerprints will need to be taken; this has been raised in your Lordships’ House.

I appreciate that the Minister replying to the debate is from the Department for Education, which is not responsible for these types of practical difficulties. But when it comes to the solution, more broadly, I think and hope it will be possible to reach an agreement with the EU that benefits young people, as referred to by the noble Baroness. On 18 April the Commission said that it wanted to open negotiations with the UK. The Vice-President of the EU said:

“The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has hit young people … Our aim is to rebuild human bridges between young Europeans on both sides of the Channel”.


The Government have made it clear that they do not intend to go ahead with this. My own party, sadly, does not appear minded to do so at the moment. But I very much hope that that is the way the future can develop so that young people can enjoy these wonderful exchanges.

13:16
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her indefatigable support for modern languages and the international relations which are so enhanced by being able to talk to people in their own language instead of just speaking English loudly.

We are very concerned that modern languages have declined in state schools such that some universities, as the noble Baroness indicated, have closed their modern language departments. The independent sector understands the importance of being able to speak to others in their own language. Overseas trips and exchanges play a vital role in encouraging young people to continue their language studies.

This is where young people discover that foreigners can be really interesting people and the different habits of those in other countries can be life-enhancing. That includes the food, alluded to by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, and indeed the music, alluded to by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. If we can foster international friendships among the young, we shall go a long way to improving international relations in later life.

We very much miss being part of Erasmus, the programme which gave our young people the opportunity to travel and work with people of other nations and those from other nations the opportunity to experience life here in the UK. The Conservative Government assured us that Brexit would not mean leaving Erasmus—one of the very many broken promises of the disaster that is Brexit. The Turing scheme is better than nothing—it is global rather than having the Erasmus focus on the EU—but with fewer opportunities than Erasmus and without the reciprocal arrangements which were such a powerful tool in increasing friendship between countries. Turing funding is secure only until the end of the spending review 2024-25. What efforts are being made for us to rejoin Erasmus+ and what are the future prospects for the Turing scheme? If we are left with no prospect of educational trips, the future for our international relations looks bleak indeed.

There has been a distressing decline in overseas school trips in recent years, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, indicated. The biggest decline has been among the most disadvantaged—those who could benefit most from the experiences. Previously, as has been indicated, if the pupils on a trip were all from the UK or the EU, no forms were needed, but now the complexity of visas and passports has increased markedly. Of course, many UK and foreign students do not have passports, nor do they want the expense of getting one. Surely the Government could agree some other form of identification or that a list of travellers on coaches could be adequate. Our young people need visas for 16 European countries at £70 for over-12s and £35 for six to 11 year-olds. For many disadvantaged young people who would benefit most from these visits, these costs will be more than their parents can afford. The processing time for passports has also increased greatly.

Visiting other countries can be a transformational experience, particularly for young people who have not had the chance of overseas holidays, nor of meeting foreign people. In these days of international uncertainties, the Government should do all in their power to encourage educational trips. Can the Minister say how the Government envisage improvements in international relations, and hopes for peace, without ensuring that the young meet and befriend those in other countries?

13:19
Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, last month I spoke at the launch of the European Economic and Social Committee’s opinion on youth engagement, and, as my noble friend Lady Coussins has already noted, educational exchange was a key theme. The opinion represents the views of young people across Europe, and there was universal and overwhelming support for UK reintegration into Erasmus+, with 86% of young people believing that educational exchange has been negatively impacted since we left. They spoke of its benefits in broadening horizons, connecting across cultures, enhancing career prospects, personal growth, and the learning of new languages. This lent a grim irony to the comments of the UK’s deputy head of mission to the EU, who, on the same platform, justified the UK decision to leave Erasmus+ on the basis of our

“inability to speak languages very well”.

The UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum, a wonderful young man named Maurizio Cuttin, spoke of a less well-recognised casualty of the exit from Erasmus+: the British Youth Council. It relied on Erasmus+ for some 40% of its budget and is now closing after 75 years. Can the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to fill the gap left by the British Youth Council, which had such a key role in engaging young people in the process of democracy?

I sit on the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, where there is a shared appetite across all its parts—MPs, Peers and MEPs—to address youth opportunities. At its last session, it formally recommended to the Partnership Council that the UK and the EU negotiate a comprehensive and reciprocal youth mobility initiative, which would allow young people to live, work and study across our shared continent. Your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee has recommended the same, so it was briefly thrilling to hear the EU open this conversation last week and devastating to hear it closed so peremptorily by the Government and, indeed, the Opposition. A mobility programme is not a return to free movement and there are precedents: the UK has such an arrangement with Australia. Does the Minister not agree that a mobility arrangement with a block of countries on our doorstep would be far more inclusive of all young people, not just those who can afford long-distance air fares?

Young people had the least voice in the UK’s decision to leave the EU, but they will feel its impact for the longest time. When the TCA review comes around in 2026, I hope that the Government of the day will listen to what future generations want and be willing to think again.

13:22
Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, I will make a couple of points about education in Europe for British students. The first is about maximising opportunities. My 19 year-old daughter is currently doing an MA in drama in France, outside any exchange system. I have to say, her French is improving in leaps and bounds, which is a good in itself. However, it is clear from our own experience that the costs and red tape involved are now prohibitive for disadvantaged students in a way that simply did not exist before Brexit. This is not just about Turing and Erasmus; Brexit itself has made studying in Europe so much harder for British students.

Analysis by IFF Research, focusing on the first year of the Turing Scheme, found that inadequate funding and delivery problems have disproportionately impacted students with fewer resources. As the Association of Colleges points out, the lack of reciprocity means that institutions are forced to fall back on pre-existing connections, where they are able to. Erasmus is so much richer in its offer, including staff mobility. The Association of Colleges recommends that we rejoin Erasmus+ but retain Turing as a global and possibly Commonwealth scheme. Erasmus+ is expressly referred to in the EU Commission’s proposal on youth mobility. It is keen to have us back, and I hope that a future Government will act on that.

Secondly, we require more efficient Europe-wide solutions to these problems. For instance, it is clear that, for school visits, we need the reinstatement of a list-of-travellers visa scheme and collective passports, for the whole of Europe. I hope, too, that the EU Commission is not put off by the Government’s or Labour’s response to its proposal. A future Government may change their mind. Despite what the Government say, it is not free movement—more is the pity. With a single destination specified, it will not, for example, solve the problems even of young musicians touring, and Labour is right to see that as a separate issue.

The response to this scheme that intrigued me the most was that of Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, who, as reported in the Guardian on 19 April, said that the EU is

“scared that member states will do bilateral deals, which becomes more of a threat the better the Eurosceptic parties do in the elections”.

In this context, bilateral deals become synonymous with cherry picking. I cannot therefore get too worked up about the Government’s response to the Written Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, regarding school visits and whether the Government would establish arrangements with other countries similar to those with France. They said, on 12 December last year:

“We would consider negotiating with other countries should they approach us with an interest in making similar arrangements”.


On its own terms, this is terribly lazy foreign policy, considering that it is our schoolchildren who will be most affected and less so European schoolchildren, who will have many other easy options to choose from: 30 other European countries, including Ireland.

13:25
Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, this debate in the name of my noble friend Lady Coussins, who is a tireless worker in this field, about educational trips and exchanges could not be more timely. It comes one year after your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee, of which I was then a member, made some important recommendations to the Government on both these topics, and four years since Brexit dealt a hammer blow to both of them.

First, school visits: the biggest cause of the dramatic drop in visits, as assessed by the Tourism Alliance in 2023, is a requirement imposed by the Government for all students coming on such visits to have a passport and not, as in the past, for an identity card to suffice. Were schoolchildren so equipped a cause of illegal migration? Apparently not. Last March the Government rather belatedly agreed, at Prime Minister/President level, to waive the passport requirement with respect to France. At the time the agreement was reached, without any notable enthusiasm or initiative, the Government said that other EU member states could benefit from similar arrangements if they wanted to and asked for them.

Will the Minister update the Committee on the following points? What is the trend in UK-France school visits since last December, when the new arrangements rather belatedly came into force, nine months after the President and the Prime Minister agreed them? What proactive steps are the Government taking to encourage other member states to agree similar arrangements? How many and which ones have responded positively?

Then, university-level educational exchanges: the end of access to the Erasmus scheme for British students has never been properly explained, let alone justified, by the Government. They merely stated flatly that continued involvement

“did not represent value for money”.

That is not the view of a wide range of other European third countries which do participate in Erasmus. Will the Minister therefore kindly respond to the following points? Will she set out, rather than simply assert, the basis for not regarding the Erasmus scheme as value for money? Will she explain why the Welsh Government’s Taith scheme, which does contain reciprocal elements with Erasmus, is not worth considering?

Overall, this is a sorry story of self-inflicted damage and two clear disbenefits of Brexit, but it is not too late to remedy matters if action is not further delayed. In that context, the reported willingness by the EU to negotiate a youth mobility scheme—another idea put forward by your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee last year—is surely worthy of positive consideration. We really must not allow opportunities such as that to repair the damage done by Brexit to emerging generations of our citizens to slip away.

13:28
Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Portrait Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston (CB)
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My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for this opportunity, but there is a tinge of sadness about it, because what I am about to say, I would probably have been able to say five, 10 or 15 years ago. That is in relation to foreign languages in general and, if I might be forgiven for focusing on one language, to German, my first language, in particular.

More than 50 years ago, Willy Brandt, the then German Chancellor, observed:

“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen sie Deutsch sprechen”.


That was true then and it is still true today. However, foreign languages are about far more than just economics, although we should not underestimate that economics is essential. While English language speakers have an initial advantage, they are very often overlooked when it comes to deeper relationships, particularly in export markets: you do have to speak the language well, and there is a sense of sadness on my part that even the Foreign Office, when it recruits its diplomats, does not particularly value their language skills as part of the recruitment process.

I want to quote the German ambassador, Miguel Berger, who observed in January this year that just 2,210 students sat German A-level in 2023, a drop of 17% on the previous year and a fall of almost 48% since 2013. He called that

“a truly dramatic decline, which is deeply worrying especially as it is an ongoing trend”.

I have to say that in all my time of meeting a succession of German ambassadors, each of them starts off by saying that it is their mission to ensure that more students learn German—and by the end of their term, fewer of them do.

It is worth looking at teaching, particularly for a language such as German, which is perceived to be a difficult one. If I compare it with the way that English is taught in Germany, years 4 and 5 there would probably spend about five hours a week focusing on one language to gain confidence and the joy of it, whereas here we spend only about two hours—maybe sometimes three. I urge the Minister to focus on the amount of teaching hours that we have on one language.

The second thing worth looking at, when we compare the British Council’s latest statements on international engagement, is that there has been an increase in schools doing online digital links with schools outside the UK. In 2023, some 14% did that, so even if we cannot encourage the travel, there is that sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn. I urge the Minister to look at that and encourage digital engagement to create that curiosity and interest in learning languages.

13:31
Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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I say a huge thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this debate. The importance of educational trips and exchanges between England and other countries cannot be underestimated from an academic, educational, cultural or economic perspective. They are often life-changing for the pupil or student, who establishes bonds of friendship that can last a lifetime, and of course it develops our soft power.

Universities report that the amount of funding through the Turing Scheme is only a fraction of what the last combined Erasmus+ award was. As a consequence, the opportunity to undertake creative study and work abroad is limited to students on a course with a mandatory period of exchange or students who are able to fund their period abroad themselves. The former is already troubling, as we are aware of the importance of exchange, but the latter is especially detrimental to the Government’s commitment to equal opportunities. This funding shortfall is, unfortunately, not the only issue impeding equal opportunities.

In the first analysis of the Turing Scheme, fewer than half of university students felt that the funding covered half of their costs on placement. Additionally, many described worrying a lot before funding was confirmed, then struggling with day-to-day living costs while waiting for funding to come through. More students reported significant delays in response to their application to the scheme. This means that students who rely on funding to start their exchange will feel forced to drop out of it when delays in funding occur.

Although the Turing Scheme was promised to be a real game-changer for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is especially those students who will be negatively affected. I have no objections to the Turing Scheme but, in departing from the Erasmus+ funding, we ought to ensure that the Turing Scheme is equal, if not better—as of course was promised by the Government and Ministers.

The number of students coming to the UK on trips and exchanges is on course to decline for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic. We should all be concerned about this. A report by Universities UK emphasises the importance of international students to local economies throughout the UK. It states that the economic benefits associated with students coming to the UK on exchange programmes are currently being underestimated. Unlike the former Erasmus scheme, the Turing Scheme does not provide for this reciprocal funding. This cut in funding for inbound students raises concerns not just for them and local economies, but for how universities are to sustain relationships with other institutions, say, in research and other educational projects. Moreover, it begs the question whether this reflects the inclusive and welcoming image that we aim to portray as a nation.

Although the Government are clear that they do not intend to establish reciprocal arrangements, I urge them to re-evaluate that stance. Whether it is for languages, music, education, understanding or just plain old-fashioned friendship, a new Government need to work either to restore Erasmus or to develop, as was promised, a Rolls-Royce alternative.

13:35
Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, I begin by expressing my shock and disbelief at the events in Ysgol Dyffryn Aman yesterday. I cannot believe what happened. My thoughts are with the teachers and pupils, who now have to pick up after these terrible events, and with the emergency services that dealt with it so swiftly.

I had a long teaching career and, at Hartridge High School in Newport, a challenging demographic of prior low attainment and poverty. Our engagements with partner schools in Bayeux in France and Castellammare di Stabia in southern Italy were crucial links in widening horizons and helping the creation of positive learning environments. The regular trips and exchanges developed among our pupils and theirs gave an understanding of culture, a mutual respect for each other’s languages and traditions, and value for all pupils irrespective of attainment group. Teacher-pupil relations were strengthened in and out of class, and communications between schools, teachers, pupils and parents were enhanced through regular fundraising and cultural events. I look back on those times as some of the most pleasurable in my career.

Sadly, the picture today is in serious decline. The School Travel Forum said that there were 2,922 fewer trips in 2023 than in 2019. The Sutton Trust report said that 50% of school leaders had made cuts to trips and outings; this has doubled since 2019, representing the highest percentage increase of any budget cut in the survey.

We know that, between EU countries, school trips can move freely without individual documentation. This acts like a group travel document, and includes pupils who are not EU citizens but resident in member states. Sadly, we no longer have access to this scheme in our post-Brexit world.

Other organisations, such as the Association for Language Learning, the School Travel Forum and Tourism Alliance, have indicated that post-Brexit issues have reduced trips both to and from the UK. I would be grateful if the Minister could give an update on any efforts that the Government may be making to pursue further bilateral youth mobility partnerships with our international partners.

School trips allow children to have experiences that they may not necessarily have in their lives currently. They can have a positive impact on well-being—seeing somewhere new and being with friends in a different context. Children are able to get to places that they may not otherwise experience. They also share experiences with many of their friends and not just a select few. We need a richer, broader curriculum for all students, and travel experiences both within and outside the UK have a significant role to play in this enrichment.

13:38
Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I share the noble Baroness’s reflections on the tragic events in Ammanford in Carmarthenshire. I will not try to attempt her expert Welsh pronunciation. I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this debate and thank noble Lords for their contributions.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Stuart and Lady Garden, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, focused on the importance of modern foreign languages in our curriculum. Of course, the Government absolutely agree. Rather like the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I agree with everything that has been said and is about to be said. That is why we have made modern foreign languages part of the EBacc. The Committee is well aware of the recruitment challenges in that area, some of the reasons for which were explored in speeches this afternoon.

If I may, I will start with a bit of good news and reflect on some of the achievements of the Turing Scheme, which is backed by £110 million of funding for the next academic year. The scheme allows schools, colleges and universities to provide students from across the UK the chance to develop new skills, gain international experience and boost their employability by undertaking a study or work placement.

The Turing Scheme has funded tens of thousands of UK students to gain international experience. It is currently funding more than 41,000 participants—including nearly 7,000 school pupils—to undertake placements in more than 160 countries. Around 24,500, or 60%, of these opportunities are for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—something that was raised, rightly, by my noble friend Lord Effingham. An application assessment for the fourth year of the scheme, which will begin in September, is currently under way. The appetite for the scheme is clear, for the reasons that your Lordships set out, with an increasing number of applications every year that the scheme has been available; the number has risen from 412 applications across all sectors in the first year to 619 applications for the current academic year.

The Government recognise the difficulties that schools, colleges and universities have faced in recent years when it comes to organising international visits and exchanges. We are taking steps to address this. Although we are, sadly, not yet in a position to have a Minister directly responsible for this issue—I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her kind words—we are working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office to make sure that we have a joined-up approach; that was, I know, the spirit of the APPG’s recommendation.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, said that some institutions have found the administration of the scheme particularly cumbersome. This is something that we are aware of and have heard from stakeholders about. We will take the administration of the scheme in-house—that is, back into the department—in the next year to make sure both that we have the most streamlined experience and that the new online application process is as user-friendly as possible.

I move on to where I shall, perhaps, disappoint your Lordships. The DfE is not currently exploring the possibility of adding a reciprocal element to the Turing Scheme. We believe that it is right to use taxpayer money to prioritise international opportunities for students, learners and pupils at UK education providers over placements in the UK for students from other countries. Of course, it has always been the case that other countries and their students make their own arrangements to support study and work in the UK. We have seen a strong appetite across the globe for placements, which indicates that the Turing Scheme’s focus on outward mobility funding has not inhibited its success.

I turn now to some of specific issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s recommendations. We are grateful to the APPG on Modern Languages for its work. The noble Baroness referred to the paperwork and costs for both outgoing groups and groups coming into the UK. For incoming students, the standard visa route allows individuals to come to the UK and take part in either educational exchanges or visits with a state-funded school, be it an academy, a maintained school or an independent school. All of that is permitted activity under the Immigration Rules.

Regarding group travel paperwork, since October 2021, the EU, the EEA and Swiss nationals have required a passport to travel to the UK. We provided almost a year’s notice for this change, allowing people to plan ahead and obtain a passport if they needed to do so. On the same date, we ended the use of the list of travellers, which was in the EU scheme.

Similarly—to respond to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—the European Commission ceased to accept the list of travellers from the UK from January 2021, although some EU countries have since decided to allow visa-free travel for visa national children on their trips to the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about trends in trips from France, particularly following the agreement between the Prime Minister and President Macron. We do not have detailed data on that yet but, if that emerges, I will be very happy to update the noble Lord.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said that schools needed clear and consistent guidance. Of course, this is not something that the FCDO provides, as the noble Baroness knows, but schools should contact the Department for Education or their partner school’s travel forum to get specific information and guidance when taking school groups overseas.

I thank the noble Baroness for acknowledging the flexibilities around the use of DBS checks from other organisations. The example she gave of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme is absolutely appropriate.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty—almost all noble Lords, in fact—mentioned issues about Erasmus+. The Government do not intend to negotiate resuming participation in any aspect of Erasmus+ with the EU, as a programme country; that includes e-twinning. We just do not believe that it is necessary to do that to facilitate education exchanges between the UK and the EU.

We are working beyond the Turing Scheme. We have opportunities such as our Mandarin Excellence Programme trip to China this summer, when 1,300 pupils are expected to visit the country—most, I imagine, for the very first time. We also continue to work with the British Council on the annual language trends survey, to make sure that we incorporate further school trip data and promote the work of the British Council, particularly its international school award, to all schools.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, asked about an EU-wide youth mobility scheme. We are not planning to introduce such a scheme. Free movement within the EU has ended. We have successful schemes with 13 countries, and we remain open to agreeing them with more.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about proactive bilateralism. We understand the arguments for that, and, as I said, we are open to negotiating similar agreements with other countries.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, discussed the importance of the fact that disadvantaged children might be prevented from making long-distance trips. In the company of so many foreign language aficionados and advocates, I hesitate to say this, but the evidence suggests that, for some children from disadvantaged communities, going to a country where English is spoken is a help in seeing the wider world. It is not just about languages; it is also, as noble Lords said, about taking children out of their comfort zone and seeing the way that other communities live.

I thank the noble Baroness again for securing this debate. I will write to noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on musical exchanges. The Government absolutely recognise the importance of educational trips and will continue to work to promote them.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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As we are slightly under time, can the Minister say something about the closure of the British Youth Council, particularly the resulting loss of international exchange and the young voice in the democratic process? The British Youth Council was responsible for the UK Youth Parliament.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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As the noble Baroness is aware, the responsibility for the British Youth Council relationship sits with DCMS. I met and worked with the British Youth Council many times when I was a Minister in that department. I am not aware of whether there are plans to address the gap—I do not think that the noble Baroness used the word “replace”—left by its closure. From the perspective of the DfE, I can say that having a youth voice at the centre of our policy and its development is absolutely critical.

13:51
Sitting suspended.

Peaceful Protests

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Question for Short Debate
14:00
Asked by
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Practical toolkit for law enforcement officials to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests, published on 7 March by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and how they intend to ensure that the United Kingdom aligns with United Nations standards on the use of surveillance technology at protests.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, what a select little bunch of Peers we are. Clearly, we all know our stuff on this.

A few years ago, I introduced what I think was the first ever debate on facial recognition here in Parliament. At that time, I recognised it as part of a wider package of changes that were on the route to dismantling parliamentary democracy here in the UK, because, when you combine facial recognition and other technologies with the draconian laws passed in the police Act, the Public Order Act and by ministerial decree, a full-scale clampdown on any form of effective protest is now possible. We are a very short step away from what happens in Russia on a regular basis as the authorities here attempt to stifle protests.

If you add to that the plans for the Government to spy on pensioners’ bank accounts, to promote their own digital currency and to link an array of biometrics to a digital ID card, we enter a very different world where the state can switch on and off your access to the basics of life. We have already given the Home Secretary the power to banish anyone with a dual passport from this country, with no right of appeal in this country, and laws that allow the police to stop named individuals attending a demonstration are in place. Is the UK state going to set up the technological infrastructure that will allow for the internal banishment of people with views the Government do not like, with the denial of privileges that we currently see as rights?

We are entering this new era of a Big Brother state at speed, and democracy will be the victim of the inevitable crash. The UK police charged with combating extremism now have similar powers to the Russian police combating extremism. I was once called a “domestic extremist” by the Met Police; it watched me for 10 years because I was clearly a threat to democracy—and it lied about it as well. The differences are dependent on which police officer interprets the law; the vigour of groups, such as Big Brother Watch, which seek to defend our rights; and the spirited independence of those lefty lawyers whom the Government complain about so often.

In Russia, more than 2,000 protesters against the war in Ukraine have been arrested or detained using facial recognition technology; they include people visited at home and questioned after a peaceful protest. This has also become standard practice by the Met Police, which trawls through video footage to identify people it wants to arrest. Most importantly, facial recognition is now used in Russia to detain those on their way to a protest after being spotted by the metro camera system. This mirrors the new laws in this country allowing the authorities to ban protesters ahead of demonstrations by issuing control orders or the new serious disruption prevention orders. The Met Police also has access to much of Transport for London’s camera network, yet the only political party to have ever pressured for constraints and safeguards to be put in place is the Green Party.

These deployments of facial recognition have turned our city streets into mass-scale police line-ups, with hundreds of thousands of innocent people subjected to biometric identity checks. Yet, eight years after UK police first rolled out this invasive technology, there has been no democratic consent to live facial recognition and biometric surveillance in Britain. No legislation to approve or ban the use of live facial recognition technology in the UK has been passed or even seriously proposed. Instead, the police operate in a grey area, enabled by a democratic deficit to use rights-invading technology with minimal oversight.

That is why we need to apply the UN standards as a minimum. Those standards make it clear that such technology should not be used to identify people participating in peaceful protest and that protests should not be used as surveillance opportunities. The UN model protocol prohibits the use of facial recognition to identify those participating in peaceful protests. These are standards designed for the likes of Russia, Zimbabwe and Uganda, but we actually cannot meet them here in the UK.

For example, Cheshire Constabulary has stated that it intends to use facial recognition technology to monitor, track and profile individuals. There are no safeguards in place to protect individuals’ rights and the right to protest. This is hardly surprising. How many times, in recent years, have we heard senior politicians and Home Secretaries saying that they believe in the right to protest—“Ah, but not for those particular protesters or protests”?

We need a charter of democratic freedoms that enshrines the right to protest and to assemble. We must never have another situation like the Sarah Everard vigil, when senior officers at New Scotland Yard decided on a clampdown against people who were coming together to remember a woman murdered by a man nicknamed the “rapist” by his colleagues in the Met, while they allowed him to remain in their ranks.

Our authoritarian Government are proposing the abolition of the existing scant oversight of facial recognition and other forms of advanced surveillance through its Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. You cannot use a system designed to protect consumer privacy to protect you from state intrusion. My big concern is that we contest each of these new laws and technologies in isolation, rather than seeing the big picture of what this Government are out to achieve. The ban on strikes, the granting of legal immunity to undercover officers who spy on campaigners, and voter suppression are all part of a rapid slide into an authoritarian country.

I hope that the next Government aim to restore the freedoms that we have lost and replace the safeguards that have been dismantled. I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord the shadow Minister on that. I will be pressurising the next Government to make that happen and for our freedoms to keep pace with the technologies used by the state to restrict them. Will the Government accept these UN standards?

14:07
Lord Strasburger Portrait Lord Strasburger (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for calling this very important debate and I declare my interest, as recorded in the register, as chair of Big Brother Watch. I thank Madeleine Stone of Big Brother Watch for the excellent briefing that she provided parliamentarians about the UN toolkit that we are debating today. I also thank Professor Peter Fussey for his guidance; he was an important contributor to the UN toolkit.

The very worrying subject of this debate is just part of the Government’s assault on the privacy of ordinary, law-abiding citizens. Another example of the Government’s propensity to spy on us all is their smuggling into the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill a last-minute amendment enabling the Government to snoop on all our bank accounts. The pretext for this suspicionless financial snoopers’ charter is benefit fraud, for which authorities already have ample powers. This would affect every one of us, with our bank accounts being repeatedly scanned on secret criteria, set by the Government, and the banks forced to hand over unlimited amounts of information. This financial snoopers’ charter is not linked to serious crime or to any crime at all. This House must stop it in its tracks.

The trigger for this debate was last month’s publication of the UN toolkit, Human Rights Compliant Uses of Digital Technologies by Law Enforcement for the Facilitation of Peaceful Protests. Protests are important in a democracy, because they empower people who disagree with their Government’s actions. Those citizens may feel isolated and powerless, but public demonstrations show them that they are not alone and that there are thousands who agree with them. Those in power may try to ignore dissent but, if there are enough protesters, the Government will feel the need to come up with reasons why the protesters are wrong. That is when the debate begins, which is good. Protests also provide an essential voice for minority groups, who otherwise would not be heard.

I return to the UN toolkit, which challenges the UK police approach to biometric identification technologies such as facial recognition. It states very clearly:

“Facial recognition technologies and other biometric identification technologies must not be utilised to identify or track individuals peacefully participating in a protest”.


It also states that protests should not be used as a surveillance opportunity, which I and the Liberal Democrats also support. The reason given by the UN is simply that the use of this technology at protests represents a significant threat to the rights to freedom of expression and association. The inevitable “chilling effect” will mean that members of the public are less willing to engage in their right to protest, as they fear the loss of anonymity and possible reprisals, either now or in the future.

This is in line with the 2023 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights that Russia’s use of facial recognition technology to identify protesters was unlawful. Since this ruling, Russia has continued to use the technology to target protesters against the war in Ukraine and those attending the funeral of the political dissident Alexei Navalny.

However, despite the UN and ECHR rulings, police forces in the UK are already using facial recognition technology to monitor and identify peaceful protesters, in a total legislative vacuum. No primary legislation or regulations cover the use or oversight of this technology, so the police are writing their own rules, with no consideration of the human rights of their targets. This is a totally unacceptable state of affairs.

Facial recognition technology is wholly intrusive. It is the equivalent of stamping a barcode on every citizen’s forehead so that they can all be identified from a distance. Less intrusive identification methods, such as using fingerprints or DNA, are heavily prescribed in their use and the retention of their data. But, scandalously, there is nothing to control the use of facial recognition technology, which poses the most serious threat to human rights of all these technologies.

Facial recognition technology was used by police in Cardiff to monitor an entirely peaceful protest. The watch-list fed into the system contained mostly individuals not wanted for any criminal activity. It was just monitoring law-abiding citizens exercising their right to peaceful protest. The Appeal Court found that South Wales Police had unlawfully deployed the technology, but that has not stopped it being used at peaceful protests.

Current police policy, which, in the absence of any legislation, they have written for themselves, covers identifying people who “may cause harm”—whatever that absurdly broad phrase means. It can be used to include just about anybody. This do-it-yourself police guidance sets no criminal threshold for the use of live facial recognition and can be used to justify any kind of use, including surveillance and identification of peaceful protesters.

Amazingly, this is only the second time that facial recognition has been debated in Parliament in the eight years since the police started trialling it. As a result, there is no democratic mandate for the use of this technology. The Science and Technology Committee called for an “immediate moratorium” on its use, which has been ignored. There has been sustained criticism of the legislative vacuum from parliamentarians, academics and rights groups. The independent review commissioned by the Met criticised the force for failing to consider the impact on human rights and relying on an inadequate legal basis. Four Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioners have found that the existing legal position is not fit for purpose.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. If he feels unable to answer them all today, will he write to me and the other speakers in this debate with his answers? How do the Government justify taking the opposite approach to that of our allies and the UN guidance, instead mimicking the Russian police state practice of using facial recognition to identify protestors at peaceful protests? Will the Government commit to complying with the UN toolkit, which prohibits using facial recognition to identify those participating in peaceful protests? How have the Government evaluated the chilling effect on peaceful protests of using facial recognition, including at the Coronation?

Furthermore, what recourse is available to citizens who are wrongly placed on the facial recognition watch-list or are misidentified by the technology? Big Brother Watch has examples of innocent people, including a 14 year-old boy being mistakenly identified as a criminal, with seriously traumatic effects, possibly lifelong. The UN model places a clear responsibility on states to ensure proper oversight of advanced surveillance technologies at protests. With the likely abolition of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner by the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, who will conduct this oversight?

Lastly, when will the Government wake up from being fast asleep at the wheel on this vital matter and legislate? We need a robust and clear domestic legal framework, governing the use of digital technologies by law enforcement that conforms to international human rights law.

14:16
Lord Paddick Portrait Lord Paddick (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I remind noble Lords that I am now a non-affiliated Member of this House and that I served for 30 years as a police officer specialising in public order policing. I also declare an interest as a paid non-executive adviser to the Metropolitan Police Service, and I am grateful to the Met for providing me with a briefing, and to Big Brother Watch, as I have managed to acquire its briefing.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for the opportunity to debate the practical toolkit for law enforcement officials to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests, although I fear that this debate may be a little premature, as components one and three of the toolkit are yet to be published. However, we have component two, “A principle-based guidance for the human-rights compliant use of digital technologies in the context of peaceful protests”.

Looking at this document from a practical UK policing perspective, I found it somewhat confusing—and I am looking at this from a physical assembly or demonstration perspective, rather than an online one, which is included in the UN document. As Big Brother Watch points out, and as the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, just said, the guidance states that biometric surveillance should not be used

“before, during or after protests”

and

“facial recognition technologies … must not be utilised to identify or track individuals peacefully participating in a protest”.

Big Brother Watch goes on to say that:

“The use of this technology at protests represents a significant threat to the rights of freedom of expression and association, as the chilling effect will mean members of the public are less willing to engage their right to protest, as they fear loss of anonymity and reprisals both now and in the future”.


If, and only if, facial recognition is deployed to capture the images of peaceful protestors and identify them, would the fear of loss of anonymity be a reasonable one—and if, and only if, those protestors were to engage in unlawful activity, would there be a reasonable fear of reprisals, at least here in the United Kingdom? The fact is that live facial recognition as deployed by police forces in the United Kingdom does not capture and retain images but simply compares those images with a limited and specific database of individuals, which changes depending on the deployment.

For example, my understanding is that the images of those convicted of stalking-type offences in relation to members of the Royal Family may be used at events such as the Coronation, but away from sites of lawful protest. Biometric facial images are captured and compared with the event-specific database images, and if there is no match, the image is immediately and irreversibly deleted. At events such as the Coronation, where assembly was lawful, and mindful of the potential chilling effect, the Metropolitan Police confirmed in a public statement that facial recognition

“is not used to identify people who are linked to, or have been convicted of, being involved in protest activity”.

It was used to protect peaceful gatherings, not where people had peacefully gathered, by identifying individuals who present a danger in crowds, such as registered sex offenders.

If live facial recognition was used against some universal database, as are, I believe, commercially available to law enforcement organisations outside the UK—a global compilation of millions of images taken from open sources, such as Facebook and Instagram, whereby the police could identify most people at a peaceful protest—the concerns of Big Brother Watch and the UN special rapporteur would have some justification. My understanding is that this is prohibited in the United Kingdom.

Big Brother Watch says:

“Despite international warnings that the use of facial recognition in the context of protest poses a grave threat to human rights, police forces in the UK are already using the technology to monitor and identify protestors”.


However, my understanding is that police forces are not using live facial recognition technology to monitor and identify peaceful protesters but to monitor and identify those who may present a threat to peaceful protest. The example that Big Brother Watch gave of its use at Silverstone, for example, was in connection with an unlawful protest, where the lives of both the protestors and those trying to prevent them could have been put at risk; it was not deployed at a peaceful assembly.

I agree with Big Brother Watch in its assertion that there is insufficient primary legislation specifically overseeing the use of facial recognition, meaning that the police can, to some extent, write their own rules about how it is deployed. However, they are bound by data protection law and the Human Rights Act, which restrict their activities to what is necessary and proportionate to achieve their lawful objectives. In the case of peaceful protest, that is to ensure that the protest remains peaceful. Being able to identify, isolate and restrict the activities of known troublemakers is surely preferable to placing unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the activities of the peaceful majority. Properly deployed, controlled and audited, the use of live facial recognition can enable, rather than have a chilling effect on, the right to free assembly and protest. I for one would be more likely to engage in a protest if I believed that the police were taking necessary and proportionate action to identify, isolate and prevent the attendance of those known to be intent on criminal activity.

Big Brother Watch quite rightly questions who is on the databases that the police use, and against which live facial recognition compares captured images. There is a legitimate need for the police to be audited in some way to ensure that their actions are lawful, necessary and proportionate. Arguably, primary or secondary legislation is needed to ensure that the police are deploying live facial recognition in a human-rights compliant way.

However, in my opinion—based on 30 years as a police officer, 10 years as a Liberal Democrat Peer, with eight years as their Front Bench spokesperson on home affairs, and now being back in the paid employ of the Met—live facial recognition in the vicinity of protests, assemblies and elsewhere has the potential to make policing even more proportionate, better targeted and less interventionist. As with so much technology, it is not, as it seems to be portrayed by some, bad in itself—but it has the potential, without proper regulation, to be used in a non-human-rights compliant way. While that is contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, suggested, perhaps the way in which the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has recently resisted calls from politicians to ban peaceful protests might give her some hope for the future.

14:25
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, first I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for introducing this debate. Although there are very few speakers, it is actually a very important subject. I declare my interest as a sitting magistrate. I have heard cases regarding protests and sentenced protesters on occasion.

I am speaking for the Labour Party in this debate and we, of course, support the right to peaceful protest, which has helped us in this country win so many of our historic rights. In a democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and historic rights to protest run alongside the rights of people to go about their daily lives, the right to be free from harassment or intimidation and the vital need to ensure that essential services are not disrupted. That is why this House voted against the sweeping stop-and-search powers in the Public Order Bill that risked penalising peaceful protesters and passers-by. As one of the Labour Front-Benchers on that Bill, it was disappointing that the Government failed to pay due attention to the opinion of this House when they brought those measures back in secondary legislation only months later. Will the Minister say what assessment has been made of the impact of these measures?

This debate’s title is highly focused, and it would be useful for the Minister to respond in a focused way to the UN guidance being discussed, and how it relates to the UK’s current strategy towards protests. The debate’s title reminds us that peaceful protesters worldwide face intimidation, repression and human rights violations. Britain must show that the right to peacefully protest should be fiercely protected, while the minority who seek to abuse that right are stopped from doing so.

When the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, introduced her speech, she drew comparisons with Russia and Belarus. I have worked extensively in Russia and have visited Belarus many times, and I think her comparisons with those countries are completely absurd and alarmist. The noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, also made various alarmist claims, but the substance of the points he was making about the use of facial ID technology, and in particular live facial recognition technology, are indeed concerning. I was very interested to hear the fuller explanation of how the Metropolitan Police and other police forces are using this technology. Obviously, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, gave reassurances about who is on the police database and who can have access to that database when comparisons are made between the faces on the technology and the live facial recognition. He gave the example of stalkers and a couple of other examples. I understand that the noble Lord is talking about the practice of the Met—nevertheless, this is an alarming development, and I think the Government need to be very aware of the way this is developing.

While I accused the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, of being alarmist when comparing Britain to Russia, nevertheless it is the same technology that is being used. This is international technology. We are here talking about what the British Government do but, of course, that facial recognition technology is used completely internationally. There are huge databases of our faces and our characteristics being built up all over the world. We have debated the implications of that on other pieces of legislation fairly recently, and I know the Minister is aware of how that will impact on the way police forces and other agencies try to keep us safe in our own country.

To repeat myself, while I called what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said ridiculous and alarmist—I used those words very deliberately—we should be very concerned about the subject and keen to understand developments in live facial ID recognition. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government are keeping the most serious eye on the way this technology is developing.

14:30
Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for securing this debate, and indeed thank all the other Peers who have spoken. I particularly thank the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Paddick, for reminding us of the positive benefits that can accrue to law enforcement, and to keeping the public safe, from the appropriate and proportionate use of this type of technology.

I will do my very best to address all the points raised but, before I do that, I also thank Professor Peter Fussey, who reached out to me directly, which I appreciate, for making some very interesting contributions to the wider discussions on these complicated issues and specifically for his work in co-authoring the recent UN publication. As I say, I will do my utmost to address the points raised and if I fail in any of those, I will scour Hansard and, of course, write.

First, I would like to reassure noble Lords that the Government absolutely recognise the gravity of these issues. They are fundamental to the functioning of our democratic process. For any democracy to be considered a truly free and liberal society, the right to protest peacefully is of course essential and there is a long-standing tradition in this country of people gathering to express their views on all manner of topics. None of us here would wish that right to be unduly diluted or curtailed.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that there is no intention to stifle protests. I am afraid that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that comparisons to Russia are absurd, alarmist and specious. That is not to say that protestors have carte blanche to behave in an unacceptable or illegal way. Their rights must be balanced against the rights of others to go about their lives free from obstruction and harassment. Should a protest contravene the law, the police have comprehensive powers to deal with activities that spread hate or deliberately raise tensions through violence or public disorder. Again, that does not negate the right to peaceful protest. The use of these powers and the management of demonstrations is generally an operational matter for the police.

Turning to the specific focus of the debate, the Government again take this opportunity to thank the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for his recent report which detailed, as has been noted by all the speakers, a model protocol for law enforcement officials to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The report constitutes the first component of a three-part toolkit that he is publishing. As the Committee would expect, the Government are currently reviewing the model protocol report and will also be assessing the second and third components of the toolkit once they have been published. I can say that, at a high level, the protocol appears to set out some helpful principles; it also recognises that digital tools can enable protest, a point that was powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.

The role of the police in protest is to preserve the peace, to uphold the law and to prevent the commission of offences. As noble Lords are aware, police forces in this country have operational independence and decisions on how to achieve these objectives are a matter for chief officers. The Government are committed to supporting police forces to make use of surveillance technologies to detect and deter crime, and to keep the public safe. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for his examples and, obviously, for his extensive expertise, particularly as regards keeping peaceful protests just that—peaceful.

There is of course a comprehensive legal framework governing the use of surveillance technologies. This includes the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010, the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, as well as national guidance and published police policies. Surveillance technologies such as CCTV, drones, facial recognition and body-worn video can be used for policing purposes only where necessary, proportionate and fair; I think that answers one of the points from the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger. They cannot be used to restrict the rights of peaceful assembly and association. However, the police do have the right to monitor a protest if serious disorder is expected, in order to keep the public safe.

The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that these technologies are used appropriately and that safeguards are in place to ensure that. As has been stated, their use is governed by data protection, equalities and human rights laws, as well as guidance. As I have just mentioned, they can be used for a policing purpose only where necessary, proportionate and fair.

Your Lordships will be aware that there are a number of oversight bodies active in this space, which hold the police to account for their use of surveillance technologies. The Information Commissioner’s Office regulates all use of personal data, and this includes police use. The police must also comply with data protection legislation, which is regulated by the Information Commissioner’s Office, and with human rights and equalities legislation. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is responsible for upholding equality and human rights laws. The courts also play a vital role. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services monitors and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct holds the police accountable for their actions, to improve police practices.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, suggested that we are abolishing the Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, and indeed their powers, but that is not the case. We are transferring them to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, which has expertise and experience in carrying out similar functions. The Information Commissioner’s Office already regulates these areas for all organisations, not just the police. As I said, the Biometrics Commissioner’s casework functions are being transferred. That is because we think that simpler oversight is better.

I spent some of my morning reading the Independent Report on Changes to the Functions of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Arising from the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill of 6 October 2023, by Professor Pete Fussey. Although I do not necessarily agree with all of his conclusions, he notes that:

“It is widely accepted that current arrangements for oversight for public surveillance and biometric techniques are complex and would benefit from greater clarity”.


We may disagree about how that is done, but it is precisely what we are trying to do.

With regard to the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, about citizens recourse, the ICO is open to anyone to complain, and, as it is a regulator, unlike the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, it has the power to take enforcement action. Complaints are relatively straightforward; they can be made via the website, via direct contact, via a police station or, of course, via an MP.

The noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, suggested that in the south Wales case, the use of live facial recognition was deemed unlawful. That is not the case. The court found that South Wales Police did not fully comply with privacy, data protection and equality laws during two of their pilots, but made it clear what needed to be done to ensure compliance with the legal framework. Since then, the police have addressed those court findings. The College of Policing has issued national guidance on live facial recognition, in particular setting out the circumstances in which the police can use it and the categories of people they can look for. The National Physical Laboratory has independently tested the algorithms used by South Wales Police and the Metropolitan Police and found that they were very accurate, and there were no statistically significant differences in performance based on gender or ethnicity—a point that often gets made and needs clarifying.

The noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, implied that none of our allies is using this sort of technology. Of course, it is up to other countries to decide how to regulate the police use of technology, but it is estimated that nearly 70% of police forces globally have access to some form of facial recognition technology, so we are not alone.

In concluding, I thank again the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for securing this debate, and all those who spoke. It was an interesting and thought-provoking discussion, and I hope that I have provided useful context and background regarding the Government’s position. These are important issues, and I am quite sure we will return to them; this is not the last time we will talk about them. As I have set out, the Government support the police in the proportionate and fair use of surveillance technology to protect the public. We are also committed to maintaining the right to protest lawfully, while also protecting the rights of citizens to go about their lives unimpeded. We absolutely recognise the importance of striking the right balance, and we will continue approaching these questions with the seriousness and care that they deserve.

14:40
Sitting suspended.

Pakistan: UK Aid

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Question for Short Debate
15:00
Asked by
Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool
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To ask His Majesty’s Government how UK aid is used to support minorities in Pakistan.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords participating in today’s short debate about ways in which UK development aid to Pakistan, which is rising from £41.5 million this year to an estimated £133 million next year, will be used to help the poorest of the poor in Pakistan’s minorities to climb out of destitution and caste.

I declare a non-pecuniary interest as co-chair, along with Jim Shannon MP, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities, on whose behalf I am currently chairing an inquiry into the plight of brick kiln bonded labourers caught up in modern slavery—including young children—who are massively and disproportionately drawn from the country’s minorities. I have shared the draft report and preliminary recommendations with the Minister and pay tribute to the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s secretariat and advisors, notably Mr Morris Johns and Professor Javaid Rehman.

Before I say more about the horrific evidence that we have taken in the current inquiry, let me refer briefly to the other questions and recommendations that I have sent to the Minister and to which my noble friends will refer later. Some of the issues are referred to in earlier reports by the APPG and in the submissions of the APPG on Ahmadis. They include discrimination and persecution against minorities, entrenched in school textbooks; stigmatisation in schools and colleges; and primitive and dismal conditions in the so-called colonies where Christians live, which are often devoid of running water, sanitation and electricity and which I have personally visited with Marie Rimmer MP and Jim Shannon MP.

The APPG has highlighted the lack of reparations and convictions and the impunity following the violence in Punjab’s Jaranwala in 2023, when a mob rampaged and torched churches and homes. I hope that the Minister will respond to that and to the destruction of Ahmadi mosques and cemeteries; the persecution of the dead as well as the living; the violent attacks, including murder; and the denial of comparable voting rights with other citizens. We want to hear the Minister’s assessment of the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, with forced conversions, rape and coercive marriages—all issues that British aid could, and should do more to, address. Lastly, what happens to those who try to escape and end up caged like animals in detention centres in other countries, which my noble friend Lady Cox and I have seen at first hand?

For the record, 3.72% of Pakistan’s 230 million people are from religious minority backgrounds: 1.6% are Hindus and 1.59% are Christians, some of whom converted to escape the untouchability of the caste system. Most of the Hindus are also from Dalit, or scheduled caste, backgrounds, with all the stigmatisation and discrimination to which that leads. Does the Minister agree that their plight deserves greater focus? Further, does he agree that women and girls from the religious minorities remain at the very bottom of the societal hierarchy? Has he had a chance to read Life on the Margins, a report that includes disturbing evidence of child mortality rates being higher than the national average?

In acknowledging the significant impact of the FCDO’s work on improving lives in Pakistan, it would be negligent not to point out the failure to prioritise the minorities. Our resources should be used to challenge and reform laws and policies that are used as a pretext for persecution; procedures that breed impunity; and priorities that bypass the destitute and despised minorities. In saying so, we stand with the foundational ideals of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s original constitution and, more recently, the findings of its most eminent jurists.

On 19 June 2014, the then Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued an admirable landmark directive. It included the continuing failure of the state to create a federal task force to promote religious tolerance; new educational curricula to encourage religious harmony and social tolerance; the curbing of hate speech on social media; the establishment of a national council for minorities’ rights; police reform; employment opportunities; and prompt action whenever the constitutional rights of religious minorities are violated or places of worship desecrated.

UK aid programmes should be turning that 10 year- old directive into action. When did we last raise the failure to implement the directive with the Government of Pakistan, and what response did we receive?

I return to the plight of bonded labour and the preliminary findings of our inquiry. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of bonded labourers in the world, with over 1 million workers in brick kilns. Although religious minorities comprise less than 5% of the total population, the percentage of religious minorities in brick kilns is often as high as 50%, especially in Punjab and Sindh, where most of the religious minorities live. This finding is corroborated by Anti-Slavery International.

UNICEF says that

“bonded labour is an abuse analogous to slavery”—

a system in which the middleman, or jamadar, arranges the advanced loan, called peshgi. The often illiterate worker must work exclusively for that employer until the loan has been paid off, including interest at high rates. It is a vicious circle, trapping workers and their families across whole generations.

According to the 2023 Global Slavery Index, in one recent year an estimated 10.6 of every 1,000 people in Pakistan were in modern slavery. Theoretically, bonded labour was made illegal under Pakistan’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992. It has signed international treaties that outlaw slavery, as does its constitution. But in practice, successive Governments have lacked the political will or capacity to implement and enforce the law on bonded labour.

In evidence to our inquiry, we heard shocking stories that women and girls from minority backgrounds have been subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse—reduced to lives of servitude. Our inquiry can confirm the finding of Human Rights Watch that:

“There is a consistent pattern of sexual abuse at the brick-kilns, including rape”.


I draw the Minister’s attention to the testimony of “Sara” and other accounts from women who told us of rapes by jamadars or local police officers. They describe women and girls being sold into marriage or prostitution.

We heard of enslaved children to whom debts had been passed down from generation to generation. Recall the horrific murder of Iqbal Masih, who was taken into bonded labour at the aged of four. Having escaped and campaigned against modern slavery, he was murdered at the age of 12. He had helped 3,000 children escape bonded labour. When did we last specifically raise the plight of children with Pakistan? Children should be in school, not servitude.

Our inquiry also heard accounts of a lack of any safety equipment, no medical coverage or social protection, shortage of clean drinking water, absence of latrines and obscenely low wages. A recent ILO report highlighted the dangers that workers face, including

“exposure to toxic fumes and carbon particulates”.

We set out 10 practical recommendations to the UK and Pakistan Governments, from ethical buying standards to confiscation of assets. If time does not allow him today, perhaps the Minister will commit to responding to each of the recommendations by letter. I also hope that a Select Committee will use our report and this debate to drive this issue forward until change occurs.

No one should underestimate the consequences for those who call for change, equity and reform. In 2011, the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his friend, Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of the Punjab, spoke up for Asia Bibi and called for reforms. Both men were murdered. When did the UK last challenge Pakistan over the failure to bring the murderers of Shahbaz Bhatti to justice? If you cannot bring the killers of your Minister for Minorities to justice, is it any wonder that the two children forced to watch a lynch mob of 1,200 burn alive their parents, or minorities living in places like Jaranwala, are in despair?

I shall conclude more hopefully. Also recall that, on 11 August 1947, the great Muhammad Ali Jinnah insisted in a famous speech that:

“You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.


Jinnah gave the newly independent Pakistan a new flag—symbolising the country’s plurality and diversity, combining the Islamic green of its Muslim people with the white of the country’s religious minorities. The flag’s crescent represents progress, and the five-pointed star symbolises light and knowledge, objectives which Jinnah hoped would inspire and unite the nation.

Empirical research shows that the countries which enjoy the greatest prosperity and harmony are the ones that promote freedom of religion or belief for their minorities—something that the UK, Pakistan and the Commonwealth should prioritise. It is my fervent hope that our short debate will return Pakistan to that path and encourage the realisation of many of Jinnah’s unfulfilled hopes.

In ending, I pay a personal tribute to the Minister for all that he does on these issues and his wonderful generosity with time, which he has given on many occasions to address some of the issues that I have mentioned.

15:10
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, first, I agree with that last sentiment concerning the Minister. From the short time I have been in this House, I know that he spends a lot of time dealing with these issues and has a passion for them, as we do, and I thank him for that. It is of course a huge pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to thank him for bringing this important Question for Short Debate, which concentrates our focus on how UK aid is used to support minorities better in Pakistan. At the outset, it is important to say how much I welcome the increase in overseas development aid. That provides our Government with an opportunity to do more to support minorities in a practical and meaningful way.

Looking at the aid profile for the year 2023-24, it has to be acknowledged that the Government did a lot with the budget they had. Priorities listed include climate vulnerability, gender inclusion and disability inclusion—all very laudable goals. There is much I can speak about this afternoon, but I want to spend the limited time I have looking at the issue of women and girls. There is, no doubt, a lot of work to be done in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referenced the work that the APPG has been doing on the bonded labour issue and he outlined the issues surrounding women and girls on that.

I make the point, as I did in my Question for Short Debate on global Christian persecution, that women and girls from a minority faith, whether it is Christian, Ahmadi Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, face a double marginalisation or a double injustice. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage and/or forced conversion. It is still shocking to me that, in our world today, young girls are being groomed, trafficked into sham marriage and then forced into conversion. The international development White Paper commits the UK to develop policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief, and I very much welcome that, but we need to turn this commitment into positive actions.

We know that Pakistan is the third least tolerant country in the world in terms of social acceptance of religious diversity, and that cannot be ignored. In terms of the treatment of women from minority religions, a survey taken by the Punjab Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women has shown that they have a higher than average illiteracy, and that has persisted among minority women in the province—64% as opposed to 34%. Minority community members get into a cycle of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and early and often forced marriages. This can be broken only by getting good education, academic or technical, for children and especially for girls. It is even more difficult for Christian students to get places to study in higher education, if they are lucky enough to have education at primary level, because the good marks which are needed are often obtained by bribes, and most Christians do not have the financial resources to deal with bribery.

Recently the Punjab Government allocated 2% of seats in universities for minority students—of course, that is to be welcomed—but that is only one province, and the other provinces have no plans to help students from minority communities in this way. There are, of course, good missionary schools and colleges which could offer quality education for minority girls, and UK aid could be used to get education for minority girls in those schools and, in doing so, lift their families out of poverty. It would be great to hear from the Minister whether there are any plans to ring-fence a percentage of aid for minorities in Pakistan and use it for education and practical training for girls. That is in line with the Government’s goals, and indeed the existing minority schools could be utilised for this purpose.

Of course, education works only if the girls are free, and it is estimated that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu faiths are abducted and forcibly married and converted each year. In some cases, such forced conversions are used as a smokescreen for other serious crimes such as human trafficking, forced prostitution and child abuse. As the mother of a daughter, whose birthday is today, I cannot imagine the pain that this causes to the child and the family of the child —yet it appears that very little help is available.

It would be a very positive sign of global leadership in this area if we could use the UK aid programmes as a tool to spread education among minority girls, so that they are aware of their rights and, importantly, to train police officers and judiciary members on the laws pertaining to this issue and how to treat such cases. The Minister will be aware that the Punjab police have set up Meesaq centres in police stations in areas with a large percentage of Christians, but it is important that these centres are staffed by trained individuals. Likewise, in education it would be important to train teachers in religious tolerance and to promote a positive image of coexistence.

In closing, I commend the tireless work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the APPG for the Pakistani Minorities. The increase in aid is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the minority communities in Pakistan and cement the UK’s leadership role in our strong belief and commitment to freedom of religion for all by taking practical steps with the aid budget such as I have laid out in relation to training and education.

15:16
Baroness Cox Portrait Baroness Cox (CB)
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I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton for initiating this debate on a subject of such current concern, which is not widely reported, and where the suffering of people requires an appropriate and timely response.

Some time ago I met refugees from Pakistan who fled to Thailand to escape the hardships inflicted on them in their home country. Many were living in dire and deeply disturbing conditions, in detention centres. I visited some of those refugees to witness their predicament and I was profoundly disturbed by the conditions in which they were forced to live. But the situation that had forced them to leave their homes and their homeland was so dire that they had to emigrate. Their predicaments include discrimination against, and persecution of, minorities, resulting in severe hardships in so-called colonies where violence is perpetrated against communities, including desecration of Ahmadi mosques and cemeteries, the destruction of churches, and the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, involving forced conversions, rape and forced marriages.

There is a continuing culture, with stigmatisation of minorities even instilled into the culture by inclusion in school textbooks. The blasphemy laws continue to be used as a justification for persecution, and there is a culture of impunity. For example, no one has been brought to justice for the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities—and reference has already been made to that terrible situation.

Those who wish to see a change in the culture of prejudice and persecution recommend many fundamental changes, and I shall highlight some of them. First, they recommend the use of the percentage of official aid for minorities mainly for education and professional training projects, such as nursing for girls, in line with the Government’s MDG goals. Secondly, they recommend support for the Punjab police’s commendation policy of establishing Meesaq centres in police stations, in areas where there is a large percentage of Christians. These are staffed by minority police staff and can be used by minority members to report crimes and seek appropriate protection and/or recompense. As the competence of staff is essential, UK aid could be used to help to train the staff and maximise the use of this significant opportunity.

Thirdly, provision of funds is recommended for basic necessities such as fresh water and electricity in slums and primary schools where there is a concentration of minority members. Fourthly, they recommend the provision of funding for training teachers in religious tolerance, so that they are equipped to deliver positive images of coexistence in their schools. Fifthly, provision of funds is recommended for shelter homes for the victims of forced conversions and forced marriages, where they could be taught skills to be self-sufficient. Finally, provision of funds is recommended for labourers working in the sewers to safeguard them from deaths and injuries.

Having heard the first-hand accounts of the suffering inflicted on so many Pakistani civilians from those people themselves, I passionately hope that policies to alleviate their suffering will be recognised as matters of profound concern and measures will be taken to implement them as an urgent priority.

15:19
Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, I am privileged to be the first of a trio of Bishops speaking in this debate.

For the past eight years or so, the diocese of Guildford has partnered with the diocese of Sialkot in the Majha region of Punjab. Sialkot is probably best known for the production of medical equipment and World Cup footballs. The diocese also includes the Mirpur district, which has strong connections to the British-Pakistani community—not least in Woking, just a few miles from where I live, which boasts the oldest purpose-built mosque in the UK. I was privileged to visit Sialkot and Mirpur in 2019; Mirpur had just suffered two devastating earthquakes. I am a vice-chair of the Pakistani Minorities APPG.

I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating the debate and for his tireless championing of freedom of religion or belief over so many years. I fully support the suggestion that religious minorities should be explicitly included in the list of marginalised communities when it comes to the provision of UK aid.

As we have heard already, there is no question that discrimination exists on all levels against religious minorities in Pakistan, most notably against the Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu communities. In part, that is due to extremists who frequently use the blasphemy laws to whip up public anger and acts of violence, with the arson attacks on dozens of churches and hundreds of homes in Jaranwala on 16 August last year a particularly egregious example. In part, it is also due to an entrenched institutional malaise despite the specific protection of religious minorities under the constitution. Aspects of that malaise are well documented; many of them have been highlighted in both the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and subsequent speeches. They include: a biased educational system; a legal code that specifically discriminates against Ahmadis; the blasphemy laws, which are so widely drawn and frequently abused; and the continuing legacy of the caste system, which frequently leaves Christians and Hindus at the bottom of the pile.

Issues of modern-day slavery have been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, especially in the huge brick-making industry and in the sewers, where—as my friend the Bishop of Sialkot, who came to lunch last Saturday, tells me—there are deaths reported almost every week due to a lack of basic personal protective equipment. Complaints about abduction, rape, forced conversion and forced marriage are frequently given short shrift in the courts. One particular concern in the diocese of Sialkot was the effective confiscation of eight church schools, which remains in place despite a subsequent ruling by the federal Government that they should be returned. That is a particular tragedy for both the Christian community and wider society given that so many of the key Muslim leaders across many aspects of Pakistani life have benefited in the past from a church school education, often giving them a wider, more tolerant perspective on those who adhere to faiths other than their own.

I could cite various examples on the other side that have sent out more hopeful and positive messages to minority religious communities in recent years. There are courageous people across Pakistan who believe in the constitutional protection of religious minorities and who seek, often very bravely, to promote that belief. I was privileged to meet some such people in my visit in 2019. However, as this is a short debate, I do not want to add to it unnecessarily. My points here are that the negative stories remind us of the continuing need for change, in which UK aid can play a significant role if carefully directed, and that the positive stories remind us that change can happen—especially when we pay proper attention to religious tolerance and the equity that flows from it.

Many of the problems for minorities emanate from the fact that they are often very poor, with illiteracy the primary cause of that poverty. Indeed, it is something of an irony that, although it was often the Christian missionary schools that began to educate many from a variety of religious backgrounds, all too often the Christian community is left behind today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, pointed out, the survey taken by the Punjabi Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women showed that, while women’s literacy in a general population was 64%, women’s illiteracy in a minority population was also 64%, showing the extraordinary imbalance between the two groups. From those statistical foundations flow unemployment, poverty, early marriages and poor health outcomes in a cycle that can be broken only by renewed efforts to improve the educational opportunities for children, especially girls, from minority communities. The UK Government could help to advance that ambition through carefully targeted aid to the educational institutes that promote it.

In conclusion, I suggest the following. First, UK aid should include religious minorities in the list of marginalised communities within Pakistan. Secondly, I support the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, that a percentage of the aid budget be set aside for minorities, using most of it on education and professional training projects, in line with the Government’s MDGs and the Pakistan Government’s allocated quotas for minority groups.

15:25
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, I would like to see UK aid support in Pakistan focus sharply and almost entirely on identifying and supporting minority communities, of which there are of course a number of different kinds; they include the religious—such as the Ahmadi, who suffer viciously—as well as Hindu and Christian minorities.

A high percentage of those who suffer most among the minority groups are Dalits. I want to speak mainly about the Dalits, who suffer disproportionately in every area of life because of the terrible stigma of untouchability. According to the 2017 census figures for minorities, the number of registered scheduled castes in Pakistan is 849,614, but, according to researchers and Dalit activists, their number is more likely to be in the millions. They have no representation in political life. All 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims and political parties are occupied by dominant caste Hindus and Christians. The National Assembly has never had a Dalit woman parliamentarian. Despite the fact that 33% of all women have seats in the national Parliament due to temporary special measures, few political parties nominate a Dalit woman for the reserved seats. This means that they have no voice to make their plight known.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, minority communities suffer particularly in the areas of poverty, slavery and forced labour; as I suggested, a very high percentage of those who suffer in these areas will be Dalits. They are excluded from union representation and are in widespread employment in the brick kiln and agricultural sectors. As has been mentioned, Dalits—in particular children and not least women—are working in hazardous and slave-like conditions. One aspect of this is that Dalits, particularly women, are most likely to be assigned to manual scavenging. This undignified work, without any safety equipment, exposes them to death, accidents and poor health, while 80% of sanitation work in Pakistan is carried out by minority communities—mostly Dalits—through hereditary schemes.

There is another factor: water and sanitation issues are intimately linked to the mistaken notion of purity, leading to the untouchability stigma. Sanitation workers face a risk of fatality that is 10 times higher than for workers in other sectors, while Christians, a minority in the country, are the largest community represented in the sanitation workforce.

Forced marriages and conversions are widespread, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, emphasised. I will not add further to that except to point out the figures showing that, since 2017, no official data on forced marriages and conversions was produced, though estimates vary between 300 to 1,000 per year with only 16.67% of victims aged over 18.

Since 2006, the Pakistan Parliament has provided about 6,000 projects in a national poverty reduction scheme. This progress is welcome but none of these projects target issues specifically facing Dalits, who are floundering in a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of land, which forces them into that poorly paid employment where they can be exploited. Many take on loans from their employers and are unable to pay them back. There is a high level of suicides among this community due to this distressing economic situation. Nearly 74% of Pakistan’s Dalits are illiterate, among which 90% are Dalit women, leaving no prospects for Dalit children and thus perpetuating the problem. At the heart of it all, this is reinforced by the education programme itself as school textbooks portray Dalits as inferior, which is absolutely intolerable.

I will briefly mention in addition one point already raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. One of the most distressing features of Pakistan is the law on blasphemy, which carries a sentence of death and can be used in village or family disputes to target perfectly innocent victims. Among them are Mariyum Lal and Newsh Arooj, two Christian nurses recently charged with allegedly removing a sticker with Koranic verses from a hospital wall. Also unjustly imprisoned with the threat of death are Zafar Bhatti, Asif Pervaiz, Ashfaq Masih, Shagufta Kiran and Ishtiaq Masih, to mention just a few. My plea to our Government is that our aid should be directed almost entirely to these minority communities, and that real efforts be made to identify them, especially the Dalits among them.

15:30
Lord Bishop of Leicester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Leicester
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My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate, and I commend his tireless campaigning over the years for the UK to defend and support the rights of minorities in Pakistan. I will focus on two specific issues raised with me by members of the large Pakistani heritage community in Leicester: first, the plight of Christians forced to work as gutter cleaners with no personal protective equipment; and, secondly, the need for a small, safe and legal route for persecuted minorities to come to the UK.

Christians, who are less than 2% of the overall population, account for more than 80% of the sewerage and street-cleaning workforce in Pakistan, where hazardous conditions and a lack of workplace health and safety regulations and protective equipment cause untold preventable accidents, illnesses and deaths. The accounts of their working conditions are truly repugnant, made even more shocking by the fact that the government agencies advertise cleaning positions for Christians and other religious minorities only.

Safe and sustainable economic development and inclusion of minority groups go hand in hand; the Government’s approach to development in Pakistan must recognise that. I, too, warmly welcome the increase in the aid budget for Pakistan, as others have. Will the Government commit to targeting aid to the poorest of the poor and, in particular, the provision of protective equipment to industries where minority populations comprise the majority of the workforce? Such provision would provide an important symbol of the Government’s priorities and, moreover, save lives.

My second point relates to the provision of a small, safe and legal route for persecuted minorities to come to the UK. The well-documented case of Asia Bibi is a case in point—the Canadian Government are to be applauded for their approach, as are those Muslim leaders in this country who spoke out in support of her—but there are others. I was approached by a bishop in Pakistan to ask if I might help secure asylum for one of his priests. The priest’s brother had been murdered and there was clear evidence to suggest that others in the family were at serious risk. But despite all my efforts, and indeed the intervention of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, we could not secure a visa for the priest and his family.

Would the Minister be willing to discuss with his colleagues in the Home Office the possibility of a small, safe and legal route—in the sense of 50 or so people, not the hundreds coming by other legal routes—for persecuted minorities in Pakistan to receive a welcome in this country? Given the history of this country’s involvement in the region, I dare to suggest that we have a moral duty to offer such help.

If the Minister cannot answer these two points today, I dare to hope he might be willing to write to me. First, there are many possibilities for how our aid budget might be targeted and I dare to suggest that helping the poorest of the poor must be a priority. Secondly, where the risk is simply too great, might we also be willing to offer a route to safety for those being persecuted?

15:34
Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow this small convocation. I join all speakers in congratulating our friend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate and his determination and perseverance on these issues. However, I will briefly raise with the Minister from the FCDO a specific point, as it is the first opportunity that I have had. I think he will understand the concern among the diplomatic community about the statement yesterday by the Home Office Minister about not recognising Gaza as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I look forward to the Home Office writing to me, but the Minister has not so far today.

Returning to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, kindly shared with me the draft of his report and it makes for truly depressing reading. I share his comments on the need for our friends in the Pakistan Government to adhere to the obligations that they have signed up to under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the convention on forced labour, the ILO and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, so I endorse everything that he said.

Pakistan has been and is one of our most important development partners and, of course, a diplomatic partner too. That country has seen huge UK commitment to development over the last 20 years. It has also seen enormous progress itself, halving poverty in 25 years, but there are concerns that this progress is now in doubt, with 40% of that population—95 million people—living below the poverty line. I want to commend British officials, especially those who have been in DfID, for the work that they have done and their programmes. Over those years, UK development reach has secured clean water and sanitation for more than 2.5 million people. More than 2 million children have received a decent education as a result of British support and partnership, including more than 1 million children under five, and women and adolescent girls. That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Foster.

UK support, working with our NGOs and the Pakistan Government, has brought about results, but that does not mean we take focus away from the points made in this debate. UK support in partnership with Pakistan in 2017-18 was £441 million. It went down to £77 million and is now rising again, which I support. Pakistan remains the sixth largest bilateral program for the United Kingdom, so is a very strong priority for us.

I also commend the Aawaz programme. My understanding is that, over the last decade or so, the Aawaz programme has been focusing on accountability and the inclusion of at-risk groups. This has been a £90 million programme, with the second phase of it addressing modern slavery. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that child labour, child and forced marriage, gender-based violence, and human trafficking and modern slavery remain a priority of the programmes that will be going forward.

I will use two sources for the remainder of my comments: the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s 2023 review of UK development support, including for Pakistan, and the House of Commons International Development Select Committee’s 2022 review. The ICAI report highlighted some of the concerns and difficulties in delivering some development support, because of the increased restrictions faced by and backtracking on civil society, with media restrictions and, as ICAI put it, “increasingly populist politics”. As the ICAI report highlighted

“the UK government decided to deprioritise democracy objectives”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether the Consolidating Democracy in Pakistan programme will be brought back, in either its previous or a revised form. Will we be reprioritising the civil society and democracy reforms that had been part of previous programmes, all of which are focused on ensuring that there is space for minorities—not only for their development but to participate in the public space?

The final element I wish to highlight is that the Select Committee and ICAI reports called for the UK to have a more systematic implementation of human rights objectives in its policies and programmes. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether, if we are increasing support, it will include support for civil and political space, human rights and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked, individual minority groups within the country.

15:39
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. He has heard me say many times that violations of freedom of religion or belief do not happen in isolation. Countries that fail to respect religious freedom or the basic right to no belief invariably also fail to respect other basic human rights.

I start with a specific question regarding the Afghans whom we addressed in the Urgent Question Repeat last Wednesday and who are at risk of being forcibly returned by the Government of Pakistan. Last week, the Minister said that Pakistan had not made a “formal announcement” recommencing the removals, although it was talking to representatives of the Pakistani Government, and stressed the need to uphold international humanitarian commitments. What is the department doing to track developments? Have any further representations been made since the Urgent Question on 17 April?

In this debate, we heard in some detail about the experiences of Christians in Pakistan—including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, highlighted, accusations of forced conversion and forced marriage, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted, violence and attacks on places of worship. The blasphemy laws continue to be used as a pretext for persecution, with a culture of impunity.

During our debate on 25 March about the persecution of Christians, the Minister said that he had recently spoken to Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar. Can the Minister give us more detail and an update on those conversations? Has he had any further ones?

I want to focus on what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted: the bonded labour sustaining a caste system that massively and disproportionately affects minorities. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of bonded labourers in the world. According to reports, there are more than 1 million workers in brick kilns in Pakistan. Apart from brick kilns, bonded labour is most prevalent in agriculture, and the carpet-weaving and mining industries. I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting the excellent work of the APPG for Pakistani Minorities and its inquiry into the brick kiln workers; although it continues its work and has not yet reported, its draft report highlighted the failure to implement constitutional prohibitions on modern slavery and laws against bonded labour.

We need to hear from the Minister about how we are using the UK aid budget—as we have heard, it will increase to £133 million next year—for greater scrutiny and monitoring of compliance with the ILO conventions on the prevention of slave labour, on child rights and on women’s rights. Although the Government of Pakistan have passed legislation to outlaw the practice, as we have heard, implementation of the law is basically non-existent.

In their response to the Commons International Development Committee’s report in November 2022, the Government said:

“We prioritise our aid to achieve maximum impact for the people of Pakistan in line with our strategic priorities, including promoting FoRB. Our Accountability, Inclusion and Reducing Modern Slavery programme … brings together community leaders and minority representatives to promote tolerance”.


I ask the Minister: does it specifically address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton? Does it include advice to businesses in relation to the high risk of modern slavery in the brick kilns in Pakistan? Surely we should be using these programmes to support provincial labour inspectorates to ensure that they can fulfil their obligations, including support in the use of modern technology so that they are much more able. These are straightforward, simple things that we can do and which can make a huge difference.

Finally, what are we doing to support the Government of Pakistan to ensure implementation of the existing legislation? We need to do more. I remind the noble Lord that I have constantly raised the issue of working with trade unions. What are we doing with the international trade union movement and the ILO to ensure compliance with these important conventions?

15:45
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for convening this debate and for his kind remarks at the conclusion of his speech. I thank my noble friend as well for what he said about my personal and professional commitment to this important agenda. I also thank my noble friend Lady Foster, for her kind comments, but while I accept this graciously, I also accept fully that the challenge we have over freedom of religion or belief around the world is immense. That is why I have been delighted, over the years, to support work on Christian persecution and the work that has been undertaken by my department in this respect. It has been recognised by many and has been transposed into policies and programmes. That said, as we have heard from all noble Lords during this brief but important debate, the challenges remain immense.

I begin by paying tribute to the strong advocacy of human rights in Pakistan, particularly for oppressed minorities, from the various all-party groups. I pay tribute particularly to Javaid Rehman, with whom I work very closely—I met him recently, albeit briefly and coincidentally—and to the work of Morris Johns. He is amazing in what he does and I join in the tributes of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions. The noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, raised a number of points on prioritisations, from bonded labour, which I will come on to, to modern slavery. I was delighted to meet my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister Theresa May, at the launch of her Global Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. She is playing a very active role in getting that commission set up and I am sure that, as she looks at the key priorities of countries, she will be working constructively with Pakistan, a country she knows well.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, among others, raised the importance of increasing aid. When we look at the stats, almost one-third of Pakistan’s population lives in poverty, and this was exacerbated by the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2022, when 33 million people were directly impacted. I remember visiting Sindh and seeing that the most vulnerable and marginalised were the ones who suffered. Therefore I am delighted that our programme looking specifically at some of the key minority parties, which I will come on to explain, is being expanded into Sindh.

I acknowledge at the outset—as I was saying to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, just before the start of the debate—the need, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also acknowledged, to visit Pakistan. I think it helps. It helps the British Government in explaining some of our priorities and it provides valuable context on some of these challenges. Some of the communities that suffer, frankly, particularly those who are the most economically and socially marginalised and indeed come from a minority faith, often just accept what is being endured as the norm. We need to ensure that the investment in education is key, as my noble friend Lady Foster pointed out. That is why I am proud, over the years, of the commitment of successive Governments to 12 years of quality education for girls, but we need to ensure empowerment and access as well. The noble Baroness also talked about the situation in Thailand. I am seized of that issue, but I agree with her that, when we see what is happening there, it must have been pretty desperate for them to be in that situation.

The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Collins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford referred to the issue of bonded labour in Pakistan. I welcome this report, because again it draws an important prioritisation on this issue. It is real and we need to face it. The UK is committed, I assure the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, to eradicating all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking and we work with international partners, the IOM in particular, on the important issue of modern slavery.

I will take back the issue of trade unions in Pakistan, to see what kind of work is taking place. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that it is a weak structure, but it is important that we continue to see how we can further work in co-operation with key bodies.

I will answer some immediate questions on the report. We have supported the Pakistani authorities to undertake the first child labour surveys in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. We are now using that data to support policy formulation on child bonded labour, including the formation of child protection systems. The UK is also working very closely on the issue of modern slavery through the £26 million we have allocated to the regional child labour programme—the FCDO’s largest modern slavery programme—which helps to deliver the UK’s commitment not just in Pakistan but in Bangladesh and India.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of Afghanistan, which I have followed through. I have not yet had any further updates or announcements, but I will of course keep the noble Lord and the Grand Committee informed. We are very much seized of the situation in Afghanistan. Yesterday, I once again met the courageous Fawzia Koofi, a former vice-president of the National Assembly in Afghanistan, to understand the issue of the discrimination and marginalisation of women that continues in Afghanistan.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford highlighted the injustices, discrimination, economic exclusion and wider intolerance suffered by minority communities in Pakistan. We condemn unequivocally the desecration of religious sites and graves and the violence against individuals, and we want perpetrators to be held accountable. On a personal note, I will be courageous enough to say to all noble Lords participating in the debate that no one knows better than I about the challenges that the Ahmadi Muslim community faces.

The right reverend Prelate asked about safe and legal routes. I know that the community has worked consistently with successive Governments on the importance of those fleeing asylum because of religious persecution. While the Government have a very robust policy on immigration, as we have seen in recent months, it is important to sustain, maintain and strengthen those seeking asylum in the UK, particularly those who are persecuted simply because of their faith. Let us be frank: I have seen the benefit of those who have come to our country. When you look at a proper analysis, they make an incredible contribution to the progress of our country, and we are richer for it. I can speak with some personal experience on that front, too.

Overall, our development budget for Pakistan this year is more than tripling, as noble Lords have acknowledged. I will spend some time on the specifics that have been raised. I assure all noble Lords that we are very much seized on some of the key priorities. On the brick kilns, I visited a zig-zag kiln in Lahore in 2021 with the then high commissioner, Christian Turner. On a more amusing note, the last thing that you want to do as a suited and booted British Minister is to be put on top of a brick kiln in the middle of summer—so I know how it feels. The zig-zag technology used in Pakistan evolves the brick kiln operation into something that is a substitute for coal, will reduce emissions and will improve the welfare of brick kiln workers. For some of the workers, that is their only source of income, so we need to ensure that there is an effective transition, both for cleaner energy and to protect their rights. I have seen that in operation. The UK’s £46.5 million Aawaz accountability, inclusion and reducing modern slavery programme is working to tackle child bonded labour directly, alongside the formation of the child protection systems that noble Lords alluded to. I have already mentioned the importance of the surveys; having read the ICAI report, I will follow up on specific elements.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others who came to see me in the aftermath of the appalling mob attack against the Christian community in Jaranwala last August. I have a regular drumbeat of visits to the region to ensure that the houses are being repaired—they are—and that the places of worship are being repaired, which I am informed they are. The issue of compensation is important, and I am told that it has begun. We want to follow through on that. Indeed, when I met the Foreign Minister from the new Government of Pakistan during his recent visit to London—as well as in my first meeting by phone call with the Human Rights Minister—I prioritised the issues of minority rights and forced marriages in our conversation.

The harms of forced marriages, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, are very clear, and we want to tackle them. There is a phrase in Islam, from the Koran, “Lā ’ikrāha fi d-dīn”, which means, “There is no compulsion in religion”. We need to ensure that that is carried through. I was pleased that we were able to exercise human rights sanctions in our human rights regime on a particular individual who exercised this vulgar practice.

I am conscious of time, but I assure noble Lords, including the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that I shall look specifically at the issue that he raised about Dalits. They are among the most marginalised of the marginalised, and we need to stand up and ensure that their rights are equally protected. There are a variety of other programmes, including GOAL, which looks at improving education outcomes, with a focus on minorities, and we will continue to focus on minority communities. I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford on that, as well as the other Bishops—indeed, we have three bishops. The buses analogy comes to mind, but I shall not use that here. Their contribution to this debate is particularly welcome; we are following through in a range of initiatives, in prioritising and ensuring that education is not in any way lost.

Meanwhile, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will be pleased to learn that our hate speech and disinformation programme aims to protect vulnerable groups with a focus on making digital spaces safer for women and religious minorities. In the run-up to the general election in Pakistan in February we supported voter education, and we also support, through the UK’s Magna Carta Fund, Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights and the Minister for Human Rights. The review of technical assistance for Pakistan’s national curriculum has also remained a vital priority, and we continue to work with the new Government in that respect. The £130 million Girls and Out of School: Action for Learning programme focuses on improving teacher quality and learner outcomes for children in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I assure my noble friend Lady Foster that we are working to ensure that much of this fund is allocated specifically to the education and protection of minorities. When I had my call with the Law Minister, Azam Nazeer Tarar, we looked specifically at freedom of religion as a key priority of our continuing relationship.

On the final point that I shall make—I shall of course follow up on any questions that I have not been able to answer—on a positive note, some progress has been made. We have seen the route for Sikh pilgrims into Pakistan being sustained and protected. We recently saw through our initiatives Pakistani Ministers attend various events, including during Easter and Eid, which involved all communities being in attendance. We continue to stress to Pakistan the importance of inclusivity, particularly for minority communities such as Christians and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which are particularly persecuted and denied voting rights. You either claim that you are a non-Muslim, if you want to vote, or you cannot vote at all. That is fundamentally flawed and needs to be corrected.

I shall continue to work with noble Lords on these important priorities to ensure that we deliver them. I know that we are short of time. I do not know whether we are up against the time on the clock—we have three minutes, I think.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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Could I just ask the Minister about the brick kiln report and the draft recommendations? Will he commit to write to those who have taken part in today’s proceedings, responding to the recommendations?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I shall do so. I have read part of it—as I say, it is an active part of what we are looking at, and there is a series of work that we have been doing on brick kilns. I stress the importance of transition in a way that is practical and does not end up with people having no money at all—but I shall certainly respond formally.

I thank all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for convening us on this important issue.

Prisons: Foreign National Offenders

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Question for Short Debate
16:00
Asked by
Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the proportion of foreign national offenders incarcerated across the prison estate.

Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to raise this important and timely matter—one that has been debated at some length both here and in the other place over recent months. My aim in this debate is to seek clarity and an understanding of not merely the policy direction of His Majesty’s Government, which is commendably clear, but whether they have the determination, political will, focus and resources to achieve their publicly stated objectives. This will of necessity involve me asking a number of questions of the Minister, for which I beg your Lordships’ indulgence.

At the outset, I would make the point and concede that issues relating to foreign national offenders are clearly linked to bigger economic, social and geopolitical issues in respect of immigration and displaced persons, which affect almost every country in Europe and will be a big problem for whichever party is elected to government at the general election later this year.

The most recent figures indicate that we have a foreign national offenders population of 10,423 in our prison estate—approximately 12% of the total population of more than 87,000. That is an increase of 13.6% since 2019. Each FNO costs an average of approximately £40,000 per annum to keep incarcerated and, of course, takes up valuable prison places, which, as we know, are at capacity or near capacity—notwithstanding the Government’s ambition to deliver 10,000 additional prison places by the end of next year.

However, the Government are removing significantly fewer foreign national offenders than they did even five years ago. In 2023, only 3,936 removals took place, compared to 6,437 in 2016, 6,292 in 2017 and 5,518 in 2018. In 2012, we removed more than 15,000 foreign prisoners. The Government are to be congratulated on their initiatives to address this situation—such as the May 2023 prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which accounted for 37% of removals last year—but it prompts a wider question as to why so many Albanian criminals, who are easily the biggest cohort of FNOs in the prison estate, were admitted to the United Kingdom in the first place, especially as they were never able to exercise their rights as members of the European Union. The National Crime Agency has warned that Albanians have driven organised crime in Greater London and other parts of the UK.

On the subject of Albanians, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the German Government are quite content to derogate parts of the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent multiple vexatious and spurious claims by Albanian criminals? Why have we not done the same and saved the British taxpayer millions of pounds? In addition, the Germans are seeking to legislate with tough proposals to deport gang members with proven criminal links, even if they have no criminal convictions. The German Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser, has visited a number of countries, such as Morocco, Kenya, Colombia, Moldova and Uzbekistan, in order to secure potential deals to receive migrants. She stated that the package

“is necessary so that we can continue to meet our humanitarian responsibility to people we have to protect from war and terrorism”—

such as the 1.1 million refugees from Ukraine—and said:

“In order to protect the fundamental right to asylum, we have to clearly limit irregular migration”.


Why have our Government not considered similar measures, as a close neighbour and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights?

Close to a third of FNOs are citizens of an EU country, most of whom exercised their rights under the free movement directives of 2004 and 2008 and committed offences for which they were given a custodial sentence, prior to the United Kingdom formally leaving the EU in 2020. May I press the Minister to tell the Committee how many of them have been removed using the public policy, public health and public security provisions of the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2016, which still obtain?

While much is made of bilateral prisoner transfer agreements with over 100 countries, the actual results are disappointing. Why, for instance, have we not deported any Jamaican prisoners, as I understand it, under the prisoner transfer agreement concluded nine years ago with that country, and with a sweetener of £25 million to build a new jail on the island? Why do we routinely not deport prisoners to the Republic of Ireland, our closest neighbour? Between them, the two countries represent an FNO cohort of over 1,000 prisoners. Why are Irish criminals treated as special cases?

Can the Minister confirm that any new prisoner transfer agreements will be centred on compulsory repatriation, rather than voluntary or those with the prisoners’ consent? The latter has resulted in not much more than a pitiful one prisoner a week being sent home to their own country to complete their sentence. More generally, will my noble friend update the Committee on progress in respect of existing prisoner arrangements, including the new one with the Philippines?

These are, broadly speaking, bipartisan issues. I trust that we are beyond the spectacle of Labour Members of Parliament, Peers and others who should have known better attaching their names to letters imploring the Government, as in December 2020, not to deport prolific and violent offenders, murderers, rapists and drug dealers to their own country.

I note the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Removal of Prisoners for Deportation) Order, debated last year in your Lordships’ House, which increased the early removal window in the early removals scheme from 12 to 18 months. It appears sensible and reasonable, but it has naturally prompted a number of important questions six months on. What are the costs of the policy against the benefits? What legal challenges have materialised and how many prisoners have been removed as a result of the new scope of the policy? Furthermore, what steps are being taken to advise and communicate with the victims of these crimes, who might reasonably expect criminals to be incarcerated for as long as possible, as per the decision of a court and due process?

I find it odd that we are quite content to incarcerate foreign criminals for a custodial sentence of less than 12 months and then, upon their release, allow them to claim asylum as if they are good citizens, rather than individuals who have grievously abused the hospitality of British taxpayers. How can this outdated policy, the 12 months’ cut-off for deportation, be allowed to continue without review? After all, between 2007 and 2017, 13,000 individuals were convicted of rape or sexual assault and were not sentenced to immediate custody—not 12 months, 12 weeks or 12 days. In the case of EEA citizens, the Home Office could remove them immediately on grounds of public safety. Why does it not? In the case of others, we have measures contained in the Immigration Act 2014 which can be exercised to remove foreign nationals who are “persistent offenders” or have committed offences which resulted in “serious harm”.

I raised the issue of asylum-seeker criminal convictions in the House on 8 February in the wake of the notorious Abdul Ezedi case and was told rather indignantly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans that reports of religious conversions by the Church of England to assist bogus applicants were untrue and unsubstantiated. Imagine my surprise a few weeks later to learn that an announcement had been made in the General Synod that an urgent inquiry by the Church hierarchy had been commissioned to look at these same allegations. Perhaps my noble and learned friend the Minister will discuss this issue with his colleagues in the Home Office, as I understand that they have undertaken to thoroughly investigate these well-sourced claims.

There is a fundamental reason we are not deporting more foreign national offenders: it is as a result of chronic and endemic mismanagement in the criminal justice system. It is why we have, according to the CPS, nearly 12,000 such individuals living in the community who should have been removed—an increase of 192% in the past 12 years.

I also ask my noble and learned friend the Minister to look favourably on the amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill tabled by my right honourable friend Robert Jenrick in the other place, which would compel Ministers to report regularly on the nationality, visa status and asylum status of every offender convicted in England and Wales, and therefore allow the Home Office to amend its policies to respond to operational needs, as has happened in countries such as Denmark.

I will finish with some comments about the report published in June last year by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. As we know, it highlighted the endemic problem of poor data collection, information systems and management to the extent that the inspectorate could not ascertain key data on either the early removal scheme or the facilitated return scheme. The report’s most egregious example was:

“To facilitate the case sampling exercise, FNORC provided inspectors with a spreadsheet containing 558 lines of data. Following initial analysis of the information, inspectors removed 242 duplicate records”.


Half the data in this audited sample was incorrect. The report noted that:

“It is unacceptable that the department cannot produce clear and reliable data on the FNOs for whom it is responsible”.


Time is short, so I finish by saying to my noble and learned friend that I welcome the key recommendations in the report on data management, performance reporting, casework review and case ownership and management. I hope that he can update us on efforts to address these serious failings and the actions taken thus far by both his own department and the Home Office in response to the report published last year. The public expect their elected Government to fulfil the most basic function: to protect their citizens and subjects and safeguard their borders in so doing. At present, we are negligent in discharging those duties, and taxpayers rightly expect us to do all we can to face up to these problems and fix a broken and dysfunctional system.

16:13
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, if a foreign national offends while being a guest in our country, we have every right to deport them, but we must not pretend that this is any more than a flea bite compared with the challenges of prison overcrowding and court backlog, which are at the heart of the crisis in our criminal justice system. Nevertheless, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, for securing this debate, and at a time that gives those of wishing to take part a goodly time to expound our views.

My interest goes back to the time between 2010 and 2017 when I was, first, Minister of State and then chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. For the first couple of years, I served with the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, who was then Ken Clarke and served as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice with the much-missed Igor Judge as Lord Chief Justice. As a non-lawyer, I found my contact with them both extremely educational, although I probably learned more about the goings on of the east Midlands circuit than was strictly necessary. I count it a great privilege to have worked with them both.

When we came into office, we found that prison numbers had roughly doubled since Ken had been Home Secretary in the early 1980s. We sent some modest proposals over to manage prison numbers down to below the 80,000 mark. The message came back from No. 10 that our proposals were “not politically deliverable”. When some of our ideas did surface, a Labour spokesman in the Commons immediately denounced us for planning to liberate all kinds of dangerous criminals.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem that faces Governments. They are always trying to run up the down escalator with prison numbers. We all know that our prisons are full to bursting yet, on 13 March, the Government announced actions on sentencing, with those committing the most serious crimes being sentenced to 40% longer behind bars, increased sentence maximums for the worst offenders and the blocked release of offenders where it would pose an unacceptable risk to society. All this was with the promise of 10,000 new prison places by the end of next year and 20,000 new places overall. That means that, sometime within the next decade, we will see 100,000 people in our prisons.

It is against this background that we look at proposals to reduce the number of foreign national offenders in our prisons. At present, they account for about 10,500 people—12% of the prison population. Each costs £40,000 or more a year.

During my time at the MoJ, we had a number of exchanges and training programmes with Balkan countries, including Albania. They provided for the development of probation and other support services that facilitated the safe repatriation of prisoners.

In the excellent briefing provided on the current state of play, it states that exceptions to the powers to deport in the Borders Act 2007 include an offender being under 18 at the time of the offence. However, cases have been drawn to my attention where offenders have been brought to England as a child, committed a serious offence under the age of 18 and faced deportation to a country when, in many cases, they do not know its language or have any knowledge of it at all. In replying, could the Minister spell out the rules for such offenders? Could we also hear whether any special programmes are available in advance of deportation, akin to those in place before domestic release had been put in place? I refer to how we have continually urged, as I know the department is trying to make sure, that the best chance of rehabilitation is to make proper plans in advance about where a prisoner will go on release, where he will live and, if possible, where he will be employed.

As has already been referred to, the UK has 110 prisoner transfer agreements with other countries. The noble Lord, Lord Jackson, mentioned the one with Albania, and we also concluded one with the Philippines. Are we in negotiations with any other big countries? Is there a big gap? The noble Lord referred to Ireland—but, with a name like McNally, I understand the reasons why Ireland has exceptions, and they go back many decades. It would be interesting to know where we are going.

I find the Albanian agreement encouraging, as I went to Albania as a Minister to help with the establishment of its probation service and with the early stages of an agreement on prisoner exchange. I later discovered that the number of British prisoners in Albanian jails at that time was nil and the number of Albanian prisoners in our jails who voluntarily wanted to return to the Tirana Hilton was also nil. We do need to beef up these agreements.

The other things that the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, referred to were the early removal scheme and the facilitated return scheme. As he said, these were severely criticised by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, who said that the schemes were “not being administered effectively”. The noble Lord mentioned the four-point plan that was put forward by the Chief Inspector; as the noble Lord requested, could we be updated on those key recommendations?

I quote the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, who said recently that

“a measure of this kind involves making a series of balances between the possible effects on victims and the possible effect on deterrence”.—[Official Report, 26/10/23; col. 688.]

What consultation takes place with victims of crime before the process of deportation? For us, it may be attractive to say that we are getting rid of somebody who has committed a serious crime; to the victim, that might sound like an easy release from punishment for the crime.

All in all, I enjoyed my seven years at the MoJ. Perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word; I certainly came away with great respect for the work that people do with prisoners and in prisons in terms of this difficult task of dealing with foreign prisoners. I hope that the raising of this issue by the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, will give the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, an opportunity to assure us that the challenges of this area are well in hand.

16:22
Lord Farmer Portrait Lord Farmer (Con)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is experienced on this subject. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Jackson on securing this important and relevant debate and on his many specific questions.

Many of our prisons are operating at full capacity and at great cost to the public purse. Rehabilitation, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and is a vital function of prisons—I will address mainly this subject in my contribution—is made considerably harder by overcrowding. Deporting foreign national offenders is key to the overall strategy to reduce the proportion held in our jails. However, we must also get better at reducing reoffending among foreign nationals so that those who cannot be deported do not come back in again.

Eligibility for deportation varies with sentence length and severity. There are many grounds for exception, although the ministerial Statement on 11 March laid out a far more stringent approach—particularly to short-sentenced FNOs. I make no judgment one way or another as to whether there are too many or not enough exceptions. I simply draw attention to the reasons why, according to that Statement in March, only 3,600 FNOs might be returned, leaving almost two-thirds of the 10,000 FNOs in place.

Given that many will be released back into the community, their rehabilitation is not an indulgence but an imperative. The “families and relationships” rehabilitation pathway is by far the most successful. In general, prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who do not. Hence, if the relationships are not criminogenic, there are significant benefits to prisoners of retaining close ties with people outside prison; for FNOs, this will often include families overseas.

When I did my two prison reviews, prison governors told me that only about half of the general prison population received family visits and that foreign national offenders’ families can be thousands of miles away. This is why I recommended giving any prisoner whose families would struggle to visit access to video-calling technology. The revolution to do this, fast-tracked by Covid, was game-changing. Is data still collected on the number of social video calls in prisons? In some prisons I have visited recently, this seems to have been deprioritised.

Encouragingly, as part of the reviews’ ongoing implementation, HMPPS now requires family services to include initiatives for prisoners who have no active family ties. However, if the mantra of my review, that the importance of relationships should be the golden thread running through all the processes of prison, is to be more than just a slogan, it requires a systemic shift in how prisons function. I see many signs that the Transforming Prisons directorate has fully taken this on board for the purposes of future training, so it is baked into planning for new builds and refurbished establishments. However, we also urgently need a more relational approach across the existing prison estate and among today’s prisoners and officers.

Just after Covid, I did an addendum to my two original reviews and emphasised the importance of peer-to-peer support programmes, especially in early days of custody. The plentiful resource of sentenced prisoners must be part of the solution. In the chaos of reception prisons, systems can be very confusing, especially for first-timers, yet understanding them is essential for settling in. Basic needs, including for family contact but also for such things as underwear, false teeth and reading glasses, often go unmet. The sense of helplessness and despair is greatly amplified for foreign prisoners, who face language and cultural barriers. One-third of all prison suicides occur within the first week in custody and the sense of isolation can play a decisive role. On my post-Covid visits, I have found that well-supervised peer support schemes greatly increase prisoners’ ability to take responsibility for their own lives and contribute to the well-being of others during this period. Setting the right trends at the reception stage can transform the whole of a prisoner’s journey.

In HMP Bullingdon, for example, “Hear to Help” prisoner mentors, wearing distinctive purple shirts, play a key support role in early days in custody, visiting everyone when they come on to the wing and doing what officers cannot. Officers are time-poor, mentors are time-rich, and they have often learned the hard way what works and what does not work in prison: they are people the men can connect with and relate to. One mentor said, “We have helped a lot of people and saved lives”. Indeed, a first-time prisoner told me he would not have survived the early days of his sentence without the help of his mentor. Many prisoners have a lack of trust for authority, are anti-uniform and have a fighter mentality. One mentor described prisoners’ violent behaviour as their “safety net”, their go-to response. It is where they feel safe, but it does not actually solve things.

Mentors provide a different safety net for prisoners’ frustrations and anger. They bring isolated people out of their cells, and their shells, encourage them to do things and “talk to them straight” about their cases and their trials. Without access to this peer support, it can take men several months to settle in, but with their help and presence, it is a lot quicker. These mentors are building community by being good role models and hubs around which positive behaviours coalesce.

You might think, where do you find the paragons of virtue who will take responsibility to look after other prisoners in a jail? For these “Hear to Help” mentors, the job itself gave them the turning point to pivot. Most were previously in trouble in prison, but the responsibility turned them around, and got them to work as a team and develop a whole new sense of purpose. They need to be well-supervised by dedicated senior prison officers who know how to build teams and are relationally brilliant. The scheme in Bullingdon is led by a woman who previously worked with struggling families in the community.

Foreign nationals serving very long sentences need a completely different type of peer support: less help to navigate the confusing prison system and more help to navigate their minds. They need to come to terms with what they have done and the fact of long-term incarceration. In HMP Dartmoor, there is more of an emphasis on training ordinary prisoners to deliver what are effectively low-level psychological interventions. Can my noble friend the Minister give the Committee an indication of the prevalence of peer support schemes that go way beyond the traditional orderly system and what plans they have to proliferate them? I also take the opportunity to ask about their plans to house prisoners overseas. What proportion would be FNOs? Can the Government confirm that family ties will be a key consideration in determining which prisoners are held overseas?

To reiterate, there are many foreign nationals we will not be able to deport and many will have very high-risk factors for reoffending. What happens in prison can heighten or mitigate those risks. As one senior governor who oversees several prisons told me:

“Some people have never learned how to be relational—how to turn themselves around and take advantage of the positive opportunities prison can provide. It’s not about being soft or hard on crime, it’s about what works”.

16:31
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Jackson of Peterborough, for initiating this debate, which has been very informed. I look forward to the Minister’s response in due course.

The Lords Library briefing explains that under UK legislation, the Government have a duty to consider deporting foreign nationals convicted of an offence in the UK and sentenced to at least 12 months’ imprisonment. They can remove foreign national offenders before the end of their prison sentence through various schemes and through prisoner transfer agreements. Prisons refer all cases involving foreign national offenders to the Home Office’s Foreign National Offenders Returns Command to consider whether deportation based on criminality is appropriate. The FNORC has overall responsibility for the management and removal of FNOs. Prisons which are exclusively used for foreign national offenders or are hub prisons have embedded Home Office caseworkers to help progress immigration casework.

In October 2023, the Government introduced changes to the early removal scheme under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. This extended the removal window from 12 months to 18 months, subject to the minimum required proportion of time having been served. Then in March, the Government announced that they will release prisoners up to two months early, to deal with the lack of space in our prisons. Prisoners may be released not 18 days early but up to an unprecedented 60 days early. We have argued that there are consequences to this decision, which are that people who have broken the law and, in many cases, pose an ongoing threat to the law-abiding public are directly benefiting from the Government’s decision to permit early release. Do the Government regret that they were in the position to have to make that decision?

The Government tell us that they will free up more spaces in our prisons by cracking down on the number of foreign national offenders, who are taking up space that we can ill afford to spare when they have no right to be in our country. The number that the Government deported last year are significantly lower than the number they inherited in 2010, when 5,383 foreign national offenders were deported in the last year of the Labour Government. Meanwhile, thousands of foreign national offenders are living in the community, as I think the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord McNally, both said, post release for several years without being removed. Will the Minister acknowledge that this is the result of chaos and incompetence by the Government he represents, and that it is putting the public at risk and leaving Britain less safe?

The noble Lord, Lord Jackson, said—very fairly—that this problem will persist whichever political party is in government; that was a fair point for him to make when he opened his contribution. He went on to say that Albanians form a disproportionately large proportion of the FNOs in our prisons. I hope that the Minister can address specifically what he hopes will happen with the removal of prisoners back to Albania. Of course, we in the Labour Party accept the need to stop irregular arrivals and manage the deportation of FNOs as quickly as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that this problem is a gnat’s bite for the overall problems. I am not sure I agree with that comment. My local prison is Wandsworth Prison and I would say—this is certainly my perception, from everything that I have been told by everyone I know who works around or in that prison—that it is actually a significant problem in certain prisons. It may be a gnat’s bite overall but a very significant problem for certain prisons.

I thought I might mention my own experience in visiting foreign prisons, which I have done in various capacities over the years. I have been to a prison in Minsk, a prison in Sarajevo and prisons in Tashkent, and they are variable. It is interesting to me that the buildings in Sarajevo were about the same age as our Victorian prisons here in London. It was not too bad, actually; that was my experience. In the prison in Minsk, while the dormitories were very overcrowded, there was in fact a lot of open space where the prisoners could exercise better, in many ways, than what we see in our own country. The prison in Tashkent had a very good bakery and there seemed to be an active programme in trying to rehabilitate people. So, in my experience, prisons overseas are not as bad as one might fear from reading about them in certain types of documentation.

I think I have heard the themes of the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, in other speeches which he has given. He opened by saying that rehabilitation is hampered by overcrowding, which is of course true. He talked about social video calls and asked whether they can be kept going; I do not know whether the Minister will be able to comment on that, but that seems to be a desirable thing to keep going as far as possible. The noble Lord also spoke about the work of mentors in prisons. It reminded me that I recently read Chris Atkins’ book about being a prisoner in Wandsworth Prison and the work that he did as a mentor; he literally saved lives while working as a mentor there.

The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, made a lot of pertinent and interesting points. Nevertheless, this debate is about foreign national offenders. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to the questions raised, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Jackson.

16:38
Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who participated in this debate, in particular my noble friend Lord Jackson of Peterborough for raising this most important issue. I am not sure that I shall be able to answer in detail all the questions that I have rightly been asked in this debate, but my officials will go through the transcript and I will write to everybody to make sure that the questions are properly answered.

Briefly, by way of background, noble Lords will see from the House of Lords report that there is a dip in the numbers and that they have started to climb again since the Covid crisis. I am told that, in effect, the dip is accounted for by various difficulties encountered by the Home Office at the time. They include quite a number of legal challenges. One that went to the Supreme Court was on something then called Section 94B, which operated the principle of “deport first, appeal later”; it was lost and, as a result, 700 cases had to be redone. Then, in 2019, there were legal proceedings that, as noble Lords may remember, challenged a lot of charter flights. In the meantime, the modern slavery law came into effect, which increased the number of modern slavery claims being made by prisoners. So a combination of factors led to that decline even before we had Covid, but Covid then had a further adverse effect.

Since then, we have climbed up again, to nearly 4,000 last year—a 27% increase on the year before. I just say that by way of background. I do not accept the stricture that the Government have been in a position of chaos and incompetence; I think those were the words used. The Government have been doing their best with a very difficult situation.

Against that background, briefly, there are, roughly speaking, about 10,000 or so prisoners who are foreign national offenders. About one-third of those are on remand. We cannot do anything about that, so we are talking about 6,500 people or something of that kind. Of course, there are also foreign nationals in the community —that is the number in prison—but we are doing our level best to improve performance in that respect. As I said, we returned nearly 4,000 FNOs from prison last year.

The Lord Chancellor has talked about the new measures that we are introducing; they include the early removal scheme, with which noble Lords are familiar. Between January and March this year, almost 400 foreign national offenders were removed—a 61% increase over the same period last year. Part of this is also due to the increasing use of prisoner transfer agreements. I shall say a word about that because it has, rightly, cropped up in the debate.

The Albanian agreement came into effect, or was improved, in May 2023 in order to speed up prison transfers, with greater numbers of the most serious offenders to be sent back to Albania. That is continuing but, even in the case of Albanian prisoners, there are still procedural difficulties that cause delays in the process. For example, each transfer has to be approved by the Albanian courts, which must sanction the Albanian authorities’ power to hold the prisoners, as it were, when they arrive back in Albania. It is a lengthy process; indeed, quite apart from prisoner transfer agreements, one is wrestling with some difficult issues in physically deporting a foreign national offender. Often, there will be very late appeals and all kinds of claims raised. In many cases, there will be absolutely no documentation, so you do not even know what country they come from; you then cannot prove where to send them or prove to the receiving state that they are indeed nationals of that state. These kinds of difficulties arise, quite apart from the physical problems of having an aircraft, escorting people and all those kinds of difficulties.

One should not underestimate the operational problems here but the Government are determinedly working on them. A better process has been introduced for dealing with foreign national offenders. There is a new task force across the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and we have recruited 400 additional case workers to prioritise these cases; they have been in place since last month and will streamline the end-to-end process. So the Government are tackling the problem in general terms.

With that broad background, I will see whether I can deal with at least some of the questions I was asked. I will write to noble Lords on the problem of derogations from the convention, which was one of the points raised on the ECHR.

I think the problem with Jamaica has been the difficulty of reaching a political agreement with the Jamaican Government—I think that that is the case, but I will confirm it in writing. The Albanian example is working quite well. We have agreements with many other countries, but they are not always effective, because prison conditions in other countries are not very satisfactory. Sometimes, the agreement is to enable British prisoners in the foreign prison to come back—a recent example was from the Philippines—rather than for us to send people there, so it is a complicated area.

I do not think I can comment on the specific case of Abdul Ezedi in a debate such as this.

We will work very hard to implement the recommendations of the chief inspector’s report. Points about that were well made. It is another aspect where there can be improvement, but, as I said, we are well up—I gave the figure of 61%—on the equivalent period last year in our success in deporting foreign nationals.

Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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Incidentally, going back to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I once visited the San Miguel prison in Santiago, Chile, with the fabulous penal reform campaign of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. The month before, 81 inmates died in a fire. It was the grimmest prison I have ever been to, but talking about prisons we have known is by the by.

I will press the Minister on the issue of the chief inspector’s report. He know that one of the key issues raised was the routine and repetitive use of manually accessed spreadsheets. There was no IT system that was trustworthy, to the extent that virtually any management data could be easily accessed. Is that a key imperative for the department to work on, as it prepares its formal response to the chief inspector’s report?

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. Yes, that is extremely important. I will write with a further update on what can be done about it. It will be no secret to noble Lords that the problem of data across the criminal justice system and the prison system is ongoing, and we are working with various systems of various ages, including those of elderly status. A great deal needs to be improved.

I will press on, having one eye on the time. One of the various points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was about the deportation of people who came here as a child. As far as they are protected, those people have to rely on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights on family life, which is often a successful defence, because they will have no connections with the country to which they are being sent.

On other countries, the one with which we are the furthest forward at the moment, as far as I know, is Italy. The Lord Chancellor hopes to reach an agreement with Italy in the next few weeks. I do not think that I can go further than that, but there have been encouraging negotiations with Italy, and I hope that that and the Albanian situation will help significantly.

I understand that consultation with victims is conducted through victim liaison units. In the case of an FNO facing deportation, I am told that, where victims have signed up to the victim contact scheme, that consultation takes place.

I fully agree with the points made by my noble friend Lord Farmer about rehabilitation and the importance of social visits. As noble Lords know, he conducted two important reviews not long ago, and I believe the ministry has accepted all his recommendations. An important part of that work was the social aspect of prisoners. I am not aware of any reduction in emphasis being placed on that, but I will investigate and write accordingly. Almost all prisons in England and Wales now have facilities for secure video calls, or in-cell telephony. I do not know whether that is the case in Minsk or Sarajevo, but it is a considerable improvement on what used to be the case. It certainly does not exist in the United States or, I would have thought, San Miguel prison.

There are important efforts to encourage peer-to-peer support. Pilots are in progress at the moment with a particular focus on FNOs, although there are facilities for long-range contact. FNOs with no visitors can get free phone credits for overseas calls and free video calls, which is considerably better than nothing. As I said, all prisons across England and Wales offer secure video calls.

Noble Lords have raised some important issues. I hope we are grappling with them; their importance is in no way neglected. The overall situation is that the Government are making progress in this area. Noble Lords have made very good points which, if I have not already answered, I will answer in more detail in writing. I close by thanking noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Jackson, for raising these important issues.

Committee adjourned at 4.51 pm.