2.50 pm

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate, but what a disappointment it has proven to be. We listened in silence to some of the views expressed by Opposition Members; it is greatly

8 July 2015 : Column 123WH

disappointing that some people could not do the same when my colleagues on the Government Benches made speeches.

We should bear in mind that the UN has a long history of criticising Israel, more than it has any other country in the world—so much so that many of us feel that its criticisms are no longer legitimate. In 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted 20 resolutions singling out Israel for criticism, but only three for the rest of the world combined. The Human Rights Council’s members include Qatar and Saudi Arabia—countries that perform human rights violations against their own people. We know that those things happen.

Only last year, the Prime Minister made three points about the UN. First, he wanted to see

“an end to the outrageous lectures on human rights that Israel receives at the United Nations from the likes of Iran and North Korea”.

I certainly agree with that. Secondly, he wanted.

“an end to the ridiculous situation where last year the United Nations General Assembly passed 3 times as many resolutions on Israel as on Syria, Iran and North Korea put together”.

Thirdly, he wanted to see.

“no more excuses for the 32 countries in the United Nations who refuse to recognise Israel”.

Israel has a right to exist. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, it is constantly under attack—that seems to be forgotten by the UN Human Rights Council and some Members here this afternoon. It is a great disappointment that we do not have more time to debate this issue, but I urge Members to listen to people from both sides of the situation. As my hon. Friend said, none of us rejoices in the deaths of any human being, but to claim that any country kills people as a result of the holocaust is not only despicable and disgusting, but disrespectful to the House.

2.52 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on making a balanced introduction to the debate. Because of the time constraints, I will not respond to the speeches of the hon. Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) other than to say this: it might be worth it for them to listen to some voices in Israel other than the Israeli Government. They will find that there is considerably more free thinking about Israel’s actions in Gaza than the kinds of things they have said in trying to justify what went on last year.

In view of the shortage of time, I will restrict my remarks to some questions for the Minister. I congratulate the Government on voting for the Human Rights Council resolution last Friday, but the whole question is about what happens as a result. The background, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, is that we have been here before. The resolution bemoaned the lack of progress on the previous inquiry into the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-09. Given that the Human Rights Council has noted a failure by Israel and Hamas in co-operating with legal investigations and that the International Criminal Court is looking into this matter, what can the Minister and the international community do to force that co-operation?

8 July 2015 : Column 124WH

My second question is about recommendation 6 of the Human Rights Council resolution, which:

“Calls upon all States to promote compliance with human rights obligations and all High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention”

to make particular efforts in that regard, particularly in relation to

“penal sanctions, grave breaches and the responsibilities of the High Contracting Parties”.

Britain is a high contracting party to the Geneva convention. What will Britain do to ensure compliance with the provisions of that resolution?

Thirdly, given that the resolution is all about what happens now and does not look back, will the Minister guarantee that a statement to the House will be made before the summer recess on what the Government suggest we should do, in conjunction with other countries, to ensure that that resolution is complied with and taken forward?

2.55 pm

Dr Tania Mathias (Twickenham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate. I want to speak briefly about the independent commission of inquiry and in particular about the points made in the concluding observations of its report. The fourth concluding observation mentions the use of live ammunition and

“the destruction of entire neighbourhoods…the policy itself violates the laws of war.”

I commend to everyone the concluding observations and recommendations. They are important for all the debates in this area.

The report recommends that Palestinians and Israelis should be

“refraining from and taking active steps to prevent statements that dehumanize the other side”.

Having seen the United Nations Relief and Works Agency director general, Pierre Krähenbühl, on his visit to MPs, I note the critical importance of the conflict. Daesh is in the area, and I want all the recommendations to be implemented. As the independent commission has said, the greatest challenge is to implement its fair recommendations.

2.57 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Last year’s conflict in Gaza was an absolute tragedy for everyone who lost their lives on all sides. It is important to remember the context: a sovereign nation, Israel, defended itself against an attack by the terrorist group Hamas, which was raining rockets directed at Israel’s civilian population. I remind all Members that Israel left Gaza in 2005. It forcibly withdrew its settlers and all its soldiers, hoping that that would lead to peace. Instead, that led to Hamas rule and rockets. The report we are debating recognises that Hamas committed human rights abuses; in recognising that, it follows what Amnesty International found earlier this year.

When the terrorist organisation Hamas deliberately used the civilian population of Gaza as human shields in that conflict, it was tragic but not surprising when many of those people lost their lives. I note that the report from the high-level international military group on the Gaza conflict, whose members include

8 July 2015 : Column 125WH

Colonel Richard Kemp, said that in its experience and given the circumstances of the conflict—civilians were used deliberately by Hamas as human shields—Israel took more precautions than any other country to defend civilians.

What is to happen now? Yes, there should be negotiations to end the blockade of Gaza and to restore the area to normality, but what are we seeing? New terror tunnels are being built at this moment and more rockets are being fired, including the two rockets fired last week by an ISIS-affiliated group supported by Hamas. The international community should become more involved. It should recognise the terrorist nature of Hamas and the involvement of Iran in stoking the conflict, and it should realise that the solution to this long-running and tragic conflict is about two peoples being recognised—the Palestinian people and the Israeli people—and two states being set up side by side. The only way to achieve that is through negotiation, so that there can be a long-lasting peace with the rights of both peoples respected.

2.59 pm

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on her measured speech and agree with her that we should welcome the report, even though, in an attempt to placate the Israel lobby, it does not address the issue of asymmetry in last year’s conflict—or, indeed, in previous conflicts.

Israel is a state that is out of control, but this country and others are not prepared to criticise it. Israel is not only engaged in the longest occupation of Palestinian lands, but continues to colonise and settle those lands on an industrial scale. It is indulging in installing an apartheid regime in the west bank; it has not withdrawn from Gaza, which is under a full embargo; and, most shamefully, it engages periodically—I am sure that we will see it again before long—in the murder of civilians and the control and cowing of the Gazan population.

In the invasion last year, more than 500 Palestinian children were killed, compared with one Israeli child. Any death of a child—any death of a civilian—is to be mourned, but we cannot ignore the ratios. Five hundred times as much high explosive was dropped on Gaza as was fired into Israel. I went there after Cast Lead and saw the effects. I saw children who were traumatised, who were permanently disabled and who were permanently crippled by those actions. This is not only a state with which we retain good relations; it is a state that we condone.

During the attack last year, the Minister thought about the possibility of restricting arms sales to Israel, but, by the time he had finished thinking about it, the 50 days of invasion were over. I say it with great reluctance, but I am increasingly of the view that we are going to have to take steps. We are going to have to give encouragement to the Palestinian people by recognising Palestine. It is disgraceful that the Government are not prepared to do that and use every possible excuse. We must also look at sanctions, embargoes, not importing settlement goods and not selling arms to a country that is about to use them for another attack on children and civilians in Gaza.

8 July 2015 : Column 126WH

3.2 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate.

I am aware of the need to be brief, so want to make only a few points. First, thousands of my constituents have contacted me to voice their concerns about both last year’s crisis and the current situation, particularly with regard to the UN report. Members from both sides have made some hot points, but I want to bring the discussion back to the report so that we can make some progress on how Parliament can move things forward.

It is important to recognise that although the report mentioned atrocities committed by both Hamas and Israel, it focused on the disproportionate and indiscriminate nature of the attack on Gaza. The report identifies many possible war crimes, including air strikes on residential buildings, the use of wide-area shells and heavy artillery in densely populated areas, and the targeting of civilians by Israelis, as well as the use of human shields and the execution of collaborators by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups. That must be recognised as we move forward.

The report recommended that the international community support the work of the International Criminal Court, which is currently conducting a preliminary investigation into the war. Will the Minister lend his support to Palestine becoming a member of the ICC? I am pleased that we signed up to last week’s UN resolution, but will the Minister outline how the Government will be taking forward the elements that relate to the UK? When will the Government be in a position to recognise Palestine as a state? Finally, in September last year I asked about the review of UK-supplied arms and components, and I would be grateful for a response on that as well.

3.5 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this debate. I express regret and sympathy for all those who have lost their lives as a result of the conflict in Gaza.

From the outset, I call into question the usefulness of a report that does not engage the interested parties. Why can America and Great Britain manage to engage with the Israelis, yet the UN, which is supposedly an independent body, cannot? I can well understand why the Israelis made the decision not to engage: the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Having lived through the troubles in Northern Ireland and all too often seen one-sided, biased reporting, I feel that I am more than equipped to recognise it at play, and I believe that there are numerous examples in the report. I do not have time to go into them because of the time restriction, but there certainly is a difference between Palestinian and Israeli losses.

In the background information that I read before the debate, I found some interesting submissions. Colonel Richard Kemp, who is British, makes it clear that he has no affiliation with the Israelis, paid or otherwise, yet calls the report into question:

“In my opinion the actions taken by the IDF were necessary to defend the people of Israel from the ongoing, intensive and lethal attacks by Hamas and other groups in Gaza. It is the inalienable duty of every government to use its armed forces to protect its

8 July 2015 : Column 127WH

citizens and its terrain from external attack…As the Gaza Strip is effectively a separate state, outside of Israeli control, these actions amounted to an attack by a foreign country against Israeli territory…I know of no other realistic and effective means of suppressing an aggressor’s missile fire than the methods used by the IDF, namely precision air and artillery strikes against the command and control structures”.

It is clear that Israeli action is necessary to prevent the re-armament that will lead to further attacks by Hamas and other groups. It should also be noted that Egypt takes similar preventive action against Gaza. From the sources I am aware of, Hamas and Islamic Jihad used buildings and vehicles protected under the laws of armed conflict, including schools, hospitals, UN buildings, mosques and ambulances. Use of such facilities for military purposes constitutes a war crime.

If we genuinely want to contribute to peace and to improve human rights for the people of Gaza and Israel, we must have the courage to reject the UN Human Rights Council’s persistent and discriminatory anti-Israel programme and produce a balanced and fair report into these tragic events. I hope that the Government can do just that.

3.7 pm

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate a year since the most recent invasion of Gaza, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate.

In the short time that I have, I want to make a couple of points about respect for international law. It is precisely because Israel suffered no consequences for its earlier crimes committed during the operations in 2008 and 2012, which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), that it was able to go on to commit even greater atrocities a year ago today.

International law is only as strong as the parties that are willing to enforce it. We have witnessed generations of failure because of a lack of political will not only to acknowledge but to take action against Israel’s violations. Over the past half century, Israel has placed itself above international law, breaching human rights and failing or refusing to adhere to the duties and obligations placed on it as an occupying power. Its position has been strengthened by an international community that, to varying degrees, has acknowledged significant and persistent violations of international law, whether they be human rights violations during military conflicts, as we saw last year, or the prolonged injustice of Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation and settlement policy.

If the Government are sincere when they claim that we, as a nation, support the rule of law and wish to see a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, we should expect Israel to be held to account for its litany of crimes under international law. I am happy the Government supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution, and I certainly acknowledge that to the Minister, but if we are to make a positive contribution to resolving the conflict, our foreign policy should be to refuse to profit from the illegal activities of others. Without such a commitment, we will forever stand on the wrong side of history, in that we will be promoting injustice and undermining international law. If the two-state

8 July 2015 : Column 128WH

solution is to mean anything and to become a reality, the international community must be willing to take practical action to end the Israeli Government’s illegal behaviour.

3.10 pm

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate.

I, too, welcome the fact that the Government voted in favour of the report at the UN Human Rights Council last Friday. I look forward to seeing how they implement the robust recommendations of the report, which highlights Israel’s targeting of residential buildings, including schools, hospitals and apartment blocks, the use of heavy artillery in densely populated areas, and the targeting of civilians.

Given the way in which Israel conducted its assault—it used 20,000 tonnes of explosives, dropping 120 one-tonne bombs and attacking residential neighbourhoods in one of the youngest and most densely populated areas in the world—the primary victims were always going to be civilians and children. The UN report found that 65% of Palestinian deaths were civilian, including more than 500 children. The images of the four boys killed by explosive rounds while playing on Gaza’s beach are the most enduring of the conflict.

Britain approved the sale of £7 million of arms to Israel in the six months before the offensive. That included components for drones, combat aircraft and helicopters. The Export Control Organisation, which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is responsible for assessing arms export licences, with each licence assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. Those include consideration of whether the proposed export would

“provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions in the destination country…be used aggressively against another country…be to a destination where the behaviour of the buyer country raises concerns with regard to its attitude to terrorism or respect of international law”.

If the proposed export fails to meet one or more of the criteria, a licence will be refused.

If more evidence were needed that the Government had little commitment to their own arms export licensing criteria, it was recently reported that, in the few months between the end of hostilities in Gaza last August and the end of December, BIS approved 32 military exports, worth £3.97 million, to Israel. The first licence was granted just six days after the announcement of the Israeli ceasefire. If we play the role of honest broker in the conflict while selling the occupying power the arms it uses to occupy its neighbour, how can we hold our head up?

3.12 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I commend the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for initiating the debate. Like other Members, I commend the Government for supporting last Friday’s resolution.

Unlike the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I do not see the report as unbalanced. Paragraph 668 states that

“the commission was able to gather substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and

8 July 2015 : Column 129WH

international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes.”

That is what we should be addressing.

We should also be clear that we need to move forward. Other hon. Members have rightly said that arms sales continue. In the four months following the attacks, arms sales went to Israel, so more has been done to replenish its arsenals, which were depleted in these massive attacks, than has been done to repair Gaza’s battered, blasted and rubbled civic fabric. We also need to remember that the building of that civic fabric, which is now damaged, was supported by aid from this country and others. People have a right to defend health facilities, schools and civil infrastructure, which need to be protected.

The state of Israel needs to recognise that people in the international community are not making an anti-Israel case. Many of us totally oppose conflict and violence. I am not one of those who tries to pretend that there is military equivalence between the violence wreaked by Hamas and the massive violence wreaked by Israel. Equally, I do not pretend there is a moral difference between the violence of the two sides when it ends up killing innocent civilians and putting in dread people who should be living in peace together.

Today, however, we have heard the pretence that Israel has the right to treat Gaza as though it is a foreign state and to attack it on the basis that Israel is under threat from another state. That is from the same Members who then tell us that we in this House do not have the right to call for Palestine to be recognised as a state. How come people can recognise Palestine as a state when they want to justify violence—for military purposes—when the rest of us are not allowed to recognise it as a state for diplomatic and political purposes and to achieve a peaceful resolution?

3.15 pm

Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate. I need to declare an interest because I am vice-chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. I plan to visit Gaza, God willing, this year.

I support a two-state solution, but it must be recognised by neighbouring countries, it has to be sustainable, and peace has to prevail. Part of that must be about educating and empowering a new generation of young people on both sides. Will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have in that regard, including working with organisations such as OneVoice? Palestinian statehood is not a gift to be given, but a right to be recognised. It should be recognised to kick-start the debate on this issue.

When we speak in the House, we must be careful, because we are speaking about the loss of many lives, and the numbers were very disproportionate. During the year of tension, cross-border rocket attacks led to a military offensive by Israel, resulting in the deaths of 2,100 people in Gaza, with 11,000 injured, as well as the deaths of 64 Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli citizens. We need to avoid all such deaths, and some Members need to be careful about how they talk about the loss of such innocent lives.

8 July 2015 : Column 130WH

One priority, which the Minister could perhaps address in his comments, should be rebuilding the houses and hospitals that have still not been rebuilt. It must be the international community’s priority to make sure we provide humanitarian aid and rebuild basic infrastructure. Thousands of people from my constituency contacted me last summer, and some were crying—there was such devastation. We need to address this issue in the best way possible to ensure there is a sustainable two-state solution.

3.17 pm

Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab): I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). I welcome the report, but it stops short on many points. I struggle to reconcile the Government’s position of arming Israel and breaking the EU restrictions, and of condemning the illegal settlements yet allowing free trade with the UK and EU markets.

We need to achieve a peaceful and sustainable settlement. In the current climate, without the recognition of Palestine, that will not happen. I call on the Government to go further and to change our position from one that allows arms into Israel and breaches international laws. David Miliband revoked five licences in 2009. Why are we not doing that now? Why are we allowing this arms trade?

Why are we trading with Israel’s occupied territories? Are we not, by definition, handling stolen goods if we recognise that that land is stolen and continue to trade with Israel? To me, it is common sense that we should stop.

Would the recognition of Palestine by the UK not help the peace process? The recognition of Israel was not subject to negotiation, and neither should the recognition of Palestine be. Israel should have no right of veto over the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

We have an open prison in Gaza. When will the Government take bold and brave steps to recognise that this is not a race issue or a religious issue but a humanitarian crisis that we have a duty to respond to, rather than hiding behind language that is not conducive to the peace process?

3.19 pm

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate.

It is 21 years since Oslo, and peace does not seem any closer. To put that in context, I am not the only Member of the House who was still at primary school at the time of the Oslo agreement. There have been 45 years of illegal occupation of Palestine, including the west bank and East Jerusalem, as well as Gaza. In Gaza, 80% of the population have been living in poverty and 61% in food insecurity since the blockade. That is the effect on the humanitarian situation.

As time is short, I will address my questions to the Minister now. Does he agree with Baroness Anelay, the Minister in the Lords, who said on Monday:

“All countries…have a legitimate right to self-defence”?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2015; Vol. 764, c. 67.]

8 July 2015 : Column 131WH

If so, when the UK finally joins the 137 countries that already recognise Palestine, will he recognise that it too has the right to self-defence when it comes under attack?

A new report by Medical Aid for Palestinians highlights the fact that 17 hospitals and 56 primary healthcare facilities were hit during the 2014 attack. How much damage was done to UK-funded projects in last year’s attack?

It is right that we should mourn the deaths of all those killed in last year’s attack; but is it possible truly to mourn and to continue to export arms to Israel in breach of the EU arms export rules? By ignoring Israeli violations of international law the Government weaken Britain’s authority and influence on the world stage.

3.21 pm

Jo Cox (Batley and Spen) (Lab): As a former Oxfam aid worker for many years, I have worked for far too long on and in the conflict that we are debating, but I still believe that there will be a resolution in my lifetime—hopefully in the next few years.

Because of the time constraints, I will focus on three things. First, I would love a response from the Minister about what confidence-building action the Government are taking, particularly on Gaza. The Gaza reconstruction mechanism is clearly not working, but it is also not a substitute for easing the closure. There is a need for urgent expansion of access to Israeli markets for Palestinian exports. What measures are the Government taking to that end? We also need to remove the last restrictions on the export of Gazan products to the west bank.

I would like construction materials to be allowed into Gaza urgently. The facts are clear: only one home has been rebuilt in the past year, since the bombing, and the projections are that it will take hundreds of years to rebuild at the current rate. There is a need for materials to get into Gaza so that people can rebuild their lives. What is the Government’s view on that?

In addition, people need to get in and out of Gaza. In 2000 about 500,000 people were leaving and returning to Gaza, for work or to see family members. This year the number is 18,000, which is very low, and we need to raise it quickly. We also need the Israeli Government to continue to believe that there will be a cost to their allowing further settlement expansion in the west bank. I would love to know what the Government are doing to get that message clearly heard by the Israeli Government. I would be interested also in the Government’s view of the Israeli Government’s silent policy of retrospectively legalising illegal outposts.

Finally, the allegations—including allegations of war crimes—in the commission of inquiry’s report must be investigated fully by Israel and Hamas. Both sides of the conflict deserve access to justice and accountability. For the most part domestic mechanisms and investigations are poor; they are either rejected quickly or not run to international standards. Indeed, the report notes that Israel has a

“lamentable track record in holding wrong doers accountable”

and that investigation by Hamas is “woefully inadequate”. Following the UK’s welcome endorsement of the report last week, I would love to hear what the Government intend to do to support international mechanisms to pursue justice and accountability, particularly in relation to preliminary work by the International Criminal Court.

8 July 2015 : Column 132WH

3.24 pm

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate.

The report, much like the issue of Gaza, is about proportionality. Although its conclusions are 60% devoted to what Gaza endured, they are 40% devoted to what Israel endured. Yet those figures do not stack up. When we consider that 551 Palestinian children and one Israeli child died, we begin to see how massively the issue of proportionality figures not just in Operation Protective Edge but in the report. I am delighted that the British Government endorsed the report, but it does not reflect the proportionality of the situation.

Looking forward to how to rebuild Gaza, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) that it is currently simply not working. It is pretty clear that Gaza is not going to be a viable place to live in. Why is the Department for International Development cutting its contribution to UNRWA by 17% in this budget year? UNRWA plays a critical role in the reconstruction of Gaza, so it seems a completely counterintuitive and counterproductive thing to do.

As to the broader issues around the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I had the pleasure of making a visit recently and it is clear to me that, with 700,000 settlers based illegally in the west bank, many of us would agree with President Obama, who said in June that the world no longer believes

“that Israel is serious about the two-state solution.”

Does the Minister believe that it is? Should we now start to look into the detail of the potential for a one-state solution? That is the elephant in the room.

The threat and application of EU sanctions proved very successful. What measures are we taking to ensure that they are applied fully and comprehensively to businesses that trade illegally in the west bank?

3.26 pm

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab): I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate.

The report makes clear the scale of the mass slaughter committed during last year’s war on Gaza, and the escalation of violence and disregard for life perpetrated by all involved. I am deeply concerned that those events, and the failure of Israel in particular to engage with the investigation into them, pose a great challenge to the chance of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Let us be clear; the actions last year of the Israeli Government and their armed forces were criminal and murderous. They were committed with a complete disregard for the taking of civilian lives, including those of hundreds of women and children. The report is absolutely clear about that. Israel showed a callous disregard about who was being hit by its bombs, and that was emphasised by the fact that it did nothing to modify its behaviour when the results were evident to all.

The question that I want to ask, which I think is central to the debate, is why the Israeli Government are allowed constantly to flout international law and UN motions. Why are they allowed to act with impunity, not just in this case but in the illegal land grabbing on

8 July 2015 : Column 133WH

the west bank? The fact that they refused even to engage with the investigation speaks volumes about how they continually ignore international law. It is time for that to end. It is time that Israel was held accountable for its actions and those of its military.

The events of last year were, as the report makes clear, a worrying escalation with attacks by Israel on residential buildings resulting in the deaths of entire families, ground operations that levelled urban neighbourhoods, and a continued land grab. That escalation could happen precisely because Israel regards itself as somehow adjacent to international law.

The report makes some critical recommendations, in particular with respect to international human rights, but none of them will mean anything if they are not adhered to. Prosecutions, convictions and punishments must be applied, and must not stop with the individual soldiers involved; they must include those who are responsible for giving the orders, and the military and political establishment. Israel should address all the issues that fuel the conflict and impede respect for human rights. In particular, it should lift the blockade on Gaza and stop building illegal settlements.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. We have had contributions from 18 Back Benchers. We now move on to the Front-Bench speeches. Unfortunately, I am unable to time-limit the Front-Bench speeches, but the clock will be set for nine minutes. If you all speak for nine minutes, that will allow Holly Lynch three minutes to complete the impossible task of summing up the debate.

3.30 pm

Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on achieving this debate; it is a pity that it could not have been larger and longer.

I must declare an interest. I worked in Gaza for 18 months as a surgeon in 1991 and 1992, just after the first Gulf war and during the first intifada, when George Bush was President of America. During the second Gulf war and second intifada, another George Bush was President, so we have all been here before. I was in Gaza at the time of the Madrid conference. The hon. Lady said it was 21 years since Oslo, when she was in primary school, and I find it a little depressing to realise that it is 24 years since the Madrid conference, when I was working in Gaza. Age catches us all.

On the morning of the Madrid conference, there was absolute chaos in Gaza, and we had no idea how things were going to go. I had five patients with chest wounds in A&E by half-past 7 in the morning and we did not know whether Hamas and Fatah were going to turn the situation into a total civil fight. By half-past 4 in the afternoon, the shebab, or young men, known at that time for throwing stones in protest at the IDF, were on armoured cars with olive branches. People saw this as their chance for change, 24 years ago.

The problem is that all of us—all of Europe and all the rest of the developed world, especially America—took our eye off the ball. We have been busy doing other things. We come back and we talk about the running sore of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. It was talked about

8 July 2015 : Column 134WH

by Colin Powell after 9/11, and four weeks later normal service had been resumed: Israel had the absolute right to do within its territories what it chose.

Like many people here, I was brought up to be pro-Israel because of what the Jewish people suffered in the second world war. However, living there and watching how people were treated—watching people being lifted; watching my hospital being raided and having to hide injured people in panels in ceilings and walls, like something out of a world war two movie—made me realise that one of the saddest things was that a lot of what is done to Palestine and Palestinians is like a pale version of what happened 70 years ago.

People in Israel want peace. There are many groups in Israel who want peace and want the attitude to change. We need to realise that that is not going to happen by itself. We also need to realise that we have a vested interest. I hate hearing how Hamas “seized power”. Hamas was elected. There have not been any new elections, but Hamas was elected because 11 years after the peace process, life was worse for people in Gaza. They had no work. Young people there know nothing other than how they are treated. They have zero future and no investment. Is it any wonder that they can be attracted to terrorism or extremism? It has been mentioned that recent rockets may have been associated with ISIS.

What do we expect? People in Gaza are trapped in a large open-air prison. We talk about the warnings that people got from the IDF, either from leaflets or roof knocks. I am still in touch with people in Gaza through the wonders of Facebook. The gaps to get out were far too short, and people fed back to me that they had no idea where to go because schools and vulnerable buildings had been bombed. They stayed put because they thought that going out on the street was probably dangerous.

The place is intensely populated. Almost half of it was being saturation-bombed. Where were they meant to get to following a five-minute warning? They had nowhere to go. If we look at the maps in the report, Shejaiya, which is at the east end of Gaza City, where I lived, was almost carpet-bombed. There is no way that those people could have got anywhere.

Proportionality has been mentioned. Of course Israel needs to be secure. We will never get Hamas to recognise Israel if there is no safety for Palestine. Hamas sees the situation as a war. I am no fan of Hamas—I was no fan of Hamas when I lived there—but we must realise that the more we do not allow a future for the Palestinians, the more we offer people into the hands of extremism.

If we were to go back to before 1987, before the first intifada, we would find that the Palestinians were one of the most educated populations in the world. They had lost their land, so people invested in education for their children. They sent them to eastern Europe. Doctors and engineers were their biggest production. I visited people and saw their wedding photographs with women in modern clothing and people travelling everywhere. They were very secular and pro-western. What drove them to the intifada were years and years of occupation and seeing no alternative.

The intifada has not worked, either. We are not far from a 30-year anniversary of the first intifada in 1987. Palestinians are being driven to become more and more extreme, and we need to see our culpability in that. We must not sell arms that we know will be used in that

8 July 2015 : Column 135WH

way. We should not import arms that we know have been tested by being used in the occupied territories. We absolutely need to stop settlements.

I went back in 2010 and I could not get into Gaza because of the blockade, but I spent time working with a doctor I had trained, who is now a consultant in East Jerusalem. I spent a day in the breast cancer clinic, because that is my specialty. At every appointment, half the time was spent on how the person had got through the wall and through the checkpoint, on how we were going to get them back, and on making sure we did the paperwork so that they could come back for their next breast cancer clinic appointment. It dominated everything.

The west bank is being eaten up into a Swiss cheese, and the two-state solution is not far from being totally unviable unless there is a withdrawal. When I visited Bethlehem, all I could see was tsunamis of modern buildings coming across the hills, and in East Jerusalem many settlements are being either purchased or possessed, because families do not have the paperwork that goes back to when the house was built. Little mini-settlements of three or four houses are being created. That allows the IDF to get on the roofs. The flags and barbed wire go up, and then the pressure on the people around starts. We need to see our culpability.

I commend the Government for supporting the vote, but we need to go a lot further. Only America can bring Israel to the table. One country that has the ear of America through our special relationship is Britain. We need to get America round the table, or we will not be talking about this problem, but about ISIS and the horrors that are coming out of the occupied territories, because the people there do not see anywhere else to go. We need to realise that the issue is for the people of Israel as much as for the people of Palestine. People in Israel want normalised lives. They will never get that while living next door to the largest open prison in the world.

3.38 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). I have taken part in many debates on this subject during my 10 years in the House, but hers is one of the most powerful speeches that I have heard, based as it is on her own experience of working in Gaza. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this debate. She has chosen an incredibly important issue for her first Westminster Hall debate, as evidenced by the turnout today. I do not have time to refer to the many excellent speeches made in this debate, but I will touch on some of the issues that were raised.

Each and every death during this conflict on both sides was a tragedy. The appalling bloodshed underlined once more that there cannot be a military resolution. The only way forward is the diplomatic route and a negotiated two-state solution that recognises the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. As such, we welcomed the Egypt-brokered ceasefire last August. If we are finally to end the cycle of violence, we have yet again to ensure that the necessary lessons are learned from this most recent conflict. That includes holding accountable those responsible, and securing access to remedy for the victims.

8 July 2015 : Column 136WH

As we have heard, the UK abstained on the resolution that initiated the commission of inquiry last year. The Foreign Secretary at the time said that the resolution was “fundamentally unbalanced” and would not help to achieve a lasting ceasefire. The UK Government subsequently encouraged all sides to co-operate, but I suspect that the Foreign Secretary’s initial rejection of the inquiry might have undermined the UK’s influence in that regard. It was certainly disappointing that Israel declined to co-operate and that that prevented the commission from investigating Israel’s claims. UK support for the resolution at the Human Rights Council last week, though, was welcome. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he now feels that the report has made a positive contribution.

The report makes disturbing reading in identifying serious breaches of international law, by both Israel and the Palestinian armed groups, that it warned could amount to war crimes. Last summer the Opposition condemned Hamas’s rocket fire, tunnels and extra-judicial killings, and I reiterate our condemnation. The commission report conveys the sense of fear that the tunnels in particular stoked up among innocent Israelis. Rocket fire, however, by the very nature of such weapons systems, was indiscriminate and in violation of international humanitarian law. We recognise, too, Israel’s right to defend itself, but we agree with the commission that the conduct of Palestinian armed groups does not

“modify Israel’s own obligations to abide by international law”.

In that respect, there were clear differences between the Government and the Opposition last summer. We felt that the Prime Minister had remained silent and should have spoken out when the victims were predominantly civilians, in particular given the number of children killed. We felt that he was too unequivocal in backing Israel’s right to defend itself, despite the disproportionate manner in which it exercised that right. The commission concluded that Israel might have failed to do everything it could to adhere to the three principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. The implication is that the terrible death toll could have been avoided.

The report documents some of the issues already touched on by other Members: how residential areas were targeted; how strikes came in the evening or at dawn, as families were gathering during Ramadan; how ineffective the roof knocks were as a warning system; and how artillery and mortars with a wide-area effect were used. The report attempts to convey the extent to which Palestinian civilians felt trapped. Even if they had received warnings, there was nowhere obvious for them to flee to where they would be safe, as we have heard. It is difficult to imagine the sense of terror that that would engender in such a densely populated area. There were also distressing allegations that civilians carrying white flags were attacked.

The cumulative impact of all that last year became evident all too soon. The Israel defence forces and/or the Israeli Government failed to re-examine their approach or to alter their tactics. In light of the report, I hope that the Minister will be able to reflect on whether the UK Government, and others, could have done more last year to press Israel to re-evaluate its response to the rocket fire. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister could have questioned the proportionality, the legality and the morality of Israel’s use of force, and questioned at the time what it would ultimately achieve?

8 July 2015 : Column 137WH

The commission noted that

“Israel’s interpretation of what constitutes a ‘military objective’ may be broader than the definition provided for by international law”.

I hope that that is one of the many findings that the Foreign Office will discuss with its Israeli counterparts, in addition to expressing concerns about such things as Israel’s choice of weaponry. Does the Minister believe that Israel could have done more to uphold those three principles of proportionality, distinction and precaution?

Several Members have touched on the issue of arms export licences. The Government, of course, chose not to suspend any such licences for export to Israel last year and sales have continued over the past few months. Members have no doubt received emails from their constituents concerned that £4 million in arms sales to Israel was approved in the four months following the conflict last year. In light of the commission’s findings, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills intend to review the licences, or Israel’s use of arms sold by the UK. Baroness Anelay, the Minister of State, said in the debate in the other place on Monday that we are “most cautious” when we issue export licences. She ruled out a blanket arms embargo. I will be grateful if the Minister touches on whether a case-by-case arms embargo, or the revoking of certain licences, has been or will be considered.

We cannot neglect the lasting legacy of last summer’s incursion and the humanitarian catastrophe that it triggered. As well as the loss of life, more than 11,000 Palestinians were injured, more than 3,000 of them children. It has been reported that 10% of them suffered a serious disability, and 1,500 children were orphaned. Furthermore, as we have heard, 18,000 homes were destroyed. I will be grateful if the Minister responds to the questions asked about the international support available to the victims of the incursion, about Department for International Development support to UNRWA being cut and about what we are doing to help people in Gaza rebuild their infrastructure and homes.

Looking to the future, the commission acknowledged that its report is only the latest in a long line of inquiries and missions seeking to aid accountability and end violence for the people of Israel and Palestine. The report rightly highlighted that there has been a

“persistent lack of implementation of recommendations”.

With Israel and Hamas already rejecting the report and the US voting against the Human Rights Council resolution last week, how can the international community ensure that the report is not yet another footnote in the history of the suffering of the Palestinian and Israeli people, or that last summer’s incursion was not simply another chapter in the cycle of violence in Gaza, which is doomed to be repeated? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how the Government will work with Israel, Palestine, and the Human Rights Council and UN to end the culture of impunity that has prevailed, to support new dialogue and to promote co-operation with the International Criminal Court.

Finally, the commission of inquiry recognised that it could not investigate the events of last summer in isolation; it also needed to look at the west bank. It rightly expressed its concerns about administrative detention, torture and ill treatment. I hope that the Minister will

8 July 2015 : Column 138WH

be able to update us on the UK’s discussions with Israel in that regard, on talks to lift the blockade and end the illegal settlements, and on efforts to strengthen moderate voices within Palestine.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): If the Minister could conclude his remarks no later than 3.57 pm, that would be appreciated.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): Well, there’s a task! Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to respond even in brief to the debate. May I express my frustration that this debate has not taken place in the main Chamber and that we do not have three hours for it? I am looking at the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who I think is a member of the Backbench Business Committee. I feel frustrated that I have little time to reply and simply cannot do so properly.

As hon. Members might be aware, I try to do my best on such occasions, and I will certainly write to them with the details, but even to list all the questions would take all my time before I gave any reply. Such debates are important and should not be conducted in Westminster Hall for 90 minutes. We do not do the subject matter any justice, and if I feel frustrated, hon. Members who have been given only two to three minutes to speak must also feel frustrated. I hope that the usual channels—if they are listening, read Hansard or hear the debate—ensure that next time we have such a debate, we do it properly, because the world, the nation and our constituents are watching, and we need to do the subject justice.

I welcome, I think for the first time, the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and I congratulate her on securing the debate. She shows a grasp and understanding of and a genuine interest in the subject. I also welcome other hon. Members to Parliament—it is my first opportunity to do so for some—and their contributions to such debates as this. Britain thrives on international affairs, which is something we do well, and it is good to see that this Parliament is taking the issues very earnestly.

I, too, congratulate the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), on a formidable speech—I echo the comments of the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—and she is another person to come to the Chamber with real knowledge of the subject matter. She is most welcome here today.

I will outline the Government’s position on the vote and the report, on what Britain is doing in Gaza unilaterally and multilaterally on the humanitarian front and so forth, and on the longer-term aspects—although I will have probably run out of time by then. I will do my best.

We deeply regret the loss of civilian life during the Gaza conflict last summer and the terrible toll of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict on citizens of both sides. The UN commission of inquiry report brings the scale of human suffering into sharp relief. It notes the victims’ continued hope that leaders will

“act more resolutely to address the root causes of the conflict so as to restore human rights, dignity, justice, and security to all residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel”.

8 July 2015 : Column 139WH

As many hon. Members have said, this is not the first time that we have been around this buoy—Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defence—and it seems to be something that we do every two years, with Gaza getting destroyed and rebuilt. We must break that cycle if we are to hope to move forward. We continue to believe in the critical importance of a negotiated two-state solution to end the conflict once and for all. We strongly condemn the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and militant groups in the Gaza strip, as detailed in the report. On the seeming imbalance of munitions going from one side to the other, hon. Members will be aware of the Iron Dome project in Israel, which has stopped many of the munitions fired by Hamas. That is why there is the disproportionate number of fatalities or injuries on one side. I simply state that as a comment, not to justify anything.

As we have made clear, we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself. Every country, including ours, has a right to defend itself from terrorist groups and organisations, such as Hamas, and attacks. But it is a principle of international humanitarian law that the use of force in self-defence must be proportionate. The commission of inquiry report calls on all parties to fully respect the main principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law that the hon. Member for Bristol East articulated—distinction, proportionality and precaution—and to establish credible, effective, transparent and independent accountability mechanisms promptly. We echo those calls.

Andy McDonald: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Ellwood: I am afraid I simply cannot—it would be unfair to anyone else—but I will certainly speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.

We note that the report highlights

“substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups. In some cases, these violations may amount to war crimes”.

Those allegations must be fully investigated by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the authorities in Gaza. We welcome the fact that Israel is already conducting its own internal investigations into specific incidents. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing by either party, those responsible must be held accountable.

The UK, along with our EU partners, voted in favour of the resolution on the report at the Human Rights Council last week. We would have preferred to see a text that gave more weight to Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence, and to the threat Israel faces from militant groups operating from inside Gaza, including Hamas. However, despite those concerns, we supported the resolution. I make it clear to hon. Members, who will be familiar with this from texts agreed behind the scenes in this place, that we need to find a balanced text to support; we found that resolution to be a balanced and appropriate text.

A number of hon. Members have raised concerns about the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza. We must do everything we can to avoid another conflict. The ceasefire agreement reached in 2014 holds, by and large, but there has not been the necessary progress toward a durable solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. Indeed, worse than that, we are

8 July 2015 : Column 140WH

aware that the tunnels are being rebuilt and that Hamas is re-engaging and purchasing new weapons systems. We are also aware that other extremist groups such as ISIS are taking an interest. Where would it take this conflict if we were to see that extremist operation move into the area?

The current situation in Gaza is unacceptable. As has been articulated by others, the humanitarian situation remains bleak. More than 100,000 people remain displaced, there are power outages for up to 12 hours a day and 120,000 people across Gaza remain without a water supply. I am afraid, however, that the Palestinians have not taken the steps needed for progress on reconciliation and for the Palestinian Authority to resume control of Gaza. That is one of the main causes of frustration here: the Palestinian Authority are denied access because of Hamas. Israel has eased some of its restrictions, but far more needs to be done to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, and there is more that Israel can do. Egypt, too, is wary of extremists in Sinai—the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis—and is reluctant to reopen the Rafah crossing in the south. It opens it sporadically, but is further restricting the movement and access of both people and goods.

Hon. Members have asked what can be done. It is clear that there is an urgent need to do more to address the terrible situation now. We need bold political steps: without addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, we will never break the cycle of violence I alluded to earlier—there is no alternative that can deliver peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

We welcome the recent positive steps that Israel has taken in easing some restrictions, including doubling the water supply and permitting an increase in exports from Gaza. However, we want to see Israel go much further, as I have articulated on every visit I have made to Gaza, Israel and the west bank, and to visitors from there to the UK. We call on Israel to ease restrictions much further, on President Abbas to take concrete steps to return the Palestinian Authority to Gaza and on Egypt to show maximum flexibility in opening the Rafah crossing once and for all.

I will conclude, as I want to leave the hon. Member for Halifax time to respond to the debate. I reiterate my promise to write to hon. Members in more detail and apologise for not being able to answer them more fully in this debate.

3.55 pm

Holly Lynch: I am grateful for the way in which the debate has been conducted and I thank the Minister for his considered words. Inevitably, some questions have gone unanswered but I appreciate his comments. This is a complex debate, and there are lots of issues that we could have explored much further. I hope we can all work together to try to take a debate on this subject to the Floor of the House for a fuller discussion later in the year. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and echo her sentiments about the wise words of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who shared her personal experience with us.

I will reiterate some key points. A key concern for me is the young people of Gaza. We have already heard that the population is increasingly dominated by young people. At this point, they are without a future.

8 July 2015 : Column 141WH

While that remains the case, there is an inevitability about any unrest or increase in conflict. For as long as we cannot address that issue, we will be in the same position time and time again. There is currently no economic horizon in Palestine, and in the Gaza strip in particular. Productivity has been suffocated, there are no jobs and 860,000 Palestinians are reliant on food parcels provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency. That is unsustainable, and we have to look at how to reconcile some of those issues.

A number of hon. Members made the connection between Hamas and Daesh. That is precisely why we need a real commitment to a peace process. As we have talked about, it seems inevitable that the conflict will go in that direction, but that is why we have to look with renewed vigour to resolve the issue and find peace for the region, so that it does not slip further into turmoil that has an impact not just on the region but on our shores. It is in all our interests to work towards resolving the situation.

That is one reason why we need to look at all the options available to us, simply because of the international failure to bring about more progress through dialogue alone. We end up in this position time and again, so what other options are now available to us to make a real commitment and to make progress? Our commitments to dialogue have failed to make that progress thus far.

The report acknowledges that the warnings saved lives. I am not here to make excuses or give justifications for Hamas. The civilian deaths across the board are inexcusable. However, again, that is why we need a real commitment to investigative procedures on both sides and to look with more clarity at why so many civilian deaths occurred. Although the warnings saved lives, they failed to adequately create the sterile combat zone that Israel was looking to achieve, so we have to look at that again.

I echo the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock): 40% of the report focuses on acts committed by armed Palestinian groups, so it is not one-sided. It looks into atrocities committed on all sides. There will inevitably be gaps in the report, as one or two hon. Members pointed out. That is partly because Israel failed to co-operate with the UN and provide the evidence needed to plug some of the gaps and allow more informed decisions to be made and reported.

I will leave it there, although—like the Minister—I have much more I could say to wrap up the debate and pull it together. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the report of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict.

8 July 2015 : Column 142WH

Independent Living Fund

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

4 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect on recipients of the transfer of the Independent Living Fund to local authorities.

For many people, the protest in Members’ Lobby during Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago may well have been the first time that they came across the independent living fund, but right hon. and hon. Members will be well aware of its benefits from contact with constituents who are recipients. As I said a year ago, in June 2014, when I last had an Adjournment debate on the subject, the independent living fund does what it says on the tin. It gives severely disabled people their independence and lets them make choices about how they live—about things we take for granted, such as when to get up or go to bed, and when and what to eat.

The independent living fund began in 1988 as a national resource dedicated to the financial support of severely disabled people, enabling them to choose to continue living in the community. In March 2014, the Government announced that they would close the ILF in June 2015 and that responsibility for ILF users would be passed to local authorities. That has now happened, yet a year on from my last Westminster Hall debate on the issue, ILF recipients tell me that they are no nearer to getting answers to the questions posed then. Consequently, their worries about the future continue to multiply. The promises given that the changes would be well managed and that people in receipt of ILF would be consulted and kept informed throughout the transfer process do not appear to have been effectively delivered, at least from the viewpoint of my constituents in north Lincolnshire.

Ashley was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 10 months old. This year, he will turn 31. A year ago, his mum, Jeanette, shared her concerns about the future, saying:

“The alleged ‘smooth transfer’ over to social services is already proving to be nothing of the sort. Each and every meeting we hold leave us having to justify Ashley’s needs as a disabled person. The assessments they ask us to complete are totally unsuitable for the severely disabled.”

Last week, Jeanette updated me. Sadly, her fears have not been allayed, and she is continuing to have to battle for her son. She said:

“We have only received a contract from the local council in the last week and went a year without any form of contact from adult social services. If it wasn’t for me fighting for Ashley there would be no contract and nothing would be in place for the changeover. There is no money in place for Ashley’s carer’s holiday, sickness or training pay; this cannot be claimed back from the Government. Every year Ashley’s situation will be reviewed and once again I will have to fight for my son.”

Another constituent, Jon, for whom the ILF has been a lifeline, had an accident 35 years ago that left him paralysed from the neck down. He told me last week about the contact he had had from social services this year:

“So far I have only received generic letters. I have had no contact, no visit, not even a phone call. I feel that decisions are being made about my life that I don’t know about. I have not been given any assurances about my carers and their jobs or their wages.”

8 July 2015 : Column 143WH

Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that there will be a bigger problem, given that local authorities that have already had their budgets cut by £4.6 billion are not receiving enough money to compensate for the ILF money lost? That will definitely affect our constituents.

Nic Dakin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to put her finger on that area of serious concern. If we believe the people who are experiencing the transfer—and I have no reason not to—the smooth transfer that was promised clearly is not happening. The reality on the ground is that many ILF recipients, their families and the people they employ to deliver their care still do not know where they stand, which is clearly unacceptable.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): A number of my constituents have benefited hugely from the ILF. I am very pleased to say that the Labour-controlled council in Hammersmith—a well run council—is ring-fencing the money and making sure that there is a smooth transition, but most authorities do not know how much money they are getting, and the Government are only giving them about half the funds. Is that not a disgraceful situation and a terrible way to treat people?

Nic Dakin: That is very much part of the issue at the moment, and I congratulate my hon. Friend’s council on being one of those that are making the right stand.

Disabled People Against Cuts, which organised the demonstration last week, has argued:

“At the very minimum the ILF funding should be ring-fenced for the continuing care and support of existing ILF recipients when funding is transferred to Local Authorities and devolved administrations”.

That is not being done and, in an age of austerity and deepening cuts to local authorities, the funds will get lost in the wider budget. That is the key and crucial fear.

DPAC sent freedom of information requests to 151 different local authorities, asking how many are ring- fencing the funding. The response showed that only 21.43% were doing what the council in my hon. Friend’s constituency is doing, whereas 50% said they were not doing that. At the time they were asked, 28.57% still had to decide what they were going to do.

What will further budget cuts bring? As of now, Ashley is allowed to keep his carers, but in a year’s time, will that change? Will his family have to deal with a succession of strangers who do not have time to get to know them and understand their needs?

Leonard Cheshire Disability published a report in 2013 stating that in England, 60% of councils use 15-minute visits, which are not long enough to provide adequate care, with disabled people having to choose whether to have a drink or go to the toilet. Hopefully, things have improved since then, but it is understandable that such reports fuel ILF recipients’ concerns. Those fears are backed up by Disability Rights UK, which made the following observations last week on the eve of the fund’s abolition:

“The monies being transferred from the ILF to local authorities will not, in most areas, be ring fenced meaning that the money can be spent according to local decision rather than necessarily on those in receipt of ILF funding.

8 July 2015 : Column 144WH

There is currently no indication of whether funding for ILF recipients will continue to be transferred from national to local government beyond 2015/16.

The level of social care funding in real terms has, and is likely to continue to be, cut overall outweighing many times the additional funds being transferred from the ILF.

The consequences are that some disabled people in receipt of ILF funding will no longer receive any support at all; and others will find their support package reduced.

We want to see equity of support that achieves independent living across all impairments and age groups—closure of the ILF in current conditions will not achieve this.”

That summarises the strong concerns out there in the community. Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the Spinal Injuries Association and various trade unions are among many other organisations that share those concerns.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Oldham, my constituency, is another local authority area that is promising to support families and make sure that the ILF budget is ring-fenced, but I am aware that that is not happening elsewhere. This is not only about the person who is disabled, but about the families, particularly when parents are the carers. They are extremely worried about the uncertainty, and hopefully the Minister will be able to respond to that point.

Nic Dakin: My hon. Friend puts her finger on the heart of the issue, which is the high level of uncertainty. Let me quote some heart-wrenching comments from ILF users and their families. They illustrate the concerns out there very well:

“I am really terrified of losing my home and being forced into residential care…I have never been so worried and scared of my future without the ILF...We are locked in a prolonged period of insecurity of worrying what is going to happen. We are all only too aware of how hard strapped local authorities are and the temptation to use ILF monies for purposes other than care support for current ILF recipients…The current situation is greatly affecting our health with increased stress levels and sleepless nights a regular feature of our current lives. Not knowing what will happen, how this may affect the team of personal assistants we employ to support our daughter and whether we will receive any respite care once the fund closes in June only adds to our anxiety.”

Finally, a user said:

“I fear I will have my care time cut, and become a prisoner in my own home, unable to go to the toilet, go to bed, eat and drink when I choose—I fear my choice will be taken away. I fear being socially excluded and losing touch with my family and friends. I fear not being able to go to all the hospital appointments I have to attend. I fear I will lose my independence.”

That is the heart of the problem—loss of independence. The ILF has given severely disabled people real independence in their lives. At this point of change, and despite all the assurances that there have been in the system and the genuine messages of support from all the authorities, that concern is still very much there, and what is happening at the moment has not allayed the concern.

As those fears and worries illustrate, there is a real danger that attempts to save some money in one area, the ILF, will end up costing the state more in another area—the NHS. During the election campaign, when asked directly by one of the ILF recipients, the Chancellor of the Exchequer insisted that the Government would

8 July 2015 : Column 145WH

transfer all the ILF money and that there would be no cuts in their budgets. When pressed further, he made a commitment that money would be there in future years. So the Chancellor, who has been making the news today, is on the record on this issue. It is the duty of the House and the Minister to ensure that he keeps his word, so my questions to the Minister are as follows.

First, in the light of that, will the Minister discuss with the Chancellor how he intends to deliver on those promises, and will he report back to Parliament on the Chancellor’s response? Secondly, will the Minister be in contact with the 78% of local authorities that have said either that they will not ring-fence the money or that they are not sure whether they will ring-fence it, and are therefore not delivering on the Chancellor’s promise, and will he take steps to ensure that they do deliver on it? Thirdly, will he ask local authorities to report to him on what contact they have had with ILF users in their area and what feedback they have received from them in relation to satisfaction with the transfer? Finally, will the Minister make a commitment today to report back to the House in a year’s time on the impact of the transfer of the ILF to local authorities on the lives and wellbeing of recipients?

4.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Justin Tomlinson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for calling this debate. It is of great interest to a number of people.

I recognise the valuable role that the independent living fund has played in enabling severely disabled people to live independently over the last 27 years. The ILF was created in 1988 as a transitional arrangement to mitigate the impact of the end of domestic assistance allowances when supplementary benefit was replaced with income support. The fund was established for a maximum of five years as a charitable trust to make payments to people on low incomes who had to pay for personal care. It was expected to support about 300 people. At that time, there was no clear legal provision for local authorities to make such payments.

The original ILF charitable trust ran until 1992, when it was closed to new applications. A new extension fund was created in 1993 to receive new applicants, and the two funds ran in parallel until 2007, when they were amalgamated. Following a trustee decision temporarily to cease taking new applications, the fund was closed to new users permanently in December 2010.

The decision to close the ILF completely, which was announced in a written ministerial statement on 6 March 2014, followed careful consideration of the implications of a Court of Appeal judgment handed down in November 2013. The decision was based on new evidence and a new equality analysis, and reflected those changes.

I understand and acknowledge the depth of the concern shared by many former ILF users about its closure and the impact of that. It was incredibly important to the users. Human nature does not like change, but when it is something so important to someone’s independence, I absolutely get the strength of feeling. However, it was no longer appropriate to continue to fund care and support needs through a discretionary trust operating

8 July 2015 : Column 146WH

outside the mainstream system. The mainstream adult social care system has undergone radical changes since the ILF was established. The introduction of the Care Act 2014 in England means that the key features of ILF support, which contributed to its success—personalisation, inclusion, choice and control—are now part of the mainstream adult social care system. Broadly similar legislation has already been introduced in Scotland and will come into force in Wales during 2015-16.

Local authorities themselves have a statutory duty to assess and fund the eligible care needs of disabled people, and 94% of all former ILF users already received a local authority contribution to their care and support. Transferring full responsibility for adult care and support to local authorities ensures that the needs of all disabled people will be met within a single care and support system, thereby simplifying arrangements.

Nic Dakin: The Minister is right to draw attention to the fact that many users have received support from the local authority and the ILF. One reason why they are very concerned is that the ILF’s approach has been, they tell me, very enabling—allowing them to do things—whereas the approach of local authorities over the years has been very much to try to save money and to push them backwards. That is one of the cultural things as well as real things that is adding to the alarm that they feel at the moment.

Justin Tomlinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I understand that point. I will come on to the funding that we have passported over, but I understand the point about the change in the system. I was surprised that the figure was as high as 94%. There is that point about change, but the vast majority already had some contribution from the local authority at that point.

At the point of closure, there were 16,000 users of the ILF, compared with 1.3 million users of adult social care in England alone. Transferring full responsibility for ILF users and amalgamating the funding with adult social care will ensure that support for disabled people is delivered consistently and effectively. As I said, the decision to close the ILF, announced in a written ministerial statement, followed careful consideration of the implications of a Court of Appeal judgment handed down in November 2013.

The current position is that the ILF closed on 30 June and full funding for the remainder of the financial year has been transferred to local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. Local authorities in England now take full responsibility for former ILF users living here. I believe that local communities are best placed to make decisions about how to use funding to support members of their community and that local authorities should have the flexibility to decide how best to provide funding and support at local level.

Scotland and Wales have also now taken full responsibility for the care and support of former ILF users living there. Scotland has decided to create a new organisation to manage the transferred funding for former users, and in Wales the funding has transferred to local authorities to administer while the Welsh Government decide what course of action to take in the longer term. Northern Ireland has always funded support

8 July 2015 : Column 147WH

for ILF users living there and continues to do so, but it has asked the Scottish Government to administer this funding on its behalf.

As part of the 2013 spending review, it was announced that local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales would be fully funded in 2015-16 to meet their additional responsibilities towards former ILF users. A total of £262 million has been made available for ILF users in 2015-16. That amount was based on very accurate forecasts by the ILF and is the same amount that would have been available had the ILF remained open.

Since the ILF was closed to new applicants in 2010, the number of users has reduced year on year, meaning that spending has also decreased. Funding for 2015-16 reflects projected reductions in the number of users between 2014-15 and 2015-16. It is therefore not a cut in the level of available funding.

Funding has been distributed among England, Scotland and Wales in a way that reflects expenditure patterns at the point of closure, with funding in England being allocated to individual local authorities on the same basis. Before its closure, the ILF provided each local authority in England with detailed schedules setting out the allocated funding at individual level, ensuring that every authority has received accurate information about the level of support previously provided to each user by the ILF. Final analysis from the ILF shows that the funding allocated to local authorities in England will be sufficient to ensure that existing commitments to former ILF users can be paid in full for the remainder of the year.

Nic Dakin: I thank the Minister for his description of what has happened. Will he take steps to make sure that the funding, which he has said is definitely there, reaches ILF users?

Justin Tomlinson: I am coming to that. I am just setting the background, after which I will talk about the action that is being taken.

The potential implications of closing the ILF were set out in the equality analysis in very clear terms, focusing on the likely impact of the proposed policy on those with a protected characteristic and concentrating on assessing the impact of closure on people with the protected characteristic of disability and, in particular, users of the ILF. The equality analysis considered a worst-case scenario, even if it was not certain that it would happen, separately under each limb of the public sector equality duty.

In addition, we have made a commitment, as part of the equality analysis, to monitor the impact of the closure of the ILF on former users. I believe that that will be welcomed by all. A sample of former ILF users have already agreed to take part, and we have started planning the research, which will be completed before the end of the 2015-16 financial year.

Before the closure of the ILF, the Government worked closely with the ILF in partnership with ILF users, local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations to ensure that they benefited from a programme of extensive transitional support. As part of that support, all former ILF users received a detailed support plan setting out the level of support and the outcomes secured under their ILF award.

8 July 2015 : Column 148WH

The information was shared with local authorities, and the devolved Governments all had access to the data transferred to them prior to closure. In addition, the ILF engaged directly with all authorities involved in the transfer of user care and support in 2015, and it held a series of conferences in October 2014 to provide local authorities with up-to-date information. One-to-one discussions were held with all 151 local authorities at those events. Similar events were held in Wales, and the ILF has worked closely with the Scottish Government to ensure a smooth transfer for all users across Great Britain.

The Department and I have worked closely with the Department of Health, the ILF and interested parties, including a number of significant stakeholder groups, to develop additional guidance for local authorities. We did so in recognition of the fact that, as has been highlighted, not all local authorities immediately displayed full confidence in the arrangements. That included points raised in earlier debates on the subject, which is why we developed additional guidance to ensure that we were prepared for the transfer of former ILF recipients to sole local authority care, underpinned by a new chapter in the Care Act 2014 statutory guidance. That will help to inform local authorities in the transfer of former ILF users to the adult social care system in England.

I have recently written to my counterparts in the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, because I want to ensure that the needs of all former ILF users continue to be taken into account. I have received assurances from the Department of Health and DCLG that future funding for former ILF users will be considered at the next spending review. It may be helpful to highlight the positive remarks of the Chancellor during the election, which are formally on record.

In addition, DCLG has written to each local authority that has former ILF users to draw attention to the agreed code of practice, which will be supported by the new guidance. In the meetings and conversations I have had with the Departments, it has been clear that they absolutely understand that and there is collective support for it. Ongoing support from my officials and me will continue, to ensure that we monitor what is happening and keep a close eye on the situation.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I am encouraged by what the Minister has just said. My constituent, Laurence Clark, received support from the ILF. Liverpool City Council has picked up that support, so he knows he has it until the spring of next year. He has asked me to raise his concern about what would happen were that funding not to continue beyond April 2016. He says that it is crucial to his ability to live independently and, in particular, his ability to go to work.

Justin Tomlinson: We all have constituents who would echo those words, which is why we are working closely with the Departments.

Nic Dakin: The Minister is being generous in giving way yet again. It is clear to me that constituents are anxious because they do not know what will happen in the future. Can anything be done to give people greater longevity of certainty—more than just one year?

8 July 2015 : Column 149WH

Justin Tomlinson: That is something that the devolved Governments and individual local authorities will consider. We trust local communities to shape the best services. I served for 10 years as a local councillor, and I remember the frustration caused when Governments did not allow flexibility. Each of the constituencies that we represent is very different. Each has different challenges, opportunities and ways of working with other agencies. We will have to look, over the next few months, to see what will happen.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): The Minister is being generous with his time. I apologise, Mr Howarth, for not catching the beginning of the debate.

My constituent, Paul Taylforth, is in the limbo position of not knowing what will happen next year. I have written exhaustively to Lancashire County Council on the matter, but there has been a lack of clarity from that authority on what its position will be next year. That brings great insecurity, worry and concern to Paul, because the person he looks after needs a lot of care and it is important to him that he has a future.

Justin Tomlinson: We all recognise the anxiety and the worry of our constituents. Because the feedback we received demonstrated that, we reiterated what local authorities and the devolved Governments needed to do, reissued the guidance and tightened things up. It is fair to say, however, that of those who have had personal visits to set out their personal plans—and to provide reassurance, because they were going through a big change—97% were satisfied and responded positively.

Graham Jones rose

Justin Tomlinson: I will take one last intervention.

8 July 2015 : Column 150WH

Graham Jones: I am very grateful. Lancashire is indecisive at the moment. What advice, regulations or guidance would the Minister give Lancashire to provide clarity to Paul and his family, and to all the other recipients of ILF? The county’s indecision is causing that anxiety.

Justin Tomlinson: The best advice I can give is to say that if the hon. Gentleman wants to share that individual experience with me, we can jointly contact the local authority and ask it to take personal measures to investigate the situation.

To conclude the debate, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. We are discussing an incredibly important issue. I have set out the closure of the ILF in the context of the significant changes in adult social care over the lifetime of the organisation, including the measures in the Care Act 2014 that promote greater independence and increase choice and control for all disabled people. I should like to acknowledge the extensive contribution that the ILF has made to the provision of high-quality independent living support for disabled people. I am happy to report that lessons learned by the ILF over the past 27 years have been captured in its publication “twenty-seven”, which is available to everyone on the gov.uk website.

Finally, I reiterate that I and my counterparts in the Department of Health and DCLG will continue to work together to ensure that former ILF users and all disabled people are given choice and control over how their care and support are provided, to allow them to live full and independent lives.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect on recipients of the transfer of the Independent Living Fund to local authorities.

8 July 2015 : Column 151WH

Cremation of Infants (England)

4.28 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the cremation of infants in England.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Speaking as a father, I do not think that there could be anything worse in life than the loss of a child. I wanted to raise with the Minister and fellow parliamentarians the tragedy that some of my constituents have faced when they lost a child in infancy and were told by Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury that they would not receive that child’s ashes. Rather than the traditional burial, the parents decided to have their child cremated and were told that there would be no ashes. I am sure hon. Members appreciate that when families have been through such a traumatic experience as losing a child—just a few days previously in some cases—it was not an optimum situation for them to be robust in challenging that information. Some families went along with a cremation under those circumstances. There was a lack of clarity in some instances, which is clearly unacceptable.

I pay tribute to BBC Radio Shropshire for its tremendous work over the past year. I was first notified of the tragedy a year ago, and I pay particular tribute to Nick Southall, the Radio Shropshire senior reporter who has doggedly persevered with this story, not only in Shropshire but across England. We are starting to hear anecdotal evidence from other places where similar situations have occurred. This situation is not peculiar to Shrewsbury; we hear evidence of it happening in other parts of England. I look forward to hearing the perspective of other hon. Members.

One of the first things I did when I heard about this case was to contact the leader of the council, Keith Barrow. We have a new unitary authority in Shropshire that has taken over the running of our council, and the difficulties with the crematorium in question predominantly occurred under a previous administration and before the change to a unitary authority. Keith Barrow has done a superb job, and he called for an independent inquiry into the whole tragedy.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): What excuse was given by the crematorium? Perhaps my hon. Friend will come on to that.

Daniel Kawczynski: I will come on to some of the report’s findings later in my speech, but I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I thank the chairman of the report, Mr David Jenkins, who has a lot of experience in local government and is an independent expert. Mr Jenkins and his research assistant, Mr John Doyle, have spent an inordinate amount of time engaging with many of my constituents with great sensitivity, professionalism and care. They heard at first hand some of the trauma that my constituents have experienced. Before the general election, I met some of my constituents in a church in Shrewsbury, and it was one of the most emotional meetings I have experienced in my decade as a Member of Parliament.

8 July 2015 : Column 152WH

I made those parents certain promises. I promised them that they would have a meeting with the Minister, that there would be a formal parliamentary debate in the House of Commons on this issue and, most importantly of all, that if there were aspects of the report that I considered relevant for Parliament to investigate and scrutinise with a view to changing, updating and modernising legislation, those considerations would be aired and we, as parliamentarians, would have the opportunity to debate those points and make recommendations. I am pleased to be trying to fulfil my three promises to those parents.

I pay tribute to the Minister. She is new to her post and, if I may say so, the Prime Minister made a very good decision in appointing her. I brought some of the parents—some from Shrewsbury and Shropshire and some from other parts of England, too—to meet the Minister last week, and she was genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say. I am sure she will speak for herself, but I think she was moved, and I was extremely impressed with the way in which she interacted with those constituents. I thank her very much for her and her officials’ time and consideration. Following our meeting, the parents and I went to No. 10 Downing Street to present a petition signed by more than 63,000 petitioners from across our country.

My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), is a Minister and is therefore unable to participate in this debate, but he has taken an interest in the issue because the Emstrey crematorium also serves his constituents in south Shropshire. One of the babies whose remains were not returned to her parents was baby Kate. She suffered a tragic, avoidable death in 2009 following a complex midwifery delivery at Ludlow community hospital. My hon. Friend supports the campaign to prevent similar suffering for other parents. He feels as passionately as I do about this issue, and he wanted me to put that on the record for him.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will concentrate on some of the recommendations that I have picked out from the report and some points that have been specifically reinforced in my mind by my interactions with my constituents. Other parliamentarians may have other points of view, but these are the specific points from the report that my constituents from Shrewsbury want me to raise. First, they believe that there should be an inspector of crematoriums throughout England and that it should be a full-time position. I understand that there is a part-time inspector of crematoriums in Scotland, which has only 50 crematoriums; we have more than 250 in England. Many of my constituents believe that we should have a formal, independent inspector of crematoriums. We live in a society with ombudsmen and regulators, and many aspects of Government activity are rightly regulated and overseen by independent inspectors. My constituents believe that if we are to have a uniform level of service and professionalism across all crematoriums, we need an independent inspector who is able to investigate by going to see crematoriums to ensure that they comply with expected standards.

My constituents also expect that crematoriums should have to report to the inspector when they are not confident that ashes have been created in a particular case. That is important because it is a proactive step that the facility in question—Emstrey crematorium in our case—would have to take if, for one reason or another, ashes had not been or could not be produced.

8 July 2015 : Column 153WH

If a crematorium believed that to be the case, it should have to be proactive in informing the inspector so that the inspector had it on the record.

I spent an afternoon inspecting Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury, and it has subsequently invested a lot of money in new machinery and better practices. Procedures are now in place to ensure that babies are cremated later in the day, rather than when the machine is first switched on and is at optimum heat. The procedures ensure that babies are cremated at the end of the day, when the ovens are at their coolest, to maximise the possibility that ashes are delivered.

My constituents also want a national cremation investigation team that is able to investigate historical cases. If the Minister agrees about the need for an inspector, and if an inspector is created, he or she will be busy ensuring uniformity of best practice across the country. My constituents want an independent team that will help families like Mr Perkins and his partner, and the other families in Shrewsbury who have suffered in the past. They want more information and need more help to come to terms with what has happened. They also believe that greater transparency is needed with regard to cremation paperwork. I will not go through all the details now, because there simply is not time, but in some cases paperwork has been lost, destroyed or not kept for the appropriate amount of time.

I would be grateful if the Minister told us how we could update legislation and regulations for crematoriums on paperwork and other matters. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but we have had no legislation on the running of crematoriums for a long time, so this is an optimum time for us to discuss these concerns. The families believe that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs need to co-operate on changing the regulations and conditions on emissions from crematoriums at times when infants are being cremated—that is a technical point. I hope that the Minister has read the part of the report about how emissions and such things are regulated and is aware of that point.

The answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), is in the report commissioned by Shropshire Council, published last month, which says that poor training and out-of-date equipment were mainly to blame. I am pleased that more than £3 million has now been spent on new machines at Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury; I have inspected them and seen how the ovens operate. I hope that this tragedy will ensure that training for staff at crematoriums, whether run by the Co-op or councils themselves, is reinvigorated, and that all crematoriums in all areas are supervised to ensure that they are investing appropriate time and money in bringing new equipment to the fore.

About 60 families are believed to have been affected by failures at Shrewsbury’s Emstrey crematorium between 1996 and 2012. I do not yet know the final figure, because more people are coming forward all the time. To those Salopian families, I can only take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences for the loss of their children and my sincere sadness that they have had to go through this extraordinarily painful experience in their lives. Having spoken to them, I know that their main goal is to ensure that such a travesty does not

8 July 2015 : Column 154WH

happen again, so that no other family in England has to go through what they went through. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to those points.

4.43 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate today and on setting out so clearly the background to this very distressing matter. I pay tribute to all the families affected, who have to come to terms with and perhaps relive some painful and distressing circumstances. We should also pay tribute to the Action for Ashes group, led by Glen Perkins, who led the delegation to Downing Street with the hon. Gentleman last week. I wholeheartedly agree that we should thank the investigative journalist Nick Southall; he should be commended for ensuring that there has been a lot of attention on the issue. It is important that the media have played a very responsible part in this.

My contribution today will be about my constituents, Tina and Michael Trowhill. They contacted me earlier this year, and I commend them for their bravery and persistence in trying to find out what happened to their baby son William. William Michael Brian Trowhill was born on July 5 1994 at Beverley Westwood maternity hospital; very sadly, he was stillborn. He was cremated on July 12 1994 at Chanterlands Avenue crematorium in Hull. Tina and Mike were told that there would be no ashes from the cremation. They also told me that they were not required to sign any forms. It appears that the forms that were required at the time were signed by an administrator at the hospital. That the parents did not sign, and were not given written information about what was to happen, is one of the shocking things about the situation.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this important debate. Does the hon. Lady agree that the report’s authors were struck by the lack of authoritative national guidance or policy outside environmental protection? In other words, we are more bothered by emissions than the feelings of parents who have sadly lost children.

Diana Johnson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is shocking that there was no nationally applied guidance on how parents should be involved, treated and made to feel part of the process at an obviously very distressing time. It should have been there.

Moving forward many years, my constituents were alerted to possible concerns about what had happened to baby William when the Mortonhall inquiry in Scotland started. That report was published in April 2014. In October 2014, Mike and Tina contacted the bereavement service in Hull and asked it to see what it could find. It took until 3 November for the service to return the call, and the parents were told that an investigation was under way.

On 4 November, they were told that William’s ashes had been scattered in a children’s garden of remembrance near the crematorium. On 5 November, the parents

8 July 2015 : Column 155WH

were told by the funeral director at Frank Stephenson & Son that it was not normal to receive ashes from a child’s cremation. On 6 November, they were told that the funeral directors had a document that stated “cremate and strew”; it appears that at that time the funeral directors had a blanket contract with Beverley Westwood maternity hospital to undertake cremations of babies and were given that instruction. On 6 November, my constituents called the NHS complaints line, but given the many NHS reorganisations, copies of the procedures or policies in use at the time were not available.

The family then came to see me. We wrote to the chief executive of the Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust to find out what current policies are being used. We also wrote to and had a meeting with Councillor Stephen Brady, leader of Hull City Council, and asked for a local inquiry to be held in Hull. Tina particularly wants that to happen because she knows of several other families who have had similar experiences, and they also want to know what happened to their babies’ ashes.

Ruth Smeeth (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for calling the debate and I apologise that I have yet to be so involved in the campaign. Does my hon. Friend agree that families have been left heartbroken and ignored in their bereavement for far too long? The Turnock family, who are constituents of mine, have sought answers about their son’s cremation at Bradwell crematorium for 22 years. That shows the scale of the issue, which is geographically disparate, as well as heartbreaking.

Diana Johnson: My hon. Friend makes the very important point that this has happened all over the country. In a few moments, I will say a few words about local inquiries and how they might fit into a broader national inquiry. However, these families deserve to know what happened. I know that many of these cases happened a long time ago, but local authorities and the Government should do whatever they can to find out what happened.

The Trowhills and I met Councillor Brady. At the time, we were waiting for the outcome of the Shrewsbury report, and Councillor Brady said that although he was sympathetic to the request for an inquiry, he wanted to see what the Shrewsbury report said.

Obviously, a few weeks ago we had the Shrewsbury report, and since then I have written again to Councillor Brady. Yesterday, I received a response from him and I will just read briefly from his letter. It says:

“As Mr & Mrs Trowhill reflected at our meeting in March, they believe that there can be no resolution for them in relation to William’s ashes and therefore, given that the information given to Mr & Mrs Trowhill at the hospital was that there would be no ashes and that the Council acted in accordance with the instructions received from the funeral director, I do not intend to hold a local independent inquiry.

However, the Council fully supports the call for a national code of practice to provide consistency in the way in which the cremated remains of babies and infants are dealt with across the UK and for a single government department to be responsible for the regulation of crematoria and their operations. The Council also supports many of the recommendations of the Bonomy and Mortonhall Inquiries and we will write in support of such recommendations to the Cabinet Office.”

8 July 2015 : Column 156WH

He concludes:

“I therefore feel that a meeting with yourself and Mr and Mrs Trowhill could add nothing further at this time, but I can assure you that I will lend my support and that of the Council to lobbying for a national commission for England to be created.”

I am very disappointed that we have not had the opportunity to have another meeting with Councillor Brady to discuss this matter. Although that letter is very much about the Trowhills, many other families could be affected by these issues and local authorities must try to find out what has happened in these cases, and be as transparent as possible.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham talked about many of the very sensible recommendations made by the Shrewsbury report, and I particularly support the recommendation of a national inspector of crematoriums —that is an excellent idea—and national guidelines and training. Because more and more cases are coming to light around the country, there is a case for local inquiries to be held, so that families can find out what happened in their area, if possible. Nevertheless, the proposal from Action for Ashes for a national crematorium investigation team, which was also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, is certainly worth considering.

Such a team could deal with the issue in two ways. First, it could investigate the historical cases that have been mentioned. Secondly, it could work alongside individual local inquiries to pull together the common themes and threads that I am sure will become apparent; the issue of training seems to be a key one. While my constituents and I fully support calls for a local inquiry in Hull, we also want to see a national inquiry.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. When we had our own inquiry in Shrewsbury, it was very difficult and painful for the parents to relive their experiences, but it was also a very cathartic moment for many of them, and they really appreciated that, instead of a national inquiry, somebody in Shrewsbury was dedicated to their cases, spending time with them and hearing their experiences. I am very disappointed that in her area that has not been the case, and I reiterate that my constituents and other people concerned have really benefited from the independent local inquiry in our area.

Diana Johnson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is very helpful to know that we have his support in that regard, and we will continue to see what we can do to change the mind of Hull City Council.

Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): I am a Sussex MP, so, again, I am a long way away from the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I know of another case—that of baby Jordan—in which a family was treated very similarly to the way that she has described.

One of the other advantages of having a local inquiry, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) referred, is that it enables many other cases to be considered. I fear that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg here and that, despite the wonderful work of Radio Shropshire, many other cases have not yet come to light. I suspect that local inquiries would enable a lot of other people to be helped in the way that my hon. Friend described.

8 July 2015 : Column 157WH

Diana Johnson: That is absolutely correct.

I welcome the written ministerial statement that was published this morning. It suggests that the Government are looking at the recommendations from the Shrewsbury inquiry, and I hope that they will be able to act sooner rather than later. I also hope that the Minister might be able to give us some idea today of how long it will be before we have a final announcement from the Government on their intentions.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I will start calling Front Benchers from about 5.10 pm. If the two Members who still wish to speak could be mindful of that time scale, I would be grateful.

4.55 pm

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under you, and I will be as quick as I can.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing a debate on this important issue. On average, almost 20 very small babies die around the time of their birth every day in England and Wales. This issue is clearly significant for many families, and indeed for society as a whole.

I also have a constituent’s story to tell, which raises a related but slightly different problem. In 2009, my constituent gave birth to a baby girl who, sadly, did not survive. My constituent was told at the time by the funeral directors that there would not be any ashes, because the body of her baby was too small.

Following the media attention on this issue, which has been mentioned by several Members today, and the campaigning by Action for Ashes, my constituent was moved to contact Banbury crematorium in June. She hoped to find out details of their practice at the time when her baby was cremated. Imagine her enormous surprise and distress when she was told that her baby’s ashes were still at the crematorium, some six years on, waiting for her to collect them. She immediately went to pick up the ashes, as any mother would, and there was no difficulty in identifying them or in the crematorium handing them to her.

I understand that this is not an isolated case. I have written to crematoriums, because I understand that there are more babies whose remains are waiting to be collected; their families are simply not aware that their ashes are in crematoriums. Clearly, that is not acceptable—at the very least there has been a major breakdown in communication between the funeral directors, the crematoriums and the families. It is to be hoped that we can use these sad cases to inform debate and to consider how we can prevent such incidents from happening again.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice for meeting my constituent last week, and for the interest and sensitivity that she has shown in dealing with this difficult issue.

It is no longer necessary to have personal experience of the loss of a young baby to understand their importance in the eyes of their parents, grandparents and wider family. With recent advances in medicine, whereby some babies survive after only 22 or 23 weeks’ gestation, the

8 July 2015 : Column 158WH

perceptions of the whole of society towards these very important members of society have altered considerably. We may not be good at discussing death, but we all know that it matters how the bodies of these babies are treated.

The Scottish Government accepted all the recommendations of the Infant Cremation Commission and have established a national committee to ensure that they are implemented. I am keen that we learn from that work and move speedily to ensure that the rest of the UK does not lag behind in its provision for infant cremations.

I understand that both the leading professional organisations in the UK have adopted the wider definition of “ashes” to include remains from clothes, coffins and soft toys. This is good progress, but work must be done to ensure that the definition is applied in practice, and that small babies are always cremated in individual trays. A standard definition, and clear guidelines, would really help in this regard.

Clearly, work also needs to be done to ensure that funeral directors, crematoriums and families know exactly what is going on at each stage of the process. Care must be taken to ensure that both parents are involved in decision making. Obviously, many of the mothers who have given birth to these babies are unwell at the time, and enormous stress is placed on the families. It is very important that everybody is very clear at every stage of the process where the body of their baby is.

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is setting out the case most sensitively and powerfully. I am extremely grateful to her, as will be my constituents, Mr and Mrs Jones of Wigston Magna, whose son, Nicholas, died over 30 years ago. They have been living for the last 30 years with exactly the sorts of problems, traumas and distress that my hon. Friend is outlining. I am most grateful to her, on their behalf, for what she is saying.

Victoria Prentis: The pressures on the couple, dealing both separately and together with the loss of their child, are enormous, as all hon. Members know. Clearly, specialist staff training is needed to make sure that parents are helped in the best way. Many of us, whether we have lost children or other relatives, know that the actions of funeral directors and crematoriums can really make a difference in helping the living survive a bereavement.

5 pm

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s business and thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing such an important debate.

I offer my sincere condolences to the families affected by these tragic circumstances. No parent’s grief should be compounded by the system that is in place to help them. It clear from today’s exchanges that this House and this Government must do all they can to ensure that this never happens again. Losing a child is an extremely traumatic experience and it is crucial that families are treated sensitively and given the support and information they need.

8 July 2015 : Column 159WH

I place on the record my appreciation for the campaigners’ work in bringing this scandal to light, and hope that we can all learn lessons from the inquiries that are bound to follow. In particular, I offer my thanks to Glen Perkins, the campaigner who formed the Action for Ashes organisation and delivered a petition containing 61,000 signatures to the Prime Minister’s residence. To fight such an organised campaign in the face of such traumatic loss is commendable.

I assure the Minister that my motivation for engaging in today’s debate is not political; now is not the time for point-scoring. I offer my experience and the experience of my colleagues in the Scottish Government. If the Minister is open to learning from our experience of the Mortonhall inquiry, I may further educate the Government’s future inquiries, because it was only last year that we faced the same devastating situation in Scotland.

Stories of families losing their babies and being mistreated by local authorities were at the centre of the conversation across the country. It was heartbreaking to witness the events unfold and see how malpractice at crematoriums had impacted families’ right to grieve. The families’ pain is still real and the grief is still there, but because of decisive action from the Scottish Government, I am confident we will never find ourselves in this situation again.

The Scottish Government established the Infant Cremation Commission, chaired by the esteemed and independent former senator of the College of Justice, Lord Bonomy. The Commission’s report told us that there were variable practices across the country and that, in many cases in the past, the interests of the baby and the bereaved family had not always been put first.

The report was an important stepping-stone in resolving this problem and providing much-needed answers to the families involved. The Infant Cremation Commission made important recommendations to ensure that never again will any parent have to experience the pain of not knowing what happened to their baby’s ashes. It made 64 recommendations and the Scottish Government agreed to all of them. In fact, they implemented the proposals as quickly as they could, without waiting for new legislation to be passed.

That included establishing a national committee tasked with implementing other recommendations in the report, including the development of an overarching national code of practice; allowing parents to be represented on the national committee; appointing an inspector of crematoria, which they did in March this year, to ensure a route is in place for anyone who may have a concern about how a cremation is conducted; and consulting on a Bill to implement the legislative recommendations. The Scottish Government also established a national investigations unit led by Dame Elish Angiolini, the former Lord Advocate, to investigate cases where parents are seeking answers to questions about what happened to the ashes of their own child. Although they have never ruled out a public inquiry, a national cremation investigation will look into every individual case, delivering more for parents more quickly than a public inquiry could. Perhaps this is a route the Minister could investigate.

I direct the Minister to the comments of her Scottish Parliament colleague, Jackson Carlow, the Scottish Conservatives’ deputy leader:

“The Scottish Conservatives have previously called for a public inquiry, but in the light of the reports…we are now persuaded that, although a public inquiry should never be ruled out, the best

8 July 2015 : Column 160WH

possible hope for parents who seek a resolution of their personal circumstances lies with the independent national investigation team.”

The Scottish Government have also made up to £100,000 available for counselling services for parents affected who are most in need of support. I am sure this Government will make a similar commitment to ensuring that we do not witness a reoccurrence, and that consideration is given to the journey the Scottish Government has taken on this issue, which might help the UK find its own path in giving help and reassurance to families.

I close with a quote from one of my constituents, who lost their three-day-old son Lachlan, on the family’s reflecting on the short life of their loved one and on their experiences at Glasgow crematorium:

“This is exactly what we wanted. All parents deserve an answer, all families deserve an answer and that’s what we’re going to get out of this investigation.”

I hope the Minister’s actions and the actions of her Government will deliver the same result for the parents of William, Jordan and other children.

5.6 pm

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate on behalf of his constituents, many of whom have campaigned so hard on this matter.

We have had a good debate and have heard some powerful contributions. Some important issues have been raised. This is the least appropriate time for any kind of political knockabout. I welcome our having this discussion here in Westminster Hall. I wholeheartedly support the Minister in her endeavours to move this issue forward. I know that she will approach this in the right way. She has the complete support of both sides of the House, and I am sure she knows that.

We have had good contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I particularly welcome the contribution of our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley); I thank her for offering valuable insights and for the tone in which she offered them. That is very much appreciated.

I formally welcome the Minister to her post for the first time. I informally welcomed her to her post in the House of Commons hairdresser’s, but as exchanges in the hairdresser’s are not yet in Hansard—thank goodness! —I thought I should put that on the record.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I think that is too much information.

Jenny Chapman: It is good to see a woman back on the Ministry of Justice team; it has been a while.

It brings me no joy to respond on behalf of the Opposition, because as hon. Members have said this is a deeply troubling topic. It is good, though, that light is finally being shed on this issue. It seems that, as the hon. Member for Banbury said, attitudes are changing to neonatal death and stillbirth, and to miscarriage. That is a good thing. It is now being recognised as grief: it is grief. However, sometimes it has been dealt with in a slightly different way. It is good that attitudes are finally beginning to change.

8 July 2015 : Column 161WH

The availability of ashes after the cremation of an infant appears to have been dependent, at least in part, on the equipment and cremation technique used, and on how the relevant authority defined “ashes”. Neither the Cremation Act 1902 nor regulations made under it since provide a good definition. That is one of the problems that have emerged as we have discussed the issue today.

As we have heard and know from subsequent media reports, in some cases parents were told that no ashes would be recovered when in fact there had been ashes. I find this particularly shocking; those ashes were disposed of without the parents’ knowledge or consent. That is clearly wrong. It should never have happened, it must stop and I have confidence that the Minister will approach the issue and get it to stop. I am sure that all Members will share my sympathy and join me in extending our total support to bereaved parents who found themselves in that deeply unsettling position.

Members have gone through the recommendations of the various reports, so I will not repeat them, but I make it clear that Labour agrees with the Emstrey report. The Government should take steps to ensure a single and authoritative code of practice for baby and infant cremations. The Secretary of State should exercise his powers under the cremation regulations to appoint an independent inspector with powers comparable to those outlined in recommendation 63 of the Bonomy report. It is notable that that has already happened in Scotland. The inspector’s responsibilities should include the promotion of a single national code of practice on cremator technology and techniques for infant cremations so as to maximise the chances of the preservation of ashes that could be returned to the family. The cremation regulations should be amended in England, as they have been in Scotland, to give effect to the Bonomy commission’s definition of ashes. This is a bald, uncomfortable thing to say, but there is no point trying to sweeten it: the definition is

“all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal”.

The minimum standards of professional training and for continuing professional development should be introduced for crematorium supervisory and operating staff. A single official, reporting to a single Minister, should be given responsibility for co-ordinating the Government’s approach to cremation law and practice and for drawing together into a coherent whole the policies—including environmental policies—of different Departments on the subject. Arrangements should be made within Government for the Bonomy commission’s recommendations to be considered more widely for their applicability to infant cremation law and practice.

I know the Minister has studied the recommendations, and I welcome her timely statement issued today, but will she update us on what the Department is doing to implement the findings of the Shropshire report? It is important that we have something to go and tell parents following the debate.

Speaking before the election in response to the report, the right hon. Simon Hughes, the former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and the Minister’s predecessor in her post, said: