In conclusion, for all the reasons I have mentioned, I say, in accordance with the traditions and procedures of this place, that yes, this House has considered child

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poverty in this debate, but in reality, its current Tory majority is certainly not considering child poverty, and it is about time that it did.

3.7 pm

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this timely debate. I enjoyed listening to the contributions of the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray). The passion that has been shown on this subject shows that Scotland and Northern Ireland are well served by those Members. I feel sorry for the Minister, as he is surrounded by the Celtic fringe, somewhat.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson): What about Manchester?

Chris Evans: We will let you get away with that.

Child poverty is an age-old problem. Writers such as Charles Dickens, in the 19th century, J.B. Priestley, whose “An Inspector Calls” was recently adapted by the BBC, and the great socialist George Orwell have all chronicled poverty and its effects throughout the years. Yet however much great literary works and great authors have covered the scourge of poverty in all its forms, the problem has still not been solved.

Poverty at its extreme affects the two most vulnerable groups of people in society, the very old, who often have to make the choice between heating and eating, and the very young. We have heard many statistics, but for so many people across the country, in constituencies we have already heard from, in Scotland, in the north—including Manchester—and in Wales, poverty is a way of life. Extreme poverty means young people go to school hungry, not having been able to eat breakfast that morning. They do not have the equipment they need to gain the skills to succeed. Very often, they will return to substandard accommodation that is damp, and they will become ill. They have failed before they have even begun.

The sad fact is that, despite all the campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, poverty still comes down to one thing: someone born into poverty will probably die in poverty. As in the time of the great writers I mentioned, the challenge for society is to end poverty in all its forms.

I do not believe that people become politicians—come to the House of Commons or, indeed, go into Government—to oversee an increase in poverty, but that is what we have seen from this Government. If we look at the figures after housing costs have been taken into account, over 27% of children in my south Wales constituency are living in poverty. Across Wales, one fifth of all children grow up poor. In the UK—the fifth richest country in the world—more than 4 million children are living in poverty. None of their parents wants things to stay the same; they want to provide more for their families. Not one of them does not want to escape the tiring, punishing reality of being poor.

It is no good, however, simply setting out the challenge we face, which other Members have eloquently described. Anyone who cares about our country’s future and our

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constituents’ lives must now seek solutions, because it falls to this generation to eliminate poverty in all its forms.

The problem cannot be solved by simply throwing more money at it. That has been tried, and we still see poverty on a scale we cannot imagine. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report “What will it take to end child poverty?” stated:

“Ending child poverty is only partly about transferring money to poor households. A long-term solution must involve much more, tackling the root causes of poverty and in particular giving families opportunities that help them gain greater control of their own lives.”

We can do that only if people work. We can have all the Government schemes we want, but the best way to end poverty is to have working households. While people are stuck—dependent on the welfare system—they will never have control over their own destiny or the ability to break their family out of poverty. They will suffer poverty of money and, yes, poverty of ambition.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that truly tackling child poverty will require us to provide considerable personal support to people who are likely to face a combination of disadvantages in terms of entering the labour market. We can overcome those disadvantages, but only with targeted, personalised and localised support. That cannot be done just through existing public sector structures. Instead, there needs to be a partnership between public bodies, private bodies and, above all, local communities. We must harness the financial power of the Government, the innovation of the private sector and people’s knowledge of their own lives and communities—the people who know what is best for communities are those who live in them. We must put in place strategies that reach the poorest, the hardest to help and the most disadvantaged.

The last Labour Government made great strides with a public sector approach, but the world has moved on. The challenges in 2015 are not the same as they were in 1997.

Drew Hendry: Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s wise words about tackling the issue on a longer-term basis using a real plan, which I absolutely subscribe to, does he agree that the actions taken by this Government in the short term do nothing to help those who are already working, but who are below the poverty threshold, and nothing to achieve the long-term ambitions we should all share?

Chris Evans: I agree. The hon. Gentleman used the phrase “short term”, and the problem with this Government’s approach from the beginning is that there has been too much short-term thinking. The problem in politics may be that we think from one election to the next and do not plan for the long term. I believe that poverty is at its highest level at the moment because people are too fixated on the stereotypes perpetuated by the press—the idea that someone finds themselves on benefits not because they have fallen on hard times, but because they are some sort of scrounger. We must end that stereotype if we are to move on. That is where the long term comes in.

Child poverty will be solved only by a Government who are firmly focused on the issue in the long term. The distinction between the public, private and third

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sectors must be broken down. In the pursuit of a country where no child is born poor, there can be no qualms about harnessing the best of private enterprise and the best of social action. In practice, that will mean contracting diverse providers from charities to recruitment companies and agencies to deliver employment support. It will mean private companies showing the social responsibility we have always talked about and working with people who face severe disadvantages in terms of entering the labour market to put in place individual strategies to overcome those problems. It will mean families who are stuck in poverty receiving one-on-one support that is tailored to their needs from any willing provider who can provide the best support.

The one-size-fits-all model of Jobcentre Plus and the welfare system has comprehensively failed, to the extent that Ofsted found that Jobcentre schemes have a success rate of less than 1%. Rather than pursue that model, the Government should work with any company or organisation that can help. No stone should be left unturned. This is not about taking an ideological approach and saying the public sector is always right or the private sector is always better. This is not about left or right, or about Welsh, English Scottish or Irish; this is about doing what works to end child poverty.

The people trapped in the punishing reality of being poor will not care where the support comes from, as long as it works. However, it must be part of a new contract with them. The Government will work with anyone who can provide support, but individuals must take responsibility; they must accept that if the country is there for their family, they must be as well. It must be Britain’s moral mission to end child poverty, but all the support we can provide will not be enough if people do not take responsibility. They cannot be allowed to see welfare as a way of life, to be the worst possible example to their children and to sustain the culture we see in far too many communities where joblessness is the norm. The deal must be: “We will help you, and you will get the support you need, but, in return, you have to work, to provide for your family and to be responsible for your spending.” That is how we end child poverty and lock in a country where no child is born poor. Without ensuring personal responsibility, any action we take to help the poorest children will be reversed, and we will never break the poverty of ambition that traps poor children into a life of poverty.

3.16 pm

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am reminded of my maiden speech, when you were in the Chair as Deputy Speaker, although I hope I will not have as short a time to speak as I did then.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate other Members, who have made valuable contributions. I want briefly to reflect on some of the global dimensions of child poverty, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) touched on.

As is clear from all the speeches that have been made, poverty is a scandal wherever it exists. Too many children, in the UK and elsewhere, are born into, and grow up in, poverty. We have heard the statistics from other hon.

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Members. In my constituency, 25% of children live in poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) compared constituencies, and Glasgow North is ranked 110 out of 650 constituencies for child poverty. That means that there are 109 other seats in this country where more than 25% of the child population lives in poverty. That is a complete scandal, but, sadly, that scandal is only exacerbated around the world.

UNICEF estimates that, by 2030, 119 million children will still be chronically undernourished. Even today, entirely preventable diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria are leading causes of child deaths, with more than 5,000 children dying from them each day. Despite all the progress that has been made in the lowest-income countries since 1990, the proportion of children under five living in poverty rose from 13% in 1990 to 19% in 2014.

The saddest and perhaps most frustrating thing about all this is that none of it is necessary, because structures exist to prevent it from happening in the first place. The rights of children are protected by the UN convention on the rights of the child, which has been ratified by 194 states, including—more than 25 years ago, in 1989—by the United Kingdom. UNICEF described the convention as

“the first international instrument to articulate the entire complement of rights relevant to children—economic, social, cultural, civil and political. It is also the first international instrument to explicitly recognise children as active holders of their own rights.”

Living in poverty is perhaps the greatest denial of those human rights. Article 6 of the convention provides:

“States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child”.

The “maximum extent possible”—that is the responsibility of the Government. Yet we have repeatedly heard from Members that the Government want to roll back their responsibilities to tackle child poverty, and the relevant measurements. However, the global frameworks exist to tackle poverty here and around the world.

Last Thursday there was a debate in the Chamber on the sustainable development goals, a new global framework aimed at eradicating poverty in all its forms, everywhere. That means at home as well as elsewhere in the world. In Scotland there was a working group drawn from civil society, the Government and the academic and business world—I declare an interest as I was a member of it—on the sustainable development goals. It was innovative not only for the way such different organisations worked together towards ending poverty overseas, but for what we could do domestically. There is an interesting and continuing collaboration between global and domestic anti-poverty organisations, and it would be interesting to know from the Minister whether he is prepared to work with his colleagues in the Department for International Development, and across the Government, to consider how the new global goals aimed at ending all forms of poverty, including child poverty, everywhere, might be applied in the United Kingdom.

As so often with such issues, we are the generation with the knowledge, means and resources to end poverty, and all that seems to be lacking is the political will.

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3.21 pm

Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing the debate, which has been enlightening. It is good to see cross-party participation among Opposition parties. I am disappointed that Conservative Members have not come to defend policies that they will vote for in the Chamber. [Interruption.] I thank the Minister for being here, but it would have been appropriate, given the gravity of the circumstances relating to child poverty, had more Conservative Members been present to defend the levels of child poverty and what the Government are doing.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said that it is immoral to force tax cuts on children. It is clear that the target of austerity is children. It is a hugely important debate and should transcend party politics, because child poverty should be the concern of us all. Unfortunately the Government’s policies are forcing more children into poverty. It should concern us all that 3.7 million children in the UK live in relative poverty, and it should alarm, astound and worry us that the number in child poverty is projected to rise to 4.7 million by 2020 under current policies. The obsession of the Tory Government is that people at all levels of society must firefight cuts. For their part, the Scottish Government are providing more than £300 million between 2013-14 and 2015-16 to mitigate the effect of Westminster welfare changes for families in Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said—and I agree—that there is no mandate for imposing the cuts in Scotland. The Tory party received its lowest support in 165 years in Scotland at the general election; it fell to just over 10% of the vote. My hon. Friend spoke about semantics over substance, and the change in Tory rhetoric and attitude with the renaming of the poverty statistics. The simple fact is that austerity has not worked. It is astonishing that, despite the evidence of the harm from what they are doing, the UK Government continue to attack low-paid families. That makes a mockery of the Conservatives’ claim to be the party of working people. For example, cutting tax credits, which are a lifeline for low-income families and a crucial tool in lifting people out of poverty, will only exacerbate the already dismal projections of rising child poverty. In Scotland alone, 346,000 children will be affected by the changes, and we are in danger of pushing them into poverty and causing lasting damage to their life chances.

We know the harm that austerity is doing to thousands of children across the country. It simply cannot be acceptable to ignore the severe and particular impact on children of the Government’s policies. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that poverty robs children of their childhood and the life chances that they deserve, and I agree. By changing the definition of poverty and removing the requirement to report on income targets, the Government are doing just that. In renaming the commission set up under the Child Poverty Act 2010 the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the Tories are trying to airbrush child poverty out of our political debate.

We must of course look at the wider picture of young people’s life chances, rather than focusing simply on one set of statistics or another, but the Government’s changes to the Child Poverty Act will be deeply damaging, for

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three main reasons. First, the removal of the requirement to report on income targets means that a fundamental driver of poverty—how much a person has in their pocket —is essentially being deprioritised. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) said that that low wages and increased inflation are key drivers of poverty. Secondly, the Government’s plans to focus purely on worklessness ignore the 67% of UK children who live in a household with one or more working adult. In-work poverty, which will undoubtedly be exacerbated by the changes to tax credits and other Budget measures, is a key challenge that the Tories seem content to ignore. Thirdly, the additional targets that are proposed are not necessarily related to poverty. Family break-up and drug and alcohol dependency affect families in all income deciles, and problem debt is generally a consequence rather than a cause of poverty. The proposals are a step towards characterising poverty as a lifestyle choice, rather than addressing the social and economic drivers that cause people to fall into poverty. That is a mistake that we cannot afford to make.

The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans)—I hope he will forgive my pronunciation—is correct: we must seek solutions. It is up to this generation. Poverty should not exist in a country as rich as ours and no child should have to experience it. As long as the Government pursue a damaging austerity strategy and attempt to sweep child poverty under the carpet, it will persist and be pervasive. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said that poverty is a scandal wherever it exists, and spoke of his constituency where the rate of child poverty is 25%, the 110th highest in the UK. In 2012, my constituency’s child poverty rate was 32.6%, which was the 26th highest in the UK. Twenty-five constituencies had child poverty rates higher than almost a third of children. In some parts of my constituency child poverty is almost at 50%.

The Government’s Dickensian policies belong in the House of Commons Library, not in the Chamber or the statute book of any country that has the resources that the UK has. When there is a clear and demonstrable link between Tory policies and low wages it becomes clear that increasing levels of poverty and child poverty are political choices; we have the power to tackle the situation, but we worsen it instead. The Government must halt the changes to tax credits, withdraw the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill and continue to build on the good work of the child poverty commission, rather than eradicating it from political discourse. I urge the Minister to consider what has been said in the debate, from across the parties.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. We have just over 30 minutes—32 to be precise—for the two Front Benchers to wind up. I ask them to bear in mind that, because of the self-discipline that hon. Members have shown, there is plenty of time, and to recognise that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, who moved the motion, would like to make a few observations by way of winding up.

3.29 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a great pleasure, Mr Howarth, to respond to this debate and to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on introducing it this afternoon.

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As the debate has proceeded, we have understood the complexity and multi-layering that is intrinsic in child poverty, but we should also recognise that we know what works to tackle it. Looking at the track record and progress that was made under Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010, I am proud that we saw huge progress with more than 1 million children in the UK lifted out of poverty.

We know what led to that massive reduction in child poverty. As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire acknowledged, it was in no small measure due to the effectiveness of tax credits, and to the rise in employment, particularly the employment of lone parents, which increased from 44% in the mid-1990s to approaching 60% when we entered this decade.

None the less and despite that progress, today, as we have heard, 3.7 million children in this country live in relative poverty. Perhaps even more depressing, since 2011-12, progress to reduce that number further has stalled. There was no progress whatever under the coalition Government after 2011-12, and the prediction is that under this Parliament, we will start to see a substantial rise in child poverty. None of us can be satisfied or complacent about that.

We have, rightly, heard a lot about the importance of measuring child poverty and having meaningful targets for tracking and tackling progress. At one time, there was cross-party consensus on the importance of measuring relative income poverty and targets for its reduction, but that consensus has broken down between the parties. It seems to have broken down in the Prime Minister’s mind—we have heard him say that he is in favour of targets and measuring and addressing relative poverty, and that he is not and believes that that is irrelevant. We have heard that the Government intend in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is now being debated in Committee, to remove the targets altogether and no longer to set that hard ambition for us to improve our performance. I cannot help feeling—the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) hinted at this—that that is motivated by fear that the targets will not be met, fear that the position will worsen and fear that the Government will be held to account, as they should be.

We know the importance of having targets and an agreed definition of poverty. Targets drive action. They drive progress and they allow for comparisons that show the direction of travel and the trends, and enable us to compare ourselves with our international peers. No one would pretend that child poverty in this country is like child poverty in some of the poorest economies of the world, but the measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010 have presented a very useful picture that has enabled us to compare performance here with the best performing countries in Europe. Indeed, that was the ambition. It was not to eliminate child poverty to zero, because we all recognise the existence of frictional poverty, but to be at the level of the best in Europe. Until the arrival of the coalition Government, we were on track to achieve that.

It may be that recognition of the importance of targets is why in 2013, when the Government consulted on changing or abolishing the targets, 97% of those who responded said there was no need for any change, so it is highly regrettable that there are proposals from Ministers today to do something that has been roundly

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rubbished by all the respondents to that consultation. I am shocked by the lack of notice that the Government have taken.

We also heard today, rightly, about the importance and centrality of income in defining, measuring and tackling child poverty. Indeed, Kitty Stewart of the London School of Economics has shown that income is the single most significant factor and indicator of poor outcomes for children across a whole range of measures, including educational attainment and poor health. We also know that poverty has a cost to society as a whole. Estimates by the Child Poverty Action Group suggest that the cost to society of failing to tackle child poverty is £29 billion a year.

In recognition of the intrinsic link between low income and poor outcomes for children, the Child Poverty Act 2010, which received cross-party consensus, covered not just income poverty and did not require measures only on income poverty, but also required strategies on, for example, education, health, parental employment, debt and parenting. All those are associated with high levels of child poverty, but they are not the same as child poverty and it is important not to confuse the two.

None the less, one of my regrets about the abolition of much of the 2010 Act is that we will lose the requirement to produce those strategies. This morning, we heard in the Standing Committee considering the Welfare Reform and Work Bill—the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire may have repeated this this afternoon—that the intention in Scotland is to continue to produce that strategy and I understand from this morning’s evidence session with witnesses that that is also the case in Wales. However, there is no expectation that that will happen in England. Ministers will not expect local authorities to produce comprehensive strategies to address child poverty. If I am wrong about that, I shall be very pleased to hear it and I hope that the Minister will be able to contradict my assertion this afternoon.

We know that the Government know that income is important. Their own evidence review in 2014 showed that it was the most important factor, and not just, as we have heard today, that low income arises because families are out of work, but when there is insufficient income from earnings. It was right for hon. Members to point out this afternoon the absolute inadequacy and insufficiency of measuring only worklessness when two thirds of children in poverty are growing up in working households. We know the reasons for that. They are not laziness on the part of those parents, but poorly paid jobs, lack of access to flexible jobs that can be combined with family responsibilities, high child care costs, high housing costs and ill health. The need to care for a family member suffering ill health or their own ill health curtails employment chances.

Jim Shannon: I mentioned during my contribution the effect on those on low incomes of buying cheaply because it is better financially for their pocket, but that affects their diet and health. Does the hon. Lady believe that we should also address that issue?

Kate Green: The hon. Gentleman made a useful contribution on the poverty premium: that the poor pay more for the basics. He now adds another important

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dimension: that lack of income means that the poorest in our society are unable to afford to have the quality of life that protects health, wellbeing and social participation.

The critique of measures on which the Government are relying to underpin their rejection of the Child Poverty Act 2010 is simply wrong. Let us remember that it is not that the income measure in the Act does not capture the full picture of poverty. There is not one income poverty measure, but four to give us a rounded view. It is important to continue to measure relative income poverty, which we expect to rise. None the less, Ministers should be grateful for the four measures in the 2010 Act because it is possible that at the same time as seeing a rise in relative income poverty, we may see a fall in absolute poverty in the next few years. If median wages rise, but benefits are frozen or rise only with prices, we will see a rise in relative poverty. Conversely, absolute poverty could fall if benefits rise in line with the consumer prices index. It is important for Ministers to recognise that we have a good mix of measures in the 2010 Act, which would enable them to point to the complexity of the picture, rather than rejecting the Act on the misleading grounds that it measures relative poverty alone.

We have no analysis yet of the impact on child poverty of the measures in either the Welfare Reform and Work Bill or the others announced in the summer Budget, some of which we are debating this afternoon. However, we know that the impact of those measures will not be felt in the same way across all family types and structures. Lone parents, couples with several children and those with high housing costs will be hit particularly hard.

As we have heard this afternoon, it is important also to understand that the effect of the so-called national living wage will not wholly compensate for the cuts that are being made. Indeed, the cuts are particularly perverse when we consider that many of them are to in-work benefits, increasing, not reducing work disincentives. I am quite at a loss to understand why Ministers think that is a sensible way to proceed.

There is also a massive amount of ignorance about the purpose of different policy instruments to tackle poverty. Everybody welcomes higher minimum pay. Of course it is right that people should be paid properly for the work that they do, and of course it is right that the taxpayer should not subsidise low-pay economies, although we should recognise that achieving a minimum income standard for some families from earnings alone would simply drive businesses out of business. We have heard the projections that even a national living wage may lead to the loss of some tens of thousands of jobs. That is why, in addition to measures to tackle low pay, it is important to invest in tax credits, because many low-paid people who will benefit from the increase in the national living wage may not live in poor households. Conversely, many of those who are going to receive the national living wage will not be lifted out of poverty by that alone, because of their family and household structure and size. Therefore, it is important that we proceed on both fronts, and we cannot expect, at the lower end of the labour market, for wages alone to lift all families out of poverty.

Income poverty is crucial, and the Government’s analysis of the limitations of the Child Poverty Act and the limited approach that they will take to address

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rising family poverty, frankly, are simply wrong. It is regrettable that, with so much evidence before us and such a long history of having seen what works and what does not, Ministers are so uninterested in looking at the facts and the evidence, and instead insist on pursuing an ideology that will cause hardship for many, and, for the most vulnerable, destitution, the likes of which we have not seen for two decades.

3.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People (Justin Tomlinson): I congratulate the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), on her promotion. She is widely respected and it is well deserved; I wish her the best of luck in her new role.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this important debate. There have been several excellent speeches from right across the Chamber, and I will do my best to cover as many of the points made as I can. I am also grateful that I have slightly longer than four minutes to speak—which was how long I had to respond to the last debate I had here in Westminster Hall.

There is clearly a lot of passion and real determination among hon. Members. We disagree on how the aim should be achieved, but I think there is a shared consensus that more needs to be done and that this issue is incredibly important. I speak as an individual who went to a school at the bottom of the league tables, back in my home town. My father passed away at an early age. I absolutely understand the importance of this issue, and I stress that I think we all share that determination, even if we perhaps see different ways to achieve that aim.

Before I focus on the UK, I will pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). I was very proud to serve as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global education for all. I was the warm-up act before the former Prime Minister stepped in and significantly increased the group’s profile, but I did that role for about 18 months, and I was very proud to do so.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on his speech. I have contributed in a number of debates in which he has spoken, and I am always impressed with his pragmatic, proactive approach. I absolutely echo his points about needing to look at local, individual solutions. That does him real credit; he is easily one of the most articulate speakers, and I was pleased that he was able to sneak in with his speech.

Our Government are committed to working to eliminate child poverty and improving children’s life chances. Our new approach is focused on transforming lives through tackling the root causes of child poverty, rather than through just focusing on the symptoms. Our new life chances measures will drive real action on work and education which will make the biggest difference to disadvantaged children now and in the future. That is crucial. The point was raised that too often, all Governments in the past have looked at short-term solutions, and the reality is that to break the cycle, there have to be long-term, sustainable solutions. We are taking action and looking at family breakdown, problem debt, addiction and ways to transform lives to ensure that all children get the best start in life, regardless of the circumstances that they find themselves in.

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On work and poverty, the Government believe that work is the best route out of poverty. Children in workless families are around three times as likely to be in poverty as those in which at least one parent works. The “Child poverty transitions” report published in June found that nearly three quarters of poor workless families who found full-time employment escaped poverty. The report also found that the highest poverty exit rate—75%—was for children living in families who went from part-time to full-time employment. By 2010, after over a decade of welfare spending increases, one in five households had nobody in work. Frankly, that was shameful.

Chris Evans: Last July, I had a Westminster Hall debate in which I talked about what I felt was the ineffectiveness of Jobcentre Plus. Will the Minister accept that there is a serious problem with Jobcentre Plus actually getting long-term unemployed people back into work? What usually happens is that people find jobs through it, and within eight months, they are back on welfare benefits and out of work. What does the Minister believe is the cure for that problem?

Justin Tomlinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is a fair point. At the moment, we are seeing about 1% a month coming off the ESA benefit. It is a poor success rate and we would expect far better. In his speech, the hon. Gentleman was bang on, in that we need to have localised individual responses. We need better support and to have more businesses signing up to provide those opportunities. We are looking to reform that and are in consultation. I spent much of the summer with my Minister for Disabled People hat on, doing visits and looking at the best ways that that can be done in the changes. Given the record of 1% a month coming off that benefit, and with people often then slipping back in, it is incredibly important to address that looping effect.

The wider issue is a tragedy for each and every family, because families in which no one works lose their sense of self-worth.

Drew Hendry: From the Minister’s words, I am sure that he, personally, very much wants to see a long-term solution to the problem, but he mentioned a long-term ambition. Does he not accept that by not having a short and medium-term option for people in work at the moment, they will be punished and pushed further into poverty by the removal of those working tax credits, particularly in constituencies such as mine, where there is relatively low unemployment but very low wages?

Justin Tomlinson: I will address that later, so please be patient for a little bit longer.

Children grow up without the aspiration to achieve. They become almost certain to repeat the difficult lives of their parents, following a path from dependency to despondency, rather than to independence. At the beginning of my remarks, I talked about my background. That is what drove me into politics. We all have our calling, our passions and our priorities. That very much was what drove me into politics. As I said, I think we all share the same end goal; there is just disagreement on how we would look to achieve it.

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On our record on worklessness and poverty, I highlight that many hon. Members have referred to the IFS statistics throughout the debate. I sound a strong note of caution on that. The statistics have been wrong every single year since 2011, and in the summer, they were half a million out, so I attach a big note of caution to the predictions and doom-mongering.

Kate Green: The Minister will know that one of the reasons why there may have been a discrepancy between the IFS prediction and the out-turn is to do with the use of survey data and different datasets. Does he agree that there is no doubt at all that the accumulation of measures announced in the summer Budget will increase child poverty, perhaps by many hundreds of thousands of pounds? They cannot fail to, because they will make working families worse off.

Justin Tomlinson: I thank the shadow Minister, but I am afraid we disagree on that, and I am setting out why I think that is not going to be the case.

Despite a huge increase in spending, by 2010, the number of households where no member ever worked nearly doubled, in-work poverty rose and the Labour Government missed their own 2010 child poverty target by 600,000 children. Compare that with our record. During the previous Parliament, we turned around Labour’s legacy of worklessness. There are now 2 million more people in work. To put that in context, it is more than the figure for the whole of Europe put together. We have the fastest growing major economy.

Jim Shannon: I have to follow on from what the shadow Minister said. The changes in tax credits will, according to Barnardo’s and other charities, push another 180,000 children into poverty in Northern Ireland alone. Those facts are coming from charities as well.

Justin Tomlinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but again I plead with hon. Members to be patient; I am coming to those points.

There are now 800,000 fewer people in relative poverty, including 300,000 children. Compared with the second quarter of 2014, there are 50,000 fewer households where no one has ever worked. And importantly, the number of children living in workless households has fallen by 390,000 since 2010 and is now at a record low.

On the specific point about in-work poverty—that theme was followed in the majority of speeches and is important—the figure for relative low income in work is now 200,000 lower than the peak in 2008-09. However, we all recognise that more needs to be done. Wages are rising faster than inflation. That is on the back of having a strong economy. Everything that we do must be underlined by a strong economy. We talk about austerity, but without taking the difficult decisions, we would not now have a strong economy. We have only to look at our neighbours in Europe to see the consequences of not having a strong economy.

We have increased income tax thresholds year on year. We have now taken the lowest 3.8 million earners out of paying any income tax at all. We have set a commitment to raise the allowance to £12,500, and once we reach that point, we will link that to wages

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going forward, so the lowest earners will never be dragged back into paying income tax. We have set out our ambitious plans for the national living wage. That will make a huge difference. People are forgetting that the impact will not be just on those who get an immediate pay rise, which I think is about 2.6 million people. There will be a ripple effect that could impact on more than 6 million, according to some predictions. Also, the introduction of universal credit will remove the barriers preventing people from increasing their hours. As I mentioned, the biggest improvement is for those people who go from part time to full time. The benefits system was putting in artificial barriers, preventing people from increasing their hours. Universal credit will give people the flexibility steadily to increase their hours where they wish to do so.

We want to build on that progress, which is why we are bringing forward our new life chance measures. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill introduces a new duty to report annually on worklessness and educational attainment in England. We have chosen those measures because the evidence tells us that those factors have the biggest impact on child poverty and children’s life chances, and that is what matters. We want legislation to drive action that makes the biggest difference in the lives of our children. The worklessness measures will identify the proportion of children living in workless households and of children in long-term workless households. The educational attainment measures will focus on GCSE attainment for all pupils and for disadvantaged pupils. We will develop a range of other measures and indicators of root causes of child poverty, including family breakdown, problem debt and addiction, and set those out in our life chances strategy. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we will continue to publish low-income statistics annually, as part of the “Households Below Average Income” publication.

We should be focused on those pathways to poverty, not moving people around an arbitrary income line. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) put it,

“raising everybody above a set percentage of median income is rather like asking a cat to catch its own tail.”

Focusing on work and education will drive real action, which will make the biggest difference to children’s lives now and in the future.

Education is key to transforming children’s futures. Good English and maths skills are key to improving children’s future life chances. Nearly two thirds of men and three quarters of women with low literacy never receive promotion and are locked into their starting income.

Neil Gray: I would appreciate it if the Minister could advise how children attending school hungry are expected to achieve good educational standards.

Justin Tomlinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. Again, I will cover it as I progress.

Part of our commitment to social justice is the determination to ensure that every child is given an education that allows them to realise their potential. That is why we are raising standards with a vigorous new curriculum, world-class exams and a new accountability system that rewards those schools that help every child to achieve their best. Crucially, we introduced the pupil

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premium in the previous Parliament—it is worth £2.5 billion in 2015-16—to improve the life chances of disadvantaged pupils, and we have invested £50 million in the early years pupil premium to support disadvantaged three and four-year-olds.

Let me address issues such as children coming to school hungry when their parents have not been able to provide food—are not in a position to do so. I look at a lot of innovative schools that have provided food across the board. The school that was initially the worst-rated school in my constituency is now the highest rated. It used the pupil premium innovatively to provide food across the board, for all pupils. It recognised that that was a particular challenge and that if it did not solve that problem, what hope was there that pupils could concentrate and progress in the work environment?

Neil Gray: Will the Minister give way again?

Justin Tomlinson: This will have to be the last intervention because we are getting tight on time.

Neil Gray: Are we not taking this in a back-to-front way? Why should the schools be expected to provide that food when the parents themselves are unable to do so? Surely we need to address the income levels of the parents to ensure that they can provide for their children.

Justin Tomlinson: That is where we agree. We disagree just on how to get to that point. Government Members believe that work and educational attainment are the best way to provide the opportunity to break that cycle.

There are the wider education reforms, about which I have been very passionate. In the previous Parliament, we saw 2 million new apprenticeships. That figure is rising to 3 million new apprenticeships. We have had the introduction of university technical colleges, giving young people the real, workplace-based skills that will provide the best opportunity to get into work. We have also had the introduction of the national citizen scheme. I have seen year after year the increasing number of young people who are being transformed and who are then in a strong position to step into good careers.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about sport. I have long said that our schools, between 4 and 6 o’clock, should be opening up to provide free use of their facilities to community groups to provide sporting opportunities. Sport helped me not to follow the path of two of my colleagues at school,

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who went to serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure, although when I told my school that I had got elected to Parliament, the head did say that he was not sure which was worse!

I will turn to Scotland, because I recognise that most of today’s speakers were from Scotland. The Scottish Government have the power to address child poverty through action in areas such as health, education, housing, employability and childcare. Following our proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, they also have the freedom to choose what approach to take and how to act on, measure and report on life chances and child poverty, in line with the substantial areas of policy devolved to them. The UK Government are already giving Scotland through the Scotland Bill significant new taxation and welfare powers, including £2.5 billion-worth of new welfare powers and responsibility for raising more than 50% of what it spends. We will work closely with the devolved Administrations as the Welfare Reform and Work Bill proceeds and are open to reflecting their preferences regarding their jurisdictions in the legislation. We will take a keen interest in how that develops. In England, local authorities are being encouraged to come to the Government with their own innovative proposals, and we will always consider opportunities for further devolution.

In conclusion, our approach will ensure that tackling the root causes of child poverty and improving future life chances become central parts of our business as a one-nation Government. We will focus on transforming children’s lives by extending opportunity for all, so that both they and their children in turn can escape from the cycle of poverty and improve their life chances. Our new approach will drive real action, which will make the biggest difference to children now and in the future.

3.58 pm

Kirsten Oswald: I thank you, Mr Howarth, the Minister and all those who have made such valuable contributions. We have been discussing a very important subject and have heard many mind-boggling statistics, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said, this is not about statistics; it is about children. On that basis, I must ask the Government to consider their approach to child poverty, to think very carefully about all the important things that have been said today and to think again about how they take this forward.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered child poverty.

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Shoreham Air Show Crash

[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]

3.59 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Shoreham air show crash and its implications.

On 22 August, a vintage Hawker Hunter jet plane crashed at the Shoreham air show in my constituency. Eleven men tragically lost their lives, and many stories of the personal tragedies that accompanied that loss touched a chord across the nation. It represented the largest civilian loss of life in the United Kingdom since 7/7, and the first fatalities on the ground at any UK air show since 1952.

Those statistics will give little comfort to the victims’ families, and I am sure that I echo the feelings of the whole House when I say that our thoughts and prayers go out to them, and that the first priority remains to give them the support that they will need in these difficult times. Neither should we forget the pilot, who continues to recover from his horrific injuries. I am grateful to hon. Members who have passed on their good wishes and condolences to the families through me.

I am delighted to see the Minister here today to respond to this debate, which is born out of such tragedy. The accident is, quite properly, the subject of investigation by the air accidents investigation branch, and it is certainly not my intention to pre-empt the findings of those investigations. My constituents and others have been at pains not to rush to judgment about exactly what went wrong, or the implications for Shoreham air show—and, indeed, all the other air shows that draw large crowds across the country—until we know the facts of the case. There are some 300 civil flying displays in the country every year, which attract in excess of 2 million spectators. That does not include military displays. The results of the investigation will affect an awful lot of events and displays around the country.

I want to pay tribute to the emergency services, particularly to the first responders who had to deal with the most harrowing scenes, and to those involved in the investigation and clean-up operation in the aftermath of the accident. I want to highlight the fantastic way in which the local community rallied around in light of the tragedy. I want to touch on the implications for dealing with such major incidents in the future, and I want to raise various safety questions that will need to be answered in the fullness of time.

It is worth pointing out that this was an accident—a fortunately rare, but most tragic, accident. The Shoreham air show has been run by the Royal Air Forces Association for the past 26 years, raising more than £2 million for its excellent charity. It is appropriate to mention that today as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Britain, where many of the planes that we see and their forebears played a vital role. Today, if the weather has improved, some 40 Spitfires and Hurricanes will be flying over the south of England to mark that anniversary, based at the Goodwood aerodrome near my constituency.

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The Shoreham air show has been run for 26 years with an excellent record, and the honorary organiser, Derek Harber from RAFA, has put a huge amount of effort and dedication into the show with his team. I know from meeting RAFA representatives that the safety of the performers, the safety of the spectators and the safety of the local community are always paramount considerations when organising the show, as I am sure they are for all other similar events. The air show is part of the local scene and part of the Shoreham calendar. This year, when the tragic accident happened, more than 20,000 people had come to see the displays. There were 50 planes, including the Vulcan in its farewell and the RAF Falcons parachute display team. The air show has won awards for the best family event in Sussex and the best family air show in the United Kingdom. People come for a fun, thrilling day out. It is also worth pointing out that the air show is held at Britain’s oldest commercial airport in Shoreham, which has had planes flying into and out of it since 1911. A lot of thought and planning goes into the event.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry that I missed his initial observations. He referred to the importance of flying displays, the tradition at Shoreham and the fact that flying displays are hugely popular across the country. They are the second most popular outdoor spectator activity. In my capacity as the president of the British Air Display Association, I can assure him that every air show is policed by a flying control committee and a display director. A huge amount of effort goes into ensuring that such displays are very carefully managed for the protection and enjoyment of the public.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am grateful to him for the helpful advice that he gave me in the aftermath of the accident, as somebody who knows great deal more about such matters than I do. Air shows are important events, and safety is paramount. The people who oversaw the Shoreham air show were of the highest calibre, integrity and experience. This is not some amateur operation; it is run in a hugely professional way, and quite rightly so. It was a tragic and, as I say, fortunately rare accident, but clearly changes will need to be made to the way in which this and other air shows are run in the future if they are to continue.

The Civil Aviation Authority was right swiftly to take a precautionary approach and to suspend performances by vintage jets until we know more from the investigations. That has affected many air shows already, and it is important to establish exactly what is likely to happen, with some timescales, as soon as possible, because organisers want to start the preparations for next year’s air shows. It is very important for a whole host of reasons that we find out what went wrong and what needs to be changed in the future.

Sir Gerald Howarth: My hon. Friend said that displays by vintage jets have been suspended. In fact, it is the high-energy manoeuvres that have been suspended, not the aircraft. The Vulcan continues to perform until 18 October.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend expertly corrects me with that detail, for which I am grateful.

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If a crumb of comfort has come out of this horrible tragedy, it is the absolutely incredible performance by the emergency services and the first responders. Police officers from the whole of Sussex and firefighters from West Sussex, east Sussex, Hampshire and further afield helped out on the day and in the immediate aftermath. The south-east coast ambulance service was on the scene very swiftly, and Worthing hospital took on casualties. Organisations such as the Red Cross, and many volunteers, performed incredibly.

The scene was one of devastation: there were badly damaged bodies and incinerated cars. Fortunately, the impact zone was relatively well contained. I drove along the A27 one minute before the accident, and I was completely oblivious to what had happened behind me until I got home and saw the news. When I drove by, there were 60 or 70 spectators on the verge of the A27, watching the air show from outside the confines of the airport, and traffic was tailing back about 200 yards along the road waiting to get into the air show. Fortunately, I gather, the traffic lights had just cleared green, otherwise there could have been three lanes of stationary traffic at the plane’s point of impact. There were assorted stewards and other volunteers in the area.

Given all that, it is amazing that only 11 people lost their lives. It could have been much, much worse. Just a few hundred yards away there was a big factory, Ricardo, and there were 20,000 spectators enjoying the air display. I am sure that the reactions of the first responders went a long way to avoiding further suffering and injury. The way in which they contained the situation and dealt with 20,000 people in a confined space was absolutely extraordinary. We cannot underestimate the contribution that the emergency services made.

I visited the scene on the following Monday in the aftermath of the crash with the chief constable and police commissioner, and I saw the painstaking work of the investigators. They made the whole area into a grid and carried out a fingertip search for any evidence—and of course, I fear, the remains of the victims—which is why it took some time to establish that the total number of victims was 11. The plane was lifted on the day I visited, and fortunately there were no further casualties underneath it. More than 200 professionals were on site, in appalling weather conditions. The coroner’s office and all her professionals did an outstanding job. It is difficult to fault what went on. A 3D film of the site was taken so that the investigators have a full record of what they have to look at.

The operation was really impressive. All the agencies worked together seamlessly and professionally. Adur District Council and West Sussex County Council both did their bit. All the agencies had prepared, which is important. This was not just a knee-jerk reaction to a disaster; it was a second-worst-case scenario for which the police, ambulances and firefighters had planned. Their plan went into operation, and it worked.

I have met police officers, fire officers and others who dropped everything—some came back from holiday, and others returned to duty—to appear at their desks and do their job without complaint. That is real professionalism. I saw the family support officers working sensitively with the families, many of whom were waiting for news because it took many days before they knew whether their loved ones were among the victims. I saw the Red Cross canteen, with free food donated by Tesco to provide sustenance to all the professionals on the site.

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Brighton and Hove Albion football club lent its training centre just down the road, which became the police control centre that fed and watered all the officers. Lancing College provided accommodation and catering just next door. Marks & Spencer sent a consignment of fresh socks down to the site because all the police were getting terribly wet feet in the appalling conditions. Local people baked 500 cakes, which were delivered to the civic centre, many with messages and well wishes to be passed on to police officers, firefighters and others working at the site.

I am proud of that effort, which shows the importance of training and preparation. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that importance. Such training and preparation may be below the radar, and it may be unseen, but it is so important in such rare cases where it needs to kick into action. I hope we will preserve the importance and funding for such preparation.

I am also really proud of my community. There were numerous one-minute silences and one-minute applauses across the area. The old toll bridge just down from the accident site became a focus of everyone’s grief—it became the bridge of flowers, and the air was heavy with the scent. A constant queue of people have brought flowers, tributes, poems and football shirts, which continues today. I noticed a half-bottle of pink champagne, which is of significance to one of the victims. Tributes were paid at the Brighton and Hove football match I attended last Saturday and at Worthing United football club, for which two of the victims used to play. More than 7,000 people came along to the bridge in Shoreham to light candles, with people queuing in the rain for more than an hour.

The local road network was in complete chaos for several weeks after the crash and, indeed, is not back to normal, but the Highways Agency reported that it received the grand sum of eight complaints in the first week, such was the patience of local people who realised the magnitude of what happened. So far, more than £50,000 has been raised by the Sussex Community Foundation appeal. I am helping to organise a memorial service at Lancing College chapel in a few weeks’ time. People and the families can come along to pay their respects and show their appreciation for the efforts of the emergency services.

The first question asked by everyone in Lancing, Shoreham and the wider area was, “What more can we do?” If there is such a thing as a textbook response to such an enormous tragedy, this was it: by our emergency services and the importance of emergency planning, and by the way the local community rallied round, which showed how we all care. I am proud to be their MP.

There had previously been a crash at the Shoreham air show in 2007. Alas, a pilot lost his life, but there were no other casualties, when a Hawker Hurricane ploughed into the downs. Changes were made to the timing of the air show and the flightpath into the air show following that crash, but there are still questions. Should such high-powered jet planes be flying further away from the crowd? The trouble with the air show is that the spectators are not only at the airfield site; they are on the roads and in pubs and houses on the downs for far around to get a good vantage point. Many of the victims, of course, were not actually at, or intending to go to, the air show; they were travelling past on the A27.

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With such demanding manoeuvres, are we expecting too much of very old aircraft? This plane was built in 1951, although it had been well maintained, and the pilots who flew it, including the one flying on the day, were highly skilled and highly experienced. I said at the beginning that it is important not to rush to judgment until we have all the facts, but can we make these events safer without losing their appeal? Can we find a practical solution? What is the next step? What is the timetable? I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that. What lessons can we learn from the emergency services’ operation, and how could those lessons apply to other serious incidents that we need to prepare for across the country? It is important that we do not cut back on training and emergency planning, however invisible it might be most of the year.

I pay tribute to the families of the victims who lost their lives. We must continue to look after them. If there is one crumb of comfort from all this, it is the fantastic performance of our emergency services, who did an amazing job. It is a very demanding job that we would not do ourselves, and they performed it hugely professionally. The community rallied round and appreciates their work. It is a horrible tragedy, but we owe it to the families to get to the bottom of exactly what happened, and we must make sure that we go the nth mile to make things as safe as possible so that we do not have a repeat of the horrible event on the day of 22 August in Shoreham.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his deeply moving and very thoughtful speech, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) for contributing his knowledge of this subject, which is clearly profound.

On Saturday 22 August, 11 people were killed when a Hawker Hunter aircraft taking part in the Shoreham air show crashed into the A27. Those people were going about their daily business: one was working as a chauffeur on his way to pick up a bride on her wedding day; another was taking photographs of the air show from the verge; and others were travelling entirely separately from the air show to have fun, to see friends and to play sport. Tragically, none of those people completed their journey. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said, this awful accident resulted in the first loss of life on the ground at an air show since 1952 and the largest single loss of civilian life since the incidents of 7/7. It is a true tragedy.

This debate allows me to put on record my condolences, and indeed the condolences of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport, to all those affected, especially the families who have lost loved ones. I also offer my profound thanks to the emergency services, which, as we have heard so eloquently described, responded with professionalism and effectiveness in the face of what must have been a harrowing task—the first responders, the police officers and the fire service personnel. We have heard how those people were supported by members of the local community, both on that tragic day and

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since. I have asked the question and am pleased to know that counselling and support is available for members of the emergency services who need it. Emergency service personnel and West Sussex County Council are working to provide post-traumatic counselling for those affected by the crash.

I express my admiration for my hon. Friend, who worked tirelessly on what must have been an extremely difficult day, and over the difficult weeks since, to help the local community come together, to further the investigation and to ask tough questions to ensure that this does not happen again. I understand that he is involved in discussions with the community about an appropriate service of memorial. This is a deeply personal and local matter, but the Government stand by willing to help and support in any way we can.

It might be helpful if I set out exactly what is happening with the investigation timetable, and hopefully I will answer my hon. Friend’s questions during that process. As he knows, the air accidents investigation branch is in the careful and forensic process of investigating the causes of this accident, and it is working to ensure that such an accident cannot happen again. There has been a preliminary report on the circumstances of the crash, and he will have seen some of that information. The weather was good and the aircraft met its pre-flight checks. The aircraft was conducting a high-energy manoeuvre with both a vertical and a rolling component and, following the subsequent descent, it did not achieve level flight before striking the westbound carriageway of the A27, with tragic consequences. It was truly chilling to hear how it could have been so much worse if the timings had been different by even a split second.

I cannot speculate on the causes of the crash beyond what was stated in the preliminary report, and I do not want to pre-judge the outcome of the AAIB’s investigation, but I reassure hon. Members that action is already being taken to ensure that we learn from this tragedy and prevent it from being repeated. Three things are happening.

First, the Civil Aviation Authority, which is responsible for regulating the safety of air displays, has acted promptly. It grounded all Hawker Hunter aircraft immediately and indefinitely on Saturday 22 August and has limited flying displays over land by vintage jet aircraft to fly-pasts. High-energy aerobatics, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot said, have been banned.

Secondly, following the accident, the CAA is conducting additional risk assessments of all future air displays and has already introduced additional precautionary measures at some locations, resulting in changes to the displays flown. Given that this weekend is the 70th anniversary of the battle of Britain, a number of shows are being planned. Duxford air base, which many hon. Members will know, has already made changes to its display to offer more protection for the surrounding infrastructure and area.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming such a thorough and comprehensive immediate response to the incident. It is clearly appropriate. As he said, it is not the time for knee-jerk reactions. As he also said, air shows are a proud tradition in the UK, with many local events providing a centre point for the community. What made the Shoreham accident all the more tragic and poignant is that so many local families were involved, attending what had become a much-loved local event. It

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illustrates the need to ensure that we mitigate any future safety risks proportionately. We do not want to be heavy-handed, potentially ending the much-loved tradition of local air shows, which support local economies and charities, and more significant national displays that support our proud national aviation industry.

As my hon. Friend knows, to ensure the most appropriate long-term safety solution, the CAA has commenced a full review of civil air display safety standards. Although this is not an exhaustive list, it will consider: the range of permitted manoeuvres for aircraft, particularly high-performance or vintage jet aircraft; the content of the air display; the location and characteristics of the air display venue, taking particular account of the surrounding land and infrastructure. The review will conclude by the beginning of next year, but an interim report will be produced next month. The CAA has appointed an external challenge panel to test the report’s findings. The panel will be led by Geoffrey Podger, a gentleman with extensive experience of internal and external communication and risk-based regulation policy and enforcement.

The CAA has also committed to acting immediately as necessary on any new information that emerges from the current AAIB investigation. The safety of the public is of paramount concern, and of course the Government support the independent investigation and review in order to ensure that they happen in an appropriate and timely manner. On conclusion of the processes, we will give further consideration to any additional legislation that may be required to ensure that safety is maintained.

In my view, the CAA’s response to this terrible tragedy is sensible and proportionate. My hon. Friend asked me to put on record the result of careful contingency planning for emergencies, and I am happy to acknowledge its importance and the need for continued training in emergency preparedness. I am happy to provide him with that reassurance.

Of course, none of this can bring back the people who so tragically lost their lives. Again, I put on record my condolences and those of the whole Government to

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the families of the victims and those who had to deal as part of their professional or voluntary jobs with the horrific consequences of the incident. It has been a truly testing time for the local community, and it was heart-warming to hear from my hon. Friend how the communities pulled together with clean socks, cups of tea, cakes and flowers, and have come together to acknowledge the scale of the tragedy and memorialise the work and lives of those who so tragically lost their lives.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. She has made a point that I neglected to make and want to reinforce about the importance of providing support for the emergency services. Those first responders and those involved in the clean-up operation afterwards saw some extraordinarily harrowing scenes. Many of them suffered as a result, and they may not realise it until some time later. Does she agree that while it is obviously important to provide support to the families of the victims, we should not neglect to ensure that full psychological and other services are available for those on whom we depend to be professional, who are human just like us?

Claire Perry: My hon. Friend makes that point well. We are asking people, in the course of their daily work and lives, things that are beyond the imagination of anyone in this room. I was delighted to ask specifically that facilities were in place to ensure that members of the emergency services receive all the counselling and support necessary.

It is a tribute to my hon. Friend’s energy and commitment that he has secured this debate. It was a tragedy of immense proportions. The immediate response has been proportionate and sensible, and a forensic review is going on to determine what more is required to ensure that we have safe air shows in future. I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate.

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Tamils Rights: Sri Lanka

[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]

4.30 pm

James Berry (Kingston and Surbiton) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered Tamil people’s rights in Sri Lanka.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am particularly grateful that we have the opportunity to debate human rights in Sri Lanka in the same week that the UN Human Rights Council begins considering the same subject in its 30th session in Geneva. In the closing stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, 400,000 Tamil civilians were on the run as Government forces advanced and overrun the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: the LTTE, or Tamil Tiger forces.

On 21 January 2009, the Sri Lankan Government announced the creation of a so-called no-fire zone: an area of 35 square kilometres where the fleeing civilians could take refuge. Many civilians fled to the no-fire zone expecting safety. Instead, that no-fire zone was heavily and systematically shelled by the Government. It is beyond sensible dispute that thousands of civilians were killed in that no-fire zone.

The UN was also operating in the no-fire zone. UN field workers ran a food distribution hub there. When an area nearby came under shelling from heavy ordnance, the UN field workers provided their GPS co-ordinates to the Government to ensure that ordnance was redirected. Three to four hours later, they came under a barrage of heavy mortar attack at those co-ordinates. There is clear evidence for this. The evidence is not from the Tamil Tigers, nor even from Tamil civilians, but from United Nations field workers. They themselves were there in the no-fire zone.

By early February 2009, the Government had overrun the first no-fire zone and created a second one on a beach in the east of the island. This no-fire zone was also heavily and systematically shelled by Government forces. In the second no-fire zone, which contained hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians living in makeshift tents, there were just six doctors. Those doctors were working in the most horrific, dangerous and squalid conditions, yet they were denied basic supplies such as antibiotics and blood by the Government. It is estimated that the locations in which the doctors operated from, which included an abandoned school, were shelled some 65 times. Indeed, the attacks were so consistent that the doctors asked the International Committee of the Red Cross not to provide their GPS co-ordinates to the Government: something that is standard practice to avoid medical facilities being bombed in times of war. I have heard direct evidence about this from one of the doctors who was working bravely in that makeshift medical centre.

I should add that the Sri Lankan Government forces by no means had the monopoly on human rights abuses at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Tamil civilians were also subjected to a variety of horrors at the hands of the LTTE, including being used as human shields. However, it is important that the two are not conflated. The all-party group for Tamils, which I chair and of which

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various Members from different parties are here today, is concerned with Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka and in the non-resident community, which includes many of our constituents, many of whom suffered terribly. We have no truck with the LTTE, which is a terrorist organisation that I condemn absolutely. Equally, we have no truck with those who label the people who stand up for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka as LTTE sympathisers.

With that caveat, I should add that there is compelling evidence that the laws of war and international human rights laws were breached with respect to LTTE—or suspected LTTE—captives after their surrender. There is evidence that LTTE members holding white flags of surrender were none the less shot by Government forces. There is clear evidence that female Tamil captives were sexually abused before being shot, and there is clear evidence in the form of sickening video footage of Government soldiers shooting Tamils—presumably LTTE fighters—in the head while they were on their knees, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. The comparison with the gruesome footage of executions released by the barbaric Daesh in Syria is obvious.

The UN has estimated that in the closing stages of the civil war between January and May 2009, some 40,000 civilians died. Most of those were Tamil. Although that period was not the beginning nor the end of the human rights abuses suffered by people from all sides of the conflict in Sri Lanka, it is justice for the human rights abuses in that period that we are primarily concerned with today.

In response to the Sri Lankan Government’s abject failure to secure accountability for the deaths, on 22 June 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a UN panel of experts to consider alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during the final stages of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka. The panel reported on 31 March 2011. In its excoriating report, which I will quote from briefly, it lay blame on both sides. Its executive summary stated:

“The Panel’s determination of credible allegations reveals a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the Government...The Government says it pursued a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ with...‘zero civilian casualties.’ In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace."

Instead of engaging with the UN report in a meaningful or sensible way, the Sri Lankan Government arrogantly rejected it, describing it as “fundamentally flawed” and “patently biased”. Sri Lanka did nothing to address the alleged human rights abuses at the end of the war. Not a single prosecution was instigated. It is reasonable to surmise that the Sri Lankan Government hoped that the international community would turn the other way.

But the United Kingdom did not look the other way. In November 2013, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting convened in Sri Lanka. Some of the heads of state who were invited, such as Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, chose to boycott the meeting in protest at the Sri Lankan Government’s

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record on human rights. Our Prime Minister, who was urged not to attend, did attend to encourage progress on human rights. Away from the Government’s stage-managed photo opportunities, our Prime Minister bravely used the opportunity to visit the north and to hear at first hand the harrowing accounts from Tamil civilians.

Plainly moved by those accounts, and Sri Lanka’s ongoing and abject failure to investigate human rights abuses, the Prime Minister used the March 2014 session of the UN Human Rights Council to call for a full and independent investigation into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. I am proud that Britain led the calls for an independent investigation. I am proud that David Cameron and his allies at the UNHRC delivered a resolution requiring an independent investigation. It should not be forgotten that this was not an easy sell on the council. In fact, of the 47 members, only 23 countries voted positively for the resolution; 12 abstained and 12 voted against.

Welcoming the resolution, our Prime Minister said:

“This is a victory for the people of Sri Lanka who need to know the truth about what happened during those terrible years of the civil war so that they can move forward. Today’s outcome has been triggered by the failure of the Sri Lankan government to stand by its promises to credibly and independently investigate alleged violations on both sides during the war."

On Monday, the UNHRC met for its 30th session in Geneva. At the end of the session on 30 September, the council will consider the UN’s report, which is expected to be published tomorrow, and what the next steps should be with respect to Sri Lanka. I believe my right hon. Friend the Minister returned from Geneva yesterday. In this debate, I would like to ask the Government to consider two things: first, the grave doubts of many Tamil people about the fairness of any domestic justice mechanism, and secondly, whether the UN Human Rights Council can be used as an opportunity for pressure to be put on the Sri Lankan Government to take action in a wider respect in the north and the east.

As for the accountability mechanism, the Sri Lankan Government have in the past and continue to this day to reject absolutely an international mechanism for determining human rights abuses of the form that we saw in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Cambodia post-conflict. When there are serious allegations on both sides of a conflict of an international human rights nature, the Government’s reasons for rejecting an international mechanism should be scrutinised most closely.

To be clear, many Tamils reject a domestic mechanism. That is the point of view of the Tamil National Alliance, which has just won 16 parliamentary seats in the August elections; it is the view of the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, which is predominantly Tamil; and it is the view of the British Tamils Forum and of the Global Tamil Forum, which the BTF is part of. Put simply, they do not see any difference between the conditions in 2014, which led to the UNHRC’s resolution for an international investigation over a domestic one, and those that exist today.

There are three principal objections to a domestic tribunal. First, how can the victims of alleged horrendous human rights abuses have any confidence in the fairness or the impartiality of a tribunal convened by a Government comprised of a number of the people accused of those very abuses?

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The easy answer to that question would be that in January 2015 a new President— President Sirisena—was elected, which heralds a new era. But as human rights groups have pointed out, President Sirisena is the same man who was the acting Defence Minister in the final days of the civil war, when most civilian casualties occurred. And many people in top-ranking Government, military and other state positions remain the same. General Fonseka, the Commander of Armed Forces at the end of the civil war, was recently promoted to the rank of field marshal. Major General Jagath Dias, commander of the 57th division, whose units stand accused of committing some of the worst human rights abuses at the end of the civil war, was promoted to Army Chief of Staff just this May.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this most timely and extremely relevant debate. Bearing in mind the rather unfortunate history of other countries intervening in Sri Lanka, be they Scandinavian countries or India, who does he suggest should be the agency behind the independent commission to examine what is undoubtedly a series of incidents that could be described by any impartial person as war crimes?

James Berry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The form of the mechanism will obviously be debated at the UNHRC and in my view it will be led by the United Nations, and will be under their guidance.

Stephen Pound: Under the United Nations?

James Berry: Yes.

For the reasons I just mentioned, it is small wonder that many Tamil people have little faith in the Government to convene a fair and impartial justice mechanism.

The second objection to a domestic inquiry is that Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome statute; its domestic laws do not cover a number of the international laws that were breached by both sides, credible evidence of which is found in the 2011 UN report. So, as a bare minimum for a domestic mechanism, Sri Lanka’s domestic laws must cover each and every law that was breached; again, the UN has found credible evidence for those breaches in its new report, which is due to be issued tomorrow.

The third objection to a domestic inquiry is the lack of confidence of witnesses to come forward. A number of the witnesses who the UN spoke to, both when it prepared its new report and when it prepared its report in 2011, only spoke to it on condition of strict anonymity. Many Tamil victims of and witnesses to human rights abuses have fled the country and been granted asylum in countries such as the UK and Canada because of the fate they suffered in Sri Lanka. They would fear returning to Sri Lanka to participate in a tribunal where the prosecutors and indeed the witness protection, if there was any, were to be provided by the Sri Lankan Government.

Moreover, international human rights groups and charities have recently published reports detailing worrying ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. A number of these groups and charities exist in the UK. Freedom from Torture, a British charity, produced a report in August that cited evidence of human rights abuses since

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the ceasefire. So, between May 2009 and this year, there is evidence that the Sri Lankan military, police and intelligence services have practised torture, including rape and extensive burning. So, what confidence can witnesses have in coming forward in a perceived climate of fear, especially when it is believed that witnesses who have come forward previously have suffered as a result?

I recognise that there appears to be little appetite among the UNHRC members at its current summit for a fully independent justice mechanism. That is obviously disappointing, but perhaps it is unsurprising given how tight the vote was back in 2014 for an independent investigation. If it really is the case that there is no international appetite for an independent inquiry, it is probably right that there is little to be gained by Britain going out on a limb. Nevertheless, I ask the Minister to do what he can to ensure that the justice mechanism is a robust one, preferably with UN involvement both in the prosecution and the judicial tribunal.

Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that Britain can add a lot of value to this process, even if it is at arm’s length, because of our experience in Northern Ireland, which is a similar conflict between two sides that hold different views but whose views must be equally and fairly taken on board in any resolution ahead? Such a process should come from within a political process, as has been the case in the past in Northern Ireland and as seems to be happening in Sri Lanka, in terms of a unity Government.

James Berry: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. During a number of years, there have been repeated failures by the Sri Lankan Government to put in place a credible process. That is why it is important that, whatever comes out of the current UNHRC session, robust procedures are put in place, so that whatever system is arrived at, the UN strictly monitors it and can return to the UNHRC if the stages, expectations and benchmarks are not met. Simply leaving matters to the Sri Lankan Government after this long history of, frankly, their taking no action whatsoever is not an acceptable way forward.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend on securing this very important and timely debate. I share his support for an international process, but does he share my view that, in addition to what the Government can do, we in the British Parliament have a role to play by working with our Sri Lankan counterparts from all political parties, to ensure that they themselves can play an active part in any reconciliation process? Also, will he join me in commending the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which are trying to establish active schemes in Sri Lanka at this time?

James Berry: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I certainly commend the work that has been done by British parliamentarians to help to support parliamentarians in Sri Lanka; long may that work continue.

Sri Lanka’s track record on accountability is summed up by the fact that not a single prosecution has yet taken place, which I consider an absolute disgrace. Given that, it is my firm submission that whatever

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mechanism is put in place, it should be very much under the supervision of the UN, so that if the safeguards that the UN puts in place are not met, the matter will come back before the UNHRC.

I turn to the wider issues in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Even if there is not to be an international judicial mechanism, there is much else that Britain can achieve, by leading the international community in ensuring that the Sri Lankan Government deliver. I will focus briefly on four points.

First, there should be demilitarisation of the north and east, which are effectively still under military lockdown. Secondly, there must be swift progress on the disappeared. Many thousands of Tamils remain unaccounted for, including the relatives of a number of my own constituents. Indeed, there are still more people unaccounted for in Sri Lanka than in any other country in the world outside Iraq. Thirdly, there must be swift progress with the resettlement of the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Tamil civilians who were displaced by the civil war, many of whom had their lands, and therefore their livelihoods, seized by the military. Fourthly, there must be reconstruction of the north and east.

There are many steps that the Sri Lankan Government could take to improve reconstruction in the north and the east. These include freeing up the way for inward investment directly into the region, rather than processing it through Colombo, which is something the non-resident Tamil community in the UK is keen to do. My own constituency sits in the borough of Kingston, as does that of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), and the borough is looking to twin with the city of Jaffna, in order to promote economic, cultural and social advancement, and to assist in that regard.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I commend the hon. Gentleman on his speech and I very much share his view that there should be an independent UN investigation. He said that he thought there were four specific things that the British Government could do. May I suggest to him that there is a fifth? It is that the British Government, perhaps through some of their funding from the Foreign Office to human rights organisations, could continue to shine a light on the human rights abuses that are still ongoing in the north and east of Sri Lanka. And in that regard, I draw his attention to a report by the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership in the US on the situation that Tamil women face. There continues to be a huge problem in terms of sexual harassment and, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to, rape, as much now as there has been in the past.

James Berry: I mentioned just one of the recent reports—the one from Freedom from Torture—but a number of them show ongoing and serious human rights violations that must be dealt with at the Human Rights Council. A credible system must be in place for investigating this issue. It cannot simply be swept under the carpet because we are considering something that happened at the beginning of 2009. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): On that point, the evidence given to the Freedom from Torture report and to the UNHRC—the hon. Gentleman

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has referred to it—showed 148 post-conflict incidents of torture. A third were from voluntary returners from the UK to Sri Lanka. Worryingly, in 11 of those cases, the Sri Lankan army and police had surveillance information available on their involvement in politics in the UK. Eight of those cases were since January, with one as late as June. The idea that the problem is historical is clearly not the case. I suggest that Home Office policy on asylum for Tamils should take that on board.

James Berry: The hon. Lady is noted for her work in this area. I have read the report, and it is worrying. What is most worrying about it is that human rights abuses are continuing, with two as recent as June. The problem has not been solved by the change in presidency in January. I urge the Minister to ensure that that is considered at the Human Rights Council as well.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): My hon. Friend is being very generous, and he is giving a splendid and powerful speech. He has laid out the arguments extraordinarily well. He has mentioned the progress being made by our borough, the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, and Jaffna district, which are in the process of organising twinning. In addition to the obvious benefits of commercial co-operation around governance and so on, does he believe that twinning will also provide another layer of protection for the people who live in and residents of Jaffna district, on the basis that it will be more eyes, more scrutiny and more transparency? Is peace part of the value in the twinning process in his view?

James Berry: Peace is certainly part of the value in the twinning process that we are planning in Kingston. Whether my hon. Friend is in place in Richmond Park in north Kingston or in the wider London area, I am sure that the scrutiny he will bring to bear on the issue will be of great benefit to those involved in the twinning process.

Other examples of economic progress that could be made to improve the situation in the north and east include: repairing infrastructure damaged by the years of war, including opening Jaffna airport to international flights, and giving the go-ahead to India’s proposal for a bridge over the short gap between India and the island of Sri Lanka, which would boost trade between the two countries.

President Sirisena has spoken warm words on some of these topics, and I do not dispute that some progress has been made, but progress since his election in January has not been quick enough, and some measurable benchmarks need to be put in place. Warm words are not enough.

In conclusion, the international community failed to act in 2009 when 40,000 Sri Lankan citizens, mainly Tamil, were slaughtered. Now is not the time for the world to look away again simply because there are other crises, such as that in Syria, and because the new President of Sri Lanka is making more positive noises about reconciliation.

Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right that the international community substantially looked the other way, but we were also proud that our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was the first Prime

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Minister to go to the Dispatch Box and call for a ceasefire, and that our Foreign Secretary at the time, David Miliband, visited Sri Lanka. That was a dangerous situation to walk into. Although we did not get a ceasefire from that, it did bear witness and let the world know about the slaughter that was happening.

James Berry: I certainly was not trying to make a party political point. My experience of our APG so far is that this is one issue on which our two parties are ad idem, and long may that continue.

The Tamil people in Sri Lanka want reconciliation, but reconciliation cannot take place without proper accountability. I close with a quote from the Prime Minister at the time of the 2014 UNHRC session. He said:

“Ultimately all of this is about reconciliation…It is about bringing justice and closure and healing to this country which now has a chance of a much brighter future. That will only happen by dealing with these issues and not ignoring them.”

I call on our Government once again to lead the world in seeking proper accountability for human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

Mr Graham Brady (in the Chair): Time is quite short, so I propose moving on to the wind-ups from the three Front-Benchers at 5.10 pm. While there is no formal time limit, in order to try to accommodate the other Members who wish to speak, I suggest they try to keep their comments to closer to three minutes than four, if possible.

4.55 pm

Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on calling this timely debate and on his recent appointment as chair of the Tamil all-party group, to which I am pleased to have been appointed vice-chair.

The Tamil cause is important to me. I am proud to have served as the chief executive of and policy adviser to the Global Tamil Forum, an organisation that is passionately committed to human rights, accountability, reconciliation and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. I am also pleased to support the British Tamils Forum. Many members from the Tamil community have made representations to me. They have suffered terrible human rights violations, both during the armed conflict and in its aftermath. I remain deeply concerned about the ongoing treatment of the Tamil people on the island.

I was delighted to see the back of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. His authoritarian Government did so much to undermine the rule of law and repress the rights of Tamils and other communities. It is to President Sirisena’s credit that he has sought to reduce the powers of the presidency, appointed civilian rather than military governors to the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern provinces and released some Tamil political prisoners and land.

However, as the compelling report by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka pointed out,

“systematic and widespread crimes against humanity have not ceased with the change of government.”

We have heard that today. Tamil families continue to report being at the mercy of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows for arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charge. In the north and

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east of Sri Lanka, the Tamil National Alliance has expressed particular concern about the return of Tamil internally displaced people and refugees. Gender-based violence continues to be committed by members of the military against Tamil war widows, and the militarisation of Tamil areas over the past six years and the commercial exploitation of Tamil lands by the armed forces are hindering economic recovery and entrenching poverty.

After suffering repression and marginalisation for decades, what confidence can the Tamil people have that genuine change will be effected? Where is the Government’s commitment to a comprehensive political settlement that addresses the issue of Tamil self-determination? Can the Tamil people have any confidence that the human rights violations committed against them during and since the armed conflict will finally be addressed? The answer to that question is of particular importance given the timing of today’s debate—as we have heard, the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council is under way.

We know from the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the forthcoming report on Sri Lanka will present

“findings of the most serious nature”.

The atrocities committed in the final months of the armed conflict were some of the worst the world has seen. Tens of thousands of Tamils were slaughtered, with many more unaccounted for. The culture of impunity that allowed terrible human rights violations and crimes against humanity to take place still exists in Sri Lanka today.

Only through a credible accountability and justice process will Sri Lanka be set on a path to genuine reconciliation and a sustainable peace. I note the statement made by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister yesterday, in which he said that his Government would seek to establish a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission and a new office on missing persons. Those are important developments, but as the Tamil National Alliance MP, Mr Sumanthiran, has said:

“Whatever procedures are instituted…the international community must get the Government of Sri Lanka to agree to full international participation, because the process must have credibility”.

As the democratically elected voice of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, the TNA must be listened to.

Tamils are right to have serious misgivings about any notion of domestic inquiries: let us not forget that Sri Lanka has an appalling record of either whitewashing or failing to investigate human rights abuses. The state has been complicit in the alleged perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict. President Sirisena was a Government Minister in the final years of the war and has rejected outright the evidence of serious human rights abuses uncovered by Callum Macrae’s groundbreaking “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” documentary. Domestic processes without full international involvement will be neither durable nor credible.

Along with many Tamils in the UK, Sri Lanka and around the world, I want to know what pressure the Government will bring to bear to ensure that any resolution relating to Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council includes cast-iron guarantees of international involvement.

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As Mr Sumanthiran says, more than anything else, the process must have credibility in the minds of victims. That is the least we can expect after so many promises of an independent international inquiry. The next few weeks will have such an important bearing on the future of Sri Lanka in terms of its past, its future and its current human rights situation, so it is vital that the Minister takes all those points on board when considering the UK’s position. I look forward to hearing his response.

5.1 pm

Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con): I do not suggest for a minute that it is not right to learn lessons. It is right to learn lessons from anyone’s experience in business, in one’s personal life and, indeed, in government. That is why I referred earlier to the British Government’s experience in Northern Ireland. There are many things that they might have done differently or, in hindsight, might never have done. Importantly, the peace process in Northern Ireland came from within.

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Jayawardena: Let me make a little progress and then I certainly will. It is important that the unity Government has been formed in Sri Lanka, because it allows for a sense of everyone having a seat at the table and the opportunity to have their say. Importantly, it allows everyone to be heard.

I do not believe that anyone present is saying that war is pretty. It certainly was war, and things might well have been done differently on both sides.

I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) said about the importance of keeping distinct the work that his all-party group is doing to champion the rights of Tamil people and its opposition to the terrorism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Let us not forget that it was the LTTE, which I accept no one here supports, who perfected the suicide belt and were the first to use women as suicide bombers. Those are disgusting acts that no one present would support; indeed, I am sure that everyone would condemn them.

The vast majority of people in Sri Lanka, on both sides, wanted peace. They never wanted the war, so it is important that we move forward and learn the lessons of the past in whatever way we can. It is important to be fair to both sides.

Wes Streeting: I have family who suffered at the hands of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and through the misconducts and misdeeds of the British Government over many years, but is the hon. Gentleman seriously comparing the British Government’s involvement in Northern Ireland with the appalling acts of brutality and war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan Government? I find that unbelievable.

Mr Jayawardena: I am making the point that it is possible to learn lessons. It is possible for the British Government to have learned lessons, and it is right that the Sri Lankan Government learn lessons about their past. The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point,

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but I am not suggesting that the two are one and the same. Nevertheless, the point about learning lessons is important.

In the interests of time, I will say very briefly that it is important that any future work is fair to both sides, and that there is not a witch hunt on either side. People in Northern Ireland have entered into the democratic process, which is absolutely right; that is the direction in which I believe Sri Lanka needs to go.

There is a part to play for the Foreign Office in ensuring more trade and investment between our country and Sri Lanka, because as the latter becomes a more prosperous nation, it is possible—indeed, it becomes easier—for everyone to work together and share in prosperity. That is the way to make sure that Sri Lanka goes from strength to strength while ensuring that lessons are learned from the years that have passed.

5.5 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I want very briefly to make some constructive suggestions on how the international component of any mechanism looking into what went on in Sri Lanka could work. It is crucial that tomorrow’s report represents the beginning of international action on behalf of Sri Lanka’s victims, not the conclusion of the issue. If the international community, including the UK, fails to fulfil its role in providing international oversight, perpetrators of war crimes and continued human rights abuses will never be brought to justice.

Such international pressure could include the following recommendations, all made by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka. First, a special envoy for human rights in Sri Lanka should be appointed to go beyond the offering of technical assistance alone. Secondly, the protection of witnesses must be ensured to internationally accepted standards. Thirdly, the forthcoming Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report should be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for further action. Fourthly, the Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict and the special rapporteur on torture should be pushed to visit Sri Lanka and initiate a special inquiry into rape and sexual violence. Finally, Sri Lankan police and military involvement in UN peacekeeping missions should be suspended.

We cannot let limited national mechanisms fail to provide the victims of inhumanity with the fairness and justice that they truly deserve. As a silent war against historical and ongoing human rights abuses continues, the international community can and must do more.

Wes Streeting rose—

Mr Graham Brady (in the Chair): Order. I remind you, Mr Streeting, that I am hoping to move on to the wind-ups at 10 past.

5.7 pm

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Brady. I will keep my eye on the clock and, with the limited time I have, build on the points made by others, rather than repeating them.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) for securing this debate and for the energetic way he has taken up his role as chair of the

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all-party group on Tamils. I am proud to be one of his vice-chairs. In the detailed speech he gave to introduce the debate, we heard an indication of the crimes that were committed during the civil war. When it is published tomorrow, I hope that the report begins to build even greater international attention and focus not only on what took place but on what continues to happen in Sri Lanka, and the effect on its population, particularly the Tamil community who still reside in the north of the country, as well as the Tamils around the world, including in our constituencies, who feel that they cannot return home for fear of further persecution.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) that tomorrow really must be the start and not the conclusion. The level of independent international accountability—accountability that many have campaigned for—does not go far enough. The Sri Lankan Government have obfuscated and stalled every step of the way. I welcome the work done by Gordon Brown’s Government, and successive Governments since, to put the issue on the agenda. There can be no justice without accountability. We cannot trust the domestic structures in Sri Lanka to ensure genuine accountability for the crimes that took place, which is why independent international mechanisms will be so important.

In the limited time remaining, I want to add to the Minister’s list of things to respond to by asking about how the Home Office responds to asylum applications. To give a recent example, a constituent of mine, a victim of torture in Sri Lanka, who has been here for years and has demonstrable evidence of torture—not just mental torture, but the physical scars of torture—has seen his case continually delayed. After the suffering that he has experienced, he should not have to experience further suffering at the hands of our broken immigration system. I hope that those in the Foreign Office can relay that to their colleagues in the Home Office. On that point, Mr Brady, not wanting to draw your ire, I will take my seat.

Mr Graham Brady (in the Chair): We have up to 20 minutes for three Front-Bench wind-ups. I suspect that all Members present want the Minister to be able to respond to the points.

5.10 pm

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing this debate. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss something that is close to my heart and about which I feel passionately: the rights and experiences of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

I lived and worked in Sri Lanka for a few months in 2008, and I have been back several times since. I left many friends behind: Singhalese and Tamil, as well as Scottish and English, all of whom I have kept in touch with. As a Member of the Scottish Parliament for two years from 2009, I represented much of the Tamil diaspora in Glasgow in the aftermath of the civil war. Indeed, I met former President Rajapaksa in 2009, who was charm personified until I mentioned my constituents, at which point I became invisible. I do not think for a second that I am an expert on Sri Lanka as a result, but I hope that my personal experience will allow me to make a useful contribution to the debate.

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I share the scepticism of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton about new President Sirisena. He appears to take seriously his commitment to unify Sri Lanka, but we should never forget, as many have said, that he was in government when entire Tamil areas were bombed and thousands of people who posed no threat to anyone were killed. Progress has been made, however. In January, for example, the new Government said that the ban on the Tamil diaspora would continue, but by June they spoke of a diaspora festival. In the President’s inaugural address on 1 September, he called on the diaspora to

“use your expertise and skills to develop the motherland in this consensual political environment.”

I am deeply suspicious of politicians who make changes not because it is the right thing to do, but in order to win a power battle, so I remain cautious but optimistic. I will remain cautious about someone who has just increased their Cabinet from 30 to 48 Cabinet Secretaries, but optimistic about someone who has just returned presidential powers to the Parliament. While life remains hard for Tamils, both here and in Sri Lanka, we must keep the issue alive. Land has been returned to Tamils this year, but only after all the buildings had been destroyed. While people are still living in internally displaced person camps in Jaffna, we must keep a watching brief.

Finally, I want to draw attention to the fact that psychosocial therapy to help people deal with trauma was banned in Sri Lanka. That ban has now been lifted, but it comes too late for some who have fallen into alcoholism, drug addiction and sexual abuse. The world must keep an eye on Sri Lanka. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on bringing this fantastic, important debate to the House. The British Government often talk of their influence on the world stage. They must use it, and I look forward to hearing to how they plan to do so.

5.13 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing this afternoon’s debate. As he says, there has been cross-party work on the issue, and I hope that it continues. I will try to keep my remarks brief, because while it is always important to hear what the Minister has to say, I understand that he has just returned from Geneva, so he may have some particularly useful information for us.

Despite encouraging signs since the defeat of President Rajapaksa in last month’s parliamentary elections—President Sirisena naming an ethnic Tamil Leader of the Opposition and asking the new Parliament to draft reforms to promote ethnic reconciliation; the appointment of a Tamil chief justice; and some of the military administrations in the north being replaced with civilian ones—it would be wrong to suggest that it is possible to draw a line under what has happened in Sri Lanka’s recent history, which the hon. Gentleman eloquently outlined.

Some people will argue that it is time to move on, and that a new dawn is on the horizon, but that would not give justice to the Tamil community, which has endured terrible human rights abuses. That legacy must be addressed

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by President Sirisena with the support of the international community and with an independent international mechanism. The abuses include the many thousands of enforced disappearances. Too many families are still waiting for answers, and I hope that the Minister regularly discusses that with the Sri Lankan Government. Freedom from Torture’s “Tainted Peace” report on torture in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war states that last year, for the third consecutive year, Sri Lanka accounted for the most cases referred to its clinical services, including cases that have happened since the election of President Sirisena. That underlines that we cannot be complacent about the direction or pace of reform in Sri Lanka.

As has been mentioned, there is also the question of what happens when we send back to Sri Lanka people who have had applications for asylum here rejected. Freedom from Torture reports that more than a third of cases reviewed for the study involved people who were detained after returning from the UK. The previous Foreign Secretary, William Hague, undertook last year to investigate reports that Tamil asylum seekers deported by the Home Office had been subjected to sexual violence on their return to Sri Lanka. Like previous speakers, I ask the Minister to update us on the outcome of those investigations, and on the conversations he is having with the Home Office.

Previously, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was unable to tell the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs whether the human rights defenders, journalists and others who met the Prime Minister during the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting had been subjected to any intimidation or harassment as a result. A report by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka has alleged that Tamils organising demonstrations for the Prime Minister’s CHOGM visit were threatened by the security and intelligence services, and that some were subsequently tortured. I hope that the Minister agrees that we have a special responsibility to look into the situation and the safety of those human rights defenders who met our Prime Minister, and that he can update us on that.

As we have heard, the United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry’s report and the recommendations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will be published tomorrow. The high commissioner has already warned that the

“findings are of the most serious nature”

and rightly concluded that the UNHRC

“owes it to Sri Lankans—and to its own credibility—to ensure an accountability process that produces results, decisively moves beyond the failures of the past, and brings the deep institutional changes needed to guarantee non-recurrence”.

President Rajapaksa notoriously refused to co-operate with the inquiry. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister’s address to the UNHRC this week recognised the need for change and accountability, and committed to repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Sri Lanka intends to establish a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence, in consultation with South Africa. I hope that the Minister can update us on his discussions on that with his Sri Lankan counterparts, and on how the Sri Lankan Government can guarantee that the commission is credible, effective and unquestionably independent. We had a long wait for the for the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which, as everyone will agree, did not resolve any issues. We

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need an inquiry that commands the confidence of the Tamil community, which has been let down so much in the past. It remains imperative that Sri Lanka work with the UN to deliver accountability and justice, and to secure Sri Lanka on the path to peace and reconciliation.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I think that we are all united in urging the Sri Lankan Government to engage constructively with the high commissioner’s recommendations. I hope that the UK can play a constructive role in ensuring that they do so.

5.18 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing this debate and commend the valuable work that he has already done in the short time that he has been chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. He continues to raise the important issue of Tamil rights. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), with whom I have jousted across this room and the Chamber for some years now, on her promotion to shadow Secretary of State in the new Labour shadow Front-Bench team.

As several Members have said, the debate comes at a crucial juncture for all Sri Lankans, not only those from the Tamil community. Parliamentary elections last month were the freest, fairest and least violent in living memory. We were pleased to have played a role through support to the European Union and Commonwealth observer missions and by funding domestic election observers. The elections resulted in the formation of a new Government of national unity committed to reconciliation and peace building, so some of the criticisms and observations by both Government and Opposition Members in the debate might have been better directed at the former Government, that of Mahinda Rajapaksa, rather than at the new Administration.

Andrew Stephenson: I welcome the Minister’s comments. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the Minister agree that President Sirisena’s first few months in office have opened up an important political space, with robust debate and important governance changes, such as the 19th amendment to the constitution? There is clearly a lot more to do, but progress is heading in the right direction.

Mr Swire: I utterly concur with my hon. Friend. For example, there is now a Tamil leader of the opposition for the first time in more than 30 years. We have a real window of opportunity for all Sri Lankans to work together to secure a stable, secure and prosperous future.

Tomorrow the report of the international investigation by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will be published. I am proud, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton is, of the leading role that the British Government played in calling for that investigation. The report and its recommendations will make a significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s efforts to establish truth and deliver justice, as the country seeks to address the legacy of the civil war, which continues to have a profound impact on many Sri Lankans.

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The debate is also particularly timely because I attended the opening session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday. I thanked the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the work of his office in producing the report. I agreed with him that the process had been not only invaluable, but I am sure difficult for the many brave witnesses who came forward to give evidence.

As I discussed yesterday with High Commissioner Zeid, and separately with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and with Tamil National Alliance spokesperson Sumanthiran, our expectation is that Sri Lanka will now take forward the report’s recommendations and deliver the required processes and mechanisms to implement them. I also made those points when I addressed the Human Rights Council. I recognise that much remains to be done, but in stark contrast to previous years, I was delighted that I could speak positively about the steps that Sri Lanka’s new leadership has taken to begin to address post-conflict accountability and reconciliation.

The report has a vital role to play in understanding the events that took place during and after the conflict, but it is not an end in itself. I agree with hon. Members who said that this is the start of the process and in no way the end. I am sure that all in this House who have followed developments in Sri Lanka closely now want, as I do, to see Sri Lanka move towards meaningful reconciliation, long-term stability and prosperity for all parties.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): The Minister makes an encouraging case. Will he say something about the consequences for the Administration were there not meaningful progress?

Mr Swire: I tend to look at things more positively. If I may continue, my hon. Friend will hear some of my points in support of what the Government in Sri Lanka are seeking to do. They have our full confidence.

Mr Jayawardena: I thank the Minister for what he has said. I, too, should draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On trade and investment, to which my right hon. Friend referred, does he agree that prosperity will bring the country together as one? We should ensure that everyone has opportunity in Sri Lanka.

Mr Swire: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I very much welcome the plans to twin with Jaffna and so forth. When I was up there, it was clear that, rather than the diaspora returning funds to the Northern Province, Jaffna or the Tamil areas, they should make micro-investments and create businesses. Tamils are fantastic businessmen. The diaspora should invest back into their own country, in the safe knowledge that they will be secure to grow businesses there. There need not be dependence on remittances, but on the micro-economy, growth and jobs. That is what we want.

A vital part of the reconciliation process must be credible proposals that meet international standards to address the four key principles of transitional justice, namely, truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence. I was therefore pleased that Foreign Minister Mangala’s address to the Human Rights Council included such plans. We now need to work with the Sri

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Lankan Government and our partners in the Human Rights Council to understand Sri Lanka’s plans in more detail and to agree a consensual resolution that sets out a clear framework for delivery. That will of course include plans for delivering justice and accountability.

I appreciate why many in the Tamil community have called for a purely international accountability mechanism, but we have been clear for a long time that a credible domestic mechanism that meets international standards is the best way to build a stronger, more inclusive and prosperous society. In practice, that means: an appropriate legislative and judicial framework for prosecutions to take place; an international element that enables it to meet international standards; guarantees of effective protection of witnesses; and an agreed follow-up mechanism to monitor progress. That is the only way in which any process will gain credibility, critically with all Sri Lankan people and with the international community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred to allegations against senior public figures in Sri Lanka. As I have stated previously, we should not pre-judge the conclusions of the UN report. Once the report is published, however, it will be important that its findings are acted on in full, in a credible manner and in line with international standards.

My hon. Friend also referred to recent allegations of human rights violations. We take such allegations extremely seriously. We have repeatedly lobbied the Sri Lankan Government about human rights violations in the past and continue to do so. I discussed the issue of disappearances with Foreign Minister Mangala and with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, in Geneva yesterday. I am pleased that they have agreed to work together to establish an office on missing persons, in line with internationally accepted standards. I am also pleased that the Foreign Minister committed to begin issuing certificates of absence to the families of those who have disappeared, which is an important first step towards dealing with the terrible situation of the missing, which my hon. Friend described.

As regards asylum and human rights applications from Sri Lankan nationals, together with my colleagues at the Home Office, we keep our asylum policy for all countries under regular review, taking into account all available evidence. Applications are carefully considered on their individual merits in accordance with our international obligations. Individuals who can demonstrate that they face a genuine risk of persecution or ill-treatment

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in Sri Lanka are granted protection. In an individual case, when people raise material issues about the safety of their return, the Home Office will review it.

Anne McLaughlin: What about cases in which people cannot prove that they would be in imminent danger, but are so terrified by their experiences in Sri Lanka over many years that they cannot bear to go back? I have constituents in such circumstances. Would the Home Office consider granting them asylum even though they might not face danger, but perceive that they do?

Mr Swire: If the Home Office gave asylum to everyone who perceived danger, the asylum policy would be in a mess, as the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said it was—which it is not. We have to make judgments case by case. We have been reviewed regularly and withstood such reviews, so our policy is robust. Incidentally, as I discussed again in Geneva yesterday, there are of course still problems in the police and the armed forces, and the new Government need to come to terms with that, but I genuinely believe that they will stamp out any human rights abuses. We need to understand that there has been a sea change in Sri Lanka. We need to get behind the new Administration.

Siobhain McDonagh: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Swire: No, I will continue, if I may, for the last minute or so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton correctly pointed out the significant social and economic challenges in Sri Lanka. I saw those at first hand when I visited in January. I reiterated to the Government of Sri Lanka our commitment to help in tackling those challenges.

Fundamental to helping ordinary people get back to normal lives are demilitarisation and the return of military-occupied land in the north and east, which I discussed with Minister for Resettlement Swaminathan and President Sirisena during my visit to Sri Lanka in January; with the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Justice Wigneswaran, most recently during his visit to London in July, when I met him for the second time; and with Governor Fernando of the Eastern Province yesterday in Geneva.

Given the importance of those issues, I was encouraged by the replacement of military governors in the north and east with civilians, by the return of land to a number of war-displaced Tamil families, including by President Sirisena last month, which—

5.30 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).