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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 March 2016

[Albert Owen in the Chair]


9.30 am

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the political situation in Burma.

It is a privilege and an honour to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Owen.

Burma is a nation at a crossroads. It faces huge challenges, but there are many reasons to be optimistic. Recently, I was fortunate to go on a visit with Benedict Rogers from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He is a fount of knowledge on Burma. As well as being a fantastic advocate for human rights and religious tolerance, Christian Solidarity Worldwide is an amazing source of information on that and other parts of the world.

I have a personal interest in Burma, because my father was born there. My grandfather was born in Mandalay. During world war two he served on the docks and took part in the scuttling so that the Japanese could not get in and use the docks or anything there. When I visited, I found out that when my father was a schoolboy aged 13, he was walking past the Secretariat on the day that General Aung San was assassinated. Imagine a 13-year-old boy seeing the chaos in the aftermath of that and not knowing quite what a pivotal moment that was in the country’s history.

In 1962, during the coup, my aunt was a tutor at Rangoon University when the student union was blown up, and she lost many of her friends and colleagues that day. She also lost her job. For the next two years she had to work unpaid at the generals’ behest, doing whatever they wanted, including going up and down the streets chanting to pretend that the generals had far more support than they actually did.

It was therefore an absolute privilege and honour for me to create another tiny chapter of my family’s history 2016, at another pivotal moment in the country’s history. Following the 2015 elections, the Government are transitioning to what we hope will be a far more open, fairer and freer democracy. The visit was more than just a personal episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”; thanks to Ben, I was able to criss-cross the country and meet a number of people to talk about religious tolerance, human rights and ethnic conflicts. I also met a number of national and regional MPs.

I joined an international delegation in Naypyidaw, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is in her place, and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), both of whom I know wanted to participate in the debate. Unfortunately, they have events elsewhere. The international delegation helped to train the new Burmese MPs, and one thing that was uncovered was that the first basic risk for the future is the capacity of the newly elected politicians. They have worked so hard and given up so much to be elected, but they need

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knowledge and direction to be effective at drafting and scrutinising legislation and to be able to challenge Ministers while still dealing with their constituency work to the best of their ability. We take that for granted here. When I was elected, I had support from experienced Clerks, staff, Doorkeepers and colleagues. I stepped into a mature system with people who could guide me smoothly on the way. The system in Burma was previously run by a military junta, so that barely exists in Naypyidaw. The opportunity to scrutinise is very new.

Mr Speaker has also been to Burma with Ben Rogers, and is a former chairman of the all-party group on democracy in Burma. He has already provided a lot of support and has promised more. Experienced British parliamentary Clerks are seconded over there, sharing our knowledge, and that is fantastic. Delegations of Burmese Clerks have visited here, too. Most people, when they look at my campaign to get to this place after two and a half years and a hard-fought election, say, “Paul, you worked very hard”, but I basically did a lot of simple things many times over a couple of years. I look at the Burmese MPs in awe. They have given up so much. My old sales manager used to liken commitment to an English breakfast. He said that the chicken that gave the egg was mildly interested, but the pig that gave the bacon was totally committed. What the Burmese MPs have given up is remarkable. They are eager and chomping at the bit, but it is important for them to focus. There is a huge weight of expectation, and that needs managing in the parliamentary and party structures.

Most Burmese people are tolerant, understanding and determined, but they know that they cannot change things overnight. With vision, determination and a framework, however, things can change. Aung San Suu Kyi is an incredible woman, but she cannot do everything on her own, and that is why the framework will be important. We need to enable MPs to find the right balance between their work for their country in getting the rule of law, legislation and changes in place, and their constituency work and family life. That is very difficult given the situation in Naypyidaw. The extraordinary parliamentary building that Members might have seen on the internet or television is something to behold. Even Ceausescu would be amazed by the extent of the building. Frankly, it is big enough to give MPs a desk and somewhere to do their constituency work. Not all the changes need a lot of money, which obviously Burma does not have a lot of at the moment.

The election observers I met while I was over there saw a number of cases of fraud, intimidation and threats of violence, so it was not a perfect election by any stretch of the imagination, but it was as good as could be expected, and I do not think anyone can be in doubt that it got the result that the vast majority of the country wanted to see. In that regard, it was a good result, and it was as free and as fair an election as we could expect. Will the Minister tell us what more parliamentarians and the Government can do to support politicians in Burma—we are obviously not going to be telling them what to do or how to run their country—as they transition to parliamentary democracy, which we take for granted in this country?

Members will have seen that the military has been undertaking considerable negotiations with Daw Suu on the presidency and the constitution. U Htin Kyaw, a close ally of Daw Suu, has now been appointed as

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President, which is to be welcomed, but the approval of the military’s choice for vice-president, Myint Swe, is difficult for many to swallow. He is a hard-liner. He was the military commander who supervised the crackdown on the saffron revolution in 2007, and he was a close confidant of Than Shwe. Ironically, Myint Swe’s son-in-law held Australian citizenship, which prevented him from taking up the vice-presidency in 2012 under the same rules that prevented Daw Suu from taking up the presidency, but the son-in-law has reportedly now renounced his citizenship. As first vice-president, Myint Swe has a seat on the 11-member National Defence and Security Council and would serve as acting President should the presidency fall vacant for any reason. Although the transition is looking optimistic and there are many reasons to look forward to what is to come, threats and situations may arise that could bring Burma back to terrible dark times, as has happened in the past. We must err on the side of caution.

When visiting places outside of Naypyidaw, we have to look at what is going on with religious tolerance and ethnic conflict. I met a number of Muslim leaders and campaigners, including Khin Maung Myint, Wai Wai Nu and Al-Haj U Aye Lwin. The first two are Rohingya representatives. Wai Wai Nu is a phenomenally articulate 29-year-old. Her father was previously an MP, but he was not able to stand this time around because he no longer was a citizen of Burma due to the citizenship rules. Like many people I met, and despite being only 29, Wai Wai Nu had already served seven years in prison with her family, pretty well just because she was the daughter of a former MP and an activist. The people I met, albeit that they were a self-selecting community because of the human rights and religious tolerance aspect of my visit, had all been to prison, some for 14 years or 18 years. That was not extraordinary for the people I met, although those people were themselves extraordinary.

Wai Wai Nu told me that the Government’s policy towards the Rohingya in the past had led to hatred and discrimination among the community as a whole. However, despite the severity of the situation, more Burmese people are becoming more open, and misunderstandings about the Rohingya can and must be addressed. She considered that the 1982 citizenship law would need to be revised to amend the indigenous and national races list, or to grant citizenship to those whose parents were citizens before 1982.

For the internally displaced people in the area, especially women, the major problem is healthcare. They are not allowed to go to hospital freely; they need permission and have to pay bribes. Often, even when they are in hospital, they are treated inhumanely.

The source of much of the religious tension has been Ma Ba Tha, a politicised militant nationalist group of Buddhist monks who were supported by the previous Government. We hope that it will wither on the vine now that Daw Suu is in charge. One of the leaders, U Wirathu, a radical monk, has released a new trailer for an anti-Muslim video, and has promised to release the full video. There is a suggestion that the new chairman of Ma Ba Tha, Insein Sayadaw, may be more flexible, because he is a former political prisoner with a good understanding of politics.

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However, we need to continue to hear the voices not only of the moderates but of people such as Cardinal Bo, Bishop Philip in Lashio and the Venerable Badata Seindita, also known by the extraordinary name of Asia Light, who is a Buddhist monk from Pyin Oo Lwin. He speaks out vociferously about the true meaning of Buddhism. Whenever I hear the words “militant Buddhism”, or “nationalist Buddhism”, I think that the words simply do not go together. The Burmese people are generally the most peaceful, tolerant, placid people, albeit very determined. They exude all the qualities that we would expect from a mainly Buddhist population, so it is extraordinary to see the extremes to which Ma Ba Tha will go to divide the population.

Christians have not been exempted from religious intolerance, either. They have not been allowed to build churches in certain areas, and they have been told that they cannot even worship in their own homes in certain situations.

I went to Lashio in northern Shan state to see the ethnic conflict. I think I am the first MP to have been up there. There are worrying developments in Kachin state, where drugs are rife. It is believed that a huge percentage of young people in northern Shan are addicted to drugs, as part of a deliberate policy by the military. Human trafficking into China is common, with little action taken. I met representatives from the Ta’ang community—a women’s organisation and the students and youth union. There are 1 million Ta’ang people in northern and southern Shan state. We discussed the conflict that has recently begun between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State. After the ceasefire agreement was concluded, the RCSS signed it and went around Shan state to explain it. However, when it entered TNLA-controlled territory, clashes between the two armed groups began.

There are allegations that the RCSS is trying to extend its territory, and also suggestions that the military may be stoking the conflict to create divisions. Although things in Naypyidaw are hopefully being sorted and opened up, Burma is a big country with a lot of ethnic states, each with its own values, conflicts and tensions. It is very difficult for someone in the centre to be able to get to grips with all that.

The rule of law was a phrase that kept coming up time and again from every politician I spoke to. We met solicitors and other advocates in relation to various legal cases, which I want to raise briefly. Niranjan Rasalingam, a British citizen, has been in prison for 14 months without charge. He was accused of a cashpoint scam along with two Indian nationals who were not even in the country at the time the crime was supposed to have been committed. Niranjan Rasalingam is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who has taken up his case.

We also met the solicitor who is dealing with the case of the rape and murder of two Kachin schoolteachers on the night of 19 January 2015. Their bodies were found in a village 140 miles from Lashio. Investigators were able to reach the village only one month after the incident and were able to interview some villagers, but none of the 48 soldiers stationed nearby. We saw harrowing photos of the teachers’ dead and mutilated bodies. Their hands had been slashed to the bone, ostensibly with machetes, possibly by the military, to check that

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they were not playing dead. That is how brutal and savage such killings are. For that not to be investigated properly is an absolute scandal.

We met Robert San Aung, who is dealing with U Gambira, a former Buddhist monk who was a leader of the saffron revolution and an outspoken voice for religious freedom, who was arrested on his return to Burma for illegal entry. There are many other such cases. People have got six-month and nine-month prison sentences simply for sharing stories on Facebook, for instance. People talk about too many cases of the police abusing their power of arrest for the purposes of their own influence, and they talk about judicial corruption and constitutional abuse. Power needs to be exercised in out the villages and towns to open things up. We heard from a civil activist:

“Democracy has only reached the upper levels—the regional and township levels—but we need to reach the local level and elect local leaders.”

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentions democracy having reached the upper levels. Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that the Burmese people at ground level see the benefits of the transition, and that they need to see the assistance of the west in trying to deliver on-the-ground democracy and tolerance and respect for all?

Paul Scully: The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. Daw Suu is insistent that her MPs work in their constituencies to make sure they are seen to be working for the people who elected them. I know that the Department for International Development is doing a lot of work on democracy building. It is fantastic that Mr Speaker and many other Members here are helping directly, and it is vital that people on the ground see that work and see how it benefits them.

As I said earlier, it is not for us to tell the people of Burma how to run their country or their legal system. However, we are critical friends, and we should raise points where we can. Imagine if the boot were on the other foot. People complain about the possibility of President Obama telling us what we might do in the European Union referendum. Frankly, I am more interested in how Narendra Modi came over here, extended the hand of friendship and talked about partnerships and working together as equals. We will have such opportunities in Burma. There can be further work by DFID and by Parliament, and hopefully there will be opportunities for trade in the future. When I was over there, it was fantastic to see Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon visiting Yangon as part of a regional tour to talk about opportunities for transport infrastructure.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am enjoying listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He is absolutely right about the rule of law. Unfortunately, Burma comes in the top or bottom quartile, depending on which way we look at it, of the most corrupt countries in the world. Although it is not up to the UK to tell Burma how to run itself, how does the hon. Gentleman think we can best help it get rid of corruption?

Paul Scully: I would look to the example of places such as Bangladesh. It is not a perfect country by any stretch of the imagination, but look at how it has moved

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on from being a corrupt state. Opportunities for business are starting to open up there as people realise that the level of corruption is unsustainable. A lot of investment has been coming into Burma from China, but it is starting to realise that cheap is not always best and that, frankly, China has little regard for the country—it has regard for the dollar and the kyat. Burma is looking to the west for investment and knows that for that to happen it will have to open up and tackle corruption. Hopefully we can help.

I want to put on record my thanks to Andrew Patrick, our ambassador in Burma, Gavin McGillivray, the head of the Department for International Development over there, and Kevin Mackenzie from the British Council. I also thank the many different people I met who spoke so eloquently and articulately. It gives me such hope for the future to know that a new generation is coming through. The politicians in Burma—Daw Suu and her colleagues—have been elected with their own vision. I hope that we can support them, but we must also let them deliver their vision. We should see how we can help them and then get in there and support them as partners. We want to be able to trade and do geopolitical work in that really important part of south-east Asia. I am looking forward to a constructive debate and would welcome the Minister’s comments on the points I have raised.

Several hon. Members rose

Albert Owen(in the Chair): Order. I remind Members that I shall call the three Front Benchers for the wind-ups at 10.30 am. The Minister might like to give Mr Scully a couple of minutes to sum up at the end, if possible. A number of Members have indicated that they would like to speak. If they keep their speeches to around six minutes, we can get everyone in. Another Member has asked to speak and will be joining us later.

9.52 am

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to the Minister, who I think is the longest-serving Minister with this brief, so it is great to see him here. He has done his job very well. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), has really taken Burma to her heart and turned up at all the relevant debates.

The recent trip to Burma by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam must have been incredibly emotional. He went with Ben Rogers from Christian Solidarity Worldwide; anyone who has read Ben’s book would be astounded at how he has managed to slip into and out of Burma for so long. At least now, under a new democracy, he is able to travel freely. His book is almost like a James Bond novel.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union held a very important meeting with a top-level group of former Ministers. I am sorry that I could not be a member of the UK delegation, which was led by the former Member for Sheffield Heeley, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Norwich North (Chloe Smith.

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There are lots of phrases we can use to describe the situation there, but Burma is on the edge of a new era. For the first time in more than 50 years, a civilian President has been elected, and Daw Suu is now in the Burmese Cabinet. Think back and reflect on her incredible journey. She returned to Burma to look after her mother. Both her parents are now dead. She was separated from her young children. She could not say goodbye to her husband when he was dying. Now, because of some petty little rule, she cannot take her place as President, but she is there in the Cabinet, serving her country.

Hers was an incredible journey. All of us sitting here in a democracy know we are lucky when we think of the terrible things she had to face. She was under house detention and in jail, and there were threats to her life, but she had the incredible courage to stand in front of the military—almost like standing in front of the tanks. We saw pictures beamed across the world of her confronting the military with no fear whatever—I am not sure I could have done that. She has been on an incredible journey and has now turned her country into an overwhelming democracy.

Nevertheless, the military still have that 25% of seats: it is like someone having two arms and two legs, but one arm tied behind their back. That is why the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is right that we need to support Burma, with human rights and the rule of law at the heart of its democracy, but at the same time allow it to make mistakes and to move on and form a democracy in its own way, making its own compromises. We must be careful of how we raise the issues and ensure that we are helping Burma, as we have done throughout. I was delighted when the Burmese Government’s first move was to establish an Ethnic Affairs Ministry; the President said that that will be one of the most important things at the heart of their Government.

There also needs to be a truth and reconciliation forum. Whether or not it is something that our Government could help with, and whether or not it is done under the auspices of the United Nations or the EU, it is very important to do it. Perhaps the elders have a role to play. It seemed to work in South Africa, and I think Burma needs something similar to move on. Perhaps members of such a forum could include the heads of, or representatives from, all the religions. The Rohingya have to be part of it; they have to be able to tell their story. Another major issue is that of internally displaced people. Whether they are Rohingya or other people, we have to help them to go back to their villages. Many of them are still living in poverty. The non-governmental organisations have to have an opportunity to provide humanitarian aid to all those internally displaced people.

There has been a long-standing debate, with the Burma Campaign UK raising issues that sometimes many of us who are elected find difficult to raise. Its current campaign, to which I am a signatory—I encourage all Members to become signatories—is called “Standing with the women of Burma to end rape and sexual violence”. Some 110 high-profile women have already signed up to it, and it would be nice to see more signatories.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the atrocity involving the two Baptist teachers in Kachin state. What of the grandmother, Ngwa Mi, who was

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sheltering in a church? They beat her and gang-raped her. She is now back in her village, but is understandably mentally unstable. How can someone ever deal with something like that? Will the Minister ensure that the UK Government direct their assistance to those women and give them help and support to rehabilitate them? They are survivors, and they are very strong. The former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was very active on Burma. A Burmese delegation came in 2014 and we met them at a brilliant round-table event set up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It would be nice for some of that effort and initiative to be directed to help those women.

We have an important role to play as part of the international community. We cannot stand by and see atrocities happen; we cannot stand by and see the rule of law broken or human rights abused. This is a global issue. Wherever we see injustice, we have to raise it. International pressure is important. Rather than try to influence particular pieces of Burma’s legislation, will the Minister make representations that the 2008 constitution in Burma be amended so that the guarantee of impunity for military perpetrators is removed? We also have to keep up the international pressure to remove the rule that somebody cannot become President if they have children who were born outside the country.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I were part of a Speaker’s delegation to that country, and we met some very brave women. I hope the Minister will make representations to ensure that women become an equal part of life in Burma. Whether it is in politics or through NGOs, their voices must be heard. The hon. Lady will remember the lovely children we saw going to school—that is where they should be—wearing backpacks with the United Nations logo stamped on the back. Hopefully, in years to come, we will ensure that they end up in school without needing that logo. We want those children to grow up not knowing hatred or judging people on the basis of their religion. They must have mercy and compassion for each other and use their talents for a new Burma.

Pope Francis has declared to all Christians that this year is an extraordinary jubilee of mercy. How fitting it would be for Burma to become the embodiment of equality, justice and peace.

10.1 am

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this debate, which allows us, like the hon. Lady, to celebrate this opportunity, to express our hopes and to talk about how we can help that extraordinary country with its challenges.

I want to talk about the work that I was part of in February at the behest of the United Nations Development Programme and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in association with various Departments and UK Aid. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I were led by Meg Munn, a former Member. We were part of a multinational, cross-party group of MPs from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere, which helped to train the newly elected MPs in Myanmar.

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The challenge of working with a military quota in that Parliament has already been mentioned, but I want to offer some optimism based on what I saw of MPs of all parties. There is a wide range of parties, given the ethnic situation, but I hope that they will be willing and able to work with each other across those divides. It will be new for them, but, as has already been said, the situation in Myanmar is almost entirely new. Although it is the second Hluttaw, or Parliament, in official terms, this is the first opportunity they have had to work together constructively, and we wish them all luck with that. We helped them to develop the skills they need to do that. We chose the themes of scrutiny, accountability and representation, which are bread and butter to us—we are very grateful for that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said, we have the privilege to take our places in an established democracy. It is an entirely different situation in Myanmar. I was glad to help those MPs to develop the skills that they require to perform their work.

Our training took place over a week and was delivered to about 400 MPs—that is, most of the MPs in Myanmar. As anybody who has done professional training knows, it is hard to train 400 people in any context. We had a blend of plenary work and speeches on the chosen themes, and we used examples from the countries represented in the delegation. To echo what the hon. Member for Walsall South said, we did not try to tell them how to do it. Instead, we offered examples of how we have seen it done in our countries. We supplemented the plenary sessions with a workshop approach. Each international facilitator worked with about 40 Myanmar MPs, which allowed us to go into a level of detail that was inspiring to me and everyone else involved. I hope it was constructive and detailed enough to encourage the Myanmar MPs to begin to think about how to apply those techniques.

We went into detail on subjects such as how a parliamentary question should be put and how constituency matters should be run, which is a brand new concept for many of those MPs. There will be some logistical challenges, but we gave them some ideas about how they can structure that work. We drew heavily on resources that are typically found in Parliaments. It is important that this Parliament continues to provide that support. The Clerks have already been mentioned, and the Library service is sharing skills, techniques and resources in a way that I hope will allow that fledgling democracy to take root.

During that week, we received a warm welcome from the Myanmar people—from the MPs and from the translators and interpreters, who were passionately keen to see the project succeed. They were touched by the friendship of other countries. They are all involved in that project. I hope that people outside those parliamentary circles will be able to draw on that friendship and support in the knowledge that others are looking at Burma and wishing it well. I hope they will be able to draw on that in the years to come.

There is great diversity and strength among that group of MPs. I am sure it will be the foundation of a thriving democracy if they can apply those skills to the country’s many policy challenges. Among the group were men and women. There are some very impressive new women MPs, who knew what they had to contribute, and young MPs. As the chair of the all-party group on

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youth affairs, I was keen to share my thoughts with them about how they can inspire young democrats in their country.

I am grateful to have had the chance to put on the record my reflections on that work. I hope to help the cross-party spirit in this Chamber to do more in the future.

10.7 am

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important debate. The last time we met in Westminster Hall, we were on different sides of the debate about the Government’s threshold for the tier 2 visas, but it is clear that there is a lot of consensus today. I pay tribute to the passion and commitment that he has brought to this issue, which was reflected in his speech.

This is an important and timely debate. The National League for Democracy is preparing to take power in Burma on 1 April, following the elections last November. I will be brief, because other Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has joined us, want to speak. I want to reflect on a few issues that have already been mentioned: the opportunities following the election, the issues facing the Rohingya people and the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war, which the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) spoke about.

I, too, pay tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi. I remember as a youngster learning about the situation in Burma on “Newsround”. My parents had to explain the concept of house arrest to me. At the time, getting to hang around the house and not having to go to school seemed like quite a good idea. In reality, it is a very difficult situation. Aung San Suu Kyi lived with it for 15 years and remained a champion for justice and democracy throughout that time, so she deserves our respect and the tributes that have been paid to her.

In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was the first non-head of state to address Parliament in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker, in his own lyrical way, described her as

“the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity”.

That is a good way of encapsulating the fact that peaceful protest can eventually make progress to where we are today, with an elected Parliament in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi herself as an elected Member, and a new President. That should be an inspiration to others fighting for democracy and freedom under repressive regimes elsewhere.

I pay tribute, too, to others who have fought for justice in Burma, not least the Burma Campaign, which provided useful background information for the debate. The Burma Campaign was supported by my former employers, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which has also provided support to the people of Burma. It is now providing support to refugee children in the border areas, with the Jesuit Refugee Service. Mention has been made of Cardinal Bo, and I am looking forward to meeting and hearing from him when he visits Parliament later this year, in May.

The elections are, of course, the beginning and not the end of the story. The newly elected Government now have to live up to the promise. There is a role for

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the military, which must respect the dismantlement of the junta and not seek to overrule the elected Government, ensuring a clear separation between the military and the state. A lot of the challenges, as we have heard, can be seen in the challenges facing the Rohingya community. The measure of a democracy is how well minorities are treated and respected, and the Rohingya people are a minority whose religion is not recognised, let alone their citizenship.

I attended an Adjournment debate led by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that highlighted the migration crisis—not something that is restricted to Europe, because there is a migration and refugee crisis in that part of Asia as well, of which the Rohingya community forms a substantial part. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya meet, in its reckoning, the legal definitions of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In the Scottish National party, therefore, we support the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK in its call for action against hate speech and the extremists, the removal of restrictions on international aid in Rakhine state, the reform of the 1982 citizenship law, and a credible independent investigation, with international experts, into the charges of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possible genocide.

Related to that is the broader need to tackle sexual and gender-based violence, especially the use of rape as a weapon. The continuing reports of increasing rape and sexual violence by the military are deeply concerning. Sexual violence seems to have been used as a weapon of the Burmese army for decades as part of its warfare against minority groups in the country. It has to be tackled.

I pay tribute to the campaign in which 110, or 111, women, including my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), made a declaration on International Women’s Day calling for an investigation into rape and sexual violence by the Burmese military; an end to the impunity with which it seems to be carried out; support for the victims; the inclusion of women at every political level in Burma, including the peace negotiations between the Burmese Government and the ethnic armed groups; and for Burma’s rape law to be brought into line with international human rights standards that outlaw rape in marriage.

As part of the UK Government’s preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, many countries around the world have signed up to that declaration to end rape and sexual violence in conflict. The declaration contains practical and political commitments to end impunity and promote accountability. We call on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider how that programme can be extended in Burma and to provide more support to the Government there to ensure that the PSVI principles make progress.

To allow time for others to speak, I will leave it at that. I echo the positive tone of optimism that we heard from the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and other speakers. Progress towards democracy is clearly being made in Burma, but it needs support. I hope that today’s debate demonstrates some of that support and that, when we hear from the Minister, he will demonstrate what support the UK Government will provide.

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Albert Owen (in the Chair): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Fifteen minutes remain and three Back-Bench Members are waiting to speak, so you can do the maths.

10.14 am

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I join my colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on his eloquent speech and on his close and direct interest in Burma, which he has shown since he entered the House. That has been most welcome, especially by those of us who have had an interest for some years.

I welcome, too, the long-awaited democratic elections, which recently took place, and I join my colleagues in praising the bravery of millions of Burmese citizens who campaigned for decades, often at great personal cost, for liberty and democracy in their country.

I also join my colleagues in thanking the staff of this House who have been out to Burma, certainly since the visit of the Speaker’s delegation in 2013, which included me and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). We learnt, including directly from Aung San Suu Kyi, how much the Burmese wanted and invited help with such issues as library facilities and research resources. It is to be commended that some of our staff went there—at least one for well over a year, away from home and family—

Paul Scully: Two years almost.

Fiona Bruce: Indeed, almost two years—to provide substantial help. I want to recognise that Mr Speaker has stayed true to his word, which he gave on that delegation, that we would provide help.

I am encouraged by the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on how much constructive help has been given to the MPs in Burma—again much needed. When we were there, they were quite surprised to hear that we went back to our constituencies every week. I remember providing a modest training session on Select Committees—again with the hon. Member for Walsall South—and people were surprised, because in this country Select Committees are not given the subject that they are to look into by the Government and, once they have looked into it, do not submit their report to the Government to be checked before it is published. I am encouraged that there has been a great deal of progress, so I commend my hon. Friend and the others involved.

As we are joyful, so we are cautious. Burma remains a nation in a delicate state. Hate speech, religious intolerance and the powerful remnant of the military still threaten to slow or prevent the next stage of Burma’s growth. As we speak, forces continue to destabilise and halt the hard-won progress to date. The delicate balance of joy and caution is summed up in the words of the moderate Cardinal Bo, who has already been mentioned in the debate. He is a greatly respected and long-standing champion of human rights in Burma. He said:

“My country is emerging from a long night of tears and sadness into a new dawn...But our young democracy is fragile, and human rights continue to be abused and violated.”

We rightly extend our support, therefore, to Aung San Suu Kyi and the new President, U Htin Kyaw, who face the challenge of nurturing the fragile democracy. Even as we speak, nationalists have been protesting against the appointment of Vice-President Henry Van

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Thio, because he is a Christian and a member of the Chin ethnic group. The ultra-nationalists find it an offence that a member of another religion and of a minority group should be in a position of such authority.

That is an important example to dwell on, because freedom of religion and belief has been under extreme pressure in recent decades in Burma. Minorities of all religions have suffered, as well as Buddhists, who stood up to the state-sponsored interpretations of Buddhism that we have heard about. So we celebrate the appointment of Henry Van Thio, and we hope that he will be a symbol of encouragement to many from the minorities in the country, who to date have been excluded from a voice in government.

Particularly persecuted, as we have heard, have been the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. Previously, the regime promoted an ideology of hate that rejected the idea that Muslims could be fully Burmese, or that the Rohingya people had any right to live in the country. They were grievously targeted by military forces, and hundreds were killed and 140,000 reportedly displaced by violence in 2012. We need to ensure that they are given appropriate support and help.

Of comparable concern are the military offensives still being waged by the Burmese army against civilians in northern Shan and southern Kachin states. Gross violations of human rights have forced tens of thousands to flee, as we have heard. They either live as internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in dire conditions, or eke out a living as refugee migrants in other countries. In that context, I commend in particular the work of Baroness Cox from the other place and of her charity, HART, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust.

HART has done great work to assist oppressed people in Burma and to bring that oppression and the violations of human rights to the attention of the wider world. I will refer to some of Baroness Cox’s work in more detail. In Burma, HART works to provide lifelines among the Shan, Karen, Chin and Karenni peoples. Shan Women’s Action Network—SWAN—runs health, education and women’s empowerment programmes. HART works only with local people, and through its remarkable work it is transforming in particular women’s perceptions of their roles in their communities—as the hon. Member for Walsall South mentioned, that is much needed—and enabling them to become strong agents of change. I want to extend my best to HART for that vital work in strengthening civil society.

If the good people of Burma are to realise their potential, it is critical that civil society is strengthened and encouraged, particularly at a time when concerns are increasingly being expressed about the shrinking space for it across the globe. I ask the Minister to consider how civil society can be supported. I commend him on his sincere personal commitment to Burma over many years. I know that he is a Foreign Office Minister, but may I request again that DFID looks at how it can support small charitable organisations such as HART? It receives no support from DFID and yet it reaches right to the heart of the issue in Burma, helping women in their local communities to make a real difference. There is much more that I would like to say, but time prevents that.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): David Burrowes will be followed by Mr Shannon. The Front-Bench speeches will start at 10.30 am.

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10.21 am

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing the debate and for giving such a personal, passionate and comprehensive speech, which really set the groundwork and showed the commitment of all of us across the House over many years to championing the cause of democracy in Burma. The path we are on is a good path. We can all take so much comfort that, at long last, there is a democratically elected Government. That brings great hope, but there are still such challenges.

As many will, I recall that, back on 21 June 2012—which interestingly was a Wednesday—Aung San Suu Kyi spoke just a few metres from this Chamber in Westminster Hall about her hopes that Burma would one day have Prime Minister’s questions like we have here, which would be more raucous and informal than is currently the fashion in Burma. Whether we really want her to have to face the full extent of Prime Minister’s questions, we look forward to the time when it is Aung San Suu Kyi at the dispatch box and she is free from the ridiculous constraints of the constitution and free to take up the formal leadership, for which obviously she already has a democratic mandate.

As has been mentioned, Daw Suu has also asked Britain to consider what it can do to help to build sound institutions needed to build a nascent parliamentary democracy. It is therefore welcome, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and others have said, that our Parliament has stepped up and will continue to step up and work alongside those institutions.

When I visited Burma two years ago, I was humbled by the democratic warriors who have fought long and hard and paid the cost—some lost their liberty and others lost their lives—for the democracy that we take for granted. Those people, who have walked the walk for so many years, asked me to speak to them about how to build their democratic engagement. Their appetite for democracy is insatiable, it is growing and growing and it cannot be put back in the bottle. We need to do all we can to support them.

In the brief time I have available, I want to draw attention to the fact that my visit took me to the border areas. Burma is wonderfully diverse, but my visit revealed that what happens in Naypyidaw and the decisions taken there—indeed the influence of the NLD and Daw Suu—do not reach the border areas that have been in conflict for so long. We therefore need to recognise that, while there has been such great democratic progress, for those areas of conflict, where there is still evidence of landmine explosions, rape of women, indiscriminate killing of people and forced displacement, there is still a long way to go. Certainly, given that the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs are still directly under military authority and appointments are made by the commander in chief, we must do all we can to encourage change in that regard.

On 18 March in Geneva, the UN special rapporteur, Ms Yanghee Lee, highlighted the opportunities and hope, but also the challenges in relation to human rights. She properly drew attention to the fact that the new Government have

“an opportunity to break from the tragic status quo”.

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She also recalled that 1 million Rohingya Muslims are deprived of basic fundamental rights and how progress needs to be made in removing restrictions on freedom of movement and in increasing support for groups working to build bridges between communities. We have heard about Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which is foremost in that work, but there are others and our country in particular, through DFID moneys and others, can help to support that.

I should highlight, as the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and others mentioned, sexual and gender-based violence. The PSVI initiative, championed by Lord Hague of Richmond, needs to continue. I would welcome him and others visiting again to see what progress needs to be made in that regard. There is hope and there are challenges, but we need to recognise that many in the IDP camps have been displaced for nearly three decades, so we need to see voluntary solutions for hundreds of thousands to be able to return. In the Kachin and northern Shan states, Christians have faced discrimination and persecution for many years. There are 4 million of them in those areas.

We need to recognise that the challenges also bring hope. There is an opportunity in Burma for progress in relation to respect for religious belief. It was welcome that at the UN a Catholic cardinal, a Buddhist monk and a Muslim activist stood together with one voice, saying, “We want a Burma that has equal rights for all, where all are protected without discrimination.” In the words of Cardinal Bo, who has been mentioned before:

“We have a chance—for the first time in my lifetime—of making progress towards reconciliation and freedom as a nation.”

10.26 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Thank you, Mr Owen, for giving me the chance to speak in this debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members for making time for me. Members know that this issue is very close to my heart—I have spoken about it before—and I wanted to be here earlier, but I was unavoidably detained.

For decades, successive regimes and Governments in Burma have pursued a twin-track policy of impoverishment and human rights violations to attempt to wipe out the Rohingya community from Arakan state, which right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about. Human Rights Watch has stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya meet the legal definition of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The humanitarian crisis started when the Rohingya fled to camps in 2012, and senior members of the nationalist Arakan National Party continue to whip up hatred against them.

I am conscious that I can say only so much in the short time available. Under the current constitution, the Ministries of Home Affairs, Defence and Border Affairs must be filled by army representatives. I want to put on the record some of my concerns. Managing high expectations and maintaining party discipline will be a major challenge for the NLD. There is also a risk that, if the NLD Government challenge military interests too directly, army hard-liners will try to destabilise them.

The Minister is always responsive and I look forward to his comments. We have to take note of the Buddhist nationalist movement known as Ma Ba Tha, in which

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Buddhist monks play a leading role. During 2015, that movement managed to pass four race and religion protection laws, which are seen by opponents as highly discriminatory against non-Buddhists. The 1982 citizenship law denies the Rohingya rights, including freedom of movement and access to health and education services. There is no way that these issues can be avoided, and it would be much better for the NLD Government to deal with them at the start of their period in government, when they have a new and strong mandate and strong party unity, and elections are years away.

Members have referred to ongoing conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic armed political groups and I have to put my concerns on the record as well. The Burmese army has used rape and sexual violence against women for decades as part of its warfare against ethnic minority groups in the country. That cannot go on unspoken about. It is possible for the new Government to initiate a domestic investigation into rape and sexual violence by the Burmese army, ensure that support is available to victims, include women in peace negotiations and politics overall, and repeal the laws, such as the rape law, that discriminate directly against women. Let us do something constructive and positive about those things.

Open Doors lists Burma as the 23rd worst country in the world for the persecution of Christians. If you will bear with me, Mr Owen, I will take two minutes to give an example. Amod is a Christian convert from the Rohingya tribe. He described the double discrimination that he faces as a Christian in Burma in this way:

“The Muslims in the village still wanted to kill me. One day, they came to do just that. They attacked me but some believers shielded me from harm. Another night, Muslims surrounded my home while I was sleeping and pelted stones on our roof.”

Amod is on the run. He is from the Rohingya tribe and converted to Christianity after 33 years as a Muslim. Christians from the Rohingya tribe are doubly disadvantaged. The country refuses to acknowledge Rohingyas, saying they are Bengali immigrants. Bangladesh, on the other hand, says they are indigenous to Myanmar. In addition, the Rohingya tribe rejects Christians who have converted from Islam.

Amod applied for permission to create a church for Rohingya believers, but was refused. After that he was hounded so much that he eventually took his family to Bangladesh, but his life was no easier there. So with seven Christian Rohingya households they fled to India, where they continued to be pursued from town to town. Amod maintains his witness and pastors the families, who are now scattered. I conclude with that, and I thank Members again for the opportunity to participate in the debate.

10.30 am

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your convenorship, Mr Owen. I commend the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for securing the debate, and for the deeply passionate and moving way in which, through his family’s experience, he brought the situation in Burma right into the Chamber. I commend the other speakers in the debate too; there has been a strong degree of consensus, and that is something that Burma’s new parliamentarians might want to pay attention to—that sometimes, when things really matter, even those whose views come from across

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the political spectrum and who come from a range of backgrounds and different parts of these islands can agree on the fundamentals. I think it was the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) who reminded us that, although we must respect the right of the people of Burma to settle their own future, there are issues on which there are no borders. Whether fundamental human rights are protected or abused is a question on which national borders do not exist. We have human rights because we are human. They can and must be respected equally for all 6 billion-plus of us who share this tiny corner of the solar system.

Other hon. Members have spoken powerfully about the apparent situation—incomprehensible to us—in which the constitution gives legal protection to mass rapists but does not recognise the victims even as citizens in their own country, and gives the army the right to take power any time it sees fit. The army has an absolute veto over any attempt to change the constitution and people’s rights depend on where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from, and their choice to worship whatever deity they believe in, or not to worship. We would all see those things as deeply troubling and a sign of a seriously backward society. However, we have to try to put ourselves into the mindset of those who are handing over power. From their point of view, Burma has been through a revolution in the past 10 years or so. They see themselves as having made huge concessions to the democracy movement, and we have to understand that, and recognise that from their point of view they are already reforming at a pace that some of their supporters would see as reckless. I cannot remember which hon. Member pointed it out, but some voices are being raised in Burma to say that it is unacceptable that someone from an ethnic minority should be allowed to become vice-president. Incidentally, trying to limit someone’s worthiness for public office on the basis of their ethnic origin is not nationalism, but racism, and we should not be afraid to describe and condemn it in those terms.

Rightly, much has been said about Aung San Suu Kyi, and there is something immensely inspirational about the fact that an army that is still effectively all-powerful has to change the rules to protect itself from a 70-year-old woman who does not carry a gun. It is an example that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has reminded us, is a shining light to all of us who believe in peaceful, democratic, lawful protest. Regardless of how powerful and well armed the forces of oppression might be, ultimately the voice of reason, reconciliation and peace will always come through. Perhaps, for those of us for whom this weekend holds particular significance, those thoughts are highly topical.

What do we want to happen next? We must continue to be a critical friend to the people of Burma and recognise that, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out, there is a generation of Members of Parliament in Burma who do not know what a Parliament is. They got elected, and had never seen what a Parliament was and how it was supposed to behave. I am not sure that I would use Prime Minister’s questions as an example of the best of the traditions to implement, but even as a severe critic of this place I think there are aspects of the way the House operates that provide a good example to Burma and elsewhere.

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We must remember that probably there is no one serving in the police force in Burma who has ever known a time when the police force was there to protect people rather than oppress them; there is no one left in the Burmese army who knows what armies and soldiers are supposed to be for. That is another way in which we and others can help to set an example. I should be interested to hear from the Minister what is happening or being planned with a view to UK and other European police and military forces helping to demonstrate, to those reluctant to hand over the reins of power in Burma, that when the army returns to serving its correct purpose of protecting rather than oppressing citizens and the police go back to upholding the rule of law equally for everybody they are held in higher esteem. There is no doubt that although the army is deeply feared in Burma, while it is not particularly feared here, our soldiers are much more respected than I suspect most soldiers are in Burma. That is not because of the power of the weapons they use, but because of the restraint with which they do not use them, and because although there are sometimes incidents that cannot be defended, the military forces in the United Kingdom and most other parts of the developed world publicly condemn any abuse of power by their serving officers, and ensure that those are investigated and the culprits dealt with under the law.

It is impossible to finish my speech without referring to the appalling abuse by the Burmese army of the human rights of a generation of women and girls. There are no words that can describe the revulsion we feel at reports that a mother is forced to watch her 12-year-old daughter being gang raped by soldiers who are effectively immune from ever being held to account for their crimes. We have to make sure that those who will be in charge of the Burmese army in the near future fully understand that that kind of behaviour cannot be condoned or accepted.

Fiona Bruce: Would the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it is important that small charities working at grassroots level to support women in Burma, such as the one I mentioned, HART, should be supported in turn by DFID? We need DFID to look more widely at supporting small charities that make a difference on the ground.

Peter Grant: I appreciate that that is a subject close to the hon. Lady’s heart. What I will say is that there are certainly occasions when organisations at arm’s length or independent from Government, which will not be seen to be interfering on behalf of another Government, are what is needed. Also, sometimes smaller organisations can be closer to the people they are trying to support. Whether their funding is best coming from DFID or elsewhere may not be for me to comment on.

Jim Shannon: I think it is important for the House to reiterate the point that wearing an army or police uniform does not give someone the right to abuse, rape or violently attack a girl or a lady. What we need, I respectfully say to the Minister, is to put that forward to the Burmese Government and ensure that they understand that it is morally and globally wrong, and they have got to stop it.

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Peter Grant: Absolutely; I do not think anyone in this House or in the other place along the corridor would disagree with a word of that. I would apply the same to Members of Parliament and those elected to high office; we should see ourselves as elected to positions of responsibility rather than positions of power or influence. That, again, may be an example that we will have to continue to present to colleagues who have been elected to serve in the Burmese Parliament.

As has been said, Burma is going into a period of enormous optimism. There will be setbacks and problems. It is not all going to happen peacefully and quietly. I hope that not only the Government but parliamentarians and the rest of civil society in the United Kingdom and elsewhere will offer a helping hand where possible, so that the next generation of Burmese police officers, parliamentarians and soldiers understand that they are there to protect the rights of a flourishing democracy, and not to oppress it.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): There is going to be a minute’s silence at 11 o’clock, at the end of this debate and before the next one begins, for those killed in Brussels. If it is confirmed that the whole House and estate are doing that, Members may stay for it.

10.39 am

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important debate? Members may wish to know that at my daughter’s secondary school, she is in Aung house. It is lovely to be able to explain to her and the other girls why their house is named after Aung San Suu Kyi.

I, too, have met Ben Rogers; I loved his book and read it during my Christmas break. It is clear from his book and from the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide that Burma is a difficult place geographically, because so much happens in villages and it is difficult to scrutinise things happening a long way away. That presents us with a real problem in tackling human rights issues. Although we are all well apprised of what is happening with the Rohingya people, what is happening to other minority groups is less well known. Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other groups can perhaps help us understand the fuller picture of what is happening in Burma.

It has been fabulous to hear such a great range of voices today, and to hear about the trip that colleagues undertook to discuss parliamentary business. The hon. Members for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke of the training courses they undertook with local parliamentarians in Burma-Myanmar and how exciting it was to hear about the experience of new MPs there. They also spoke about how we can take over all the knowledge about how we manage our constituencies here, which enriches the work of Burma’s Parliament.

I was delighted to hear the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) about corruption. We have not really touched on that sufficiently in this debate, but perhaps there is a separate piece of work that we could undertake on it, because it is crucial. British businesses going into Burma

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in the coming years must be aware of the corruption problems in Burma and, indeed, other countries. Our approach to foreign policy must be balanced. It is important that we have trade at the centre of our foreign policy, but it is also crucial that we tackle difficult and entrenched issues such as corruption, human rights abuses and the repression of certain minority groups.

I appreciated hearing from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about how difficulties with citizenship hold back Burmese members of Parliament from taking on their roles. I thank him for his speech. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the particular issues facing Christians and the testimonies of girls who have been abused in churches, which is a doubly awful situation. I have read such terrible stories myself, having been involved in the work of Burma Campaign UK to end rape and sexual violence.

It was good to hear the hon. Member for Congleton focus on the Shan women, who face particular issues that go right into the heart of their villages, and to hear the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) talk about the basics—the things that we take for granted that need to be worked towards in Burma. Indeed, the Parliament there has had the support of our Speaker for many years, and it is exciting to see the fruit of that coming to bear, with our own parliamentarians going abroad and making sense of the reality there.

I want to focus on Burma Campaign UK’s pledge to end rape and sexual violence. We have heard some stories, and we have read about the two Kachin teachers aged 20 and 21 who were raped in Kaunghka village, in northern Shan state. No one has yet been charged or put on trial for that crime. Originally, when the former Foreign Secretary, with the support of Ms Jolie, made a big push on sexual violence, it took quite a bit of pressure to get Burma on to the list of countries that were going to be focused on. I am pleased that we eventually got Burma on to that list back in 2012, but it is a country that sometimes suffers from not being in the limelight enough. That is why it is special that Members have taken such an interest in it. While many countries immediately came to mind, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it took quite a while to get Burma on to the list of countries that the then Foreign Secretary was going to focus on. I make a plea to the Minister today that he focuses on the role of women and girls, as we know from DFID’s important work over the years that educating women has a long-term effect.

The pledge to which many of us have signed up calls for an investigation into rape and sexual violence, particularly involving the military. We heard a good intervention on that from the hon. Member for Strangford. It also calls for an

“end to impunity for rape and other forms of sexual violence”

and “support for victims”. We could do a lot to provide such support, hopefully through the DFID budget—for example, helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder and providing counselling and confidence building, which we know are crucial for women who are survivors of sexual violence. The pledge supports the

“inclusion of women at every political level in Burma including the peace negotiations between the Burmese government and the ethnic armed political groups”,

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between which there is tension. Finally, the pledge calls for Burmese law

“to be in line with international human rights standards to outlaw rape in marriage.”

Those are the five elements of the pledge that we have signed up to, and I look forward to the Minister confirming that he will redouble his efforts to put them at the top of the agenda when speaking to Burmese Ministers.

I emphasise the importance of a rounded foreign affairs policy. We would like to see a much more high-profile debate on human rights as well as trade. There is a triangle of national security, human rights and trade, and the last two sometimes tend to be less high-profile.

We have not debated press freedom enough today. It is difficult to put that on an agenda between Governments, because it is about freedom, but allowing press freedom is a crucial part of knowing what is happening in terms of human rights. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the punishment that is meted out to people who use Facebook. Finally, if the Minister would be so kind, I would like him to mention the anti-corruption stream.

10.47 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing the debate. I thank him for his personal insight, which always gives flavour to a debate, following his recent and, I think, first visit to the land of his forebears. Many Members of both Houses have close personal connections to, and a close interest in, Burma; he probably has the closest connection to Burma, in many ways. Many Members who have spoken this morning have been following developments in that country for many years, which has provided a good repository of knowledge and understanding in the House—perhaps more than of any other country. I welcome that, as it helps to better inform debate.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has also just returned, with a number of colleagues, from Naypyidaw. I was not quite sure what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam meant when he said that every Member of Parliament could have an office in Naypyidaw. Was he suggesting that when we come to refurbish this place, we should model it on Naypyidaw? I do not imagine he was. The chances of having a 20-lane highway while the Mayor of London is around, unless it is for cyclists, are rather small.

This debate comes at a remarkable time for Burma. Last Tuesday, President U Htin Kyaw became the first civilian head of a democratically elected Government there for more than 50 years. Next week, his National League for Democracy Government will finally take power. That is the culmination of a lifetime’s effort by many committed individuals and lobbyists who have worked tirelessly and courageously for democracy. More than 100 of the NLD MPs in the new Parliament have endured long spells in prison. Others who have supported the cause of democracy have not only paid with their freedom; some have paid with their lives.

Clearly, however, the person who has been central in this unfolding drama and in bringing Burma to this point is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has consistently

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shown courage, determination and dignity in the face of challenges that most of us would have found impossible to bear. It is regrettable that a flawed constitution has prevented her from becoming President. We are aware of rumours about what her role will be in the new Government. Such rumours are at present purely speculative until the Cabinet is officially named; we expect that announcement tomorrow.

Credit is also due to the outgoing Administration, who planned and initiated the reforms. Although there is clearly still a very long way to go, their efforts deserve to be recognised, particularly the peaceful and orderly conduct of the elections last November.

At the start of the reform process in 2011, it would have seemed impossibly ambitious to suggest that the political landscape in Burma, and the lives of millions of Burmese citizens, could change so dramatically in just a few years. I am proud of the important role that the United Kingdom has played in that. Through our policy of constructive engagement with the Burmese authorities, we have supported and encouraged positive change in many areas. We have sought to nurture Burma’s growing desire to return to the international community after years of isolation, repression and dictatorship. I very much welcome the moves by Mr Speaker, Clerks and Officers of the House and all the organisations that are helping the democracy-building process, which, as hon. Members have said, is much needed.

Some questioned our policy. Even six months ago, some Burma watchers predicted that the elections would not be allowed to happen, that they would be heavily rigged, or that the NLD would never be allowed to take power. Others dismissed our approach as the path of least resistance, but that, of course, was not the case at all. It has demanded time, effort and resources here in London, in Burma and throughout our diplomatic network, and I very much welcome and appreciate the nice, kind and appropriate comments that have been made about our ambassador and his team in Rangoon. It has required frank conversations in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, and I believe that our policy is now beginning to bear fruit.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) spoke about defence engagement. Our engagement with the Burmese military has quite properly come in for particular scrutiny and comment. Not all of it has been either particularly informed or positive, but given Burma’s history I can understand that. As I have repeatedly said, real and lasting change will only come through engaging the Tatmadaw as they move towards reform and through showing them how modern militaries should operate in a modern democratic state—not by criticising them and isolating them from afar, as we did for so many years previously. Under the NLD Government, the military will still hold a quarter of the seats in Parliament, as has been pointed out. They will continue to control three important Ministries and hold an effective veto on constitutional change, so it will remain vital to continue that engagement—indeed, to step it up—with the full agreement of the new Government.

Our work with the military will continue to focus on their role in a democratic system. We would welcome their participation in civilian-led educational courses, such as with the Royal College of Defence Studies. Our engagement will include vital education on the rule of law and human rights, and particularly on countering

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the recruitment and use of child soldiers and combating sexual violence in conflict. None of that will increase the combat capacity of the Burmese military.

In a written statement to the House, I said that the parliamentary elections represented

“a victory for the people of Burma.”—[Official Report, 20 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 25W.]

They were indeed an important victory, but they do not mark the end of Burma’s reform process. The work of transformation continues and will demand our support. That is why the Prime Minister has spoken to Daw Suu since the elections and offered whatever assistance she and her Government need as they set about tackling the many serious challenges that lie ahead—not least, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said, that of corruption.

Challenges remain, including consolidating the democratic transition, energising the peace process, reforming the justice and security sectors and managing the economy for the many, not the few. We are already engaging with the incoming Administration as they prepare for office. When the time comes, we will be ready to respond with practical assistance in support of their priorities.

One of the challenges facing the incoming Government will be tackling the issue of Rakhine and addressing the appalling situation of the Rohingya community there, which we have discussed an enormous number of times in the House. Although much of Burma has greatly benefited from the reform process, the same cannot be said of Rakhine’s Rohingya minority. Large numbers of Burmese turned out across the country in November to vote and to signal their desire for future democratic change. However, the Rohingya were disfranchised for the first time in a Burmese general election. That exclusion, in the face of international concern—led not least by the United Kingdom—is a stark symbol of the extent to which they have been stripped of the most basic human rights and freedoms. We do not underestimate the complexity and sensitivity of the Rohingya issue, but we are equally clear that the incoming Government must begin to address the immediate needs of the Rohingya: improved security, relaxation of the restrictions on movement and a pathway to citizenship.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about religious freedom, as he often does. As well as Rakhine, the new Government face a number of other deep-seated human rights issues: dealing with the remaining political prisoners, managing the recent increase in tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities and, as he pointed out, the growth of nationalist organisations such as Ma Ba Tha. It is also important that they engage in a wide-ranging programme of judicial and legislative reform. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) is meeting Cardinal Bo in May, and I hope to do the same.

The challenges remain significant, and we should not underestimate them. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently championed the rule of law, and with more than 100 former political prisoners now National League for Democracy MPs, the new Government will want to take early action to tackle these issues. We will continue to provide support and encouragement across the human rights agenda. We will do so directly through technical

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advice, programmes and projects, as well as with international partners and through bodies such as the UN and the EU.

The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about conflict-related sexual violence. We will continue to promote our efforts to tackle that following the visit that we supported last year of Angelina Jolie Pitt, the special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. When I was in Rangoon on 27 July last year, I was pleased to launch the international protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict, which is something we care very much about. The hon. Lady also talked about women playing a greater role in Burma—of course they should—and said that their voices should be heard. What better way to start than at the top, with Daw Suu, probably one of the greatest female icons that there has ever been?

The peace process will rightly be another priority for the incoming Government. Outgoing President Thein Sein and his Government can be commended for the progress that they oversaw, which culminated last October in the signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement by eight ethnic armed groups. However, we are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing the Government in reinvigorating that process and achieving a lasting peace. Ensuring that the remaining groups sign up to the process and agree an enduring political settlement will require considerable energy and efforts early in the new Government’s term.

I am conscious that I should leave two minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who secured and opened the debate. This is a moment when the United Kingdom can take stock of the situation in Burma. It is not going to be easy from now on. We have come through a very difficult period. The military retain their role, and the new Government are coming in and face many challenges. Managing expectations is going to be incredibly important. We have consistently supported the process and can take some credit for getting them to where they are, but our work has not stopped and now has to be redoubled in all areas.

I am most grateful to hon. Members across the House, because this is not an issue that divides us politically, and I urge them to maintain their vigilance and their support for a country that is in a very difficult period and process.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): I am grateful to the Minister. Mr Scully has a few seconds left to wind up.

10.59 am

Paul Scully: Thank you, Mr Owen. Frankly, I could have spoken for the full 90 minutes, so I thank all Members who have spoken—many of whom are long-standing campaigners for the country—for sparing you that prospect.

My visit was emotional, not just for my family but because when I was there I realised that in this transition, I can make a difference, and we, Parliament, can make a difference. That prospect is really exciting. I thank everybody very much for their contributions to the debate and I look forward to continuing support for Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the political situation in Burma.

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11 am

Albert Owen(in the Chair): Order. I invite colleagues to join me in observing a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the Brussels terrorist attacks.

A one-minute silence was observed.

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Legal Guardianship and Missing People

11.1 am

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered legal guardianship and missing people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I want to put on the record that all our prayers and thoughts across the House are with those affected by the horrific events in Brussels yesterday morning.

It must be devastating when a loved one goes missing without any explanation or reason. We can only imagine the trauma and turmoil that brings to their families and friends. It is the sort of life-changing event that can be truly understood only by those unfortunate enough to experience it first hand, like my constituent, Peter Lawrence, whose daughter, Claudia, went missing on her way to work in York way back in 2009.

The uncertainty of a loved one going missing for weeks, months or even years on end is in itself devastating, but the practical implications cause unnecessary stress and challenges to their families. At present, when someone goes missing there is no legal authority in place to support families in dealing with their loved one’s affairs. Ownership and control of their property is effectively left in limbo until they are found or declared presumed dead, which happens only after seven long years.

In its current form, the law dictates that a person is presumed alive until proven otherwise and they retain direct accountability for all their property and affairs as if they were not missing. There is no assumption that they have lost capacity to manage their estate. Clearly and sadly, this is not the case in reality. As it stands, the law has some very serious consequences when it comes to managing a missing person’s financial affairs. For example, families are left unable to make mortgage payments, risking repossession, and cannot cancel direct debits or ensure that creditors are paid.

If the missing person has dependents, this further complicates the matter and, as I am sure you can appreciate, Mr Owen, it is incredibly distressing to watch helplessly as the financial affairs of a friend or family member are ruined. That happens at a time of complete turmoil for the family. Understandably, third parties such as banks and other financial institutions require direct consent from their customers before they will act on their behalf. The fact that someone is missing clearly makes this impossible. We need greater clarity for families and third parties in managing these issues. I am pleased that this view is widely accepted by all parties and the Government.

Many people will be aware that last week marked the seventh anniversary of Claudia Lawrence’s disappearance, making this debate timely and an occasion to remember her and the thousands of other missing people in the UK. Claudia’s father, Peter Lawrence, has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of all families who suffer from a having a mother, father, daughter or son go missing and I think his work should be commended.

We still do not know what happened to Claudia, but Peter’s campaign to change the law to help families who find themselves in such an incredibly difficult situation is inspirational. He is in London again today, campaigning

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for the change. With the assistance of the Missing People charity, Peter played a key role in pressing the Government to consult on creating a new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of missing people back in August 2014. I, with other Members of Parliament, interested groups, and members of the public, contributed to the consultation.

Exactly a year ago in March 2015, the Government published their response to the consultation. They expressed their strong support for this new legal status and committed to introducing primary legislation as soon as possible. That was welcomed by all at the time and was seen as a huge step forward in the campaign. None of us thought in March 2015 that we would be at the same point a year on. It is deeply disappointing that no significant progress has been made.

In January, I received a letter from Lord Faulks informing me that

“work is progressing on developing the draft legislation”.

That is all we have been told and we are not seeing any action.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): Claudia Lawrence lived in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As the Member for York Central, I am pleased to see her father in the Chamber today. He has been a real campaigner for missing people.

Would it not be expedient, as the forthcoming Queen’s Speech is so imminent, to bring in legislation on guardianship? We would love to see that in the Queen’s Speech to bring relief to families in sorting out the financial and property affairs of missing people.

Julian Sturdy: I agree entirely with my honourable neighbour, who is absolutely right. The debate is timely because we are six or eight weeks away from a Queen’s Speech, and that would be an ideal opportunity to see some progress on this important legislation.

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

It is simply not good enough that, a year after promising action as soon as possible, we still have nothing to show the families who desperately need our help. Families continue to be unable to protect their missing loved one’s finances and property. It is unacceptable that no action is forthcoming and I call on the Minister today to commit to a clear parliamentary timetable for introducing this Bill.

When Claudia went missing in 2009, Peter soon discovered that he was powerless to act on behalf of his daughter. He was defeated by needless obstacles at every turn. The creation of a new legal guardianship status would allow families to act in the best interests of the missing person and give third parties the legal assurance that they need to help to resolve ongoing issues that are currently constrained by contract and data protection. The consultation paper proposed a system that is overseen by the office of the public guardian and administered by the courts. Clearly, that will require detailed legislation that will need proper scrutiny before the House.

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Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, which is very close to my heart. Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers fame disappeared and his sister, Rachel Elias, campaigned extensively for the Presumption of Death Act 2013, which was passed by the coalition Government. I am delighted to see Peter Lawrence, Claudia’s father, sitting here today, and I pay tribute to him for all the work he has done.

Has the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) studied the Australian model of the Guardianship and Management of Property Act 1991? The legislation allows for an application to be lodged to the guardianship and management of property tribunal of the magistrates court to have someone appointed a manager to the property of a missing person. Has he thought about whether that type of legislation could be implemented here in the UK?

Julian Sturdy: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the Australian model, and that should form part of the process that I hope the Minister will follow. For me, we must ensure that we see progress—and quick progress—on the measures now. We have had the consultation. We have cross-party support. We need action.

Families have been waiting for years for protection, and the unnecessary delay in implementing the legislation will only prevent yet more families from doing what is right for their loved ones’ estates. I accept that parliamentary time can be in short supply and that many important Bills are currently progressing through the House. However, the fact remains that the Government promised to act as soon as possible. A year on, they have failed to deliver on that promise.

I quote from the Government’s own response to the consultation last year, which stated,

“given the importance of this measure and the strong support from all sides, legislation will be brought forward as soon as possible in the new Parliament.”

The proposals also have the support of the Select Committee on Justice and the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults.

According to figures from Missing People, currently 2,215 adults across the country have been missing for more than three months. It is expected that between 50 and 300 applications for guardianship for missing people would be made each year under the new legislation. However, discussing the crisis in numbers overlooks the important impact—that behind each and every person are families and friendship groups suffering from uncertainty and the sad realisation that they are powerless to act.

It is next to impossible for me to comprehend what Peter has been through for the past seven years, as well as other families right across the country, as has been highlighted in the debate. I hope that we can all agree that it is essential that we offer every assistance we can. Disappearance can affect any family at any time across the country. It could be my family. It could be the Minister’s family. Any family in this room could go through this at some point in their lives. We all have a duty to ensure that the families of missing people do not have to deal with the additional stress and worry of not being able to protect their loved one’s property.

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A year has now passed since the Government committed to creating a new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of missing persons, and yet we are no further forward in the process. The Government must now commit to a clear parliamentary timetable for delivering the changes, to help those families at a time when their world has simply been turned upside down. There is, as has been expressed, strong cross-party support for the measures, so there are no excuses. I am resolute in my view and will continue to lobby the Minister and the Government until families such as Peter’s get the change that is so desperately needed.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Dominic Raab): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I start by expressing, on behalf of the Government and, I am sure, the whole House, our condolences to the people of Belgium? It goes without saying that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them at this very difficult time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government on this important issue. It is a technical issue when it comes to how we respond and reform the system, but one of heartfelt agony for the families who have to endure the predicament that my hon. Friend expressed so eloquently.

With that in mind, I pay tribute to those who have done so much to put and keep the subject on the agenda. They include, in the House, the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, and the Justice Committee, which has called for reforms consistently in 2011 and 2012; and the charity Missing People, which has steadfastly campaigned on behalf of missing people and their families. I personally acknowledge the deep heartache of the many families involved, which lies beneath the technical details of the proposals that I will outline. It would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to pay particular tribute to Peter Lawrence and his family, who are constituents of my hon. Friend. I know that Mr Lawrence is here today, and I extend that recognition and tribute to him and his family.

Claudia Lawrence has now been missing for seven years, and I am pained every time I see or read about the case. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for her family and, of course, for others in the same position. I know that my hon. Friend and Mr Lawrence will be disappointed that we have not legislated sooner. I acknowledge that. All I can say is that we will do everything we can to progress the proposals into legislation. I am inspired by the example that Mr Lawrence and my hon. Friend have set in that regard. It is important, and I give an undertaking, to keep the case of Claudia and the many others like her whom I have learned about—and the human toll of those cases—at the forefront of my mind as we take forward the technical legal proposals.

At present, as has been recognised, the common law rather pragmatically assumes that a person is alive until proven dead. It can therefore be slow to enable control of a person’s property and affairs to be given up to another person following an unexplained disappearance. The truth is that that gives us all a degree of protection, but it also means that when a person disappears with no

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explanation, their friends and family are left to face the practical difficulties of protecting the interests of the missing person and carrying on with their lives, on top of the deep emotional and personal shock and the challenge of coping without that person at the heart of their lives.

Those left behind may have access to funds, perhaps in a joint account that was previously controlled by the missing person. However, without the good will of third parties, the chances are that they will not have access to, or the ability to control, the missing person’s assets, whether in cash or in kind. They may find themselves effectively in a legal vacuum or void. In practical terms, that may mean being unable to adjust standing orders with a bank, or something as simple as that. It may mean being unable to ensure proper care for dependants, or it may create complications for businesses that have to get on with their daily and monthly work. Joint mortgages may be rendered, in practice, effectively unmanageable. Lots of basic daily things become increasingly difficult to keep a handle on and to keep control of in such a legal vacuum.

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate. The Opposition wholeheartedly support the campaign by Mr Lawrence and Missing People. I have been through this myself. My uncle disappeared many years ago. He just walked out of our lives, and to this day we do not know what happened to him, which has made it very, very difficult to handle matters. This debate is close to my heart. I urge the Minister to proceed with the proposals as soon as possible and end the heartache.

I cannot imagine what you have been through, Mr Lawrence. My heartache pales into insignificance compared with yours.

Mr Raab: I thank the hon. Lady for sharing her personal insight and for her expression of cross-party support for the proposals, which certainly helps. The Government acknowledge the very real predicament of families such as the Lawrence family.

Chris Evans: I have known the Minister a long time, and he will focus on this like a laser beam. When I was campaigning for a presumption of death Act back in 2011, Missing People said that the law is like crazy paving—that was the best way of describing it. There is no certainty, and people are looking to the Government for some form of certainty. I look for that assurance today.

Mr Raab: The hon. Gentleman has highlighted the problem with which we are grappling. I understand that people want to hear assurances today, and I will do my level best. Of course, we acknowledge people’s predicament, and we want to do everything we can to help the families of missing people address the administrative problems that can make life even more piercingly difficult at such a traumatic time. It is estimated that there are a significant number of cases of disappearance each year in which there are sufficiently serious problems to make the appointment of a guardian a worthwhile option to have on the legislative table, so to speak.

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The coalition Government consulted on the proposals to create a status of guardianship, and the response was published shortly before the 2015 general election. I reassure all Members that the Government are committed to pursuing the measure and getting it into law.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Raab: I will give way briefly, and then I need to make some progress.

Kevin Hollinrake: I am grateful to the Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this important debate. I understand that some 2,500 people could be helped by the proposals. I pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Lawrence—Mrs Lawrence is a constituent of mine. They have kept hope alive for Claudia and they hope to help thousands of other people, and today they are hoping for a clear timetable. I know it is a question of finding time, but it is now time to make time for Claudia’s law.

Mr Raab: My hon. Friend has been a steadfast campaigner for this reform, and it is because of efforts such as his and those of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that I believe we will be able to make progress.

I have mentioned the Government response to the consultation proposals, and the Government are committed to pursuing the measure. It is not, however, solely about creating a new status in law. We also need to be sure that, when the new system is introduced, there is a judicial and supervisory structure to support it. Putting someone in control of another person’s property is a significant and sensitive legal step that is not to be taken lightly. I am sure there is acknowledgment on both sides of the House that we need to get the detail of the proposals right, accurate and tailored in the right way to protect the interests of those directly affected—the families, first and foremost—and to preserve the integrity of the law as a whole. We need a framework in which the interests of the missing person, the families left behind and the third parties who deal with them are correctly calibrated and balanced.

It is wrong to say that progress has not been made. We are making progress, and I will briefly outline some of the key features of the proposed scheme on which we are actively working. First, guardians would be required to act in the best interests of the missing person. In that respect, there would be fiduciary-style duties. Secondly, guardians would be supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian and required to file accounts in much the same way as a deputy appointed under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

Thirdly, guardians would be appointed by a court on application by a person with a sufficient interest. That is important, because the appointment may be general, in which case the guardian would be able to do what the missing person could have done—they would effectively have a free hand, for want of a better technical term—or it could be limited in certain respects. It is right to have those options on the table.

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Fourthly, anyone should be able to apply for appointment as a guardian provided that he or she has a sufficient interest, which obviously would need to be carefully defined. We are looking carefully at that. We would also need to make sure that their interests did not conflict with those of the missing person. I suspect that we would envisage close family members, or professionals such as a solicitor or an accountant with the requisite familial support, being able to apply.

Fifthly, we envisage that a person should have been missing for a period of, say, at least 90 days before such an application could be made. I am interested in other thoughts on that, but we think 90 days is probably a broadly reasonable period. Finally, the appointment of a guardian should be for a period of up to four years, with the possibility of applying for an extension of another four years. That is a significant period but, ultimately, it would be a temporary provision.

There is obviously a lot of technical detail buttressing the bones of the proposals, and we will need to define in further detail the scope of the guardian’s responsibility, the imposition of appropriate duties on him or her, and the appropriate court procedures for the appointment of the guardian and for redress if the guardian’s conduct falls short of the required standards. There will need to be an adequate supervisory regime over the whole structure, capable of commanding public confidence as well as the confidence and buy-in of the families affected.

As has already been mentioned, there are precedents for such a status and model in legislation in other countries, including in Canada and Australia. Ireland is also currently considering legislation in this field, and we are carefully considering the different models on offer. Obviously, we want to tailor the proposals to ensure that we have the right regime for the legal system, the particular nature of the problems and the administrative aspects in this country. Our development and drafting work is not yet complete, but we are working to complete it as soon as practicable. Given the details that I have talked about, it is important to get it right. We are consulting parliamentary counsel, and we would not go down to that level of detail unless we were serious. I hope that gives some reassurance to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and particularly to the campaigners and the Lawrence family.

We understand the importance of completing the legislation and getting it right, and it is worth saying that guardianship status is not the only measure that we are proposing to help those affected by the disappearance of an individual who is close to them. The Government are also reviewing the missing children and adults strategy, which was originally published in 2011. We are engaging with stakeholders, including Missing People, to update the guidance on cases of children and adults who go missing. That updated strategy will be published later this year and will include measures to help prevent people from going missing in the first place and to improve the response of all the relevant agencies.

Although I am sorry to disappoint anyone here today, I cannot give a specific date that is firmly etched in stone for introducing the legislation. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and the whole House will recognise that the Government are committed to delivering the reform and are actively working to that end. It is vital to get the reform right, given that it creates a legal power over another’s assets. We are

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committed to proceeding as swiftly as we can, never forgetting for a moment the scope that it offers to ease, if only by a modest degree, the pain and suffering endured by the families who have lost loved ones.

Question put and agreed to.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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National Minimum Wage: Care Sector

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

2.31 pm

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on enforcement of the national minimum wage in the care sector.

I am delighted that you are in the Chair, Mr Rosindell, and that so many colleagues are here to speak about this issue.

I am pleased to have secured this debate, although I am disappointed that it is still needed, because we had a debate on this very issue, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), back in November 2014, during which it was acknowledged that we had a real problem. That was acknowledged by all sides, including by the Minister at that time, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), because in March that year the National Audit Office had estimated that up to 220,000 home care workers in England were being illegally paid below the national minimum wage. Eighteen months on, we still have the same problem.

We could talk forever about numbers, and I am sure that a number of colleagues will cite statistics, but I think the human stories explain what the issue is really about.

Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I worked in the sector as a home help and represented home care workers. Does my hon. Friend agree that the human stories are quite tragic? What home carers end up having to do is subsidise their employers, who do not pay them travel time. A good employer will see the value of their staff, and pay them correctly and appropriately.

Paul Blomfield: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I completely agree with her. I will illustrate that point further in my comments today.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): My hon. Friend has talked about the delay and the lack of action since the previous debate. Is not one of the reasons for that the fact that, when investigations are launched into these matters, they take an inordinately long time?

Paul Blomfield: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, arising from our last debate, six investigations were commissioned. I asked a parliamentary question about those investigations. They were launched in February 2015 and have yet to report. That is clearly a disgrace.

I was talking about the human stories in my constituency. I know of two local women who work for a care company that uses GPS technology to monitor when they arrive for and leave appointments. They told me their stories. The company monitors the time that they spend travelling; to be accurate, it monitors the distances that they are travelling, but it does not pay them for that time. Incidentally, the company also rips them off on the cost of travelling; it pays them 12p a mile for using their own cars, when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs assumes for its calculations that 45p a mile is a reasonable benchmark.

One of the women, Sharon, told me that it was not unusual for her to be out of the house at 6.15 in the morning and not return until 11 o’clock at night. She gets a break, but she is only paid for seven hours’ work,

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which is the time she is actually at appointments. Never mind how long it has taken her to get to an appointment or to travel between appointments. Consequently, a so-called “hourly” rate of £7.52 means that, according to Melanie, who works alongside Sharon:

“A 15-minute visit is worth £1.88”.

These women have even been refused payment for the time they have spent waiting for ambulances to arrive for people in their care. Why do they put up with that abuse? As Sharon told me:

“You get in a bit of a trap, because I actually do love the work.”

We should be ashamed that tens of thousands of people like Melanie and Sharon across the country, who look after our most vulnerable, are treated in that way simply because they care.

It also makes a mockery of our national minimum wage legislation. Let us be clear—it is a criminal offence knowingly not to pay the national minimum wage. However, the situation has not improved since we last debated this issue. In fact, there are signs—

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a disgrace that only 36 English councils out of 152 that are responsible for social care stipulate in their contracts that home care providers must pay for workers’ travel time?

Paul Blomfield: I do indeed and I pay tribute to those councils that are now changing their rules, so that when they commission they require workers’ travel time to be paid. Hopefully, more councils will follow their example.

I am disappointed that the Government seem to be taking this issue even less seriously than when we last debated it. Last summer, HMRC launched a new national minimum wage campaign that allows employers who have not been paying it to escape punishment. That is shocking. But it is simple: offending employers can declare details of arrears owed to their employees. They then “self-correct” and, with a cursory follow-up by HMRC, that is it—no more HMRC sniffing around and examining their practices. I do not know of many crimes where the offender escapes punishment entirely if they come forward. As I say, it makes a mockery of the increases in penalties for non-payment of the national minimum wage that were introduced under the coalition Government.

According to the Low Pay Commission, between 2011 and 2015, £1.75 million was recovered in arrears for 8,698 workers, which amounts to an average of £201 per worker. The shameful thing, however, is that that is just a drop in the ocean. The Resolution Foundation, which the Minister will know is chaired by one of his former colleagues, a former Conservative Minister, estimates that 160,000 care workers are collectively cheated of £130 million each year. The Resolution Foundation estimates that the average amount of arrears owed to care workers is more than £815, which is four times the rate at which HMRC is recovering the money.

The real scandal is that it does not have to be like this. The Government have the power to act, but they appear to lack the will to do so. Therefore, let me set out some proposals and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on them.

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For a start, the Government are far too reliant on self-reporting. The use of zero-hours contracts is rife in this sector; for example, both Sharon and Melanie, to whom I referred earlier, are on such a contract. So who is going to rock the boat when there is so little job security? Following up on every call made to the helpline is all well and good, but what are the Government doing to help those vulnerable care workers who do not dare to make such a call?

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on raising this important issue. Regarding self-reporting, does he agree that the biggest single reason that employees are reluctant to do that is fear of dismissal and, if they are not dismissed, fear that there will be a cut in their hours?

Paul Blomfield: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I think he is right. It is the fear experienced by workers in this sector that is driving unreporting. The Government need to do something about that.

Establishing a formal public protocol to handle third-party whistleblowing would be a step forward. Currently, for example, when a union makes a complaint on someone’s behalf, it receives no feedback as to what is happening with that, and that is no way to facilitate reporting.

We also need proactive investigation into a sector in which we know abuse is rife. Following pressure from Labour that was led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East, the coalition Government began an investigation into six of the largest care providers, but that was over a year ago. What have they found out? Have affected workers been compensated? What is happening? I hope that the Minister will give some answers, because effective investigations will help to change the culture. Where HMRC investigations uncover non-compliance, why does it not then look at the whole workforce? The chances of co-workers being on the same terms and conditions and suffering from the same abuse is high, but HMRC does not follow through.

I have made a number of suggestions about how the Government might act—I will not speak for too long, because a number of colleagues want to contribute to this debate—but I want to focus on a single demand, which I emphasise would not involve the Government in significant cost, but would be transformative. It is a course of action that has been recommended by the Low Pay Commission and Unison, and it is simply to require employers of hourly paid staff to state clearly the hours they have been paid for on their payslips. We have heard how companies such as the one employing Melanie and Sharon have sophisticated technology to track exactly what their employees are doing. They already monitor the time spent at appointments and travelling for work. The proposal would be easy for companies to do and would introduce a level of transparency that would change those companies’ culture. It would also give workers the information through which they could challenge companies and utilise the helpline. Section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 already makes provision for such regulation. Will the Minister work with me and his team to bring about that simple change?

All of us here know that there is a bigger fundamental problem with the chronic underfunding of the sector. Private providers are threatening to leave the market

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and not-for-profit providers are telling me that they cannot sustain the level of care that they want and rightly seek to provide. Vulnerable people, the elderly, those with learning difficulties and family members fearing for the life of their relative as they wait for an ambulance are all suffering as a result. That is before the national minimum wage increases to what the Government have laughingly called the national living wage. We all agree that is overdue. It is inadequate, but it is nevertheless a small step in the right direction.

We all know that the recently announced council tax social care precept is nowhere near enough to plug the funding gap, so we should be deeply concerned by the wider crisis in social care, and not only in its own right, but because of the impact it will have on the national health service. Notwithstanding that and the desperate need to address the funding shortfall, the labour market enforcement measures that I have mentioned are necessary and will be a step forward, and I hope the Minister will engage with me in taking those up.

Several hon. Members rose

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): I advise the House that a number of Members wish to speak. There is only limited time, so I urge Members to be brief and to keep their contributions to no more than three or four minutes each. I hope that then everyone will be able to speak.

2.43 pm

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I will try to be as quick and as brief as I can, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate and on his powerful speech, which compellingly made the case for urgent Government action in this vital area. I fully support the case being made by Unison and the Low Pay Commission to use section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act to require employers to provide workers with a statement showing compliance with the national minimum wage.

As my hon. Friend said, the present situation is scandalous. There has been some improvement in some places since we, the unions and those with a concern for the social care sector mobilised pressure, but it has been not nearly enough and a lot more needs to be done. The example of Oxfordshire County Council shows that we are not making an unreasonable demand. The council, which is Conservative-independent controlled, has recently commissioned a new home care service that will come into effect on 1 May. As part of that, the council will require providers to give a breakdown of their prices; to demonstrate the hourly rate that will be paid for care workers at or above the national living wage from 1 April; to include travel time and the hourly rate paid to care workers; to pay care workers for travel expenses, as they should; and to adopt an open-book accounting method. That will enable the council to understand whether the national living wage is being paid to care workers. If the provider does not comply, it can be suspended. That is the sort of practice we need to see everywhere.

As my hon. Friend said, it is vital that that practice goes along with other measures to raise the status, training and overall remuneration of this vital group of workers. I will give a local example of just how important it is that we get it right across the country. Because of the problems of delayed discharge from hospitals, which

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are as bad if not worse in Oxfordshire than just about anywhere else, the local hospital trust commissioned 150 places in intermediate care and private care homes so that people could be moved on from hospitals, which are not the best place for those people to be. It is also the most expensive place for them to be. Initially, that reduced the problem of delayed discharge, but then it got worse again because the intermediate care providers could not discharge those people to their homes because of the insufficiency of domiciliary care support. As a result, the hospital trust will shortly be recruiting 50 domiciliary care workers to try to address that problem. They will be paid for out of the hospital’s budget, rather than from the local authority social care budget, which is stressed and under pressure.

We are talking about workers who are vital to crucial health and social care services. I do not believe that Government Members—it is a pity that there are not more Members on the Government Benches taking an interest in this vital issue—want social care workers to be exploited or treated badly. Instead, because of their rhetoric against red tape and regulation and their antipathy sometimes towards trade union campaigns, I think they do not understand how vulnerable these workers are, or the pressure under which they work.

I appeal to the Government to think again and to see how the measure is essential for the dignity and proper reward of vital workers and for recruitment and retention in this vital sector, as well as how essential it is in ensuring that the people whom they are caring for receive the standards of care to which they are entitled. The Government must act now and, using section 12 of the 1998 Act, bring some consistently higher standards to this vital sector.

2.47 pm

Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, I think for the first time. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this debate on an extremely important issue. Before I begin, I declare an interest in that my brother works in the social care sector—he started a new role on Monday—although he is not directly affected by the issues we are discussing this afternoon.

Social care is such an important feature of our society and social workers are integral to the care of people in need and those at risk. Despite that, too many social workers have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous employers—employers who have continued to flout the law and who simply do not pay the full national minimum wage. While HMRC maintains the operational enforcement of the national minimum wage, in my 10 months as a Member of Parliament I have yet to see either a coherent or sensible approach.

I will draw Members’ attention to two cases that I have seen since my election last May and contrast them with each other. The first concerns a care company in the black country. None of its care workers is paid for their travel time or when calls run over. The hourly rate therefore fell well below the national minimum wage over a substantial timeframe, but the HMRC investigation has been ongoing for nearly four years. To date, it has resulted in a notice of underpayment for only one of the employees who filed a complaint, even though the same principle applies to all the care workers.

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My constituent, Debra, complained about not being paid the minimum wage in November 2012. It took 30 months before she managed to force HMRC to issue the care company with a notice of underpayment. She was forced to complain to the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and my predecessor, Chris Kelly. HMRC wrote to her in February 2013 to say that it was looking at all the care workers’ records, and wrote again following Debra’s complaint to the Secretary of State in June 2014 that the other care workers were also owed arrears for non-payment of the minimum wage. Nevertheless, HMRC then issued the notice only for her, as if she was the only worker who had not been paid the national minimum wage.

HMRC’s continuous delays have been shocking, and they have been ongoing since Debra’s complaint at the end of 2012. HMRC has also been looking at the cases of two other constituents of mine, Alison and Michelle, since at least March 2015, yet we do not seem to be any further forward than we were at this time last year. HMRC continues with what seem to be unnecessary delays and excuses—according to my case notes they appear to be the very same excuses given to Debra.

None of the care workers at the firm were paid for their travel time between calls or if calls ran over the allotted times. The company’s own paperwork—the rotas and pay slips—clearly show that they did not pay their care workers for what we would understand to be necessary working time. All the care workers were on the same terms and conditions, so the same position applies equally to all the workers.

Despite HMRC writing to Debra that it had “all workers’ records” dating back to February 2014, in a recent telephone call HMRC asked whether my constituents would be prepared to go to an employment tribunal and be cross-examined. That does not seem appropriate given the objectively verified facts. HMRC has not even calculated the arrears that the women appear to be owed. The same tactic had been used previously with Debra. HMRC does not have to mention any employment tribunal; its job is to get the evidence, calculate the arrears and issue a notice of underpayment. Only after the notice is issued can the employer force a tribunal, and an employer has only 28 days to do so following the issuing of such a notice by HMRC. Indeed, until a notice is issued the care company has absolutely nothing to appeal against.

There is clearly something very wrong indeed with how HMRC enforces compliance with the national minimum wage in the care sector. As I said, it has been investigating this care company for nearly four years, yet despite finding that not only Debra but the other care workers are owed minimum wage arrears, it has still issued only the one notice.

That case should be contrasted with HMRC’s response to another case, although it goes slightly beyond the narrow confines of the debate. At a manufacturer in my constituency, a genuine clerical error led to the underpayment of four pieceworkers out of a workforce of 240. Over three years, the underpayment totalled just under £600, or 0.005% of the total wage bill. It was clearly a genuine oversight that had not been identified in five external audits.

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Despite the fact that that manufacturing company co-operated fully with HMRC—indeed, as soon as it was made aware of the underpayments, it repaid them, along with the penalty, on the next available working day—its response seems to have been very different from what happened with the care company. The manufacturer has been named and shamed and now has to deal with the resulting implications while trying to negotiate a contract with high-street retailers.

HMRC’s response has been very inconsistent. In my experience, it is focusing its energy on what might be seen as the easy cases—companies that are genuinely trying to do the right thing but may have made a mistake —while it does very little effectively to enforce the national minimum wage for companies such as the care company I highlighted, which have consistently obstructed and obfuscated and shown total disregard for HMRC and for their legal requirement to pay the national minimum wage. That has to change.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ask HMRC urgently to review its general approach to the enforcement of the national minimum wage. I will also write privately with the details of the two cases to which I referred to ask him to speak to HMRC about what is going on and how we can have a more consistent and equitable approach to ensure that all employers pay the national minimum wage.

2.56 pm

Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this important debate.

My hon. Friends and I are proud that it was a Labour Government who, in the teeth of opposition, legislated for a national minimum wage. That national minimum wage is a right, not an optional privilege. At the moment, anything between 160,000 and 220,000 home care workers are still likely to be paid less than the legal minimum, collectively losing out on nearly £130 million a year, as my hon. Friend said—an average of £815 per worker. That is nothing less than a national scandal, not only because a significant minority of home care workers are being exploited—let us remember that they are low-paid and mostly women, that a growing number of them are migrants, and that they find it very hard to organise collectively because of the irregular and fragmented nature of their work—but because underpayment of the minimum wage on such a scale has a direct impact on the quality and dignity of the care provided to the older and disabled people who rely on that care.

As we have heard, there is a variety of reasons for underpayment of the national minimum wage in the care sector, ranging from hourly rates that are simply below the appropriate minimum wage rate to deductions from pay for unpaid training or business expenses. However, the most ubiquitous reason, in my experience, is that care workers are increasingly paid only for contact time. To be clear, that does not include all the time that many care workers actually spend with each client.

I worked for the Resolution Foundation before I was elected and I did a lot of work on this subject. I spoke to hundreds of home care workers from throughout the country about their experiences. I found that “call clipping”

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—where home care workers leave earlier than they might want to, to ensure that they are not working for free—does happen, but most stay for far longer than their contracted time. For many of the people being cared for, the care workers are the only people they see for hours at a time, perhaps for the whole day. Home care workers enjoy and value the work they do and they often stay for far longer than they need to, but the added insult for them is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, they are often not even paid for that contact time.

Melanie Onn: Is my hon. Friend aware that when home care workers overstay their allotted time they can be subject to disciplinary procedures for failing to follow their company’s rules, which stipulate the limited time they are to spend with each of their clients?

Matthew Pennycook: Absolutely—I think that happens quite frequently. The way they are disciplined relates to a point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central. Increasingly, they have to clock in and out, and sophisticated technology is used to monitor the time they are with a client. Yet, on their timesheets and payslips—I have seen many of them and they are incredibly confusing—their employers cannot give them the clear detail of how much they are being paid and whether they are being paid the minimum wage. The law in this area is very clear, and yet we still have hundreds of thousands of workers denied the legal minimum to which they are entitled. So why is that happening? At its root, as my hon. Friend said, is the lack of a sustainable funding settlement for social care, which is the result of successive Governments not doing enough, and we know the 2% precept will do little to address that.

Going forward in the medium term, we need to address the funding gap, which is growing on a yearly basis. Local authorities need to do more to ensure they commission care in such a way as to protect those who deliver it, and the independent care providers who employ the home care workers need to do everything possible to ensure that they meet their statutory obligations. There are good examples in the field, but unfortunately far too many do not meet their obligations. None of that should stand in the way of doing what we and the Government can to end non-compliance in this sector.

A variety of things could be done. To give them credit, some of the steps that the Government have taken have been welcome. For example, fines have increased to 100% of underpayments owed to each worker, up to a maximum of £20,000, and they are set to rise again in April. But the scale of the problem and the small solutions that the Government have proposed are clearly not having the impact that they need to, so more could be done. We could have the six investigations report in a timely manner, and we could do more to name and shame employers. Only 13 small social care providers have been named and shamed so far using the powers introduced in 2014.

We could do more to end the over-reliance on self-reporting and ensure that low levels of arrears are recovered. When an abuse is found, we could investigate the whole workforce at that provider, which currently does not happen. However, even if we did all that, we would still be back here next year or the year after talking about what more needs to be done. The Government must seriously consider amending section 12 of the

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National Minimum Wage Act 1998 so that we deal with the problem by proactively forcing employers, putting the onus on them to prove that they are paying their workers the minimum wage to which they are entitled rather than the other way round.

The sector employs 1.5 million people and has the potential to grow by another million in the next decade alone. If our country is to have the care service that it needs and that disabled people need, the Government need to do more—and quickly—in terms of recruiting and retaining staff who care about their job and of ensuring that those workers are not exploited.

3.2 pm

Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP): I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this really important debate.

I looked around the room a moment or two ago and I think I qualify as the oldest person here, so this debate has a particular resonance for me. I am over 60—I will be 67 on 5 May—and I have a vested interest, so I should declare it right away. I am also very glad that, if I do require care at home, I will probably have care at home in Scotland. I do not say that everything in Scotland is perfect or that things could not happen there as well, but in the debate on securing the national minimum wage for the women—it is mainly women—who care at all sorts of levels and for paid home care workers, we are going too cheap for them; we should be looking for the living wage of £8.20 an hour. That requires political will, which I find sadly lacking in this Government. The Scottish Government have that will; they have a Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training.

We need to pay the people who look after the most vulnerable people in our society a decent wage. If we pay a fair wage, we get fair work. I was a local councillor and I am conscious of the fact that a lot of women were very much underpaid and strived for years to get equal pay with male counterparts. It is still happening in Scotland. As I said, we are not a utopian society, but the Scottish Government have committed to paying the living wage and to giving enough money to local authorities to pay the living wage to people who take part in the health and care partnership. I cannot understand why that cannot be done here in England as well. It requires political will, which is sadly lacking.

Also required is the political will of the Government to hound, harass and do whatever they can via HMRC or any other agency to ensure that employers pay the minimum that is required in this country, and they should be encouraged to pay far more. I do not want to be in a position where—I will personalise it—someone is being paid to care for me and they cut short the time that I require and am entitled to, to rush off and help someone else. It is a sad reflection on society that we treat the most vulnerable in an almost callous way. We should look at it from the other point of view: would you want your parent, mother, sister or brother to be subjected to work from someone who is grossly undervalued and underpaid?

We need to change the entire context of care for the elderly and disabled across the United Kingdom. If we do not, we are building up a time bomb for ourselves and for those we care for most.

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Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): There will now be a time limit of three minutes to allow everyone to speak.