3.6 pm

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I will keep my comments brief. The notion of a kindly small care home no longer exists. The person who lives in your town or village, down your street or in your community, who cycles around and gives care to those who need it, no longer exists. The small companies that we used to know so well and recognise in our communities simply cannot compete with the large corporations.

I came across Mears when I worked with Unison. I speculate that companies such as Mears provide a multitude of public services alongside their own private interests. They can bid at incredibly low levels on a per hour basis. With the downward pressure on local authorities and the amount that they can afford to pay, such corporations are winning the contracts. There is a huge gap between the corporations at the highest level and the domiciliary care that is offered to people both in their homes and in residential care. We must not forget that what is offered is the most intimate and personal care.

The corporations continually try to minimise their costs to such an extent that it falls on staff to subsidise their employment, whether that is through travel time, as has already been mentioned, or the purchase of uniforms, which happens frequently as well. I also know that many care staff have taken to buying biscuits or small treats for the clients they serve because their company had previously provided that as an option, which was something nice for the residents in the afternoon. Such things are now being taken away as margins are squeezed and companies have to answer to their shareholders much more than they have to answer to the people who receive the care or deliver it.

Simple things that mean so much to residents are being taken away. Individuals who give so much of their time and their love to their clients are being put in an impossible position in trying to create a less clinical environment. It is absolutely right to say that the people who work in the sector are mainly women, increasingly migrant workers. Why are the women who do those jobs put at the bottom of the pile when it comes to reward? Is it because there is still that traditional view that it is women continuing their household work in the wider community? If that is the only reason why it is so poorly valued, the Government must address that immediately.

Also, the large companies often do not engage positively with trade unions that wish to raise important issues perfectly legitimately and through the appropriate channels. Those workers deserve proper, full and easy access to independent support through a union, and the employers should take proactive steps to encourage their staff to become members, and support that by recognising the trade unions. Too often, trade unions must fight those corporations to achieve recognition. They cannot even get across the threshold of care homes.

I have worked alongside care workers who dared to put their heads above the parapet and who were representatives for the other workers. It did not do their careers any favours. They have been subjected to spurious disciplinary proceedings, and had their shifts reduced—they have limited-hours and sometimes zero-hours contracts.

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They are punished by having their hours reduced so that they do not take home as much money as they should, merely because they have tried to represent their members properly. They have been threatened with having the police called should they dare to gather outside the company’s property, which is a shameful way to treat staff who are only trying to improve the working conditions of the people who deliver the care.

3.10 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which he opened it.

I want to talk about what I describe as the funding crisis in social care. Many providers are struggling to provide good-quality care—even if they want to, as they should—against the backdrop of years of cuts to local authority budgets for adult social care. The increased costs associated with the national minimum wage and the so-called national living wage are going to place providers under additional financial pressure, and that is of great concern. The Local Government Association has estimated that introducing the so-called national living wage from April will cost at least £330 million for home care and residential care providers. There was no additional funding for that in the Budget. There is a risk that too many providers will become financially non-viable. We do not want care providers to cut staff numbers even more, threatening the quality of care.

The social care precept is not the answer to finding enough funding for what is a Government policy change. My local authority, Salford City Council, needs £2.7 million to pay for the minimum wage increases in our local care sector, but the council can only raise £1.6 million from the social care precept. The Government are not providing funding for their own wage policy. In my area, the people of Salford are finding the money, from their council tax. I am sure that there will be agreement in the Chamber that care workers should be paid the national minimum wage. Care work is a demanding job that requires skilled workers who are compassionate and who provide empathy and good-quality care. It is completely unacceptable that a job that historically has been undervalued is still being exploited today, and that those workers are not being paid the basic wage.

I give credit to Unison for its work interviewing care workers and finding out in detail the constraints on them, such as having to rush between calls and reduce the amount of time spent with individuals who are socially isolated. We are concerned about social isolation among older people, and the fact that there is no time to care. Staff sometimes work from 7 am until very late in the evening, but they have dead time that they do not get paid for; and they do not get paid for travel time. The Cavendish review highlighted the impact of non-payment for travel time on care provision:

“Some low paid Home Care Assistants and support workers will…keep going as long as they feel they are still giving good care. But the advent of zero hours contracts, fee cuts and no payment for travel time”

is really to blame because it

“is making it financially prohibitive for some domiciliary care workers to struggle on.”

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The Government agreed that the statutory guidance should require councils to include payment for travel time in provider contracts, but that guidance is clearly not being complied with. There are even examples, in an excellent Unison study, of a home care worker being given 20 minutes to visit an old lady of 102, to help her shower and get dressed, make food, tidy her kitchen, give her medication and put her bins out. That is not enough time to give safe and dignified care. Tackling non-compliance should be a priority. The Government must consider the impact of their policies and act on the chronic underfunding of the care sector that I outlined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central made a number of suggestions about how to improve national minimum wage compliance. We must have monitoring of the commissioning practices of councils; it should be a priority. Employers and commissioners could also publish, or provide employees with, a statement that they comply with the national minimum wage, increasing transparency. As he said, we must improve the protocol for supporting whistleblowers who bravely tell the story of what is happening. It is only when care staff are valued and paid adequately that service users will receive the good-quality, compassionate care they need. As he said, we should be ashamed that we trade on the good will and commitment of our home care workers.

3.14 pm

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for obtaining the debate. I will try to be brief.

The Labour party recognised the issue with the social care system prior to the last general election. In our 2015 manifesto we promised to end 15-minute visits and introduce year of care budgets, to incentivise better care in the home. We promised to recruit 5,000 new home care workers—an entirely new arm of the NHS—to help to care for those with the greatest needs at home. We promised to tackle workforce exploitation in the care sector, and to ban the use of zero-hours contracts where regular hours were being worked, improving the working lives of carers. However, that was not to be.

Figures show that up to 220,000 home care workers are illegally paid less than the minimum wage. Investigations by HMRC between 2011 and 2015 found that 41% of care providers were guilty of non-compliance. As has been mentioned, the Resolution Foundation has calculated that care workers are collectively cheated of £130 million a year.

3.16 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.28 pm

On resuming

Liz McInnes: One major way in which care workers are denied the national minimum wage, which has been referred to throughout this debate, is for the care providers to refuse to pay for travel time between calls. I had never heard of the practice, which my hon. Friend the Member

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for Sheffield Central described, of care workers being paid a miserly 12p per hour for travel time. That, to me, sounds more like a cycling rate.

The law states that workers must be paid at least the national minimum wage for travel that is a part of their work and not incidental to it. If someone’s work consists of assignments carried out at different places between which they are obliged to travel, the time they take to do so is regarded in law as work time and must be paid accordingly. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence stated that care providers should ensure that workers have time to do their job without being rushed and without compromising the dignity and wellbeing of the person who uses the services. Not paying for travel time makes that impossible.

The BBC recently reported on a group of home care workers who are Unison members, who are owed up to £2,500 each as a consequence of being paid less than the national minimum wage—again, because they were not paid for travel time. In a recent case, which was settled out of court, a worker was paid £1,250 in compensation for non-payment of travel time.

Furthermore, in summer 2015, HMRC launched a new national minimum wage campaign, which allows employers who have not been paying their workers the national minimum wage to escape punishment. Employers who are guilty of non-compliance can now just notify HMRC of their transgression, declare that they have paid their workers any money owed, and agree to obey the law in future.

That all contradicts the Prime Minister’s August 2015 claim that

“the message is clear: underpay your staff, and you will pay the price.”

Such employers are not paying the price. We need a major change in policy if the Government are serious about stamping out that deep-rooted practice and protecting the legal rights of home care workers. The Government should make regulations, as provided for under section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, requiring employers to provide their workers with a statement demonstrating compliance with the national minimum wage. The exploitation of care workers must stop; we must ensure that they get the pay to which they are entitled.

3.30 pm

Christina Rees (Neath) (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.

The care industry and, in particular, its workforce play a vital role in our society. The UK has a care sector that is ever growing, which is essential with an ageing population. It is important to ensure that, as people age, they can still live in their own homes for as long as possible. That will not only allow people to enjoy the comforts of home as they spend more time there, but will help to reduce the pressure on the NHS, which we all understand would help enormously.

Where it is not possible for people to remain in their homes, they should be provided with the best care possible in a care home facility that meets the high standards we can expect in our society. To ensure that people are given the opportunity to remain in their home as they

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get older, the work of home care workers, who care for the elderly and disabled in their own homes, is vital. That is why it is so shocking that so many home care workers are routinely paid less than the national minimum wage. The absence of the most nominal of payments is condemning huge numbers of home care staff to the contemporary phenomenon of in-work poverty, as well as significantly undermining care standards across the industry.

The direct effect of underpayment is that care workers are plunged into poverty, leading to much higher rates of staff turnover, with a subsequent negative impact on care standards. Too many experienced or skilled care workers are being forced out of the industry simply because they cannot afford to stay. That is unacceptable.

Due to the lack of time, I will move swiftly on and cite an example from my constituency. The Government’s lack of concern about care workers not being paid the national minimum wage is in stark contrast to the efforts of the Unison branch at Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. The union has worked closely with the local authority to ensure that social care has remained a priority, reaffirming that care workers feel appreciated and, most importantly, that they are not being taken for granted.

The care sector in Neath Port Talbot, as in many other places, is a mixed economy, whereby the local authority directly provides around £11 million of services, and commissions about £32 million more from third-party providers from the private and voluntary sectors. Council staff are already paid at the national living wage rate, so in-house services act as a pacemaker for pay and conditions in the local care economy—that is to be commended. Were those in-house services not to exist—so with the absence of a pacemaker—we would be in danger of seeing a race to the bottom on pay and conditions, as third-party providers sought to maximise profit by decreasing resources.

A mixed economy works because the local authority uses its influence responsibly, as a quasi-monopoly purchaser of services, to ensure that workforce contracts do not cause detriment to local communities. A good and topical example is the recent decision by members of Neath Port Talbot council to meet in full the national living wage for staff employed in private sector residential care homes, from which the council purchases a significant amount of residential care. Neath Port Talbot council is one of the few local authorities in the UK that has decided to afford the national living wage from the outset—it might even be unique. It is important to point out, however, that the council has not simply gifted the money to residential care providers; it pays to ensure that its high-quality standards are met. If third party-providers fall below the standards, funds are withdrawn.

To conclude, perhaps that model will be adopted by the Government. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the proposal.

3.35 pm

Judith Cummins (Bradford South) (Lab): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this important debate.

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As has been spelt out in the Budget debates over the past few days, the Tory Government’s stated goal is to make work pay, so I will spend a few moments examining their record, given that we are considering the 1.5 million care workers who day in, day out, do noble work caring for our elderly and disabled population.

A March 2014 National Audit Office report found that an astonishing 220,000 home care workers are paid less than the national minimum wage. The main reason that so many care workers fail to receive the national minimum wage is that, despite resounding court judgments declaring this practice illegal, hundreds of thousands of workers are still not paid for the time they spend travelling between visits. They are, disturbingly, only paid for the time that they spend with their clients. That would be unacceptable in any other line of work, but, quite wrongly, it is still common practice in the care industry. As a matter of decency, care companies should meet the amount that Parliament has legislated for as the minimum that workers should receive in their pay packet. Each and every worker should not fear that, at the end of the working week, their employer has short-changed them. The national minimum wage is simply not happening in our care industry, and that is a national scandal.

The Tory Government need to step up and take action to ensure fairness in our care sector. Thankfully, under the national minimum wage legislation brought in under a Labour Government, the Tory Government have inherited the necessary powers to take much needed and long-overdue action. To be specific, under section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act, care providers as employers can be required to supply a written statement to each care worker, in which they should clearly set out the amount that the worker is being paid, the hours worked, and how that means that the employer is not short-changing them. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to commit to exploring the potential for introducing regulations under section 12.

At present, the work of many hundreds of thousands of care workers simply does not pay. They are still are not guaranteed a national minimum wage. They are, simply, being short-changed, and that scandal must not continue.

3.37 pm

Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this debate.

In September 2015, I made representations to the Minister on behalf of a social care organisation in my constituency, North London Homecare and Support, which was concerned about its financial capability to accommodate the increase in the national living wage. The Minister, in his response, informed me that the Government were working with the social care sector to consider the overall cost of social care and funding for local government, and that the result would be announced in the spending review. In spite of commitments about further funding, however, the social care sector is still not receiving adequate investment.

According to Local Government Association estimates, the social care precept will raise £372 million, which stands far short of the £2 billion figure suggested by the Government. The majority of that will be used to cover

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the cost of the transition to the new national living wage. In addition, although the better care fund is expected to deliver around £1.5 billion by 2019-20, the gap in social care funding is expected to reach £3.5 billion by the end of the Parliament in 2020.

With an ageing population and an NHS under increasing pressure, it is clear that we need the social care sector.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate. One of the tricks that the Government have pulled is to shove the responsibility for social care on to local authorities. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but what the Government have not done is to give them the resources to do it—they have given them about 2%. Three or four years down the road, we will reach a point when the Government come back and want to cap the local authorities, because they are spending too much—that is what the Government will say. We have had all that before. The other thing we should bear in mind is that at the moment local government is badly funded, to say the least.

Kate Osamor: I could not agree more. Those points are alarming and worry us all, and that is why we have all come to speak in the debate.

Only a thriving social care sector that is valued and respected will be able to give our NHS the support it needs to provide integrated healthcare solutions. The Minister and the Government must accept their responsibility to support social care through the transition to the national living wage and beyond to 2020. Sustainable, long-term investment is desperately needed.

3.40 pm

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare my 20 years of trade union activity for the Glasgow city branch of Unison before my election to Parliament.

There are far too many instances of care home providers who provide services for a profit ignoring or disregarding their legal responsibilities to their staff. It is particularly insidious that those who are paid the least and provide some of the most vital services needed by our society, which we will need more and more as our demographics shift, are being denied even the most basic protections by their employers. In two recent cases, MiHomecare settled a national minimum wage pay claim with one employee for £1,250 and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), in south Wales Unison colleagues secured backdated wages for 100 workers amounting to up to £2,500 each after it failed to pay workers for time travelling between clients.

A leaked document from MiHomecare sets out exactly how much workers are being short-changed by. Its internal analysis in the wake of an HMRC investigation into its employment practices revealed that 44 workers could have been out of pocket by as much as £2,000 a year each. A Resolution Foundation report estimated that as many as 160,000 care workers are receiving less than the minimum wage simply on the basis of non-payment for travelling time, to say nothing of the myriad other changes to their salary. That amounts to more

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than £300 million and, as a sum being withheld from some of the poorest workers in the country, I find that breathtaking.

The closure of HMRC offices across the country concerns me greatly. HMRC’s enforcement work is invaluable in taking to task the criminality that sadly some employers believe is justified. The centralisation of services and cutting of jobs will inevitably give the green light to more employers to think that they can flout the law and get away with it.

Angela Rayner: As a former Unison activist and comrade, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done in the sector? To come back to legality, is it not an absolute shame that many home carers will not be able to seek legal redress because of employment tribunal fees? It is unions such as Unison that enable carers to take cases to employment tribunals, because they pay the fees.

Chris Stephens: I agree with my Unison comrade and friend. One barrier to getting back-payments in this sector in particular is that the fees charged are often greater than the wages claimed for. I thank her for making that point.

If the green light is to be given to more employers, they will take that. In Scotland, with only two offices—in Glasgow and Edinburgh—to be retained under the proposals, it is simply not credible to suggest that, despite best efforts, HMRC’s minimum wage enforcement can continue at the same level. Given that the workforce in the care sector is female-dominated, it seems that a double whammy is created. We as a society pay women less overall and, even when a legal floor is put in place to stop wages falling below a certain level, many women are victims of their employers’ criminality and earn even less. There can be no place in a civilised society for the law-breaking that appears to be happening in areas of the care sector. A civilised Government should do all they can to stamp out that insidious practice.

Other Members have set the scene. As usual I enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). He rightly said that the sector looks after the most vulnerable. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) indicated her personal experience and the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) was correct when he said that it is not unreasonable to demand that the national minimum wage is paid.

Barbara Keeley: Many practices have been talked about during this debate, but we have not addressed the new practice of paying care staff by the minute—minute rates. I do not know of any other group of people paid and measured by the minute.

Chris Stephens: I am not aware of that either, but it is an important point. Bad employers will try such methods. I am concerned to hear about companies that are trying to get around paying the living wage by taking premium payments off staff. That is another important point that this Parliament will need to address.

Mixed messages are coming from the Government in this regard. Ruby McGregor-Smith, the leader of a home care company that the BBC had revealed was not

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paying its home care workers the national minimum wage, was recently elevated to the House of Lords. In August 2015, the Prime Minister commented to

The

Times

:

“So to unscrupulous employers who think they can get labour on the cheap, the message is clear: underpay your staff, and you will pay the price.”

Also in the summer of 2015, HMRC launched a national minimum wage campaign that allows employers that have not been paying the national minimum wage to escape punishment. The Government have been saying to companies that HMRC

“will not undertake an enquiry or investigation on your National Minimum Wage records”.

That is a mixed message.

That leaves an over-reliance on workers making complaints to HMRC. As has been revealed during this debate, many care workers fear reporting their employers because reprisals can include dismissal or having their hours cut. As was stated earlier, many home care workers are on zero-hours contracts.

Action needs to be taken. I hope that the Government will give a commitment that where a company is non-compliant, HMRC will extend its investigation to cover that company’s whole workforce. HMRC should publish results regularly, carry out assurance checks in the sector and allow third-party reporting. We have heard from many Members who have spoken so far about the vital role that the trade union movement is playing in the sector. HMRC should maintain records of the number of employees who contact it through the helpline, and there should be a formal protocol for HMRC to ensure that no action is taken against whistleblowers.

Minimum wage rates exist to protect working people and their wages, with a legal floor that stops wages going below a certain level. The insidious practice of not paying the national minimum wage must end, but it can end only if the Government are willing to ensure that compliance with minimum wage rates is monitored rigorously.

3.48 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate. I am pleased that so many of my colleagues have come to put forward cases; it is just a pity that there were so few on the Government Benches to listen to the human stories put forward by the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood).

I would like to start by paying tribute to care workers. They allowed my mum to live in her home at the end of her life, and that gave me the confidence to work here and her the confidence to stay at home. I have to say that in many instances they have the patience of saints. We rely on these people to look after our loved ones, and yet, as we have heard, so many are routinely and illegally still paid less than the minimum wage. I too would like to thank Unison for its briefing and its long campaign to support workers through all means, including legal action.

As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) said, we all have an interest in this debate, either sooner or later. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes)

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that investigations by HMRC of care providers found that 41% were guilty of non-compliance between 2011 and 2015. The Resolution Foundation calculated that care workers are collectively cheated out of £130 million per year due to below-minimum-wage payments. The effect on care workers and those they care for is immeasurable. It plunges care workers into poverty, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees). It leads to high staff turnover and therefore a lack of continuity of care, which is so valued by the person being cared for. The care worker is not just a paid employee or a carer; they become a friend.

So how do providers get away with that? It is by not paying for travel time, which encourages call-clipping—leaving a few minutes early to minimise time spent working for free. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), many care workers do not do that because they care about the people they are working for. Effectively, they are subsidising our care system.

We heard about how the combination of cuts to council funding and the rise in the minimum wage will increase the problem. The funding is simply insufficient for social care, both now and in the future, as was so eloquently put by my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who have long campaigned on the issue, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for their work on it.

Pressure from my colleagues led to the Government ordering HMRC to carry out an investigation into the six largest care providers. Care providers are businesses, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who spoke passionately about the large corporations and some of their actions, which are less than compassionate. Despite the Government ordering HMRC to carry out that investigation in February 2015, it has still not been completed. Why is that? When will it be complete?

Just a handful of small care providers—13—have been named and shamed since BIS commenced this policy in 2014. Of those 13 providers, eight were identified as owing arrears to just one care worker. How can that be if care workers are working under the same terms and conditions? Is HMRC extending its investigation to other care workers within the companies? If not, why not? We have heard that that is partly due to the process; HMRC recovers arrears only for the worker who contacted it, and employers are allowed to self-correct and pay back the other workers with minimal oversight. Effectively, they are shamed as bad employers that are not to be trusted, but are then trusted to do the right thing by the employees who they cheated in the first place.

The assurance process on this is minimal. It relies on workers knowing how much they are owed, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) rightly highlighted, many care workers are not currently provided with a proper breakdown of all their working time. HMRC also consistently identified a very low level of arrears, with an average of £201 per worker. Should HMRC not be made to carry out assurance checks, publish the results and talk to a wider range of people about this, including the trade unions?

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Some may ask why people do not report these abuses. As we have heard, there are low levels of awareness among workers that they should be paid for travel time, as well as a fear of losing jobs, of cuts in hours and of tribunal fees, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) highlighted.

Mr Andrew Smith: My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. As was pointed out earlier in the debate, a high proportion of these workers are migrant workers. With the awful rhetoric directed at them from some sections of our society and political parties, do not those workers feel additionally vulnerable and scared about reporting such things?

Yvonne Fovargue: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Many workers in this sector are already exploited, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby. They are women. They are migrant workers. They are people who do not traditionally complain. Another issue is the length of time before the judgment in tribunal cases. In 2014-15, it was on average 74 weeks before a judgment was reached.

Does the Minister feel that a voluntary statement of a national minimum wage is sufficient? In view of the widespread non-compliance, should the national minimum wage not be compulsory in this sector? As we have heard, many care workers do not know the hours they are paid for. Does he agree that we must go beyond the Low Pay Commission’s suggestion of simply having a review, and that there should be a requirement for payslips of hourly paid staff to clearly state the hours for which they are paid?

Details on the number of care workers who contact the pay and work rights helpline should be collected, as they were previously. That is vital, because it gives a sense of the levels of awareness about non-payment and the willingness to complain.

Councils’ commissioning processes should be monitored as to whether they are insisting that providers pay the minimum wage. Councils also need support to carry out spot inspections of providers’ payroll records, which should be clear, and they should carry out regular, anonymous staff surveys, in conjunction with trade unions, to identify any risks of non-payment.

We rely on care workers to look after the most vulnerable, and yet we are allowing them to be exploited and underpaid. They work in one of the most demanding sectors, caring for our loved ones, and they deserve to be looked after by all available means without further delay.

3.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on bringing this debate to the House. It has been a very helpful opportunity to focus attention on this important area, and it gives me a chance, on behalf of the Government, to make clear our commitment to ensuring that this issue is properly dealt with. I know he is a robust champion of workers in the care sector, and I want to praise him for his work in representing them here today.

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I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and others who have taken such an interest in this issue. Opposition Members may be surprised to hear me single out and congratulate Unison and the Resolution Foundation, which have done really good work on behalf of workers in the sector by shining a light on the complex issues and some of the completely unacceptable practices that have gone on for too long.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to our nation’s 1.5 million care workers, who, as hon. Members have said, work tirelessly to provide invaluable support to some of our most vulnerable citizens. Without their support in caring for the frail, the disabled and the elderly, we simply would not be able to cope as a society with the pressures of an ageing population. Hon. Members are right that we must ensure care workers are treated fairly by their employers and receive the money to which they are legally entitled—and that is a priority area for the Government, for this Minister and for the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who leads on this within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Perhaps I could take this moment to make it clear, lest anybody watching the debate is in any doubt, that this generation of Conservatives in government strongly supports the national minimum wage. We are very proud that we have gone further and introduced the national living wage, as well as increasing penalties from £5,000 per employer to £20,000 per employee, which last year saw one investigation lead to a fine of half a million pounds.

We have also increased the budget for compliance by 50% since 2010 and strengthened the naming and shaming provisions. Let me send the strong signal that we will not tolerate non-compliance with the national minimum wage. It applies across all sectors, and the nature of the work that these care workers do, in a fragmented, challenging and geographically difficult sector, is no excuse for non-compliance.

I want to make it clear that any employer who treats the Government’s commitment to this space with contempt needs to be very careful. I am very disappointed to see that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s request for Mike Ashley from Sports Direct to come and give evidence has not been responded to. Let me take this opportunity to say that contempt for this area of law is not acceptable, and to welcome the recent court case in which Caroline Barlow successfully prosecuted MiHomecare. It led to the court ruling that she and, by implication, others should have been properly paid. I welcome that, and the signal should go out very clearly to businesses, councils and all those who employ the low-paid that they have to abide by their duties under the law.

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Barbara Keeley: Most Members here would agree with the Minister about Mike Ashley, I am sure, and would applaud the Chair of the BIS Committee and the Speaker for the way in which they are handling the situation.

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The key point I want to make is this: although it is good that the Minister is proud of the Government’s policy on the minimum wage, does he not think that the Government should have funded that? Is not the key problem the one that I outlined: the 2% precept will only raise £1.6 billion, but my local council will need £2.7 billion just to deal with these pressures? We cannot get to a position in which those in the care sector can pay the minimum wage unless there is funding for it, and that is the Government’s responsibility.

George Freeman: I will come on to the funding of social care, which is a major issue that we all face as a society and will require some pretty deep thinking over the years ahead. I will also describe the extra money that the Government have put in. Although there is never enough money, we have made this priority very clear.

It may help if I review how we got to be where we are today. In 1999, the national minimum wage came in. It was the first time that legislation had been introduced in the UK to ensure a minimum level of pay for virtually all workers. Its aim is to help as many low-paid workers as possible, end extreme low pay and ensure a level playing field for employers. We are absolutely clear that anyone who is entitled to be paid the national minimum wage or, from 1 April, the national living wage must receive it.

Melanie Onn: Will the Minister give way?

George Freeman: I will continue, if I may—I am under a tight time limit. The enforcement of the minimum wage is therefore essential to its success and we are committed to cracking down in every sector across the economy on employers who break the minimum wage law. Our approach is simple: through effective national minimum wage enforcement, we are able to support workers and businesses by deterring employers from underpaying their workers and removing the unfair competitive advantage that underpayment could bring.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister give way?

George Freeman: I will very briefly, but I am going to run out of time if Members keep intervening.

Mr Andrew Smith: Does the Minister not agree that those efforts would be very strongly buttressed if the power were taken under section 12 of the National Minimum Wage Act for mandatory statements showing compliance?

George Freeman: I will deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s points, with which I have a lot of sympathy, if I am given time to crack on.

Hon. Members have rightly raised the issue of non-compliance with the minimum wage in this sector. I want first to set out the measures that we are putting in place now and that we have put in place already, before touching on some things that we may go on to do in due course. HMRC responds to every complaint made by workers through the ACAS helpline. When a third party

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reports suspected non-compliance, HMRC evaluates the report and investigates the employer when there are grounds to do so.

Since HMRC began enforcing the minimum wage in ’99, it has identified more than £65 million in arrears. Between April and November 2015, HMRC took action against 557 businesses, clawing back over £8 million for 46,000 workers who had been illegally underpaid. That is already the largest amount of arrears identified in any single year since the national minimum wage was introduced and is possible as a result of the increased investment and extra measures we have put in place to support enforcement.

We are going further. The Prime Minister has committed to a package of measures that are currently being implemented that will build on Government action to date and strengthen the enforcement of the national minimum and living wage. First, we are increasing the enforcement budget from April 2016, demonstrating our ongoing commitment to ensuring that the hardest-working and lowest-paid people receive the pay that they are entitled to. HMRC will also continue to promote compliance with the law and respond when employers have got things wrong.

Secondly, the Government are further increasing the penalties that employers will have to pay when they break the law. From 1 April, the calculation will increase further, to 200% of the arrears that an employer owes. By increasing the penalties for underpayment of the national minimum wage, we intend that employers who would otherwise be tempted to underpay comply with the law and that working people receive the money they are legally due.

Furthermore, under changes being implemented through the Immigration Bill, we are creating a statutory director of labour market enforcement, who will set out a single set of priorities for the enforcement bodies across the spectrum of non-compliance. That should ensure a targeted approach that addresses problems and best helps victims.

Under the Immigration Bill, we are also creating a new type of enforcement order. That labour market enforcement undertaking will be supported by a criminal offence for non-compliance. We want to tackle employers who deliberately, persistently and brazenly commit breaches of labour law and fail to take remedial action. That cannot always be done satisfactorily through the repeated use of existing penalties or offences, which may lead to the continued exploitation of workers.

Christina Rees: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he provide examples of where that happens in the care sector? He is quoting a lot of statistics overall about the national minimum wage and recovery, but they are not specific to the care sector.

George Freeman: Perhaps I can come back to the hon. Lady on specific cases—I do not have them to hand. I just want to talk about what we are doing to deal with the issues that have been raised, but she makes an interesting point.

In the care sector, we have a particularly high incidence of workers who have not been paid the national minimum wage in the right way. Other sectors are hairdressing and retail, and there is some dispute about where the

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worst practice exists, but the care sector clearly has a major historical problem. That is in part attributable to the fact that many of the more complex rules on calculating working time are prevalent in the sector—for example, the calculation of travel and sleeping time. On those points, although I am sure that Members will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases, I want to restate the Government’s position: when workers are performing work under their contracts, they must be paid the minimum wage.

It is also worth noting that there is no perfect measure of non-compliance within the sector, and there is a possibility that current estimates of non-compliance overestimate work time and underestimate pay, because the information is reported by workers themselves. That is why we are continuing to work with the Low Pay Commission, the Office for National Statistics and others in order to improve our estimates and better understand the scale of the problem.

On the point that was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and others, the Low Pay Commission’s proposals on transparency merit serious consideration, and we are looking at those and a number of its other recommendations. We are determined to continue to drive forward and send the very clearest signal to companies and employers that we are becoming less tolerant of non-compliance, and we want them to recognise that.

None the less, increasing compliance with the minimum wage in the sector remains a top priority for us and we are taking a number of steps to promote compliance and take stronger action against those who break the law. First, HMRC continues to focus on tackling non-compliance, but that activity is no longer reliant on worker complaints and instead targets employers with the highest risk of non-compliance based on a range of intelligence and information. HMRC can now analyse information from, for example, other Departments, trade union representatives and the Low Pay Commission, and the evidence indicates that this targeted approach in the care sector is working. From April 2013 to January 2016, HMRC opened 443 cases in the social care sector and closed 308 of those. Of the 308 closed cases, underpayment of the national minimum wage was found in 32% of investigations—for total arrears of £442,000 to 3,000 workers, with penalties issued for a total value of £100,000.

Members have also raised the important issue of affordability within the sector, given the introduction of the national living wage. That pay rise for the lowest paid could be seen to be a threat in terms of increasing non-compliance. That is partly why we are taking steps to signal strongly our commitment to clamp down on it.

With an ageing society, social care funding is a major strategic issue for the country and this Government. We are engaging closely with all the relevant stakeholders on that issue to ensure that councils recognise the need to increase the price that they pay for care in order to cover costs and to reflect rising costs and, not least, the national living wage. That is partly why we are giving local authorities access to an extra £3.5 billion of new support for social care by 2020, to be included in the better care fund. Councils will also be able to introduce a new social care precept, allowing them to increase council tax by 2% above the existing threshold. Taken together,

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the new precept and the additional better care fund contribution mean local government has access to the extra funding that it will need to increase social care spending in real terms by the end of this Parliament.

Barbara Keeley: I thank the Minister for giving way again, but there is a two-year gap. There is nothing from the better care fund this year, only £100 million next year, and—as I said in giving the example from my local authority—the 2% social care precept only covers about half of what is needed. Nationally as well as locally, that is the problem and that is why the Local Government Association asked the Government to bring forward £700 million.

George Freeman: I understand. These things are never straightforward or simple. As the right hon. Member for Oxford East pointed out, a lot of creativity is required from councils and the healthcare sector. There is best practice across the country to ensure that health and care are better integrated. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Opposition Members to shake their heads as if this were an easy problem to solve. It is a problem we inherited from the last Government. I am trying to be reasonable in setting out our commitment to deal with it, but it should be remembered that we inherited the problem from the Members who are shaking their heads and suggesting that it is easily solved. I hope that the measures I have set out provide reassurance that we are taking the matter seriously.

Perhaps I may conclude by framing the central elements of the package that we are putting in place. We have toughened up the sanctions and made it easier to name and shame. We have now named 490 employers, raised over £1 million in penalties and recovered over £30 million in unpaid arrears. We are now running at a 94% rate of naming since our revisions to the code in 2013.

Several hon. Members made the point about four-year delays, including my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). I think that that is completely unacceptable. Although we are seeing progress in the speed and rate at which investigations are being pursued, I will talk to the Minister for Skills to make sure the very strongest signal is sent to HMRC saying that we cannot tolerate such delays.

As I have signalled, we are seriously interested in looking at the Low Pay Commission’s recommendation on payslip transparency. It is important that employers are held to account and that employees, particularly when it comes to individual elements of time, can see clearly what time they are being paid for.

I want to highlight the fact that the advice available for employees is free and confidential and that we have introduced important measures to ensure that, when HMRC has information from a third party to carry out an investigation, it keeps the complainant’s identity confidential and that that should trigger a whole workforce investigation.

I also want to highlight the fact that HMRC offers a free service to any employee who believes they are not being reimbursed properly. HMRC also has powers to enforce the reimbursement of expenses. That gives me the chance to highlight the fact that all expenses properly incurred by care workers in the course of doing their duty, often in a sector that requires them to travel extensively across large areas, should be, must be and the Government expect will be, properly reimbursed.

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I hope that that helps to set out the Government’s real commitment to tackling the issue. I again thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central on raising it and giving me the opportunity on behalf of the Government to set out how strongly we support cracking down on non-compliance.

4.12 pm

Paul Blomfield: I congratulate you, Mr Hollobone, on the seamless and unnoticed way in which you assumed the Chair.

I thank all Members for their contributions, which are too numerous to cover in a couple of minutes. They have illuminated the scale of and damage caused by the problem. It is ironic that a sector that is supposed to be about care shows so little duty of care to its employees. To illustrate the cross-party concern, I cite the words of the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) that something is very wrong indeed with national minimum wage enforcement in the care sector and that has to change.

I thank the Minister for the constructive way in which he has engaged with the debate and the issues that we have raised. I do not think he covered all the points that a number of us raised. I will write to him and I hope he will have an opportunity to get back to me on those.

I want to follow through on the Minister’s suggestion that the Government may take up the issue raised by the Low Pay Commission and Unison and to ask him to indicate—he can do so simply by nodding—that he is willing to meet me, the commission and Unison to discuss how we can move forward with implementation of transparency on payslips.

George Freeman indicated assent.

Paul Blomfield: The Minister is nodding and I am pleased to acknowledge that we will be able to have such a meeting.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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


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Registration of Births

4.15 pm

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the registration of births of children of deceased people.

I am conscious that our debate may be interrupted at any moment by the sound of the Division Bell. I will start, but I presume that the sitting will be suspended for 15 minutes.

I called for this debate following a number of cases that had come to my attention. I want to make a simple request to the Government about freedom. Since I became an MP in 2010, we have had many debates about equality, and many of us were proud to support legislation to enable same-sex marriage, but many equality battles remain, and this is one. It is about bringing legislation on the registration of births into the 21st century.

4.16 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.35 pm

On resuming

Stella Creasy: As I was saying before we were interrupted by high-speed rail, this debate is about equality and freedom, because the law on equality is ultimately about the freedom for people to live their life as they wish. The freedoms we are talking about today are freedoms held in one of the most tragic circumstances possible: a mother losing a loved one just as she is bringing a new life into this world. Today I will talk about the way in which, perhaps inadvertently, our legislation discriminates against people in those circumstances.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The freedom that my hon. Friend is referring to exists in Germany and Switzerland, both of which have the sensible rule that parental information is taken when the baby is first introduced to the midwife and maternity system and the father acknowledges paternity. The legal situation is clarified at that point, rather than at the point of the baby’s birth.

Stella Creasy: My hon. Friend, like me, has such cases in her constituency, hence her concern to get the law right. The legislation does not make sense in the 21st century, and our concern is that it inadvertently discriminates against women. It makes a value judgment about the mothers in question and therefore enshrines an outdated attitude towards women in the process.

I have some examples, and I am grateful that one of the people tragically affected is here with us today. My constituent, Joana, is a young mum from Walthamstow, and she already had one child with her partner, David, when he tragically had a stroke shortly before the birth of their second child, Eira. Having his role in Eira’s life recorded was therefore an important part of the grieving process for the family, and doubly important for Eira because it gives her the same rights to David as her sister. Joana has described to me the dehumanising process of trying to get David’s role in Eira’s life recorded on the birth certificate. She described turning up at the register office only to find that the registrar had no idea what to do, and she then found out that she had to go to

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court to prove that David was the father. She had been in a long-term relationship with this man. She shared a mortgage with him, and he had been at the National Childbirth Trust classes. He had been an integral part of the preparations for the birth of their second child. They were clearly in a committed relationship, but alas, the law includes no ability to recognise that and does not give the registrar the ability to record David’s part in Eira’s life, because of the simple fact that Joana and David were not married.

Joana is not alone. Penny’s partner Nathan sadly died two weeks after their son was born. Their son was conceived using IVF, so Nathan was clearly the father. Again, purely because Nathan and Penny had chosen not to marry, they were not able to record Nathan’s role in their son’s life on the birth certificate. Penny told us:

“Babies don’t come from wedding rings.”

There is also Rebecca, who already had a child with Mark before he tragically died in a paragliding accident when Rebecca was just 17 weeks pregnant.

All three women faced the same scenario in which their word, and even the basic evidence they could provide for the long-standing, committed relationships they were in with the fathers of their children, was not enough, so they had to go to court. They faced a court fee of £365 and possible further fees for DNA tests to prove that their partner was indeed the father. In fact, in Joana’s case, David’s father had to come to court. They had to take DNA not just from Eira but from her sister and from a family member to prove that most basic relationship, which was obvious to the outside world.

The situation was very different for Kate, who also lost her partner in tragic circumstances shortly before the birth of their son. Three weeks before he passed away they married in a hospital intensive care unit. The £27 license meant that not only was she able to register her child’s father with no further questions asked—even though, just as in the cases of Joana, Penny and Rebecca, he was not present at the registration process—but she was entitled to a bereavement allowance of £2,000 and an ongoing widowed parent’s allowance of £510 a month.

There is a simple question at the heart of this matter. I wanted the debate because as a society we have not yet considered these issues, even though they affect how people live today. In securing the debate, the first thing I wanted to do was put this matter on the Minister’s list of things to resolve. The situation still exists only because nobody has really looked at it in the 21st century. Why do we treat Kate differently from Penny, Rebecca and Joana?

I pay tribute to the organisation Widowed & Young, which has been helping equally all four of the women I mentioned. It recognised the iniquities in the existing system. When those women’s partners were alive, all four couples were treated equally with regard to taxation. It is only in death that we see the inequality in people’s treatment. By having that marriage licence, Kate did not have to go through the indignity of having to try to prove her child’s paternity in the way the other three did.

The Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 is truly from another time. I say for the avoidance of doubt that I think everyone understands that because legal rights come with parenthood, there must be a process for registering children. That process must withstand scrutiny

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and nobody, either male or female, should be registered if they are not a parent. But the Act is designed to protect fathers from having an illegitimate child registered. I would caution that the term “illegitimate” in itself speaks volumes of the 1950s, not the 21st century in which we live.

The existing law requires the courts to verify parentage when the parents are not married, as if marriage in and of itself verifies the truthfulness of what a woman says. There is, though, already a process in place for a birth certificate to be amended to add a name. We already recognise that it is right for a registrar to have the discretion to amend a certificate in certain circumstances—they can use their professional judgment and respond to the person in front of them—without requiring people to go to court, which can cost families thousands of pounds at the most tragic of times.

We do not, though, have the ability to correct an absence. There is no way to allow a registrar to look at the evidence that Joana could have so easily presented, at the time, of the sincere and committed relationship she was in with David, and to act accordingly. At the most difficult and sensitive time for a family, the law stands firm. It does not see the lives that people had, but simply makes the judgement that they were not married. We must change that. Turning up with a father is in itself no guarantee that he is the father, just as turning up without him does not mean that he can be verified by DNA testing alone.

Will the Minister consider ending the inequality and making sure that this part of the law does not judge those who choose not to marry, just as we seek to support those who do choose to marry? In not giving registrars the same power to correct an absence as to make an addition, we persist with the inequality of saying that some women will lie and that marriage is what makes them truthful. Why treat women who choose not to marry as somehow untrustworthy? Why not enable registrars to seek evidence, act and use their professional judgment? We are seeking a small change in the law, but it would be a big injustice for the families if we did not drag the legislation into the 21st century.

I appreciate that this might be the first time the Minister has considered the matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) pointed out, there are different processes in place in other countries. We want the Government to commit to looking at how they can make a change happen, and to recognise that this is an injustice that needs resolution. It is now too late for Joana—she has managed to record David’s role in Eira’s life through other means—but we know that many more families out there are suffering the same experience and hope the Government will act accordingly.

4.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice (Caroline Dinenage): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing this important debate on such a vital issue.

We are here because of the tragic death of the hon. Lady’s constituent, David. At the outset, I pay tribute to him, to his partner, Joana, and to all the other women she mentioned—Penny, Rebecca and Kate. Joana and the others have shown incredible bravery in utterly

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devastating circumstances. I was deeply moved when I read Joana’s account of her family’s experience. I acknowledge the courage and determination she has shown by speaking out publicly on this issue. It cannot have been easy for her.

The hon. Lady makes a compelling case for addressing the issue at hand, which is the lengthy and complex process that Joana had to undertake to put the name of her baby’s father on her birth certificate after he tragically and unexpectedly died before the child was born. Of course, nothing can undo the devastation of these terrible circumstances, but recognising a deceased father on a birth certificate is an important step in honouring their memory.

I understand utterly the sense of frustration when the system appears to make things very difficult. It has been very valuable to listen to the points that the hon. Lady has made today, all of which I have taken on board. I hope that I can explain how the law operates and why, and how the law, the courts and the registration process provide for the recognition of fathers in such tragic circumstances, but I will also consider all the suggestions that the hon. Lady has made.

Moving away from the specific details of this case, I will lay out the general position on parentage. The two key principles in English law in this regard are the “presumption of legitimacy”, which assumes that a child born to a married woman is the child of her husband, and genetic fatherhood, whereby evidence can be used where necessary to prove paternity.

The law presumes that a married man is the father of his wife’s child, so his registration as the child’s father is automatic. The law does not give the same recognition to unmarried fathers, because currently there is not any legal framework that presumes their paternity. In ordinary circumstances, an unmarried father will consent to his registration as the father of the child and usually he will attend the registration of the child’s birth with the mother, but the registrar can also recognise the father’s entitlement to be registered if he has a parental responsibility agreement, a parental responsibility order or another suitable form of court order. However, where that is not possible, in tragic cases such as that of Joana, the law provides an alternative way for a deceased father to be recognised as a child’s father, and then to be recognised through the birth registration process.

The Family Law Act 1986 allows a court to make a declaration of parentage, and anyone can apply for a declaration to the High Court or the family court, and the final order of the court will be a declaration that a person named in the application was the parent of the child. The Registrar General is then responsible for authorising the re-registration of the birth to include the name of the deceased father, under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. This process should not be lengthy or expensive, but unfortunately that does not appear to have been the experience of the hon. Lady’s constituent.

The hon. Lady rightly points out the necessary provision to prevent birth registration from naming someone falsely as a child’s father, because obviously a birth certificate could potentially be used to support a false claim for something such as nationality or the right to

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inherit property. Consequently, it is really important that a birth certificate generates a high level of confidence in the information that it contains.

However, a key intention of the provisions for family proceedings was to try to make the process simpler, so that people would not need legal representation, which should keep the costs down. The application form for a declaration of parentage explains all the information that is required and contains directions that enable the application to be completed successfully. However, in light of the experiences I have heard about today, I am very happy to look at the information available to people registering births and to consult with the General Register Office to see whether this process needs to be improved to make the position clearer for applicants, especially those unfortunate enough to have experienced the death of a partner shortly before the birth of a child.

In addition, I know that one of my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office is already looking at the registration process for marriage and I am more than happy to have a conversation with him to request that the registration of births is also covered. I will particularly ask that international examples are looked at to see whether they can be taken into consideration.

Stella Creasy: I thank the Minister for her comments. Nobody is suggesting that we do not need a robust process for registering births. However, what troubles me particularly in this instance is the difference between a registrar taking on that role and seeking a court intervention. She and I may differ on whether the cost of the court fees is excessive, but the principle that the court has to be involved at all is the challenge, especially when we allow registrars to amend a birth certificate. It is registering a name in the first place that is the challenge when the father is deceased and the parents are not married.

Will the Minister commit to examining why we presume a registrar can exercise their professional judgment to amend a registration when perhaps even married people might not have given the whole truth at the point of registering a birth, but, when it comes to adding the name of a person who cannot be there for a very reasonable reason—because they have passed away—we deny the registrar’s professional expertise? The simple resolution would be to extend the use of that professional expertise to both instances, rather than saying that only the courts can add a name, but that a registrar can amend a name.

Caroline Dinenage: Yes, as I have said, I will consider that, and also discuss it with my counterpart in the Home Office, who is already considering registrations of marriages, to see whether that scrutiny can be extended to registration of births as well, particularly in cases of this kind. I would like, in conclusion, to express my sympathy to Joana, who had such a terrible experience following the loss of her partner, and to her daughters, on the loss of their dad.

Stella Creasy: For clarity, may we have a timetable for the scrutiny of marriage licences, and for consideration of extending the registrars’ powers to add a name? Now that we have opened up the matter in debate, we know that several families are in the same position, and they would welcome clarity about when they will get answers.

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Caroline Dinenage: Yes, that consideration is happening in the Home Office. As the hon. Lady will know I am a Minister in the Ministry of Justice so I do not know the timetable, but I am more than happy to get back to her with that information as soon as I have it.

Question put and agreed to.

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Hong Kong: Sino-British Joint Declaration

4.52 pm

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered Hong Kong and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Today is exactly the right moment for the House to consider this important issue. The debate is prompted by the most recent six-monthly report from the Foreign Office on Hong Kong, the 38th in a series of reports written every six months on the implementation of the 1984 joint declaration. One thing that I have been proud to introduce to the House since I became chairman of the all-party group on China is the fact that our group debates the reports and brings them to the House for debate, so that they are not just written, filed and forgotten. Every six months, members who are interested have the chance to discuss the reports and to express to the people of Hong Kong the objective British view on the maintenance of the joint declaration.

Today’s debate clashes, alas, with a number of other events in the House, as is often the way, and a large number of Members who said that they wanted to come and participate have unfortunately been unable to do so. However, I would not want anyone watching or listening to the debate, or reading the Hansard record later, to be confused by that and to think that there is little interest in the joint declaration or in the present and future of Hong Kong. It is a territory of huge significance to us and to China—and most importantly, of course, to its residents. It is therefore right that we should go through the exercise of reviewing what has happened, what changes there have been and whether they are broadly positive or negative.

The latest six-monthly report, which came out on 11 February, is, as so often with Foreign Office documents, a model of precision. It covers a wide range of subjects and is often as interesting for what it does not say as what it does say. I want to highlight first the overall themes of the report, secondly the areas of concern that it highlights, and thirdly the wider issue of the rule of law. The report deals with that final point in some detail, and it is what we should concern ourselves with today.

First, I want to talk about the overall tone of the report. It concludes that during the second half of 2015, the programme of one country, two systems, which the joint declaration committed itself to,

“has, in very many areas, continued to function well”,

but that there are specific grounds for serious concern, which

“revolve…around the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Joint Declaration, including academic freedom and the freedom of the press.”

The overall theme that the constitutional arrangement of one country, two systems has served Hong Kong well is repeated in the Foreign Secretary’s foreword to the report. He says that the constitutional arrangement continued to function well during the reporting period, but that there are areas of concern where we should reinforce the responsibilities on both our countries set

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out in the joint declaration. I will come back to the Foreign Secretary’s specific remarks on the case of Lee Po, a British citizen.

At this stage, I simply highlight the comments with which the Foreign Secretary finishes the foreword, which relate to the wider constitutional issue. He observes:

“The UK Government judges that constitutional reform will help, not hinder, the Hong Kong SAR Government…A more democratic and accountable system of government would help strengthen those rights and freedoms which have come under increasing pressure over the past two years…We encourage all parties to play their part in rebuilding constructive dialogue”.

That has to be right, because it is in our interests and those of China, Hong Kong and the wider world that Hong Kong continues to thrive and be the success that it has been in the almost 20 years since handover in 1997.

I come on to the areas of concern that have been highlighted during and since the second half of last year. I will first focus on the broader attitude to the rule of law and the separation of powers. I note from the report that on 12 September, the Central Government Liaison Office director, Zhang Xiaoming, argued in a speech

“that the existence of the executive, legislature and judiciary did not mean the separation of powers could be applied to Hong Kong in its entirety…he described the Chief Executive’s special legal position as ‘transcending’ the executive, legislature and judiciary.”

That statement is incompatible with the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the one country, two systems philosophy that underpins the joint declaration. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that speech by Zhang Xiaoming, which in many ways appeared to suggest that the Chief Executive can control the executive, legislature and judiciary with overweening powers.

The Chinese response to the six-monthly report again accused Her Majesty’s Government of interfering in Hong Kong affairs. That has always been a difficult and sensitive area, and we have to address it with a sensitivity that recognises that the sovereignty of Hong Kong lies entirely with the People’s Republic of China. As the Government have been accused of interfering in Hong Kong affairs, I think it is worth recapping the importance of British interest in Hong Kong. That is partly a commercial interest, as has often been noted, with more than 630 UK companies based in Hong Kong and UK investment there conservatively valued at about £35 billion, which makes up just over a third of the total UK investment in Asia.

However, our interest in Hong Kong is not simply the interest of a mercantile nation. It stretches much wider, starting with the human involvement—the fact that 3.7 million British passport holders live in Hong Kong—and continuing with the strong education links. The UK was the top overseas English-speaking study destination for Hong Kong higher education students in 2014-15, the last date for which we have complete data, and that has been the case for a long time.

British companies based in Hong Kong are not there simply to do business with Hong Kong itself, although that is often important. They often have headquarters in Hong Kong but use it as a gateway into China. Some 126 UK companies have regional headquarters and

23 Mar 2016 : Column 632WH

220 have regional offices there. It has been a frustration of mine for many years that it is impossible to quantify accurately British trade with and investment in China, precisely because so much of it is routed through Hong Kong and therefore appears in the trade statistics as being of Hong Kong origin. The total two-way goods trade between the UK and mainland China, routed through Hong Kong, as far as we can estimate it, was valued at just over £5 billion at the last count in 2014-15.

Our stake in Hong Kong is wide. It starts with a very large number of British citizens—British passport holders and British overseas passport holders. It continues through education and an important trading and business relationship, which is important not just to us and to Hong Kong, but to China. The success of the British business relationship in Hong Kong underpins the fact that the freedoms established through the joint declaration are still there. They are succeeding, and they provide the core of the reasons why British firms enjoy doing business with Hong Kong. Were that ever to be damaged, it would not only be British trade and investment that would suffer from the change in Hong Kong’s reputation. Investment and trade with a wide range of other countries, which underpins Hong Kong’s success, would also suffer. That investment and trade is critical to China as proof of the success of the joint declaration and the handover of Hong Kong, and of the fact that one country, two systems can thrive and offers precedents for its diplomacy in other parts of the world.

On the accusation of interference in Hong Kong affairs, I suggest that the rule of law—the absolute conviction that the judiciary in Hong Kong is independent, will make independent decisions and will not favour businesses of one type over others, other than through the process of a legal case—is absolutely essential to the success of Hong Kong and, ultimately, to the success of China itself. I hope the Minister will comment on that. It is therefore no surprise that when President Xi Jinping ascended to the chairmanship of the Chinese Communist party, his opening speech highlighted both the challenge of the dangers of corruption, and the opportunity to strengthen the rule of law in China. He said that he was committed to that, and that it was at the heart of his mission in the leadership of that great country.

It would be curious to hold this debate and discuss the six-monthly report on Hong Kong without making reference to what the Foreign Secretary described as

“a serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration”,

which

“undermines the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the Hong Kong legal system.”

I refer, of course, to the unexplained disappearance of five individuals associated with a Hong Kong bookstore and, in particular, the disappearance of Mr Lee Po from Hong Kong to mainland China.

None of us in this House has access to the true facts behind that curious situation, other than what we have read in the newspapers, what the Foreign Secretary said in a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister and the subsequent statements from the Foreign Office and the Chinese Government. An interview with Mr Lee Po, of which I have seen a translation, was shown on Chinese television. It suggests that he no longer wishes to be a British citizen and has renounced his citizenship—although clearly not in accordance with the rules for doing so.

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Today is an opportunity for the Minister to brief the House on the latest situation and on whether he believes that the disappearance of Mr Lee Po, who has now reappeared in Guangdong, constitutes a serious breach of the joint declaration. What reaction has there been between in discussions between the Foreign Secretary and the Chinese ambassador, my friend Mr Liu Xiaoming, here in London, and in other meetings in China and Hong Kong? Will he clarify the situation and explain how it will be resolved? Ultimately, it is about whether the freedoms that have been guaranteed are for real, and about the perception of whether China is adhering to those freedoms in Hong Kong. It is about whether this is a one-off incident that will not recur or the beginning of a seriously disturbing trend.

The most poignant thing, in a way, is how the people of Hong Kong have reacted to that issue. I received an email only an hour or so ago from a young resident of London who is a student here but is from Hong Kong. She expressed her own particular concerns. The long and the short of her email is that she has serious concerns about the future of Hong Kong and feels that the freedoms guaranteed under the joint declaration are being eroded. She wrote:

“As a Hong Kong citizen, I am concerned about the future of Hong Kong. And maybe you have heard…that the freedom and democracy in Hong Kong is deteriorating under the rule of Chinese government.”

She says that personally, she thinks that China

“have been violating the Joint Declaration and never kept their promises.”

That expression of concern is by no means unusual. There have been other letters and emails from Hong Kong citizens, resident either here in London or in Hong Kong itself. They are the future of Hong Kong. It is the young people who, with their energies, resources and commitment, will determine whether Hong Kong continues to thrive as one of the greatest examples in the modern world of a free marketplace enjoying growth and opportunity for all of its people, or whether their concerns will lead to a rather different situation—a sad, continual decline in Hong Kong’s importance. None of us wants to see that.

I am conscious that at least a couple of other Members wish to speak, so I will move on from the individual case of Mr Lee Po and touch briefly on the wider issue of the rule of law.

The rule of law in China, one of the two main driving points of Mr Xi Jinping’s leadership, has now been raised in other contexts as well as that of Hong Kong. I refer in particular to issues in the South China sea, where last October an arbitral tribunal under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea ruled that it had jurisdiction to consider the Philippines’ claim in its maritime dispute with China. I believe there will be a ruling from the tribunal soon; the Minister might want to comment on that. If there is, the reactions of all those involved will be important. Whatever the decision is, we will get a clear idea of the reactions of the Philippines, China and the United Kingdom. That will be a symbolic signpost of whether China is going to take forward the rule of law not just in the People’s Republic itself, but in a wider context and in how she engages with the world at large. China is one of the great nations of our time; of that there can be no doubt. Her aspirations and ambitions are considerable, and many of them are hugely positive things that can lead to

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the development of better standards of living in parts of the world, as she has enjoyed herself through the reforms of the past 35 years.

However, there are also dangers in China’s ambitions, particularly in the South China sea, where there is a risk of rising tensions over rival claims. China and other nations are strengthening their military capabilities and increasingly having clashes that could spiral out of control. We have seen another of those clashes in the past few days, this time on the edge of Borneo, or Kalimantan, involving the Indonesian Government. I believe the Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries intends to launch a legal case against China. From Britain’s point of view, the escalation of such disagreements and China’s recent large-scale reclamation activity—it has even sited missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels— pose a serious risk of escalations that could cause greater problems. The United Kingdom would not wish to see that at all.

Will the Minister comment on the rule of law outside China’s own sovereignty and on her relationships with other nations in the South China sea? Will he also comment on how we in Britain—particularly the Government—can play a constructive role in helping with the peaceful settlement of all claims in line with international law? “In line with international law” is the part that matters.

The Minister commented recently that how China responds will be seen as a signal of its commitment to the rules-based international system. My friends in the Chinese embassy and the Chinese Government will not necessarily welcome this, but I believe that over the next five, 10, 20 years, the way in which China engages with the world, and whether it adopts rules-based international law as the starting point for its engagement with the wider world and its commercial and cultural advantages, will be the measure by which the world judges its advancement into being one of the handful of greatest nations.

In summary, today we have reviewed the most recent six-monthly report on Hong Kong, which confirms that in many ways, the joint declaration continues, and that many, if not most, of the freedoms set out in it are in good shape and are being endorsed and carried out by all parties. There are, however, serious concerns to do with the rule of law, brought alive most vividly by the possible abduction of a British citizen from Hong Kong to China. The exercise of the rule of law in a wider, international context may indicate further problems with China’s adherence to a rules-based system. The House is absolutely entitled to discuss that, not least because of this country’s significant investment in and commitment to the future of Hong Kong.

China is our friend; we are in a partnership with it in a large number of fields. I am proud to be the chairman of such a large all-party group on China, with almost 400 members—

5.16 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.26 pm

On resuming

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): When we were so rudely interrupted, the hon. Member for Gloucester was still on his feet.

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Richard Graham: Thank you, Mr Hollobone. You are correct, I was still on my feet, but I was moving swiftly to the climax of my contribution.

I was highlighting the huge steps that the People’s Republic of China has made in so many ways. Today, its partnership with us extends across a wide variety of sectors, areas and countries throughout the world. One example of a field in which China’s advances are important, particularly to British business, is intellectual property rights, which are now better protected in China than in many other countries in the world, not least because it has an interest in intellectual property rights for its own significant intellectual property.

We all want to be reassured that, as China engages in a partnership with us that extends into areas previously considered sensitive by many countries—for instance, nuclear power—the rule of law, sticking to agreements and standing by what has been signed and agreed to will be a cornerstone of the People’s Republic now and in future. I hope that the Minister will touch on that reassurance, and that he will address the concerns about a specific breach of the joint declaration—the first, let it be said, since the handover in 1997—and about China’s engagement with the rule of law as it applies internationally.

I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr Hollobone. I hope that Members from other parties will express their views on the latest Foreign Office report and on the importance of keeping to the freedoms and rights established under the one country, two systems philosophy, and that the Minister will shed light on his latest understanding of events.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): The debate can now run to 6.14 pm. The recommended Front-Bencher speaking limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Those are recommendations. In addition, one prominent Back Bencher has caught my eye—I call Jim Shannon.

5.28 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Thank you for calling me, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to be able to speak on this issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on setting a good scene and one that I agree with—I suspect that we will have consensus.

I was just saying to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), that it is Groundhog Day this afternoon, with almost the same players—perhaps fewer in number—and the Minister in his place as well. I do not say this lightly, but the Minister was most responsive in the Burma debate this morning. I appreciated his comments; I think we all did. The shadow Minister, too, made a valuable contribution to that debate. It was good to have consensus.

Here we are now, all back to look at a different subject, and one that is close to my heart. Why is it close to my heart? Some of my constituents came to stay in Northern Ireland from Hong Kong. They did not go home again, but have contacts through relatives and families and business connections even today, so I thought

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I should make a contribution. I was not sure whether I could fit in with the timing, but we have made sure that I could do so.

Although Hong Kong was handed over almost two decades ago, tensions and Chinese intrusion remain rife. The hon. Member for Gloucester outlined that and I think other Members will do the same. The issue is more about finding solutions, co-operating better, having a better understanding of each other and how to move forward before 2047. Despite the handover, there will always be a paternal connection between us here in the home nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the citizens of Hong Kong and the British expats who are living out there, some of whom we know and some of whom we have direct contact with.

We have a tremendous sense of shared history and a shared way of life. In many ways, the Britishness we have here is still apparent in Hong Kong. Those characteristics and personality traits are real. We have a remarkably similar system and our aspiration and drive have helped Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, in stark contrast with the socialist system in the People’s Republic of China. The issue is how we retain that for the next number of years and how we make sure that Hong Kong can develop as we want it to develop, with our relationship remaining the same, and China understanding the line in the sand that it cannot go over.

The Sino-British joint declaration paved the way for Hong Kong’s bid to be recognised as a sovereign entity by the United Nations in 2047 as part of the unchanged status for five decades from 1997. That was agreed to by all parties and it is worrying to see continuous Chinese intrusion into Hong Kong’s affairs and the consequent tensions and unease.

Over the years, we in Northern Ireland have built up strong relations with the People’s Republic of China. We see things that we can work together on. That is how it should be. We have business contacts, economic contacts, educational contacts and student exchanges. Other Members will probably confirm that that is happening in other UK regions, but in Northern Ireland our Minister and the Department of Enterprise, Training and Investment have strengthened those relations and we want that to continue.

Hong Kong was supposed to have a democratic Government and an independent constitution, but instead we have seen mass protests and, in response to that, disturbingly expansive infringements of civil liberties. Last year, as part of the all-party armed forces group, I attended the Royal College of Defence Studies. The people there were in their third and final year of the course. A Hong Kong police chief was involved and he told me—it was a year ago, of course—that there were 3,000-plus protests on the streets of Hong Kong every year and that they were always peaceful. I wish we could say that the last years have been peaceful, but they have not been. There have been clear infringements of civil liberties. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Gloucester referred to the bookkeeper and shop owner who was arrested and we must be mindful of the breach of his civil liberties, his rights and his physical liberty, which China has ignored.

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The protests had some undesirable elements, as every mass protest does, but the protestors must be commended because for a movement with such numbers and such spread the discipline was fantastic and the resulting pressure on Beijing can only be a good thing. We have had perhaps more than our share of protests on the streets in Northern Ireland—I sometimes took part—and they had the potential to get out of control, but the protests in Hong Kong have only been good.

Suspicion is the key feeling among those in Hong Kong. The Sino-British joint declaration paved the way for Hong Kong to be recognised as a sovereign entity, but instead, we see over-coercive tactics employed by Hong Kong’s law enforcement officials, while the Chinese mainland authorities pull the puppet strings. We have to express some concern at that and ask China to draw back and keep to the law on the Sino-British joint declaration.

Publishers disappearing is not my idea of advancement; it never can be. In relative terms, there are far greater sins in the world, but that is not what we signed up for or agreed to. We, the British, are pulling our weight when it comes to the future of Hong Kong. The Minister, I am sure, will confirm that. It is time for Beijing to get a reality check and realise that the resolve and determination of the Hong Kong people is one that it cannot beat or break.

In 1993, China’s chief negotiator on Hong Kong, Lu Ping, had the following to say:

“The method of universal suffrage should be reported to China’s Parliament for the record, whereas the central government’s agreement is not necessary. How Hong Kong develops its democracy is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The central government will not interfere.”

Those are the words he used in 1993, but here we are in 2016. Given the experiences in 2015, things are not exactly as he envisaged. Indeed, they have changed.

What has changed? We are 20 years into the declaration’s 50-year period. Surely Beijing should be moving forward and away from its shameful authoritarian past, not moving backward and seeking to impose its undemocratic and oppressive regime upon what is clearly an independent and notably different people. Let us recognise, as I am sure we will, the independence of the people of Hong Kong, their characteristics, their personalities and their culture.

Under the Chinese Government’s one China, two systems principle, Hong Kong and Macau should continue to possess their own Governments, multi-party legislatures, legal systems, police forces, monetary systems, customs territory, immigration policies, national sports teams, official languages, postal systems and academic and educational systems. They should have all those things, but do they? Is China adhering to the law on that?

To conclude, China is committed in law to affording at least this 50-year period of autonomy to Hong Kong, but I believe that it is reneging on some of its commitments. We need to pressure China at home and abroad to give the Hong Kong people the dignity of self-determination. It is our duty in this House to speak out for those who need help, as the hon. Gentleman said, as other Members will say in this House and as the shadow Minister will say. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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5.38 pm

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As I rise, I see on the green screens that the House is moving to Third Reading of the Scotland Bill; much as that tempts me to reflect upon the end of empire and last remaining colonial outposts, I shall contain the contents of my speech to the UK’s relationship with Hong Kong. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate and recognise his deep and long-standing commitment to this issue. He has considerably greater experience than me, and I will not speak with anything like the authority he has today.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said we are having a bit of a re-run of the cast of characters who were here this morning for the Burma debate. Front-Bench Members and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman and the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary will have heard me reflect on how I grew up hearing about the struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and the fate of Hong Kong being a very live issue throughout the early days of my life. I do not quite remember the agreement itself being signed, but I definitely remember the deadline coming into force. It seemed like an incredibly long period in the future—some dim, far-off time in 1997—but of course more time has passed since then than between the declaration being signed and the handover taking place. It was remarkable that that agreement was made and the handover was secured with a reasonable and peaceful transition. Now a system for monitoring the success of that agreement exists in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s regular reports.

I want to touch briefly on three key themes: the importance of co-operation and mutual respect between the two parties to the declaration; the grounds on which engagement ought to take place, which are particularly with respect to human rights and the rule of law; and the message we want to put across when we are engaging, which is that human rights and equality in society are a fundamental part of achieving greater equality and economic growth, particularly in China. The ongoing commitment to work together to achieve the principles of the Sino-British declaration in a way that benefits all parties is vital and the scrutiny process is important in that.

We have heard a lot about the report’s detail, which is important to recognise, particularly when looking at the continuing progress made towards universal suffrage, but we must recognise that there is always more to do. I echo the concerns expressed about the disappearance of the individuals associated with the book store and in particular the situation that faces Mr Lee Po. Like the other Members, I hope we will hear an update from the Minister.

One of the guiding principles for engagement with China has to be around human rights and the rule of law. Last year, the First Minister of Scotland visited China and emphasised that upholding and respecting human rights in conjunction with economic growth is a twin track towards empowering people and lifting them out of poverty. Undoubtedly our countries can learn a lot from each other. We know that China is a key exporter that contributes more than £100 million a year to the Scottish economy through tourism, but economic growth and equality must be two sides of the same coin, so I stress the importance of people working together to

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tackle poverty and further the cause of women’s rights and equality in particular as well as human rights more broadly.

When the First Minister visited China, she made a point of raising human rights and stressing equality. I hope the UK Government will be prepared to follow that lead. Questions have been asked about whether the opportunities when the Chancellor visited China in September and when the Chinese President met with the Prime Minister here in October were fully utilised to stress the human rights agenda and the actions we discussed today. The situation in Hong Kong is a key manifestation of that. Many such concerns have been expressed by the Foreign Affairs Committee over the years, particularly when the hon. Member for Gloucester has been involved. I hope that the UK Government will continue to stress their commitment to human rights and work for the promotion of democracy in Hong Kong and across the whole of China.

5.43 pm

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. Indeed, I recognise his record of being critical of China as regards Hong Kong and his recent intervention in the House on the case of Mr Lee Po, shortly after his disappearance.

When we balance the relationship with China, our great partner, we must recognise the importance of putting on record what we hold dear about human rights, equality and freedom. That is not always easy, but it is important to uphold. I am sure that hon. Members recognise the continued importance of Hong Kong to the UK. Our shared history, the development of economic ties and the fact that more than 3 million British citizens are currently resident in Hong Kong mean that the UK will continue to have a very special relationship with this special administrative region. With more than 600 UK businesses registered there, an export market worth £8.6 billion and a UK investment stake of more than £33 billion, the signs are clear that trade is healthy.

I will focus on two specific areas, both relating to the key issue of stability. The one country, two systems framework is crucial in underpinning confidence in Hong Kong—in the place of Hong Kong, which we all love. We all want reassurance that there is a robust and structured judicial framework and that the rule of law is upheld. The hon. Member for Gloucester is right to describe the importance of the rule of law as defined by the independence of the judiciary. He is also right to praise China for its robust approach to addressing corruption in the wider piece—not just in Hong Kong but in the wider country—and the zealousness with which corruption is being addressed demonstrates that there is an ability to uphold the rule of law where necessary. The rule of law can therefore be upheld in Hong Kong; it just takes political will to make that happen.

The joint declaration is crucial in upholding understanding and confidence in Hong Kong. We all know that many perceive Hong Kong as the gateway to the broader Chinese market and to China culturally,

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and it is perceived as a place where corporate structures can grow within a familiar system. The dynamic in Hong Kong and the Legislative Council is changing, and we have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that there is a sense that whereas protest was peaceful several years ago, in the past few years it has started to become less peaceful. There is more use of police and certain tactics that are not welcome in controlling crowds, which is the sort of tone that needs to be underlined in this debate.

Equally, what we are seeing happen at constitutional level and in debates in the Legislative Council—the filibustering, the discussions, the lack of harmony—are all things that, in a sense, change the temperature in Hong Kong. They are the sorts of things that, as a partner of Hong Kong, we need to underline and draw to China’s attention. I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of the current situation in Hong Kong on constitutional reform, on the peacefulness or non-peacefulness of demonstrations and on how young people feel. The hon. Member for Gloucester was right to read out an email from a young person, and I have been approached both by British-born Chinese and by Hong Kong students who are studying here. They are concerned about their future in Hong Kong, and they want to enjoy in Hong Kong the kinds of freedoms that we enjoy here.

Upholding the one country, two systems principle goes beyond ensuring commercial interests. Members are right to mention the debate we had this morning, in which I talked about our triangle of aims in foreign affairs. The triangle has three parts: first, economy and trade, secondly, security—I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the South China sea issue, because we do not speak about that as much as perhaps our partners would like—and, thirdly, human rights. We cannot just have to ourselves the freedoms and rights that we enjoy here; we must hold them up abroad, too.

Upholding the one country, two systems principle goes beyond just ensuring commercial interests; it is about that triangular approach. I think particularly of our great collaborations on the rule of law. We share best practice in our legal teams with Hong Kong, and so on. The hon. Gentleman mentioned IP, but there are a number of other areas where there is so much to be shared, enjoyed and built on, and I worry that the human rights side could be slightly staining what our other excellent endeavours might achieve. We must ensure that we bring human rights and cases such as that of Lee Po to the fore so that we can all move at the same pace on the three elements of my triangle.

Richard Graham: The hon. Lady is making a number of good points, as one would expect from someone who has been engaged on this issue for a long time. Does she agree that it is important that we offer constrictive criticism as friends in a partnership between two nations, and that we highlight what more China can do to win friends and, above all, trust as she goes increasingly global? The idea behind one country, two systems and the 50-year period of the joint declaration was that by the end of that period the systems in Hong Kong and China would be so similar that there would be no need for one country, two systems any longer. Does she think that things are heading in that direction at the moment and that the systems are getting more similar, or is there a risk, in the worst case scenario, of the two systems moving further apart?

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Catherine West: Indeed, and that is where we need a balance. In China, they talk a lot about harmony and balance, and that is what we have to do. We must ensure that all our work streams come together at the same time. When we work on legal relations, technological advances, business and education—our wonderful collaboration between universities—we must not forget who we are. We are determined to promote human rights, equality and so on, and so we must bring all of those work streams together, including the important one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—peace. We must maintain peaceful, open dialogue.

To digress slightly—I will be very brief, because I know the Minister wants to get away—[Interruption.] He is so busy. The tone in the all-party China group when Mr Liu was present recently was excellent. We had a very open discussion about best practice on anti-corruption and on a number of work streams to do with local business in various constituencies. We also had a robust discussion about a recent delegation to Hong Kong, and we raised our concerns about Mr Lee Po and other cases, and about the steel situation. I felt that it was a perfect meeting. Members of Parliament were able to discuss openly what we feel, and we had a wonderful conversation and dialogue. From my tiny knowledge of China—I lived there, but one never knows everything—I felt that we made progress in our dialogue. It is important to emphasise that.

In our meetings with China we must continue to be energetic in raising matters such as the cases of Mr Lee Po and Cheung Jiping and not shy from them. We must remember that Mr Po is a British citizen. Information and press freedom are crucial to democracies, so it is important that they are front and centre of our discussions. I will be grateful if the Minister can update Members on what further action he will take to investigate the nature of Mr Po’s recent public communication and whether it was genuine or made under duress.

We all want a stable Hong Kong. I remember stepping off an aeroplane there in 1974 and smelling the tropics and feeling the warmth. All of us who have been there, lived there and love that place want it to be stable. We want freedom, human rights, genuine democracy and all of those wonderful things to be kept going, and we want to maintain those international friendships. We do not want a closed Hong Kong whose young people are unhappy about their future. The joint declaration must be meaningful, and stability must allow economic life to flourish. We must also support freedom of expression, the rule of law and a peaceful future.

5.55 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and pay, once again, tribute to his valuable work through his chairmanship of the all-party group on China, as well as to his deep personal interest in Hong Kong. I agree with his opening remarks in which he drew attention to all those who are following the debate outside this place. The rather thin attendance in no way reflects the level of continuing interest in Hong Kong, in the UK and in Parliament. It is purely the result of the timing of the debate being shifted, and of other competing demands on Members’ time.

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To the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), I would say that this Minister is not at all in a hurry to get off. He is at the disposal of Members, although limited by time. I am anxious only to get on with the debate, to address some of the extremely important and interesting points raised by hon. Members this afternoon.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us, Hong Kong remains of great importance to the United Kingdom. There are more than 295,000 British citizens and 3.4 million British national overseas citizens living in the city. In 2015 approximately 530,000 visitors from the UK went to Hong Kong. Our bilateral trade continues to be one of the foundation stones of our partnership. UK investment in Hong Kong, conservatively valued at £33 billion, makes up about 35% of total British investment in Asia. I was slightly intrigued to hear the comparison that the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) sought to make in a rather roundabout way between Scotland and Hong Kong and England and Hong Kong. I would just point out that I believe the Scottish Government would do well to study the free market approach of the special administrative region in running a very successful financial enterprise. I have no doubt that even the First Minister, in her visit to Hong Kong last year, might have noticed the difference in the comparative financial positions of Scotland and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is the regional headquarters for 126 British companies and, incidentally, some of the leading ones have a distinguished and strong Scottish heritage. Some 630 British companies operate in the city, reflecting its pivotal role as an international gateway to mainland China and as a global financial centre. Hong Kong also, as has been pointed out, has a key role in our wider bilateral relationship with China, where we are supporting economic growth and the rule of law.

The Government’s relationship with the Hong Kong SAR Government is also strong. I most recently visited Hong Kong in July and discussed a full range of UK-Hong Kong bilateral issues with the Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, the Financial Secretary John Tsang and the Secretary for Housing and Transport, Anthony Cheung. I also saw legislators and investors, and met Fred Lam, the new chief executive of the airport authority, to explore opportunities for British companies in the third runway expansion of Hong Kong international airport. In October we welcomed CY Leung to London for his first official visit as Chief Executive. Both I and the Foreign Secretary discussed with him the importance of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and of preserving the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Sino-British joint declaration.

The United Kingdom strongly believes that it is those rights and freedoms that underpin Hong Kong’s continuing success. The joint declaration agreed the peaceful return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty under one country, two systems, and was one of the great successes of United Kingdom-China diplomacy. Some 31 years after its signature, our commitment to ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration, and the protection of the rights and freedoms it guarantees, is as strong as ever.

It is in that context that the Government remain so concerned about the disappearance from Hong Kong of British citizen Lee Po and others associated with the

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Mighty Current publishing house. The Foreign Secretary made it clear on 11 February in his six-monthly report to the House that

“our current information indicates that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law.”

That constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong. The United Kingdom and 11 other countries signed a US-led statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 10 March that made it clear that the disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellers was

“violation of the high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong under its Basic Law”.

We have raised the case of Mr Lee with the Chinese and Hong Kong special administrative region Government at the highest level. I raised the case with the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom on 22 January, and I made clear the need for the Chinese authorities to return Mr Lee to Hong Kong immediately. The Foreign Secretary raised the case with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on 5 January and in London on 4 February, and the Prime Minister raised the case with the Chinese ambassador on 8 February.

More recently, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited Beijing on 25 and 26 February, he raised the case with the chairman of China’s Politics and Law Commission, Meng Jianzhu. I understand that the delegation from the all-party group on China, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), visited Hong Kong from 25 to 29 January and also raised the case with the Hong Kong special administrative region Government.

As we make clear in the six-monthly report,

“we have called, in our contacts with the Chinese government at the highest level, for Mr Lee's immediate return to Hong Kong. Moreover, we urge the Chinese and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Governments to reassure the people of Hong Kong that law enforcement in the Hong Kong SAR is exclusively the responsibility of the Hong Kong authorities, and that the fundamental rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents will continue to be fully protected, and respected by all, in accordance with the Joint Declaration and Basic Law.”

Catherine West: The debate has been focused on Hong Kong, but if Mr Po is now in China, will the Minister elucidate how the UK Government will use their influence when it is a question of mainland China rather than Hong Kong? There is perhaps more familiarity with how the judicial process works in the latter.

Mr Swire: We believe that if Mr Lee Po is to face any kind of trial, that should be in Hong Kong. That is agreed by the SAR as well. I shall continue, but the hon. Lady may want to come back to me if I do not fully answer her question. I raised Mr Lee Po’s case on 16 March at an “Advancing the Rule of Law in China” seminar organised by the Great Britain-China Centre, where I made it clear that

“the rule of law has been fundamental to Hong Kong's continued economic success”.

On the issue of citizenship, I stress that Mr Lee remains a British citizen with the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Despite the formal requests that we continue to make, we have not been granted consular access.

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Let me be clear that the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments have been left in no doubt as to the importance we attach to this case. We call again for the immediate return of Mr Lee to Hong Kong.

Catherine West: I just want to clarify what processes there might be to have Mr Lee returned to Hong Kong if he is not currently there. What influence might the UK Government bring to bear to achieve that outcome?

Mr Swire: I have rehearsed the high-level contacts and representations we have had with the Government in Beijing, not least those involving the Prime Minister, the ambassador and the Chancellor when he was in Beijing. We have raised the case at every level and will continue to do so until such a time as Mr Lee is returned to Hong Kong.

Several Members mentioned the South China sea. We support the Philippines’ right to peaceful arbitration. I stress that we take no view on the underlying sovereignty issues, although we do believe in a rules-based international system and the freedom and movement, and we do expect all others to abide by whatever ruling comes out of UNCLOSS through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea settlement. We are concerned about the risk that some of the large-scale land reclamation in the South China sea could pose to maritime freedom of navigation and to the area’s stability.

The six-monthly report makes it clear that, while the implementation of one country, two systems has served Hong Kong well in the vast majority of cases, there are specific grounds for serious concern in some other areas, such as academic freedom and the freedom of the press. As the six-monthly report states,

“it is essential for continued confidence in ‘One Country, Two Systems’ both in Hong Kong and internationally, that Hong Kong continues to enjoy, and is seen to enjoy, the high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law and guaranteed in international law by the Joint Declaration.”

I was asked specifically by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about the comments that Zhang Xiaoming, the head of the Central Government Liaison Office, made in a speech. I welcome the comment by Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, whom I have met, on judicial independence. He reiterated article 25 of the Basic Law, which states:

“All Hong Kong residents shall be equal before the law.”

At the recent National People’s Congress annual session in Beijing, the Chinese Government reiterated their commitment to one country, two systems, and I welcome that.

Continuing the theme, my hon. Friend also raised the issue of an independent judiciary. Our assessment is that, while there have been specific challenges, on the whole the rule of law continues to function and the judiciary continues to be independent. We are confident in Hong Kong’s legal and judicial system, which has been and will remain an essential foundation for Hong Kong’s success.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green properly raised the issue of constitutional reforms, which we were all involved in, one way or another, in the past year or so. I remind the House that in the last Westminster Hall debate on Hong Kong, which was in October 2014, we discussed that very issue. It remains a crucial issue, both to meet the aspirations

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of the people of Hong Kong and to ensure effective governance. As the six-monthly report makes clear:

“The UK Government judges that constitutional reform will help, not hinder, the Hong Kong SAR Government to deliver. A more democratic and accountable system of government would help strengthen those rights and freedoms which have come under increasing pressure over the past two years…We encourage all parties to play their part in rebuilding constructive dialogue to pave the way for the resumption of the process at the earliest opportunity.”

Jim Shannon: The Minister is explaining things well, and I thank him for that. We need to have continual economic contact, but within that, how can we persuade? The shadow Minister said that we do not see much evidence of how we can move the process forward for that British citizen to be returned. I am keen to have the economic contact. The Minister mentioned the airport. It is built with stone from my constituency, from Carryduff—believe it or not, that is what has been used. There are strong economic contacts between Hong Kong and my constituency and the whole of the United Kingdom. We want that to continue, but we want liberty and human rights to be enforced as well.

Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman is right. I never think these issues are binary and that it is either human rights or trade. Through trade, rules and an international rules-based system, human rights very often benefit, too. It is not about putting one of those to one side. We are very strong on human rights, which is why we produce a six-monthly report—it is not universally popular—and will continue to do so under our obligations in the Sino-British joint declaration and, further, under the Basic Law.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the protesters in Hong Kong. As we have said before, it is essential that Hong Kong’s fundamental rights and freedoms, including of assembly and demonstration and as guaranteed by the joint declaration, continue to be respected. Demonstrators should express views peacefully and in accordance with the law. Incidentally, I seem to remember saying that during my enjoyable two years as a Northern Ireland Minister, despite not coming across the hon. Gentleman at any particular demonstration during my time there.

Jim Shannon: They were all legal protests.

Mr Swire: All legal, of course.

The links between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong of course remain strong. Ours is a relationship that is not only based on history but is innovative, forward-looking and dynamic, with excellent prospects for the future. We continue to build on that. In that spirit, the Foreign Secretary hopes to visit Hong Kong in the near future.

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Where we identify challenges, such as the case of Mr Lee and the other booksellers, this Government will continue to raise them with the authorities at the highest level in Hong Kong and in Beijing. It is important to address these concerns and thus ensure that the principle of one country, two systems is maintained, together with the sanctity of the rights, freedoms and values that it upholds.

I am once again indebted and grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester for giving me the opportunity to state the Government’s position on this important issue. He is a champion of Sino-British relations. Some may not always agree with the principled stance he takes, but he is absolutely right that, if we are to understand each other better, to learn to respect each other more, and to be partners in international trade and in underpinning the things that matter to us in terms of rights and responsibilities, we need to have these free and frank exchanges. I know that when he speaks he has the best interests of the people of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and China at heart. So I thank him again for all his continuing work in furthering the relationship, and I am grateful to hon. Members this afternoon for adding to what has been an interesting debate.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I call Richard Graham to wind up.

6.11 pm

Richard Graham: You are kind to give me that chance, Mr Hollobone.

I will simply record my thanks to those who have contributed to the debate today, and to those who have given their apologies for being unable to join us but whose voices have been heard, I think, through comments made by those who have contributed. We have reached a high degree of consensus on the importance of the issues discussed and above all on the importance of the rule of law. I thank the Minister for his remarks, perhaps particularly those at the end about the importance of this in our ongoing, wider partnership, which now stretches to many countries.

Mr Hollobone, thank you for chairing what has been an extremely helpful debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered Hong Kong and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

6.12 pm

Sitting adjourned.