I welcome the Committee’s proposal to increase the number of lay members so that there is an equal number of MPs and lay members on the Committee. I also welcome the decision to make it clear in future reports whether the lay members agree with the Members of Parliament who serve on the Committee. The use of

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lay members on House Committees is a relatively new innovation. In my experience of serving on Committees that include lay members—I have not served on the Standards Committee, but I have served on the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—the innovation has worked well to date and has helped the House immeasurably.

The changes in the motion will ensure that our standards system is in line with the regulatory systems of many other professional bodies, while respecting the House’s unique position. We welcome the Committee’s recognition that,

“The electorate have the right to choose their representative”

and that

“any standards system must not constrain that right”

in a democracy. That is an important part of the summary of the report. As the Leader of the House pointed out, we now have recall, which might also impact on this area in some circumstances.

The report makes the welcome suggestion of a clear description of the role of an MP in increasing public understanding of the work we do. The Committee even made an heroic attempt to describe the role on page 24 of the report. It is an interesting attempt, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and his Committee were extremely brave to set it out. We will see what kind of dialogue ensues in subsequent Parliaments as a result of their writing down that description.

Turning to the second motion, on the code of conduct and the guide to the rules, the new guide recommends simplifying the process of registering interests, tightening the rules around lobbying, and clarifying the relationship between the code, the guide and resolutions of the House. All of those recommendations have to be welcome. As the Committee’s report notes, the guide to the rules was first published in 1996. Over time, as I hinted earlier, it has seen many piecemeal additions and revisions—or evolution, if you like, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The new guide is intended not only to be a comprehensive revision of the rules, which is certainly long overdue, but to ensure that we meet our obligations as a member of the group of states against corruption, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley said. As the Committee notes, if we do not agree to the new guide, Members who are elected in May will be bound by rules that are “not always clear”, that are “out of date” and that do

“not respond to the recommendations of a Treaty organisation of which the United Kingdom is a member.”

It is clearly welcome that we are able to have this debate today. I hope we will pass the motions on the Order Paper to bring ourselves into line with the international treaties we have signed.

The first thing these changes will do is to reform how Members’ interests are registered. The proposed guide harmonises the rules on registration and reduces the number of registration categories, with just one, rather than the current three, for outside employment. The report also recommends a lower threshold for the registration of interests. Those are welcome and sensible simplifications. Labour Members want to go much further and have a system in which registering a paid directorship or consultancy is no longer possible, in which second jobs are far more regulated than is currently the case.

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The report also suggests changes to the rules on lobbying—an area that clearly needs change following the scandals of this Parliament. The proposed changes to the guide go some way towards tightening the rules, but the system of regulation the Government have put in place is fundamentally inadequate. Despite the Prime Minister promising before the last election that he would shine the “light of transparency” on lobbying, the register the Government are set to introduce would cover just 1% of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists, and would not have caught any of the lobbying scandals that have hit this Government. The lobbying Act prevents charities and civil society from campaigning—rules that are already having a chilling effect on debate in the run-up to the general election.

If Labour wins the election we will introduce tough new limits on lobbying and an effective register of all professional lobbyists, backed up by a code of conduct and enforced with sanctions. We will also review whether lobbyists should be allowed to provide the secretariats for all-party parliamentary groups, and continue to support the ban on parliamentary passes for any APPG staff.

The report also recommends updating the basis of the rules. As the former Clerk of the House, Lord Lisvane, made clear in his evidence to the Committee,

“there is a certain amount of doubt about what actually constitutes the ‘rules’ of the House”.

As well as the code and the guide, a number of other resolutions of the House also provide guidance on MPs’ conduct. As the report says,

“defining the rules of the House through a series of Resolutions of varying antiquity, which need to be regularly amended, is unsatisfactory”.

We therefore welcome today’s motion, which clarifies that all previous resolutions on Members’ conduct should be read in a way that is compatible with the guide and the code. We also welcome the sensible proposal to revert to the 2009 wording on Members’ private lives, which I hope will assuage concerns across the House that were raised when this matter was last debated in 2012.

I welcome both reports as a positive step in the right direction, while believing that we can, and should, go further. On second jobs, proper regulation of lobbyists, and the Government’s majority on the Standards Committee, I look forward to a Labour Government working across the House for further reform in just a few weeks’ time.

4.12 pm

Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): It has been my privilege to serve on the Committee on Standards under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) throughout this Parliament, and I put on record my gratitude to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the registrar and the staff of those offices for the extraordinary diligence with which they have pursued their functions and roles. It has been an enormous pleasure to collaborate and work with them.

It is extremely important to remember the division of functions between the commissioner and the Committee. The commissioner is the rapporteur to the Committee.

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She will investigate and establish the facts and make recommendations. Ultimately, however, it is for the Committee to decide what the response and reaction to her report should be.

I remember very few occasions when the Committee has ventured to disagree, and even then it has done so with considerable trepidation and diffidence, and only in cases where the commissioner herself evinced a degree of uncertainty as to the correct conclusion. That is exactly the dialogue that should exist between commissioner and committee—a dialogue of mutual respect and collaboration, but of independence. Like the Chair of the Committee, I am not certain that the relationship between the two is always fully understood. I hope that it will be in future, and that the motions before the House will assist in the clarification of the roles and true function of the Committee.

The involvement of lay members was an innovation that some greeted with scepticism, but I have to say that having worked with them it is important to put on record the gratitude of all the elected members of the Committee for the way in which they approached their roles. It has been uniformly constructive, so much so that one of them was an extremely good chairman of the Sub-Committee responsible for one of the reports. It is a good report, and their involvement has been thoroughly constructive and helpful.

I therefore support the recommendation for an increase in the number of lay members, with some reservations. I am extremely pleased that no vote has been accorded to the lay members. There is no doubt, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, that the inclusion of unelected members on a House Committee would present considerable constitutional and legal complexities. It may well make the Committee susceptible to judicial review, with all the panoply of judicial intervention that that would mean, and I do not think that anybody in the House would really have wanted that. What I think we do need is a situation where the lay members’ influence is telling and, as it has been sometimes, decisive. That can be better done by the moral influence they exert and the constant sanction that exists—that they may append a minority report. That is, in many ways, a more compelling, more persuasive and more telling influence on Members’ thinking than any vote would be.

I commend the motions to the House. I heard the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) on the Opposition Front Bench express a concern that there may be a perception that the Whips have some mischievous and nefarious impact on the deliberations of the Committee. I can say two things to that. In four and a half years, I have never had a Whip try to influence me. I do not know whether that is just something to do with me or something to do with the fact that the Whips demonstrate commendable and appropriate restraint. However, I think that members of the Committee with whom I have served over this Parliament would reject with disdain any attempt by a Whip to influence the impartial and anxious consideration, which I have witnessed time and again, accorded by members of the Committee to very difficult individual and sometimes complicated circumstances in which a judgment is never right or wrong, never black or white, but can admit of disagreement.

If a Committee comprising a number of elected Members, with all their shared experience of the House, together with the one who is accused and lay members,

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can reach a consensus as we uniformly do, generally, I would submit, it is more likely than not that the right conclusion is reached. That is why I say to the hon. Lady that in many ways to bandy about the idea—I am not criticising her for a moment; I do understand the perception she speaks of—or even to suggest that Whips may have some influence or role on the Standards Committee is not helpful. It simply would not be tolerated by members of that Committee, in my experience. It would be, as I have said, rejected with disdain.

It has been an enormous privilege to serve on the Committee. It has caused a great deal of soul searching in many of the cases that have come before us. Some have been controversial and some have been less so, but throughout we have been assisted by the extraordinary skill, sophistication and professionalism of the officers who support us. I, for one, am deeply grateful to them, to the Chairman of the Committee and to all other members of the Committee with whom I have had the honour to serve.

4.19 pm

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I, too, have served on the Committee on Standards in the second half of this Parliament. I found the Committee very different from its predecessor, on which I had served in the previous Parliament. In no small part, the difference was the arrival in our midst of the three lay members. I join the tributes to them that other Members have expressed. They have brought a wealth of relevant experience, offered informed opinion and intelligent insight, and encouraged and persuaded us to better practice and better judgments.

As has been explained, the report was produced in no small part under the influence of the lay members. They have encouraged us to get on the front foot, to be more proactive and to look ahead. The House was reeling after the expenses scandal at the end of the last Parliament and was still in a state of shock. The lay members have encouraged us to move on, to look ahead and to show more leadership in the area of standards, as the Leader of the House said. I hope that everyone in the House will respond to the challenge and that in future we shall approach these issues as other professions and careers do and help each other in a spirit of continuous professional development.

There was a great deal of controversy, confusion and misreporting after one of the more high profile cases dealt with in this Parliament by the Committee on Standards, but rather than lamenting the misinformation and misreporting, the lay members encouraged us to learn from the experience, to get out and better explain what we do, to be more transparent and open, and to see ourselves as having a mission to explain, so that people inside and outside the House could have a better understanding of what we were trying to achieve and of the distinction between roles to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) referred. In the case I am thinking of, there was great confusion about where the role of an independent commissioner ended and the role of the Committee began.

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I believe that the proposals to move to an equal number of elected and lay members will enhance the Committee’s work further, create more opportunity for more external experience and challenge, move us into line with other professions, and basically look better in the eyes of the outside world. I do not believe that it will undermine the work done. It would have been a complete red herring to divert ourselves down the rabbit hole of whether the lay members should have a vote. They do not need one for the reasons given. In any case, the Committee seldom has occasion to vote: its deliberations always aim at consensus. As has been observed, every lay member—in future, all seven—can append an opinion if they so desire, and the Committee would have to think long and hard before arriving at a consensus to which the lay members had raised any objection. It would get itself into very hot water were it to do so. The report points a sensible way forward, and I commend it to the House.

The other motion deals with the code of conduct and guide to the rules. The interrelationship between the two is tricky, and the impact of what we are doing this afternoon is potentially slightly counter-intuitive in terms of what a cursory examination of the text before us might conclude. The House got itself into a mess last time it considered this issue, in 2012, and the proposition before the House today is a pragmatic way of trying to resolve that mess. It is right to do this and to do it now, and to ensure that after the election those coming into the House have the clarity they need about what is and is not acceptable. We are not opening up the spectre of investigations into Members’ purely private lives, but it is important that anything a Member does in their capacity as a Member of Parliament should be subject to proper scrutiny and done to the highest standards.

We have two sensible propositions before the House this afternoon, and I hope very much that they will both find favour.

Question put and agreed to.

Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members



(1) this House approves the Third Report from the Committee on Standards, on The Code of Conduct, (HC 772);

(2) with effect from the beginning of the next Parliament, this House approves the revised Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members annexed to that Report;

(3) the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament be amended as follows:

(a) leave out Paragraph 2 and insert

‘The Code applies to Members in all aspects of their public life. It does not seek to regulate what Members do in their purely private and personal lives’.

(b) leave out paragraph 17; and

(4) previous Resolutions of this House in relation to the conduct of Members shall be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members.—(Kevin Barron.)

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Backbench Business

Shaker Aamer

4.25 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House calls on the US Government to release Shaker Aamer from his imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay and to allow him to return to his family in the UK.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this critical debate at an important time in the campaign to secure the release of Shaker Aamer. By way of introduction, I pay tribute to all those who have campaigned so hard over many years to bring Shaker Aamer’s case to our attention. I pay tribute to the “Save Shaker Aamer” campaign, and all those campaigners who have stood in Parliament Square month after month protesting in their orange boiler suits with their placards until someone began to listen to them. I pay tribute to the “We Stand with Shaker” campaign, to Shaker’s family who have joined us today and to the organisations Reprieve and Amnesty International. I pay tribute, too, to the full range of newspapers that have supported this campaign. They range right across the political spectrum of journalism from the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph to The Guardian and the Morning Star. In addition, I pay tribute to all the celebrities, actors, artists and sportspeople who have got behind this campaign. Finally, I thank the many hon. Members from all sides of the House who joined the all-party parliamentary group, which now has more than 40 members drawn from all political parties.

Why have so many people campaigned so long and so steadfastly on this case? I think that it is because the Shaker Aamer case is one of the worst examples of a miscarriage of justice during the past three decades at least. Shaker’s treatment offends against all the principles of a civilised society—justice, freedom, human rights and the rights of a family to be together. We have had several debates here and numerous questions about his case have been raised. The last occasion on which I raised the issue was at the Christmas recess debate.

Let me put on record the history of Shaker’s case, so that people are fully aware of the background to what happened to him and the various issues that we need to address now. Shaker was born in Saudi Arabia in 1968. He left home and lived in America for a while, eventually making his home in the United Kingdom. He married a British citizen and was granted leave to remain in this country in 1996. He worked as a translator for a firm of solicitors.

In 2001, he went with his family to Afghanistan, working as a charity volunteer building a girls’ school and digging water wells. After 9/11 when Afghanistan was bombed by the US, he sent his family to safety in Pakistan. Before he could join them, however, the Afghan villagers gave him up to the Northern Alliance. At that time, the US was offering a ransom to individuals, and unfortunately the Northern Alliance and others rounded people up without any evidence of their involvement in terrorist activity. What then happened was that Shaker was taken and held in the notorious Bagram jail.

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Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I am not necessarily sympathetic if there is any question of guilt on the part of the people picked up. However, what strikes me about this case is that the US was offering $5,000 ransoms or rewards, and it is too easy to forget that in Afghanistan at that time, $5,000 would have been equivalent to hundreds of thousands of pounds in this country. When it was a poor village that handed him over, I will not say that I do not blame them—I do—but it could be seen as understandable. What that does, however, is to call into extreme question any suggestion of Shaker Aamer’s guilt.

John McDonnell: It looks as though the ransom or reward turned the rounding up of individuals, particularly by the Northern Alliance and others, almost into a trade during that period, and it is easy to see how injustices have resulted.

According to Reprieve, which has been analysing what has been happening in Bagram and elsewhere, while detained in Bagram, Shaker was

“forced to stay awake for nine days straight and denied food. Doused in freezing water, he was made to stand in the Afghan winter on concrete for 16 hours. His feet were beaten and he was bound in torturous positions.”

After Bagram, in 2002, Shaker was among the first to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, where we know that he has endured harsh, brutal and inhuman treatment. That has been exposed by the United States authorities themselves. The CIA’s own torture memos of what happened in Guantanamo—which was authorised, unfortunately—describe

“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques endorsed by Dick Cheney for use in Guantanamo, including, yelling, slapping, stress positions, extremes of heat and cold, constant bright lights, permanent noise and constantly repeated music, food, sleep and sensory deprivation, long periods of total solitary confinement, removal of facial hair, removal of blanket, clothes, toothbrush…forced nudity, and forced feeding, sexual assault, water-boarding and suffocation in a narrow box, prolonged shackling of hands and feet, threats to family, exposure to dogs, insects etc., denial of exercise or daylight.”

We know from the prisoners who have been released so far that that is exactly what Shaker has experienced while being held in Guantanamo Bay. We also know from evidence provided by the United States guards themselves about the performance of those tortures.

Shaker has never been charged with any crime. He has been cleared for release twice but continues to be detained in Guantanamo, while many others have been released, including all the Britons and British residents. Over the past 12 months, 33 prisoners have been released in difficult circumstances. They have been released to host countries from Uruguay to Kazakhstan, which has obviously involved fairly complicated arrangements. It is hard to understand why the United States finds a transfer to the United Kingdom almost impossible; it is extraordinary that David Hicks, who had admitted to terrorist activity, was released to Australia in February, but the United States refuses to release Shaker, who has never been charged and has been cleared for release twice.

Why is Shaker still being detained? That is the question that we are all asking. Why can he not be allowed to come home to his family? We can only speculate. Is it because he knows too much about what happened in Guantanamo Bay and will ensure that the truth comes out if he is released? Is it because he was a spokesperson

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for the prisoners in Guantanamo when he was setting up the prisoners’ council? Is this part of some vindictive victimisation? Or is it because he can bear witness to the involvement of not just United States but, possibly, British intelligence in the illegal, criminal torture that went on in Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo?

The United Kingdom Government have made representations—I thank successive Foreign Secretaries, the Prime Minister and other Ministers for that—but unfortunately, those representations have been to no avail. Shaker’s Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has worked assiduously on his behalf, cannot participate in such debates because of her ministerial position, but she can testify to the representations that the United Kingdom Government have made to the United States Government over the years.

In January, the Prime Minister visited Washington and raised Shaker’s case again with President Obama. The President gave an assurance that the case would be prioritised, but we now know from a recent statement by the United States Defence Secretary that no proposal for release—certainly, no proposal for Shaker’s release—has landed on his desk We also know that there have been discussions within the United States Administration, and possibly with United Kingdom officials previously, about deporting Shaker to Saudi Arabia, where his safety and human rights would certainly be at risk.

There are questions to which I would welcome the Minister’s response. Will he update the House on what further representations have been made by the UK Government to the US Government since January 2015 when the Prime Minister had the meeting with President Obama? What is the Government’s understanding of what continues to block Shaker’s release? It is very difficult to fathom why Shaker has still not been released when the closest ally of the US has made representations and a formal request and when the President of the US has said that the case will be prioritised. It is beyond credibility. Have any grounds or reasons been given for his continued detention? What assurances have the Government been given that Shaker will not be transferred to Saudi Arabia? If possible, will the Minister tell us the next steps that the UK Government plan to take to secure Shaker’s release? Will the UK Government press the US Administration, particularly the President, for a clear timetable for Shaker’s release?

In due course, we will need a full and thorough independent inquiry into Shaker’s evidence about British intelligence collusion. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that proposal. However, the most important thing for us now is to bring Shaker home. As I have said, many words have been spoken by Ministers, Prime Ministers, Foreign Secretaries and now even the President about the release of Shaker, but there has been no action. Now is the time for action, not words. That is why we have secured the debate.

Shaker’s release has now become urgent. As a result of more than a decade of detention and barbaric treatment, including extensive torture, his health has deteriorated significantly. A recent medical assessment by Dr Emily Keram states that Shaker suffers from serious ailments, including migraines, asthma, urinary retention, ear and skin problems and extreme post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his imprisonment in Guantanamo.

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I hope that today’s motion will be supported by everyone. It is very straightforward and states:

“That this House calls on the US Government to release Shaker Aamer from his imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay and to allow him to return to his family in the UK.”

The cross-party group of MPs and Lords supporting Shaker’s campaign for release numbers more than 40 and includes many senior Members of this House and ex-Ministers. It is a sizeable and active group, and we will send a delegation shortly to Washington to meet officials from the Administration over there to press for the release of Shaker. The UK Government can give us help and give this campaign significant support and momentum. I appeal to Members to pass the motion today; let us send a clear and unanimous message to the US President that we want Shaker released and returned to his family.

Shaker’s family members, in particular his sons, have joined us in Parliament today. I want us all to say to them now that we pledge that we will not rest until their father is free and back in the arms of his family.

4.38 pm

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Our legal system and the American legal system are based on a very important principle, the principle of the presumption of innocence. That has not been extended to Shaker Aamer. What is more, in his case, although we are not in a position to make the judgment ourselves, a great deal of evidence, from how he was picked up on the basis of a ransom through to the statements of the US authorities that there is no case against him, shows a probability of innocence, yet this man has faced 13 years in the most unbelievable circumstances.

I make the point about innocence because it is one thing for a terrorist or soldier to be subjected to this sort of behaviour, involving the sort of treatment that the British Government gave up in the early 1970s after using it in Northern Ireland because it was deemed to be torture. In fact, what is going on is much worse than what we gave up and deemed to be torture. However, that is the basis on which Shaker Aamer is being held. The same sort of torture led the American Government to conclude that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as they tortured someone else 83 times until they eventually said, “Yes, yes, I give in.” That means that, even if there were confessional evidence against Shaker, it would be completely untrustworthy; indeed, it would be thrown out, as Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve has said. From the point of view of basic humanity, for somebody who is innocent to be put through that is probably 10 times as bad as it is for somebody who is guilty, and it would be bad for them, too.

Our understanding is that Shaker has been a representative in the disputes in Guantanamo, which may make him more of a target. In addition to his own torture, he is said to have witnessed the torture of others, which may be why his release is being withheld. He is the last British resident being held there.

I join the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in asking the Minister to give an account of the Americans’ explanation of why they have not released Shaker. If they have not done so because he would embarrass them, that represents a doubling up of the guilt on their part. Frankly, this will come out into the open at some point.

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The colonel who headed the unit of American military lawyers who both prosecute and defend people in Guantanamo told them at the beginning of their military commission that they should be wary of any techniques and tactics that they allowed to be used, because, in his words, in America there is no such thing as a secret, just deferred disclosure. That is eminently true in the case under discussion. The more rapid that disclosure, the better for every country.

I can understand to some extent why, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we dropped the moral standards by which we ought to abide—that was wrong, but understandable. I do not understand, however, the continued attempt to cover things up a dozen and more years later. For that reason, too, Shaker ought to be released.

I do not want to take up too much time, so I will finish by simply saying that the west has had a moral slough of despond after 9/11. We have abandoned our own standards and fallen short of the ethical standards that we should uphold. It is now doubly incumbent on us to act to ensure that those who have suffered as a result are released to their families as rapidly as possible, before their health is completely destroyed, which is what Shaker Aamer faces. It is also important to our own nations and citizens that we confess.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): What does the right hon. Gentleman think this tells us about the so-called special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States? When our Prime Minister meets President Obama, it is unbelievable that we cannot get a straight answer about a citizen of our country being held by the US.

Mr Davis: It may say two things. The first—it saddens me to say this—is that President Obama may not be in complete control of his own country. After all, he promised to close down Guantanamo early on but then did not do so, at great political cost to himself and, indeed, to his moral standing. Secondly, when it comes down to it, America puts its own interests far ahead of those of any other country. That is the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which in one sense is understandable because it is based on freedom, but in another sense it leads to the almost colonial treatment of its allies. If that is the case, it is deplorable. As America’s longest-standing and strongest ally, we should expect special treatment, but we have clearly not been given it in this case.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Looking at the morality of this case, and bearing in mind the fact that America—and Britain, for that matter—have lectured the world on democracy and justice, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not a very good example of American justice to have a person spend 13 years in prison without ever being charged with anything and being tortured? What does that say about the west, given the way in which we look at the rest of the world, and particularly the middle east?

Mr Davis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which goes to the heart of what I was about to say in conclusion.

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One of the great dimensions of our soft power in the world, which I used to come across all the time as a British Foreign Minister, was the expectation that we would behave differently from others and that we would not fall to the standards of the Soviet Union or of other totalitarian states. We were paid more attention as a result of that. It was less true of America, but it was true none the less. This whole exercise—involving Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed and a whole series of others—shows that we have dropped from those high standards. We have fallen from the grace in which public opinion held us. Indeed, by behaving like the guy in the black hat rather than the guy in the white hat, we have essentially done what al-Qaeda would have liked us to do.

That is why I say that we have a duty to our own citizens in this matter just as much as we have a duty to Shaker Aamer. We are letting our citizens down as well as letting him down. We are betraying the standards that millions died to protect in two world wars over the past century, and we are increasing the risk of terrorism because this situation legitimises the kind of barbarous behaviour that we have seen too much of in the past few years. I shall finish by joining the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington in asking the Minister to give an undertaking that we will redouble our efforts and not give up until Shaker Aamer is returned to his family.

4.46 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for instituting this debate. He has described in some detail what has been done to Shaker Aamer. If such treatment were to be carried out by a foreign Government, President Obama would be the first to denounce it. The human implications of this illegal imprisonment of a man who has never been charged with any offence are horrifying, and the House expresses its sympathy with his family for what they know this man has endured.

The treatment of this man is appalling. It is appalling that, although he was signed off for release by the Bush Administration eight years ago and by the present United States Administration, he has still not been released. It is appalling that he is still being treated in a way that would be regarded as inhuman and unacceptable in any country in the world. Those are all facts about this persecuted, imprisoned, tortured individual.

While not departing in any way from our deep concern and huge anger about the treatment of Shaker Aamer, we have to look at the United States, which has imprisoned him for all these years. I am a great admirer of the United States, but I find it incomprehensible that two successive Presidents of that country—one of whom gives himself an enormous amount of credit as a liberal humanitarian—should have first opened and then maintained the kind of torture camp that is illegal in any country in the world. What would we say if Islamic State had a camp interning illegally, for years without charge, people innocent or guilty? Shaker Aamer is innocent, but this applies also to people who might be guilty. If any country in the world had an illegal camp in which torture, solitary confinement and inhuman treatment were all daily occurrences, we would regard that country as a savage outlaw.

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Guantanamo Bay is illegal and its maintenance is a war crime—it is as great a war crime as any other being committed anywhere in the world. Obama, in his original election campaign, promised he would close it. He has been there more than six years and it is still open. We can have a discussion about the extent to which he has been prevented from closing it by a rogue Congress, but he has not made an issue of it; he maintains an illegal war crimes camp and has done so under his Administration for more than six years and, like a lot of the other things he does, he gets away with it.

Let us look at this man who maintains this illegal torture camp, where waterboarding, solitary confinement and inhuman treatment are daily occurrences. This is the man, the President of the United States, who sends out drones over Pakistan which have killed 3,000 Pakistanis. This is the man who sends out assassination teams to kill people of whom he disapproves all over the world. He claims to be in charge of a liberal democracy, yet, as I repeat, if this were taking place in any other country, he would be up on his feet, with beautiful eloquence, for which he is noted, saying how inhuman it was and how unacceptable it was. If this were happening under Islamic State or in Libya—I do not know whether he is going to denounce the abominable death sentences for those in the Muslim Brotherhood which have just been announced in Egypt—or in any other country in the world, he would be up on his feet saying, “This is a war crime.”

I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and others in this House, am deeply concerned about the inhuman treatment of Shaker Aamer, and we passionately will go on calling for his release. I do not in any way imply that the Government have not done their best, because they have. But what kind of a special relationship is it where one member of a relationship takes all the time and the other is regarded as a junior, negligible partner? That is what we have here: the United Kingdom loyal to the United States—perhaps too loyal, and I say that without being critical of our Government—and the United States not giving a damn. So we denounce the inhuman treatment of Shaker Aamer and demand that he be released, and we shall go on demanding that, but we also say to the United States, “Don’t be sanctimonious about other countries when you commit war crimes.”

4.54 pm

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I do not need to detain the House for long, because the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) gave such an excellent speech and because the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) set out the case with both clarity and conviction.

I wish to make it clear that I yield to no one in my admiration for the work that the British security services and others have done in addressing a very real terrorist threat, the issues of which will take a generation or more to deal with. The point at issue today is a far more fundamental one. I very much hope that the Foreign Office and the diligent Minister who is here today to respond to the debate will note that, although the House may not be particularly packed, it is nevertheless true that here on these Benches are representatives of

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almost every conceivable opinion that the House of Commons could hold. We are all, I believe, utterly united behind the motion that was moved by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. The hon. Gentleman will know very well that he and I agree on almost nothing in British politics, but on this issue we are shoulder to shoulder; we are as one.

I wish to make a point that was set out by my right hon. Friend, which is that in Britain, we respect the law; we believe in certain universal values. Sometimes, they are said to be British values, but I do not like that term. They are universal values, and the debate on Shaker Aamer gets absolutely to the heart of those values. I had the pleasure, just a fortnight ago, of going to join in Friday prayers at the largest mosque in Europe, the Central Mosque in Birmingham. It is accepted by all of us that there is considerable alarm in the British Muslim community about Islamophobia. Muslims look at this particular case and think that certain rules apply to some people, but not others. The point that this House of Commons should stand up for today is that justice is colour blind and creed blind. It should apply to everyone, but it is not applying to Shaker Aamer, and it is up to us to give voice to this view. The House of Commons must stand up today for justice for all citizens wherever they are from, and never more so than in this particular debate.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. Is not the essence of this debate the rule of law and the application of fair rule of law? The absence of proper application of the rule of law is at the heart of this issue.

Mr Mitchell: My hon. Friend makes the central case that we are discussing.

Let me add a few words to what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said at the start of the debate. Shaker Aamer has been detained for 13 years. He has twice been cleared for release: once in 2007 by the former US President, George Bush, and, more recently, in 2009, by President Obama. Our own Prime Minister has made vigorous representations, if one is to believe the press, in respect of Shaker Aamer, and the United States has made it clear that there is no evidence against him, and yet he is still incarcerated in the conditions that were described by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on another point that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made in his speech: that Shaker is not being released because of what he has seen in Guantanamo, and the authorities do not want that to be known more widely? If there is a mystery here about why he is still being detained, does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is the answer?

Mr Mitchell: That might or might not be so, and it is an important matter, but it is not central to the case I am making, which is this: here is someone whose release has been cleared by two US Presidents, and against whom the US authorities have made it clear there is no evidence, yet he remains incarcerated, after 13 years.

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There have been numerous British requests, the most recent of which was made by the Prime Minister during his highly successful visit to America. Jacqui Smith, when Home Secretary, made the request, as did the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), and other Foreign Office Ministers, including my right hon. Friend to my right—geographically, at least—my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who engaged in the case energetically. The failure to make progress fuels the theories referenced in the most recent intervention. Nevertheless, those British requests cannot be treated with apparent arrogance by the American Administration and just cast aside with glib words while that man remains incarcerated with no case against him.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words. I am absolutely certain that the advice being given in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today is the same as that given when I was there, and I know my hon. Friend the Minister is following it diligently. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what unites people of different political opinions on this matter is a sense both that justice for one is justice for all—that is being denied in this case—and that for those who look at it from a very practical point of view on how we deal with some of the difficult issues facing the world, from both a United States and a British perspective, none of that work is being assisted in a case in which someone has been detained for so long without trial or charge?

Mr Mitchell: My right hon. Friend makes the case with great eloquence, as he has done in government and from the Back Benches.

I will end by reiterating the points that the mover of the motion made to the Minister. I ask him to be specific in his response and to be clear about what representations on Shaker Aamer’s case have been made and what ongoing representations are being made. If he cannot give the House answers today, will he seek immediately from the American Administration a very clear explanation of why they continue to block Shaker Aamer’s release? Will he make very clear what next steps the British Government intend to take to secure his immediate release to Britain, not to anywhere else? In his discussions with the American Administration, will he press them to confirm a specific timetable for his release and repatriation to Britain?

This is a matter of great importance. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire said, it is about the universality of justice. It is about the signal we send as the House of Commons to all our citizens about the nature of justice and our determination to see that it is pursued. On that basis, I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and other colleagues on securing this important debate, and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

5.3 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to support the motion this afternoon and contribute to the debate, which is notable for both the

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quality and the brevity of the speeches—I will try to emulate that. The speeches have been brief not because of any lack of concern on the part of those who have spoken; on the contrary, it is because the facts of this case are simple and the motion clear—and, indeed, the remedy is simple.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) set out the background, which I need not repeat. He talked about the history of Guantanamo Bay and those who remain there, the status and treatment of Shaker Aamer, the lack of due process, the questions of nationality and the statements made by both the British and US authorities. We need not elaborate on those further because they are a matter of record. Indeed, I suspect that the only person we might like to hear from at length today is the Minister, in the hope that we can have an answer to questions that remain outstanding.

I would like to pay tribute to the campaign that has been run both inside this House and, more particularly, outside it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington recently set up the all-party group, which is doing a good job. It has members from all parts of the House, some of whom have spoken in the debate or, I expect, are about to speak. Beyond that, the campaign in the wider country has been insistent, clear and deliberative and has used every possible means. It is invidious in some ways to mention individuals, but I will mention Joanne MacInnes and Andy Worthington, who work daily and tirelessly in every possible way—from complex legal argument to giant inflatables—to raise the matter. They have no personal association with the family, but they care so deeply that they have inspired many other people and the campaign is superb.

As part of the briefing for this debate, we were sent a statement from 278 imams and community leaders around the country. That should carry some weight with the Government, as should the petitions over the years which have accumulated hundreds of thousands of signatures. This is an issue which the Muslim community in this country cares about, as does the wider community, as a simple matter of law and justice. What it boils down to is, why? That is the question people have put and to which they have conjectured answers. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said, in the absence of an answer from the Government, there will be more speculation. If it is right that, as we have heard, the US under successive Presidents has cleared Shaker for release, and if it is right that for years under different Administrations the British Government have been using their best endeavours to secure his release, why is he still incarcerated? I am putting the Minister on the spot somewhat, but the House deserves an answer to that today.

We know that there are forces out there who are clear that they wish the inmates of Guantanamo Bay to be retained there, and we have seen attempts by the Republican Congress to do that recently. We do not have the President of the United States here, we do not have the American authorities here, but we know the statements that President Obama has previously made. We have Her Majesty’s Government here, and Shaker’s family who are present, the campaigners who are present, MPs on all sides, and the distinguished right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken, including from the Government Back Benches, deserve an answer to the question why a British subject whose family are British citizens has

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been incarcerated for 13 years and tortured. There is no reason discernible to me, my constituents and all those who have taken an interest in the case why that remains the situation.

5.7 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I add my congratulations and thanks to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for bringing this matter to the House. The quality of speeches on all sides, the power of the points made and, more importantly, the unity in the Chamber are a source of encouragement and underline the level of frustration and incredulity that something so self-evidently wrong and outrageous should continue in the face of such incontrovertible evidence. Along with right hon. and hon. Members on all sides, I want to state our conviction that Shaker Aamer is an innocent man and is being treated unjustly. We stand resolutely with his family, who continue to endure the separation and division of their family, awareness of Shaker Aamer’s ill health and the realisation of the appalling treatment that he has unjustly and inhumanly received for all these years.

We say sometimes that a person is innocent until proven guilty. We should clarify that and say “unless proven guilty”. In this case, there is no guilt to be proven. As a number of colleagues have said, two US Presidents, Bush and Obama, have both in effect cleared Shaker Aamer for release, yet here we still are. Shaker Aamer’s incarceration, his being subjected to torture, and the length of time involved—13 or 14 years now—is an outrage. The man has not seen his youngest child. This is an absolutely immoral outrage. It is perhaps even more outrageous that this blot on our collective conscience occupies so little space in the consciousness of people in western society.

I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about the reasons the United States has given, or continues to give, for the failure to release Shaker Aamer, yet the reality is that no excuse would be good enough. We understand that there is a dispute over whether, as the Americans want, he is released to Saudi Arabia or whether, as we want, he is released to the United Kingdom. That is not an acceptable excuse. This man belongs here; his family are here. There is no just reason whatsoever why he should not be released now, and released to this country. I hope that the United States takes some notice of what is meant to be its strongest and most loyal ally, the United Kingdom, and what is said here in the Parliament of that country. Will it take notice of the fact that, in our eyes and in the eyes of many other people in the civilised world, this is the behaviour of an extremist regime—the kind of behaviour that we would expect the United States to castigate, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) so rightly said?

Speaking as somebody who counts himself as a Liberal Democrat and has a habit of instinctively lionising President Obama, may we somehow communicate to him the fact that this is an appalling stain on his legacy, on his record, and even on his character? Either he is not sufficiently important and powerful to make sure that these things happen, or he is a man who is not of his word. We should be appalled by this and say to him, as strong friends, that this is a stain on his legacy and on his record. It is also a massive strain on UK-US relations; perhaps it should be an even greater strain than it is.

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I want to make three brief points. First, the justice and humanitarian arguments are incontrovertible. We would like to hear from the Minister what the United States Government have been saying to our Government. Secondly, as I am sure Members on both sides of the House will testify, when one is a UK citizen, one has, all over the world, a sense of shared responsibility about the actions of other western nations. The moral authority of “the west”, if we can call it that, is undermined by the continued presence of Guantanamo Bay itself, and by the continued incarceration of the innocent man, Shaker Aamer.

Thirdly, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said, there is the issue of American self-interest. This continued action is absolutely not in America’s self-interest. The Americans may well fear that Shaker Aamer has things to say that they would consider to be against the American interest if they came into the public domain. Well, tough—if those things have happened, they must be known and we must hold this United States Administration, and previous ones, to account for them. The continued incarceration of this innocent man is far more of a threat to America’s interests.

America has already—perhaps we are culpable too—acted in ways that have demonstrated a lack of understanding of some of the geopolitical problems that we face, not least the rise of ISIS. America has failed to understand what territory means to ISIS, and that it is not just another guerrilla Islamist extremist outfit but has an immense sense of theological destiny. We must understand its ideology, because if we fail to do so, it will become an even greater threat to world peace and security. We must also understand that while the motivation of al-Baghdadi and many others at the heart of that regime is theological and ideological—even apocalyptic—those who are going to help him and it have very different, much more political motivations. Many of those motivations come from the sense that western countries, and America in particular, specifically in relation to Guantanamo Bay, are acting in ways that deserve a response and a resistance—an insurgency—with ISIS as its torchbearer. It is not in America’s interests to continue to pour petrol on that fire.

The incarceration of Shaker Aamer is unjust, wicked, and fundamentally counter-productive to America’s self-interest and ours. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

5.14 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am pleased to be a signatory to the motion, along with colleagues from all parties. I draw attention to the fact that the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) cannot be in the Chamber because he is engaged in other parliamentary business. It is only right to record that he strongly supports the motion, and he is a member of the cross-party group.

The fact that we are having this debate at all is a credit to the system under which the Backbench Business Committee allocates time. More importantly, it is a credit to the campaigners and supporters of Shaker Aamer and other people who have been so wrongly and grossly detained at Guantanamo Bay. We should pay tribute to those who have worked for many years for

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Shaker Aamer’s release. They have stood outside Parliament, collected signatures on street corners on wet and windy Saturday mornings, and e-mailed, written to and lobbied MPs. They are the lifeblood of democracy, and we should show them some respect today: having this debate—albeit not as well attended as one hoped—is a credit to them.

Much could be said, but in a sense it has all been said. The facts of the matter are quite simple. Shaker Aamer was wrongly taken from his family and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, and he has been disgracefully treated. He was cleared for release by President Bush, subsequently re-cleared for release by President Obama, but he has still not been released. He has been cleared for release for longer than President Obama has been President. It does not say very much about the power of the US presidency when the President can campaign for election partly on the basis of closing Guantanamo Bay, having specifically ordered the release of those against whom there is no case whatsoever but who have still not been released.

I have been involved in numerous meetings with the Foreign Office and others on this subject over the years, and I am at a loss to understand what is preventing Shaker Aamer’s release. If there is no case against him, why is he still in Guantanamo Bay? Is he being held because he knows too much and has seen too much—the hunger strikes, the torture and the brutality—or is it because there is still pressure to take him to Saudi Arabia, from where he originates? That would be a disgrace, and I am sure that he would refuse to go there. He is a British resident, and he has a family in this country, with a young child he has never seen. Surely he should be released and brought back to this country as quickly as possible. I repeat that there is no case against him whatsoever in this country.

Many people have taken up this cause, not least the Prime Minister and successive Foreign Secretaries and Foreign Office Ministers. When Hillary Clinton wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), she thanked him for his letter of 21 July 2010 concerning Shaker Aamer, and went on:

“Our national security interests will continue to benefit from close consultation and mutual assistance with these issues.”

She welcomed the opportunity to meet experts from the State Department to discuss the case, referred to President Obama’s Executive order of 22 January 2009 and looked forward to working closely with the Foreign Office to resolve the issue. It does not say much for a special relationship when the President orders a release and the Foreign Secretary and the US Secretary of State agree to work closely together, but Shaker Aamer still remains in prison with no case whatsoever against him.

We have to look at the background to the human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay. Much has been written about that in many documents, but a very interesting one put out by Amnesty International states:

“There has been little or no accountability for the human rights violations that have occurred at Guantanamo, including the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance. The recently published summary of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI)’s review of the secret detention programme operated by the Central Intelligence

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Agency…finally confirmed that the naval base had been the location for a CIA ‘black site’ in 2003 and 2004 at which detainees were subject to enforced disappearance.”

That is the nub of it: there has been enforced disappearance to a place that is a legal void and that knows no recognition in any form of international law in any country whatsoever.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) that if this had been the treatment of a US citizen anywhere in the world, we would never have heard the end of it from successive US Presidents. I do not doubt that there would have been the threat of military action and all kinds of other things against any country that held a US citizen in these circumstances. I am not advocating sending the SAS to Guantanamo Bay to free Shaker Aamer or anything like that; what I am saying is that if the close relationship with the USA means anything, Shaker Aamer must be released immediately.

If the House approves the motion tonight, as I am sure it will, it should be communicated in the strongest possible terms to the Senate and the House in the USA that the British Parliament fully supports the release of Shaker Aamer. The breadth of political support for him in the cross-party group is surprising. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) will not mind my mentioning—indeed, he said the same of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell)—that he and I agree on very little, except for humanity and justice. In this case, we absolutely agree that the way in which Shaker Aamer has been treated is completely unjust and that he must be released. That, surely, has to be the message that we give tonight.

People have campaigned for justice for many years. We achieved a Parliament because people campaigned for our right to have a democracy. The essential part of a democracy is that the judicial system is independent of the political system and that everyone has the right to an independent hearing in a court of law. There is an exhibition in Westminster Hall that says just that because it is 800 years since Magna Carta. This man has never been in court, has never been charged, has never been convicted, has no case against him and has been approved for release and freedom, yet he is still in prison. Surely the message from this Parliament is, “Bring him home. Close Guantanamo Bay and end the outrage and abuse of human rights that it represents.” Otherwise, what is the message to the rest of the world? It is that we are incapable, that we do not care, or that, by our inaction, we tacitly approve of something as vile as Guantanamo Bay and the torture and ill-treatment that has gone on there.

5.22 pm

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and his colleagues on securing this incredibly important debate.

As one of the last speakers, I will probably repeat a little of what has been said, but I think that it is important to do so. In particular, I want to pick up on what the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) was just saying and on the tone of bewilderment that he expressed so well. It is simply incredible that this person who has never been charged with any offence is still languishing in Guantanamo Bay. The hon. Gentleman

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summed up very well what we all feel: that this is utterly unjustifiable and utterly incredible, and that action is needed.

I joined other people on a delegation to the Foreign Secretary last year. We sat in a very nice office in the Foreign Office, but even after 45 minutes in that meeting, I came out no wiser than I went in. I do not think that I was alone in that. I simply cannot understand why the telephone cannot be picked up. If the US is this amazing ally, why can we not have that conversation and get this man home?

I want to say a few things about the situation in which Shaker has been held, because it is so deeply shocking that it is happening here and now. Last year, there were reports that Shaker and another detainee had been subjected to violent beatings carried out by a forcible cell extraction team. As well as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Shaker has a number of psychological problems such as severe anxiety and insomnia, unsurprisingly. His physical health has also suffered as a direct result of his mistreatment. An independent medical assessment concluded that he has oedema, severe tinnitus, kidney pain, severe headaches, asthma and loss of vision, yet in June 2014, the previous Foreign Secretary claimed that he was confident that Shaker had access to a “detainee welfare package” and that his health remained stable. I would love the Minister to confirm when he last had an independent update about Shaker’s physical and mental health and what that update said.

During Shaker’s 12 long years of detention, he has been tortured by US agents—for example, by having his head repeatedly banged against a wall—and has witnessed the torture of another UK resident. He has spent more than 1,000 nights in a windowless isolation cell, and when first detained, he was starved, kept awake for nine days straight, and chained in positions that made the slightest movement unbearable. In 2005, he was placed in isolation for 360 days for his role in organising a hunger strike after military police beat up a prisoner while he was praying. Prison rules permit isolation for only 30 days.

Shaker has seen other prisoners treated in gratuitously violent ways, including being hospitalised and/or rendered unconscious as a result of forcible cell extractions. He was often subjected to the same violent process used by guards against non-compliant prisoners, and claims that he suffered FCEs up to eight times a day. We know that such things have been recorded, so can the Minister tell the House why the Prime Minister has accepted the US authorities’ decision that those recordings are classified, given that they constitute evidence that a UK resident has been tortured? Is it standard UK practice to fail to press for such evidence, and does the Minister agree that that could be considered, at very least, as condoning Shaker’s torture and mistreatment, if not potentially being complicit in it?

Shaker’s lawyers have been advised by the former Foreign Secretary that the US position is to limit Shaker’s clearance for release to Saudi Arabia—the country where he was born and where he is likely to face further mistreatment and detention, as well as the prospect of ongoing estrangement from his wife and children. Such a move would hugely limit the opportunities for Shaker to speak out about what has happened and get full access to justice.

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Freedom of information documents secured by human rights group Reprieve demonstrate that the US has been in contact with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia about Shaker’s case, although the context for that has been censored. They contain details of a meeting between high-level US officials and the Saudi Minister of Interior. Will the Minister say what assurance the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has sought and received that Shaker will not be transferred to Saudi Arabia?

I am concerned, as others have voiced, that the only possible reason for sending Shaker to Saudi Arabia is to stop him speaking out about his abuse—abuse in which he claims the UK authorities have been complicit. For example, it is alleged that a British operative was present while a US interrogator repeatedly smashed Shaker’s head against a wall, shortly before he was sent to Guantanamo. Can the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that the UK has not been complicit in any way in the abuses that Shaker has suffered?

This debate is hugely important and I will end, as others have done, by thanking the extraordinary campaigns of so many tireless campaigners who have kept this issue near the top of the agenda where it belongs. I hope that this debate is one further step towards getting justice for Shaker.

5.26 pm

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and his co-sponsors on securing this debate on Shaker Aamer, and I apologise for missing a significant part of his contribution. He has been one of the leading parliamentary campaigners for Mr Aamer’s release, and I acknowledge the presence of the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is the constituency MP for Mr Aamer and his family—indeed, this debate provides an important opportunity to follow up a Backbench Business Committee debate on the same subject that she initiated in April 2013. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has also been a particularly active campaigner for Mr Aamer’s release, given that, as I understand, some of Mr Aamer’s wider family live in his constituency.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has rightly praised the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and others. Will he include in that praise the great work done by Reprieve and Clive Stafford Smith on this case? They have bravely unearthed so much about the horrors of Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, which is a blot on all our legal pasts in this country.

Mr Thomas: As on so many things, my hon. Friend is ahead of me. I will happily do that, although I want to return to the role of Reprieve and Clive Stafford Smith a little later in my remarks.

I strongly support hon. Members across the House in saying that the last remaining British detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Mr Aamer, should be released and returned to the UK as soon as humanly possible. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have shared profound concern about Mr Aamer’s case and, indeed, about the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay facility. National security and the continuing drive to keep our citizens safe is the first responsibility of

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government, but we have always been clear that a profound respect for human rights must also lie at the heart of policy.

We remain deeply concerned that Guantanamo detainees are held without trial indefinitely. As my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), has previously underlined—as others have done today—that in itself is a serious affront to international human rights standards. She has also previously drawn attention, rightly, to the concern and condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that the continuing indefinite imprisonment of many of the Guantanamo Bay detainees was in clear breach of international law, referencing the systematic breaches of individual human rights. The Opposition remain firmly opposed to the continuation of the Guantanamo Bay facility. Through our diplomatic efforts when in government, all British citizens and all but one of those who had been resident in Britain were transferred out of Guantanamo Bay.

As other hon. Members have made clear, Mr Aamer is a Saudi citizen who was resident in the UK. He is married to a British woman and he has four British children who live in London. I understand, as others have made clear, that Mr Aamer has never met his youngest son, who was born on the very day he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer was detained in Afghanistan in November 2001, where the US authorities apparently suspected that he had been working for Osama bin Laden. He has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since February 2002. He is now the last remaining British resident held there. He has, I understand, always maintained his innocence, and Clive Stafford Smith, his lawyer, claims the documents that the accusations against him are based on would not stand up in court. Indeed, his legal team state that his treatment at Bagram airfield in 2001, allegedly including sleep deprivation and physical abuse, led him to make a false confession that has been used to justify his detention without trial ever since.

There is great concern about Mr Aamer’s health. Earlier this year, I understand that a number of leading doctors wrote an open letter to raise a number of concerns about the impact on Mr Aamer’s physical and mental well-being of spending 13 years in Guantanamo Bay. I understand that a medical assessment carried out last year found he was suffering from serious psychiatric problems and a number of serious physical ailments, too. It is alleged that Mr Aamer has been beaten more than 300 times while in detention and has suffered regularly from sleep deprivation. Reports that Mr Aamer has on occasion been deprived of water and has arthritis, asthma, prostate and kidney problems and severe backache are very worrying. It is a deeply damaging allegation, aired again by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), that he is only still being held because he has witnessed significant human rights abuses, which the Guantanamo Bay authorities fear would be revealed if Mr Aamer was released and spoke out about his experience.

As other hon. Members have made clear, Mr Aamer has been cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo Bay on two occasions—in 2007 and in 2009—yet has still not been released. I understand that British diplomatic staff are not able to visit Mr Aamer, although it would

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be helpful if the Minister provided clarification on that point. I understand that the International Committee of the Red Cross is able to visit Mr Aamer, and it would be helpful to hear from the Minister when the ICRC last did so.

It is clear that Mr Aamer will be released only after further encouragement—let me use those words carefully —to the US authorities, so it would be helpful to hear from the Minister when the last ministerial representations to their US equivalents about Mr Aamer took place. There has been speculation that the key US legislation determining whether Guantanamo Bay detainees can be released or transferred is the 2011 National Defence Authorisation Act, which allows the US Defence Secretary to exercise a waiver and therefore release individual detainees if certain conditions are met. Has any UK Minister raised Mr Aamer’s case with the US Defence Secretary? What prospects can the Minister offer the House that the NDAA might offer a potential route to secure Mr Aamer’s release from Guantanamo Bay soon?

Given that Mr Aamer is a Saudi national and the reports that he has, as I indicated, previously been cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo Bay but allegedly only to Saudi Arabia, what discussions have Foreign Office Ministers had with their Saudi counterparts? Do the Saudi Government support Mr Aamer’s release from Guantanamo Bay and, crucially, do they support his release back to the UK?

Reprieve and Amnesty International have campaigned for Mr Aamer’s release. Reprieve, in particular, has used freedom of information requests to establish that significant meetings have taken place between US and British officials to discuss Mr Aamer’s possible transfer, most recently, I understand, on 29 October 2013. It would be helpful if the Minister set out in a little more detail what he understands are the substantive remaining US concerns about Mr Aamer that are preventing his release. The essential question remains: why, despite being cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo Bay six and eight years ago, is Mr Aamer still being detained? There remains the question whether he was cleared for release back to Saudi Arabia only. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister clarified that issue. I understand that Mr Aamer has indefinite leave to remain here in the UK. He has family here in the UK; he is married to a British citizen; his children are British citizens; and he has not been convicted of any crime. By any reasonable consideration, he should be allowed to be transferred back to the UK, never mind to Saudi Arabia.

Guantanamo Bay is a continuing blight on the human rights record of one of our closest allies, and the whole House will empathise with the anguish that Mr Aamer’s family and friends feel at his continued detention. I look forward to the Minister answering my and other hon. Members’ questions, reflecting our concerns and reassuring the House that the Government will redouble their efforts to secure Mr Aamer’s release.

5.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): This has been a helpful and constructive debate, and I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing it through the Backbench Business Committee. I thank all right

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hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and the many right hon. and hon. Members who have campaigned in this House and outside. I am pleased that hon. Members have highlighted the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) in supporting Shaker Aamer’s family, who live in her constituency.

I will do my best to answer as many points as I can. I spoke to the US embassy today at length on this matter, and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who deals with the United States, had a meeting with US Ambassador Barzun yesterday at which he discussed these issues. I might be the only Member to have visited Guantanamo Bay, albeit from the Cuban side—that was as close as I could get—back in 2005. When I looked over at the camp area, I wondered how long it would be before it was closed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) spoke about the reliability of the confessional evidence and how standards dropped after 9/11. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked about the double standards created by the creation of Guantanamo Bay. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) paid tribute, as do I, to the difficult and often unrecognised work of the intelligence services and the importance that justice prevails. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) talked about the size of the campaign, which has lasted a number of years, in support of Shaker Aamer. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about the west’s moral authority being eroded and undermined because of Guantanamo Bay.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others talked about the number of people who had taken up this cause and referred to the Senate intelligence committee report—anyone who has read the accounts of that report will, like me, have found it deeply troubling. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) talked about the concerns about Mr Aamer’s release or transfer to Saudi Arabia. It is clear that Shaker Aamer wants to return to the UK, and that is what we support. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), the shadow spokesman, raised several important questions that I shall try to answer.

One aspect that I will cover now relates to the powers given to the US Defence Secretary under the National Defence Authorisation Act 2012. We have been in discussions with the US President, as I say, so we look to any measure required to ensure that justice prevails and Shaker Aamer is returned to the UK—whichever system, whichever protocol or whichever mechanism is used, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr Thomas: On the point about the NDAA, as I understand it, any waivers that can be secured for the release of Mr Aamer under this legislation are controlled by the US Defence Secretary. Will the Minister tell us whether any representations have been made directly to the US Defence Secretary, perhaps by the Secretary of State for Defence or the Foreign Secretary?

Mr Ellwood: The Foreign Secretary has raised this matter, but as I say, we have called on the President to use all available powers, and this is simply one mechanism that could be used.

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I certainly welcome this opportunity to highlight the Government’s commitment on this issue. The UK has long held that indefinite detention without fair trial is unacceptable. Mr Aamer has been detained in Guantanamo Bay for 13 years, yet has not been charged with any crime. As a result of the UK’s long-standing opposition to the operation of the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, the UK Government exceptionally requested Mr Aamer’s release in 2007, and that request also included four other former UK residents who have since returned to the UK. The UK Government are committed to bringing Mr Aamer back to the UK, and we have made our position very clear to the US Government. We want to see him released as a matter of urgency, and we know that they fully understand this request.

As hon. Members will have noted, the Prime Minister personally raised Mr Aamer’s case at his meeting with the US President on 16 January this year. We welcome President Obama’s commitment at that meeting to prioritise the review of Mr Aamer’s release to the UK.

Supporters of Mr Aamer often cite the fact that he was cleared for release, and this has been repeated here today. He was cleared for release some years ago, and given the President’s commitment, people cannot understand why he is still in detention. I need to clarify, however, that Mr Aamer has been cleared only for transfer to Saudi Arabia, not cleared for release either in Saudi Arabia or indeed the UK. This is an important distinction under the applicable US legislation.

President Obama’s statement means that Mr Aamer’s case has been prioritised for review through an inter-agency process. This comprehensive process undertaken by six US Government Departments involves a complex case-by-case review. We do not have a timetable for a decision, but we are confident that this review is under way. We hope, of course, that Mr Aamer will soon be released.

However, it is important to understand that President Obama’s decision to close the detention facility and release its inmates remains a contentious political issue in Washington, as hon. Members have outlined in today’s debate. Stark differences of opinion exist in Congress across the political spectrum about the wisdom of doing this at a time of heightened terrorist threats. Within that, there remain real concerns about recidivism and the actions that detainees may take after they leave Guantanamo. Let us be clear, however, that Mr Aamer has not been charged with or convicted of any crime.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I have listened carefully to the debate and to the Minister’s contribution so far, so I hope I am not pre-empting what he is about to say. He has not yet told us, however—perhaps I have missed the clarity on the matter—what reasons the US has given to the Foreign Office for not releasing Shaker Aamer. What are the reasons behind not processing his release?

Mr Ellwood: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present at the beginning of the debate. I should like to make some progress, but I shall come to the point that he has raised.

As I have said, Mr Aamer has not been charged with or convicted of any crime, but the United States Government have made it clear that any action taken to release him would have to remain consistent with United States national security.

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Caroline Lucas: The Minister is making much of concerns about what will happen to Shaker or anyone else after their release. The United Kingdom is one of the safest places for such people to return to. We have one of the safest structures to deal with any risk that might exist. This simply does not add up: I do not see what the obstacles are.

Mr Ellwood: Let us take a step back from this particular case. Security questions must be asked, in the case of any inmate, about what will happen once the process has taken place. As I have said, the judicial process that is being conducted is very complex, and involves a number of Departments.

Caroline Lucas: Surely the Minister agrees that it would be safer for Shaker to return to the United Kingdom than to go to Saudi Arabia, for example—safer for all of us, indeed.

Mr Ellwood: The point has been made time and again about the manner in which many of the detainees ended up in Guantanamo Bay, and about the creation of Camp Delta in the first place. I make no comment on this particular case because it would be wrong for me to do so, but we need to ensure that every person who is processed will not be a danger to the United States or to any other country. It is a complex process, and I must make it very clear that I make no judgment on this particular case. I am about to give some numbers and a timetable, and details of the frequency with which detainees are being processed.

Mr Andrew Mitchell: The Minister is setting out his case, and he says that he does not need to make a judgment, but the United States has made it clear that there is no evidence against Shaker Aamer. Is that not the critical factor? May I encourage the Minister to share with the House, in some detail, the questions that he asked during his lengthy conversation with the American embassy this morning, and the answers that he received?

Mr Ellwood: I want to make some progress. As I shall make clear shortly, I am not privy to the very complicated process, involving six United States Government Departments, that every single detainee will have to undergo before being cleared for release. That is the process that Shaker Aamer must undergo, like everyone else who has been released so far or will be released in the future.

In supporting Mr Aamer’s release, we have emphasised to the United States Government that any individual who engages in terrorist-related activity in the United Kingdom can expect to be dealt with through use of the full range of powers that are available to us. I shall not list them here, but they are extensive, and we remain confident in the ability of our police and security services to deal with any such threats. I think that that partly answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.

It would be inappropriate to comment on why Mr Aamer is in the Guantanamo Bay facility, especially as we continue to discuss the details of his case with the United States in order to secure his release. This is a sensitive issue and, as the House will understand, it has been the policy of successive Governments not to discuss

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intelligence matters. However, as Members well know, the United Kingdom does not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose. We remain absolutely committed to ensuring that serious allegations of UK complicity in alleged rendition and mistreatment overseas are examined carefully. If any evidence of that were to come to light, we would take appropriate action. The investigation of, or prosecution of individuals involved in, any alleged torture carried out by the United States is a matter for the United States authorities.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Ellwood: I will, but then I must make some progress.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. In these investigations into torture and extraordinary rendition, is he getting all the co-operation he has asked for from the US authorities?

Mr Ellwood: I can only repeat what I have just said: I cannot comment on intelligence matters relating to this particular case.

Consular access is afforded to states only as regards their own nationals and, as has been repeated in this Chamber, Mr Aamer is a Saudi national. Our consular policy for non-British nationals is clear: we cannot help non-nationals no matter how long they have lived in the UK and regardless of their connections to the UK.

Although the timeline for the closure of the facility remains a matter for the US Government, President Obama was elected in November 2008 having vowed to close Guantanamo Bay. In the early days of his presidency, he said:

“There is…no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world.”

He recognised that, faced with uncertain threats, hasty decisions were made

“based on fear rather than foresight”.

President Obama remains determined to see the Guantanamo Bay facilities closed by the end of his Administration, and we remain committed to assisting him in this aim.

Of the original 779 detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, 122 remain, including Mr Aamer. Five detainees have been released so far this year, but in 2014 the US released 28, 19 of whom were released in November and December. That is a considerable increase in releases compared with previous years. From 2011 to 2013, a total of just 19 detainees were released.

We have already made a significant contribution to reducing the number of detainees in Guantanamo Bay by taking back nine UK nationals and, exceptionally, five former legal residents. Aside from Mr Aamer, the UK is not considering accepting any further detainees from the Guantanamo Bay facility. More widely, we have facilitated engagement with countries that have agreed to accept former detainees, and shared experience and advice on managing the return process.

In conclusion, as hon. Members have highlighted, 14 February was the 13th anniversary of Mr Aamer’s arrival at the Guantanamo Bay facility. Along with his family and his many supporters, the UK Government

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would like this to be the last anniversary that Mr Aamer passes in detention. Since the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Obama on 16 January, my officials and Government colleagues have continued to work to make that a reality, and we will carry on raising his case at the highest levels and at every reasonable opportunity to impress further on our US counterparts that we are looking for an urgent resolution.

Mr Slaughter: I am sorry to press the Minister, but he has still to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). In the Minister’s long conversations with the American embassy and others in the US Government, what is the precise and exact reason he has been given as to why the release of Shaker Aamer is not possible at the moment?

Mr Ellwood: I know that this will not satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but I can only repeat that these are intelligence matters on which I cannot comment in this House. I cannot do that. Following this debate, I will be writing to the US ambassador, Ambassador Barzun, to let him know the outcome, the passion expressed and this Government’s determination to see Shaker Aamer released.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I understand the difficulty the Minister is in, but, as he announced, we all know that others have been released, although he cannot give any reasons. It appears that there is to be an investigation, but it seems there is a clear difference between those who have been released and Shaker Aamer. Is that the picture that emerged from the Minister’s conversations?

Mr Ellwood: Again, the hon. Gentleman will not be satisfied with my answer, but I cannot be drawn on the individual case or into dealing with intelligence matters. I am afraid that that is as far as I can comment on this—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) like me to give way?

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Everybody has been waiting for the Minister to reply. I was saying that it is a total anticlimax. The Minister has said that, far from being released, Mr Aamer is only under review. Almost all of what he has had to say is a sop to Congress, to the Americans generally and to the President, rather than an explanation to the House that he and his superiors will try their level best to get Mr Aamer out. He is like an apologist for the American regime.

Mr Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman has made his point and he has clearly not listened to what I have said.

Mr Skinner: I’ve listened to every word you’ve said.

Mr Ellwood: If I may continue, we have made it very clear that we have listened to this debate and we stand with this Parliament in calling for Shaker Aamer to be released. If the hon. Gentleman would care to have the courtesy to listen to what I am saying, he would understand that he has not heard this Government’s passion and commitment to speak at the highest levels to ensure that we can leverage and use our relationship.

I stress that we have a strong, close and frank relationship that brings concrete benefits to both sides and that advances joint objectives. In the January meeting with

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President Obama, we were able to secure for the first time a guarantee that this will now become a priority. That is the first time that has been said. We will continue to press the issue, and this debate will have its place and be useful in that regard.

I hope I have made it clear that the UK Government are absolutely committed to securing the release of Mr Aamer. Today I would like to underline that commitment and join the House in calling for the US Government to approve the release of Shaker Aamer to the UK.

5.56 pm

John McDonnell: I am grateful to the Minister for his last statement. I will deal briefly with three issues raised by the debate.

First, we now know that Shaker Aamer is in the process of a review. We welcome that, but the problem is that we are still not clear about the evidence presented against him, because intelligence is not being shared. As far as I am concerned, the concept of intelligence is yet again being used as an excuse to cover up injustice. We are not sure about the review’s timetable or the criteria on which it will make its decision, so although I welcome the Minister’s saying that a review is taking place, unfortunately the process does not give us confidence.

Secondly, I welcome wholeheartedly the Minister’s saying that the UK Government’s representations will continue, but he must take note of the sense of this House and those representations must be determined and courageous. We need to say frankly to our allies in America, “This man must be released.”

Thirdly, a number of Members have raised the issue of access. We need to ensure that Shaker Aamer’s health is assessed and properly dealt with and that he secures the full legal representation he requires. The Minister has said that we are restricted in the consular support we can provide because he is not a British national. Actually, he received the right to indefinite leave in this country, and if it were up to me I would offer him full British citizenship in order to overcome the issue of overall access.

Finally, someone said that this has not been a particularly well attended debate, but the attendance has been good for this type of debate. It has been well attended by senior Members, ex-Ministers and others with a human rights background, so I am really grateful for that and I know that the campaigners and the family will be, too. Let us all say together, in support of the motion, to the family, friends and campaigners, that we will not go away and we will secure the freedom of Shaker Aamer.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House calls on the US Government to release Shaker Aamer from his imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay and to allow him to return to his family in the UK.


Burial and cremation services in West Lancashire

5.59 pm

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): For several years I have been campaigning alongside various community groups, including the West Lancashire Pensioners Forum. Our aim is to secure new cemetery

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and crematorium provision in West Lancashire, thereby rectifying the awful and unacceptable situation facing many residents. It is an issue that West Lancashire borough council refuses to address. Too many families are laying their loved ones to rest in neighbouring boroughs due to the unavailability of local burial plots. These families are incurring higher funeral costs and have to travel further to visit the graves of their loved ones—a major challenge in an area where people are reliant on public transport. I therefore present this petition to the House of Commons on behalf of West Lancashire Pensioners Forum and for the residents of West Lancashire.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of the West Lancashire constituency,

Declares that burial and cremation services should be provided in West Lancashire without delay; further that this provision will mean that burial and cremation services are less expensive and more convenient for residents and further that a local petition on this matter has been signed by 2000 individuals.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage West Lancashire Borough Council to provide burial and cremation services in West Lancashire.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


Rough Close Post Office

6 pm

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): This is a petition relating to Rough Close post office. It is a petition to the House of Commons by residents of the constituency of Stone in Staffordshire. It contains more than 500 signatures which have been supplied to the Post Office and it is now coming before Parliament.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of the constituency of Stone in Staffordshire,

Declares that residents of Meir Heath object to the relocation of the local Rough Close Post Office branch from Grindley Lane to Sandon Road in Meir Heath; further that a number of products and services will not be available at the new post office; further that the Petitioners will need to find alternative providers to carry out the banking, parcel services and travel insurance on demand; further that there are limited parking facilities at the relocated site which would cause disruption to residents, road users and post office delivery; further that the relocated site would be unsuitable and would pose increased difficulties for the elderly, including the crossing of a major road; further that given the size of the premises, residents wishing to use Post Office facilities would need to queue outside; further that the new open plan serving positions may come with a lack of privacy and security; and further that the Petitioners currently receive professional services from fully trained post office staff with many years’ experience at the existing location.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to intervene to keep the Rough Close Post Office branch in its existing location on Grindley Lane.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Asbestos in Schools

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)

6.3 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to raise the important issue of asbestos in schools. It is an important issue not only for the people who work in the schools but for the parents of the children who are being educated in them.

The recent report on asbestos in schools is welcome, but it is unfortunate that it was not published earlier. We have been waiting more than eight months for its publication, which was always described as imminent. None the less, it provides a useful, informed and welcome background to the debate on the effects of asbestos in schools. Much of it is based on, or responds to, the publication of a report on asbestos in schools by the all-party parliamentary occupational safety and health group, which I chair. I am sure that this report would never have been produced had it not been for the work of the all-party group, the joint union asbestos committee, the GMB and the Asbestos in Schools Group. May I particularly mention Mr Michael Lees, who lost his teacher wife to mesothelioma and has campaigned consistently since?

Let me digress slightly by referring to an exclusive report in The Independent by Andrew Grice, who interviewed the Minister. The report states:

“The Schools Minister warned that Mr Cameron’s announcement of 500 more free schools in the 2015-20 parliament was ‘a number picked out of a hat.’ He warned: ‘The Tories want to scatter 500 new schools around the country, regardless of whether they will be good quality schools or whether they are actually needed. This is a barmy way to make policy.’”

The report continued:

“He added: ‘Worse still, it would mean a £4bn raid on other budgets, consigning children and teachers to crumbling classrooms and leaving some without a school place at all. It is impossible to justify.’

Mr Laws claimed Downing Street had not wanted to go public before the election about the need to tackle asbestos in school buildings, even though it was a ‘child safety issue.’”

I would certainly appreciate it if the Minister expanded on that in his response.

The Department for Education has acknowledged that children are more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults are. That is a significant step forward; it acknowledges that asbestos in schools is an issue. It includes a call for greater transparency from schools and employers, and makes it clear that asbestos training is compulsory for teachers and supporting staff. All those who are responsible for managing asbestos will receive training. That is well overdue, given the complete lack of awareness in many schools, as outlined in the report. There is also a welcome commitment to develop air sampling.

That is all a step forward but it by no means goes far enough. More than 291 schoolteachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980. They were dying at a rate of three per year in 1980, but the number of deaths has increased each year and they are now dying at a rate of 19 a year. The report acknowledges that caretakers, cleaners, maintenance staff and children are known to

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be at a greater risk. However, statistics do not show how many pupils have been killed by past exposure, as people often die more than 40 years after exposure, by which time they may have worked in a wide range of jobs. Let us not forget, however, that for every teacher working in a school there are 20 to 30 children and they are more at risk.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate on a very serious issue. It is very important that we recognise that it is not only staff and support workers—the teachers and so on—but children who could contract asbestos-related diseases in school. Should we not be doing everything we can to take the right measures to reduce the incidence in children, rather than just looking across the board at teachers and staff?

Jim Sheridan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and again I have to congratulate the National Union of Teachers on its assistance in dealing with this issue. The genuine concern is that we do not scare parents into believing that their children cannot go to school for fear of catching mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases, and we have tried to follow that approach through the report the TUC has drawn up. However, we say clearly in the report that action has to be taken. We also recognised that we cannot deal with this overnight and that the process has to be gradual, with gradual investment. That should start with some of the older schools being stripped of asbestos, and we could take things on gradually from there.

The review is somewhat complacent in places. It states that the Health and Safety Executive’s view is that schools overall are low-risk health and safety environments, similar to offices and retail premises. But there is a fundamental difference between offices, retail premises and schools, which is that schools contain children. The fabric of school buildings suffers considerably more disturbance and damage than most offices and retail premises. In addition, children are in the building for long periods of time and they are more vulnerable than adults to exposure to asbestos. However, most parents would not think that 4,000 to 6,000 people dying over a 20-year period as a result of attending school was low risk.

I am also surprised that the Government are unaware of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools. They have just completed a two-year survey on the condition of school buildings, which deliberately excluded asbestos. The review simply states:

“Based upon the age of the school estate, we can estimate that a majority of schools in England contain some asbestos, although the exact amount is unknown.”

That is an astonishing statement after a multi-million pound audit. If when the Government first came to office they had simply asked the local authorities, they would have found that the something like 87% of schools contained asbestos.

Although this debate is principally about schools in England, this is a UK-wide problem.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House for consideration. In Northern Ireland, a significant number of school buildings still contain asbestos. There has

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been a programme to address when asbestos becomes a danger, but the fact is that asbestos that has not been disturbed or damaged is better left alone. The policy in Northern Ireland is that properly managed asbestos should not cause any health problems. Has the hon. Gentleman found that that is the case in some of the schools with which he has been involved? Sometimes the best way to address the asbestos issue is not to do anything until the school comes to the end of its life.

Jim Sheridan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Experts tell us quite clearly that asbestos is safe if left alone, and I have vast experience of that in my own life. When I worked in the shipyards, asbestos could be easily identified. We were told that if it was left alone, it was comparatively safe. However, in school buildings, where people are banging doors, putting drawing pins in walls, and maintaining pipes, asbestos cannot be left undisturbed. It is important that maintenance staff are trained to identify asbestos and to know how best to treat it. If would be preferable if asbestos could be left alone, but not all schools can do that. Indeed, the banging of doors causes the stuff to circulate in the air.

As I said, asbestos is a UK-wide problem. A recent report in Scotland showed that 79% of schools contained asbestos. That was based on responses from 22 of the 33 councils. Since 2007, the number of schools in Scotland with asbestos in a poor or bad condition has fallen from 39% to 17%. That is because the Scottish Government have for many years collated data on the condition of the school estate and presented it online in a clear, understandable format that allows people to see how the measures that are in place to improve the school stock are succeeding.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities states:

“there has been significant expenditure imposed on Councils throughout Scotland through the presence of asbestos in education premises (mainly schools).”

I am reliably informed that Wales also has a major and well publicised problem with asbestos in schools.

It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that children and staff are not harmed simply by attending school. It is good to see that the Government are finally going to ensure that those who manage asbestos are trained to do so and that the guidance to schools will be updated, but unfortunately that just does not go far enough.

What are lacking are concrete proposals and a strategic vision to introduce the long-term strategies needed to eradicate asbestos from our schools. There needs to be a proper assessment across the UK of the level and condition of asbestos in the nation’s schools so that plans can be drawn up to remove the worst of it as it continues to deteriorate. Simply leaving it in place until a school is refurbished will put millions of school kids and other workers at risk.

The Government must also introduce more inspections to assess how well asbestos is being managed and spot where children are being exposed to risk. It is simply not good enough to leave it to chance, especially as a recent trial survey by the Health and Safety Executive led to a number of enforcement notices.

In conclusion, the report should be seen not as the end of the line, but simply as the launching pad for a proper, comprehensive policy aimed at ridding our schools

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of this killer dust once and for all. Speaking personally, I have seen far too many deaths from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, and watching someone die from such a disease is horrendous. I remember a former workmate with the disease describe it as feeling like a tree growing inside you, eventually choking you to death. I really do not want to see our children suffering that experience in 10, 20 or 40 years’ time.

6.16 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and on chairing the all-party group on occupational safety and health. I had the honour, or otherwise, of chairing the asbestos in schools group, which has come under the umbrella of the hon. Gentleman’s all-party group, for which I am grateful. I also congratulate its lead campaigner, Michael Lees, who has received an MBE, and rightly so, for his tireless work in raising awareness and bringing about a change of heart. I think that it is quite timely to have this debate after the policy has been announced, although it might have been anticipated that the debate would be a call for that policy announcement. I think that it can be used constructively today.

I will say a little about the asbestos in schools group. It has a very wide representation, including from the teachers’ unions, independent schools, industry and local authorities that have very good practice—that has brought home to me what varying practice there currently is across the country in managing asbestos. I took on the chairmanship of the group following a very sad experience with one of my constituents, Rosie. I had known her for a long time, having met her every time I went around canvassing, and I knew that she had been a peripatetic teacher. She came into my constituency office one day and was extremely ill, and within a few months she was dead. She died of exposure to asbestos. It was incredibly sad. We know that a very high proportion of our schools—at least 75%—still have asbestos in them. We know that at least 20 teachers a year die as a result. We know from the evidence that children are more vulnerable than adults. It seemed to me that there was a real mission to try to get change. I was aware that other countries were far ahead of us and, in some cases, had had policies in place for over 30 years—a fact that is much overlooked, or perhaps people do not want to look at that issue in this country.

It had been agreed before the last general election that there would be a steering group, with representatives from the asbestos in schools group and officials from the Department for Education, but the first job after the election was to get that group agreed and reconvened, and I am pleased to say that we did so. There have been so many meetings that I have been involved in, either at the Department for Education or here in Parliament, discussing the issue that it seemed at times that we would take two steps forward and one step back.

I found it difficult sometimes to understand and respond to the approach of the Health and Safety Executive. I felt that there was a mindset that asbestos in schools was just like asbestos in any other buildings. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North

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described very well why that is not so. Usually in office buildings there are no young people boisterously charging around, which can obviously happen in schools. Schools are a totally different environment, and within that environment are those very vulnerable children.

At an early stage, we achieved agreement that there would be some online training. A significant breakthrough occurred when we pressed for the Department for Education to liaise with the Department of Health on the matter. The committee on carcinogenicity then commenced a study. That was quite a breakthrough—rather a sad one, which confirmed what everybody who had been campaigning knew: that children are more vulnerable than adults and therefore asbestos in schools must be addressed. At that point, the policy review was commissioned, for which I thank the Government.

I welcome the key proposals in the policy review. Greater transparency from schools and local authorities is vital. Measures to assist schools in the effective management of asbestos is extremely important, as is compulsory asbestos training for teachers and support staff. I welcome the introduction of monitoring to see how well people are doing in managing asbestos. Something that we discussed at almost every meeting was testing to provide evidence about the fibres released into the atmosphere. I welcome the study in 50 schools. Even though 50 schools sounds like a small sample, the study will cost a very large sum—hundreds of thousands of pounds, I believe. That evidence collecting will be all-important.

I remain very concerned about schools that remain outside local authority control. If the Minister has time, I would like him to say a little more about how academies are to be encouraged to participate. Parents should be concerned. Free schools can be set up in almost any building. That worries me. I would like to be reassured tonight that academies and free schools will have the same monitoring as other schools, for the sake of our children.

Ian Lavery: It is not just monitoring that free schools and academies might have to take on board, but insurance as well. Whose responsibility is it to insure against future mesothelioma or cancer-related illness linked to schools?

Annette Brooke: That matter has concerned the group greatly. Of course, we have discussed it with the union representation and there is a recommendation that academies should be encouraged to participate in a risk-protection scheme. It would be helpful to know a little more about that. The problem affects all such buildings, regardless of their governance. The worry is that with such a wide range of governance, the same protection may not be given to children throughout the system. That is my concern.

A good start has been made and I welcome the fact that after so many years we have a policy. I agree that long-term strategies are needed. We need a complete audit and I regret that the two-year property survey of the condition of school buildings excluded asbestos. I hope that will never happen again, because it did not make sense.

We have made a good start to take us into the next Parliament. I feel fairly confident that children will be better protected than they have been, and that is

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the crunch point. Given the size of the task, we need cross-party support as we look to a more far-ranging policy in future. I hope that, with Members speaking in all parts of the House, we are laying down a marker that this has to be a cross-party approach, but meanwhile the Government have given great leadership.

6.25 pm

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this Adjournment debate. He has been an absolutely fantastic, tireless campaigner on this issue. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on the work that she has been doing through her chairmanship of the asbestos in schools group, which has been incredibly important. I join them both in paying tribute to Michael Lees, a gentleman whom I have met and engaged with on many occasions regarding mesothelioma in particular. His campaigns have opened my eyes to the extent to which we should be concerned about asbestos in schools.

I welcome the recent report and agree with the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole that it demonstrates real leadership. It would have been helpful to have had the report a little while ago, as it is now too close to Dissolution for us properly to think through what we can do in taking it forward, but it is nevertheless welcome.

This issue is incredibly important to me because mesothelioma is a disease—a condition—that affects my constituency owing to its dockyard history. It is what is known as a mesothelioma hotspot. The disease is not just centred on traditional workers who have lagged ships or been involved in heavy industries in the past. I have spoken about mesothelioma on many occasions in the House. It is important to remember that it can be contracted by exposure to a single fibre of asbestos. Teachers and others who work in educational establishments are beginning to contract mesothelioma later on in life, because just putting a single pin in a wall can disrupt the asbestos there and lead to their exposure to it, and then, significantly, to their contracting this fatal cancer.

We need to remember that, sadly, most people die of this cancer very quickly and very painfully. It is wonderful that there are meso victims out there who are real champions and stalwarts who have fought this disease for many years, but most people die very quickly, and often without any kind of financial security whatsoever. This Government have gone a very long way towards making sure that people are compensated properly for mesothelioma as a consequence of exposure to asbestos. However, that compensation might not necessarily extend to asbestos in schools. I will return to that shortly.

I should like to say very firmly and categorically that the increased funding going into the schools capital programme is welcome. Some of my local schools have benefited from that increased funding; some have not. One particular school springs to mind whose sports hall is completely out of bounds because it is riddled with asbestos. It has applied for previous rounds of capital funding to try to deal with this but has not been successful. I shall continue to support it in future rounds to try to ensure that it can get its sports hall back into use.

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One of the issues that I am particularly concerned about—the right hon. Lady raised it briefly—is the number of schools that are not under local education authority control. I am a huge supporter of our academy and free schools programmes, but they do create a bit of uncertainty when talking specifically about asbestos.

I worked in the insurance industry before I first entered the House. I campaigned very much on mesothelioma within the industry and I forewarned it that I would continue to do so as a Member of Parliament, so it is no surprise that I have maintained that position on various pieces of legislation that have been introduced. I am worried about future claims. Some schools will of course fall within public liability insurance categories, but as the right hon. Lady has just pointed out, thousands of schools have not yet signed up to the risk protection arrangement scheme. Their future liabilities may not therefore be assigned to an insurance policy, and a significant number of teachers or children exposed to asbestos might not necessarily get the compensation that they deserve. We have to remember that mesothelioma can be contracted only by exposure to asbestos—there is no other way of getting it—so people deserve compensation.

I would say very firmly that the Minister cannot do this by himself; there needs to be joined-up thinking and working with the Department for Work and Pensions on compensation issues. As I have said, under the Mesothelioma Act 2014, it has secured compensation for those who were unable to find their insurers, but schools do not fit within that programme at the moment, so there may well be room for improving it in future and for the Department of Health—particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who has responsibility for life sciences—funding research on mesothelioma. Meso is a very nasty and painful cancer, so ensuring that we come up with a cure or treatment would benefit many thousands of people each year.

It might not sound like a lot for the teaching profession, but more people die of mesothelioma every year than from road deaths in the United Kingdom. Without doubt, the coming years will see an increase in the number of people who have worked in educational establishments contracting mesothelioma because of the condition’s latency. That is why I congratulate the Minister on the strategy and on the improvements in capital funding, but we need to continue to fight and to do as much as possible. Everybody realises that we do not have the money completely to rebuild all the schools that contain asbestos in this country, but we must try the best we can to mitigate the effects of that asbestos. I congratulate the Minister on what he has done, but will he please do the extra little bit more, particularly in working with other Departments and agencies and in listening to the groups chaired by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole?

6.32 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan)for securing this debate and for giving us an opportunity to discuss an extremely important and, with the publication at the end of last week of the Department’s review of policy on asbestos, timely issue.

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I thank him for his significant contribution as a member of the Department for Education’s asbestos in schools steering group, and for his chairmanship of the all-party group on occupational safety and health.

The asbestos in schools steering group has done invaluable work in developing the review of asbestos management in schools. I thank all its members for their insights and dedication, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has been a doughty campaigner on the issue for many years and who has chaired the steering group. I am particularly delighted that we have been able to bring this matter to a conclusion and to publish the review before the end of her time in Parliament, given her retirement in a couple of weeks’ time. I know that she would not have forgiven me if I had failed to get the review out in time. I am pleased for her that she has had the satisfaction of seeing all her work produce a positive outcome.

As my right hon. Friend mentioned, with the general election coming up, it is important that there is cross-party support for this campaign. It is therefore appropriate that as well as hearing speeches from a Labour Member and my right hon. Friend on the Liberal Democrat Benches, we have heard from another long-standing campaigner on the issue of asbestos in my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). I welcome her comments and pay tribute to the work that she has done to champion this issue nationally and in her constituency. There are a number of issues, even in the review that we have published, that need to be taken forward actively in the next Parliament. It is therefore important that the cross-party consensus remains and that there are Members of the House who will continue to push the matter forward with Ministers in the new Government.

I join other hon. Members in recognising the campaigning of people outside the House, including Michael Lees, who has been mentioned by everyone who has spoken. He has been a great champion outside this place for ensuring that the issue of asbestos is taken seriously.

For my Department, nothing is more important than the health and safety of children and staff while they are in our schools. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that those who are responsible for school buildings are equipped with the resources, information, guidance and support that they need to do their jobs effectively. I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the measures that we are taking to ensure the safety of our schools, as part of our extensive efforts to improve the condition of the school estate.

As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned, last week we published a review of the Department for Education’s policy on the management of asbestos in schools As well as considering the available evidence, we invited stakeholders to tell us their views about the existing arrangements for managing asbestos in schools and how they thought we could help schools to manage asbestos effectively.

Based on the age of the school estate, we estimate that a majority of schools in England contain some asbestos. That is because asbestos was widely used in

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the construction of buildings in Britain, particularly between 1945 and 1975. The same is true of many non-school and non-education buildings that were constructed in that period, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware.

If asbestos is damaged or disturbed and fibres are released, they can cause serious diseases including mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer. The hon. Gentleman explained in vivid and striking terms the effect that that dreadful illness can have on people. I am sure that the House will agree that any single case of such a disease, from any cause, is a tragedy, and that we must all do what we can to minimise the risks.

The expert scientific view, which the Department obviously has to follow, is that asbestos can be managed effectively so that it does not pose a risk. Indeed, the national regulator of asbestos management, the Health and Safety Executive, upon whose expert opinion the Government base their policy and practice, advises that provided that asbestos-containing materials remain undamaged, it is often safest to manage them in situ. The experts say that effective management is often safer than removing asbestos-containing materials, because removal can greatly increase the risk that asbestos fibres will be released into the air and there is a risk that small quantities of damaged asbestos will remain after removal.

The Government are determined to do whatever we can to ensure that all those who are responsible for the safe management of schools, whether they are local authorities, academy trusts or free school trusts—I entirely agree with the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole made about such schools—governing bodies or school staff themselves, have the information, understanding, guidance and resources that they need to keep our schools, and all those who learn and work in them, safe from any risk of harm.

That is why we updated the regulations in 2012 to ensure the safe management of asbestos. It is why we have invested £5.6 billion over the Parliament in ensuring that schools and those responsible for their buildings have the funding that they need to improve their condition, ensure the safe management of asbestos and fund its removal where that is necessary. It is one of the reasons why we have introduced multi-year allocations for maintenance: we recently announced £4.2 billion of funding over the next three years, we are reforming our approach to target more effectively areas with the most need, and we are introducing multi-year funding to give those who are responsible the certainty that they need to plan ahead and manage their buildings effectively. It is why we have established the condition improvement fund, to enable academies in small trusts and sixth-form colleges to bid for funding to help with specific maintenance projects, including asbestos management or removal. Before the end of this Parliament we expect to announce another round of allocations to academies and sixth-form colleges, which in many cases will include asbestos as part of the works to be completed.

Our Priority School Building programme is removing asbestos wherever appropriate, as part of rebuilding some of the worst school buildings in the country, and the Government have long provided information and guidance on the safe management of asbestos. We undertook to review whether we could do more to

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tackle barriers to the safe and effective management of asbestos in all our schools, and I am grateful to all those who contributed to the review.

Ian Lavery: In the past, the issue of mesothelioma has been bogged down with missing companies and insurance companies, and we cannot have the same problem for potential claims for mesothelioma in schools in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. Will the Minister clarify the position on insurance for free schools, academies, and those education centres outside local authority control?

Mr Laws: As the hon. Gentleman will know, that issue was not directly part of the review we published last week, so if he will allow me I will write to him before the Dissolution of Parliament to set out our thinking on those points. If he wants to make further representation on that issue directly to the Department—notwithstanding that we have only a short period before end of this Parliament—I would be pleased to receive it.

I pay tribute to the all-party occupational safety and health group, the committee on carcinogenicity, and members of our Department’s asbestos in schools steering group. I am grateful to all those who submitted evidence to the review, and to the many Members of the House who have taken a keen interest in this issue. I pay tribute to our excellent officials in the Department for Education. They have liaised directly with hon. Members on this matter, advised Ministers, and done all the really hard work on the review and the detail of the proposals.

The review that we published last week sets out actions in the following four areas that the Government are taking forward to build on our current approach. First, a key task is to ensure that all those who have a role to play are aware of their responsibilities and understand what they need to do to manage asbestos safely. We will soon publish new, more user-friendly guidance on asbestos management in schools, and we will work with our partners to ensure that it is widely disseminated. There can be no excuse for any person with responsibility for a school building not to know how to manage asbestos safely.

Secondly—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said earlier, this is one of the most important conclusions in the review—as well as providing more guidance and support to those with responsibility for asbestos management, we must also ensure that they are held accountable and are doing their job effectively. Evidence from Health and Safety Executive inspection initiatives has demonstrated that although the majority of duty holders for schools manage their asbestos in compliance with the law, there is room for improvement. For example, an inspection initiative in schools outside local authority control during 2013-14 found that 13% of schools were not compliant with regulations and had to be served with improvement notices. Previous inspection initiatives produced similar results for other schools. In 2010-11, 17% of the schools inspected were served with improvement notices, and in 2009-10, 10% of local authorities inspected were served with improvement notices. None of the duty holders in that area should therefore have any level of complacency.