Featured Post

Important information for those contacting the MP about passport applications

UK Songwriters and Composers
18th May 2022

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my membership of the Musicians’ Union and the Ivors Academy. I also take this opportunity to announce to the House that I was elected as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on music earlier today. I look forward very much to using that platform to campaign further for our great musicians and music industry.

I am delighted to have this opportunity, ahead of the 67th annual Ivor Novello awards tomorrow, to pay tribute to our world-renowned songwriters and composers. Hon. Members may have seen early-day motion 35, which I tabled this week to celebrate Ivors Week and the work of the Ivors Academy:

“That this House
notes that 16 to 20 May 2022 is Ivors Week, and joins the Ivors Academy in celebrating this country’s world-leading songwriters and composers, culminating in the Ivor Novello Awards which honour the best in British and Irish songwriting and composing;
further notes that the success of the UK music industry is founded upon the talent and creativity of world-leading composers and lyricists;
and calls on the UK music industry and the Government to ensure that a business and public policy framework exists to nurture future songwriting talent and to properly reward those whose creativity helps generate the £5.2 billion annual economic contribution that music makes to UK plc as well as furnishing people with the soundtracks of their lives.”

May I take this opportunity to thank all our songwriters and composers? I also thank the Ivors Academy’s chief executive Graham Davies, its chair Tom Gray, its former chair Crispin Hunt and all its members for their work championing our great songwriters and composers. I pay tribute to the chair of the Ivors Academy Trust, Cliff Fluet, whose work helps to support, educate and nurture the songwriters, composers and creators who need it most. The Ivors Academy is using this Ivors Week of celebration to launch TheWRD, a new further education diploma in creative entrepreneurship, to offer career-defining arts education, widen opportunity for young people and open access to a career in music and the creative industries.

I also want to highlight Credits Due, the Ivors Academy’s excellent joint initiative with the Music Rights Awareness Foundation, and give a mention to songwriter Fiona Bevan, who is helping to promote it. Its purpose is to increase knowledge of music rights through education and other forms of support. It can go some way towards recovering some of the estimated £500 million of annual missing income that is not paid to songwriters from global streaming revenues because of inaccurate or incomplete metadata attached to recordings.

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, in these debates I always emphasise creativity’s value in and of itself, not just its economic value. We all understand that music is inherently good for us. Whether we sing tunelessly in the shower, belt out a chant at the football or tap our foot to the radio, music is our common human therapy.

Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for all he does for the music business. I congratulate him on being elected chair of the APPG— there is no better person than him for it. Does he agree that each region of this wondrous United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has so much to offer in cultural expression? Does he know that there are members of the world-class Ulster Orchestra who began their long learning journey in Orange halls across the Province of Northern Ireland? Together, all these cultural expressions make a wonderful musical symphony that makes us all very proud to be British.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
I know that the hon. Gentleman is quite a keen musician himself. I agree that music is incredibly important in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—all the countries of our United Kingdom. I also completely agree that music can bring people together in harmony. We should remember that power at all times.

Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire
I declare an interest similar to the hon. Gentleman’s. Is he aware that the views that he is expressing are not unique to the Opposition, because many Government Members share his appreciation for composers and his passion for music?

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
Yes, I am, not least because I have written a couple of songs with the right hon. Gentleman that we have recorded down the years with our band MP4—legends in our own imagination. As we say in these groups, he is not only a drummer, but a musician: he has written songs himself, some of which have cult status on the internet.

UK Music’s recent “Power of Music” report sets out in clear terms the enormous and extensive benefits that music provides for health and wellbeing, with notable effectiveness in regulating and improving the mental health of so many people during the pandemic and in offering particular emotional respite for those with dementia. What is beneficial is not just playing and singing, but creating music. Organisations such as the Songwriting Charity empower young people and communities through the art and craft of songwriting to boost their confidence, self-esteem and mental health.

Some Members may not be aware—although you may be, Mr Deputy Speaker, given your origins—that Ivor Novello, the Welsh songwriter, playwright, composer and actor, was born on Cowbridge Road East in my constituency in 1893. Christened David Ivor Davies, he took the name Novello from his mother, Clara Novello Davies. I was particularly pleased when, three years ago, the former British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors—BASCA—rebranded itself as the Ivors Academy in his memory, and in acknowledgment of the world-famous Ivor Novello Awards, which it runs.

In economic terms, songwriters and composers contribute substantially to the value of our music, performing and visual arts ecosystem, which generates an enormous £10 billion domestically, with music exports constituting £2.9 billion in value to the UK economy. UK Music points out that one in 10 songs streamed globally were produced here in the UK. That is a lot of globally popular UK songs and music.

This past week—and I know that you were watching, Mr Deputy Speaker— exemplified the joy and excitement that songs can create, with the immense talents of a diverse range of musicians and composers from across Europe and beyond brought under the Eurovision roof in Turin. Congratulations, of course, to Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra, the deserved winners on the night, but also to the UK’s Sam Ryder, who came second. Writing great songs is a Great British tradition, from Ivor Novello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, through Lennon and McCartney’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and Joan Armatrading’s “Love and Affection”, to Adele and Dan Wilson’s “Someone Like You”; but we must not take it for granted that that will go on forever.

I am happy to inform those who are not aware of it that the UK’s Eurovision song, “Space Man”, was co-written by the incredibly talented former student of Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and Radio Wales presenter, Amy Wadge. Many had assumed that Britain’s recent lack of success in Eurovision was political, but it turns out that what is needed—as well as a talented artist, good presentation and good production—is, above all, a great song. I am old enough to recall a time when Eurovision was known as the Eurovision Song Contest, and the writers were featured on camera to take a bow for their part in the creation of the music. There is no singer without the song and no song without songwriters, so perhaps that recognition should be resurrected. When I was growing up with vinyl records, which are now popular again, I used to study the labels intently to see who had written the songs. I want people to do that again, so that the art of songwriting is once again given its proper due rather than being hidden away somewhere deep in the metadata.

Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton
The hon. Gentleman is a great champion for the music industry, and he has done much to secure a better deal for musicians, particularly from music streaming. He has also worked with the former chair of the Ivors Academy, Crispin Hunt. It is true that we need great songwriters, but we must ensure that they receive a fair share from the music that they have written and performed. I should like to know what more we can do, on both sides of the House, to ensure that musicians receive that better payment.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. She has been a tremendous advocate on behalf of songwriters and composers, and although we sit on opposite sides of the House and may differ on many subjects, this is a subject on which she has been a passionate advocate for creators to get their just rewards. Later in my speech I will refer to some of the issues that she has mentioned, all of which featured in the private Member’s Bill of which she was a sponsor and which I introduced in the last Session. Ongoing work on parts of the Bill will, I hope, bear fruit in the near future.

We need to improve the wealth of research and development opportunities available to British creatives. Talent pipelines have been left to fracture and decay over the last decade, with cuts in education and local authorities’ services under consecutive Conservative Governments. It is vital that meaningful opportunities exist for the songwriters and composers of the future from all backgrounds, regardless of their genre and of their means and connections. This must be a key test for the DCMS, and particularly for the Secretary of State in the context of her professed desire to level up in her role.

I draw the House’s attention to this week’s very welcome announcement from the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff of the trebling of funding for music education and the launch of Wales’s new national music service, which will ensure that all pupils between three and 16 years of age can access and borrow musical instruments through a national instrument library. It will also expand creative opportunities to pupils of all backgrounds through the offer of half a term’s tuition for free.

The challenge for UK Government Ministers is clear. In a survey conducted on behalf of the Ivors Academy’s TheWRD—the further education diploma that I mentioned earlier—it was found that:

“70% felt that starting a career in music would be difficult, citing barriers such as not having contacts, being too much of a financial risk, lack of opportunities, and the industry not being open to people from their background. When asked about the barriers young people faced in accessing further education, almost 50% of those surveyed felt they were unable to afford it, and 1 in 4 said they do not have access to courses near where they live.”

I hope that the Government will follow the Welsh Government’s initiative when they review their national music plan, and also that they will support the Ivors Academy’s TheWRD initiative that was announced this week.

At this point, I remind the House of the vital role that our public institutions play in nurturing songwriting talent. The BBC sometimes comes under criticism in this House, but I remind hon. Members of the vital role that it plays in underpinning, promoting and paying our musicians, songwriters and composers. BBC Introducing is an excellent example of research and development from our national public service broadcaster. It has supported almost 300,000 artists on its platform and gone on to achieve 23 UK No. 1 hit singles and 146 Brit award nominations. Every day, music is playing somewhere on the BBC. When music is playing, musicians should be getting paid. On the BBC, they are. It is generating royalties for musicians, songwriters and composers. There is, I am afraid, an increasing trend in the new digital media to try to avoid paying composers, and insisting on taking from them what Parliament intended they should have—that is, royalties when their music is used. The BBC has been a helpful bulwark against that trend, and changes in the way in which programmes are now commissioned at arm’s length must not be used to deny composers their full remuneration.

There has rightly been a lot of coverage recently of the cost of living crisis, and sadly, for too many talented and successful musicians, songwriters and composers, getting by on their meagre royalties has been a struggle for years. When we held our Select Committee inquiry, one of our witnesses was a Mercury prize-nominated artist who was struggling to pay their rent because of problems resulting from the pandemic and the lack of reward from streaming.

The Minister will recall that a major provision in my private Member’s Bill, which was sponsored by Members in the House and introduced in the last Session, placed a transparency obligation on those who have had rights transferred or licensed to them, requiring them to supply timely and comprehensive information to the songwriter, composer or artist about where and how their music is being played, so that they can be sure that they are being paid what they are due. The Select Committee recommended this after hearing evidence during its inquiry into the economics of music streaming, which found that it is often difficult for artists and songwriters to gain any clarity or to audit their works. We heard about money that should have been paid disappearing into what are known in the industry as black boxes. It is clear that songwriters suffer particularly because of poor data standards.

On the subject of the value of streaming to songwriters, the Committee expressed concern about how the big three record labels also own large parts of the music publishing business, and about how that might influence the way in which revenue from streaming is distributed. If the big three make more profit from their rights in the recording than they do from their rights in the publishing, there is a disincentive for them to pay songwriters a competitive share of the streaming revenue. The publishing right ought to be competing for more value against the recording, but it appears to be stifled by that problem of joint ownership. I praised the Government at the time for noting the concerns, expressed in the Committee's report, about the impact of monopoly power and cross-ownership in the music industry and for referring the matter to the Competition and Markets Authority for a study of potential market failure. I keenly await its conclusions.

The issue of streaming remuneration has not gone away. There is a real danger, particularly in the current economic context, that we will make no progress on recovering the artists lost to the industry during the pandemic if more is not done to support our songwriters and composers. Last November’s survey by the Help Musicians charity found that 80% of professional musicians had been unable to return to full-time work since the pandemic struck.

The live industry, as one of the sectors forced to shut for the longest period during multiple lockdowns, has also faced an uphill battle in its recovery from the pandemic. The VAT reduction on ticket sales introduced in July 2020 was a vital lifeline for struggling venues and events across the country, and it recognised the sector’s high up-front costs and significant preparatory time. Abandoning the reduction too soon prevented a further £765 million of investment over a three-year period and held back the sector’s post-pandemic recovery. These are the venues and events upon which the creative ecosystem relies. Songwriters get paid by PRS for Music when their compositions are played live, so I ask the Minister to use this Ivors Week to remember that the vibrancy and success of the UK’s music industry are built on the creative activities of songwriters and composers, and that it is not achieved in a vacuum. The pandemic compounded the everyday struggles of our talented artists and exposed the cracks in the industry’s infrastructure.

In classrooms, music venues, festivals and, of course, the money that musicians should be paid, the need for reform and investment is evident. A career in music can be viable, but there is work to be done to ensure that those who have the talent, from whatever background, have a chance at success.

Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)
I was privileged to go to the Royal Academy of Music a couple of times recently. I saw some of the composers and songwriters there, so I know the next generation of songwriters and composers will do us proud.

Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Minister of State

I thank Kevin Brennan for securing this debate and for superbly highlighting the enduring talent and ingenuity of Britain’s songwriters and composers, the value of their creativity in and of itself, and the cultural and economic capital they generate for our nation. I also congratulate him on his election to be the new chair of the all-party parliamentary group on music.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the incredible night on Saturday, when we had the most perfect result we might have hoped for at Eurovision. I congratulate Sam Ryder on his performance and on restoring our reputation for Eurovision mightiness.

If the hon. Gentleman has noticed a modest uptick in his Spotify stats this week, it is because I researched this debate to the mournful strums of “The Wrecker of Wick” and “The Clown & The Cigarette Girl,” two of his great contributions to the British catalogue of compositions. Should his bandmate, my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight, one day retire, I stand ready to dust off my drumsticks to fill the gap in his magnificent band, MP3/MP4.

From the Beatles to Kate Bush, and from Ed Sheeran to Sam Ryder, the work of UK songwriters and composers is a prized national asset that resonates with audiences all over the world, giving us tremendous soft power globally. I suspect we will shortly see that talent showcased at the platinum jubilee concert. Their skills are vital not only to the music industry but to the creative industries as a whole, including advertising, film and television. The hon. Gentleman cited the role of the BBC, and I recently met its head of pop music to discuss how the BBC nurtures creative talent.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the importance of music, musicians and composers to wellbeing during the pandemic, when many people found solace in music. At this juncture, I would like to thank an important charity in my constituency, Singing for the Brain, which does fantastic musical work with dementia sufferers.

As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, Monday marked the start of Ivors Week, a celebration of UK songwriters and composers hosted by the Ivors Academy. I am very excited to attend the Ivor Novello awards tomorrow alongside the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I was pleased to hear about the Ivors Academy’s new diploma. That ceremony will place a spotlight on the economic value of music to the UK economy. As UK Music has calculated, the sector employs more people than the steel and fishery industries combined. However, it does face challenges, partly as a result of the pandemic and because of how technology is changing the economic model in the sector.

The hon. Gentleman has been a powerful voice in this House about the ways in which the rise of digital technology is bringing about dramatic changes to the UK music landscape. The advent of streaming has undoubtedly revolutionised the way in which we consume and engage with music, but it has also had a profound impact on the industry. That shift has significantly altered how creators earn an income, as royalties from streaming largely replace music sales as the dominant source of that income. That shift has called into question the business models operated by platforms. I am aware that campaigns such as #brokenrecord, which is led by the Ivors Academy and the Musicians’ Union, highlight concerns about the distribution of streaming royalties. The Government want the UK music industry, including songwriters and composers, to be able to flourish in the digital age. In response to concerns raised by his Committee, the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in its inquiry on streaming, we are undertaking a wide-ranging programme of work to delve into the evidence and find solutions to the issues highlighted by the inquiry.

I have recently met key stakeholders, such as the British Phonographic Industry, UK Music and Warner Music Group, to discuss the music streaming debate and how creators can be further supported. The Secretary of State has also engaged closely on these issues. The major record labels play an important role in helping artists, including emerging talent, so that they can connect with audiences and thrive in the streaming era. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, they have now each announced that they will disregard unrecouped advances from pre-2000 contracts and pay more to more artists for streaming, which was one of the recommendations from the Select Committee’s inquiry. I know that that was greeted positively by artist representatives.

We think that those kinds of industry initiatives are a step in the right direction to make sure that the streaming market is fairer, but we are looking at what else we can do and whether further action will be necessary. Similarly, although we agree with many of the issues raised by the Committee in its inquiry, we want to ensure that any action is based on the best available evidence. The Minister for science, research and innovation, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend George Freeman, and I have written to the Select Committee this week with an update on the work under way. In advance of the hon. Gentleman receiving that letter, let me update him by saying that the Intellectual Property Office is now working alongside industry experts to develop solutions to issues around contract transparency and music metadata, one of the issues he highlighted today. That will have an impact on the way in which songwriters and composers are remunerated for their work on streaming. We have also commissioned independent research on the impact of potential legislative interventions aimed at improving creator remuneration.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is progressing work on the effects of algorithms on music consumption and the potential impacts on music creators. It is also exploring how streaming services can better communicate with creators and mitigate against potential harms for those groups. The hon. Gentleman cited the Competition and Markets Authority. It is undertaking a market study into music streaming, which will add value to and complement the Government’s programme of work, and could help inform any future intervention. That CMA market study was launched in January 2022, as he will know. An update is due in July, with the study scheduled to conclude in January 2023. We are encouraged by the progress of the programme of work so far, with industry stakeholders engaging constructively and taking the issues seriously.

Another key income stream for our composers and musicians comes from live music. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, the live music scene is undergoing a period of recovery, in the wake of a very difficult experience during the pandemic, and we are working hard to support it. I am glad to reflect on where we stand today compared with the grim situation that faced us over the Christmas period with omicron, when the team and I were talking through the needs of the live music sector in emergency support meetings. I am glad that some of the worst fears highlighted at that time have not come to pass and that we have been able to open up the economy, which has been crucial in getting that income flowing into venues again. But we also want to build on existing schemes to continue to support the live music sector. Since the national lottery project grant’s “Supporting Grassroots Live Music” scheme launched in 2019, the Arts Council has made 253 awards, and invested £4.7million in venues and promoters through that fund. That has supported everything from upgrading equipment and offering free rehearsal spaces and mentoring, to refurbishing bathrooms and staging family-friendly gigs. That is separate to a lot of the support that we put in during the pandemic and via the cultural recovery fund. I am pleased to say that the Arts Council has confirmed that the fund has been extended until 31 March 2023. That will, thanks to national lottery players, provide a £1.5 million ringfenced fund that will support the grassroots live music sector.

Not only are we seeing domestic recovery from the pandemic, but we are a major presence on the international music scene. We are the largest exporter of music in the world after the USA, with around one in 10 of all tracks streamed globally being by a British artist. That is incredible. The sector’s high export capacity and its ability to access international audiences will continue to elevate the UK on the global stage, forge new international relationships and enable us to promote British values around the world.

Alongside the work I have outlined, we continue to provide export support for the UK’s creative industries through a range of export-support programmes, including the international showcase fund and the successful music export growth scheme, which provides grants to music companies to help them with marketing campaigns when they look to introduce successful UK music projects overseas.

We are looking at what more we can do as part of the wider creative sector vision—to be published in the summer —on support for UK creative talent. As part of that sector vision, we are working with the industry to build a more resilient workforce, and we have co-funded research from the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre to look into the job quality and working practices of the creative industries. That will help us to better understand some of the really tricky issues that affect the workforce in the creative sector, including in respect of freelancers and creators, and particularly when it comes to job security, remuneration, professional development and wellbeing. As I say, the sector vision is due to be published this summer. We hope to use the document as the basis of a longer-term strategy that takes us up to 2030.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about investing in the future of music makers to make sure that our music success story continues. We want to make sure that all young people engage with music, and we plan to do so through the implementation of a national plan for music education. The NPME strategy sets out our vision for all children and young people to learn to sing, play an instrument and create music together, and to have the opportunity to progress their musical interests and talents, including professionally. We are confident that such initiatives will help to provide the next generation of aspiring creators with the tools and knowledge they need to achieve their full potential. I hope to make further announcements on the subject when we have finished that piece of work.

I think everyone present would agree that the work of songwriters and composers is not only crucial to the success of our music industry but hugely beneficial to the UK’s culture and economy. That is why we will continue to work alongside the industry to seek solutions and make a tangible difference. We will also continue to celebrate and commend the work of UK songwriters and composers. I wish the Ivors Academy and every participant in the awards tomorrow the very best of luck.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

Kevin Brennan MP is currently receiving a lot of correspondence from constituents who are needing help with their passport application process.

To speed up this process and help Kevin's staff help you, please make sure your correspondence has the following details:

  • Full name
  • DOB
  • PEX number
  • Permission from the passport applicant or guardian
Contact email address: brennank@parliament.uk

Homes for Ukraine: Visa Application Centres
28th April 2022

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
On Monday, I asked the Home Secretary about Lord Harrington’s remarks that it was “in train” that there would be a Ukrainian language drop-down arrow available on the application form. When I asked the Home Secretary whether it was the Government’s policy not to have the form translated into Ukrainian, she said,

“I am very happy to pick the matter up directly with the hon. Gentleman.”—[Official Report, 25 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 457.]

Can I make it clear that I do not want Ministers to pick up directly with me? I want them to answer straightforward factual questions here on the Floor of the House on the record, as required by the ministerial code. Can the Minister tell me whether it is the Government’s policy not to provide Ukrainian translation of the form? 

Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
We have already done step-by-step guidance for the form in both Ukrainian and Russian, which makes it much simpler to follow. One of the issues with translating the form into other languages is that it means we would need to have decision makers who can speak the particular language. We are clear that sponsors and others can assist with filling in the form to make for a better experience for those needing to apply. As already shown, we have now granted nearly 90,000 visas, which speaks for itself and the performance that is being achieved.

British Nationals Detained Overseas
20th April 2022

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered British nationals detained overseas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I welcome the Minister to her new position. I hope she will bring some real energy and intent to the job.

The broad subject of today’s debate—British nationals detained overseas—has received substantial focus over recent weeks, both in this place and in the media. I thought that it was important to seek an opportunity to highlight the stories of constituents detained overseas, and to keep their names at the forefront of Ministers’ and the media’s minds.

Like all colleagues across the House, I was delighted to see Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori reunited with their families. Their hard-fought return to the UK is testament to the unwavering love and untiring efforts of their families, and I completely agree with my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq that such cases deserve proper scrutiny, so that lessons for the future can be learned from the handling of cases of arbitrary detention by authoritarian regimes across the world. On that basis, I am pleased that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has launched an inquiry into hostage taking. I hope that during its hearings, it will look at cases other than those we have heard about.

Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)
The hon. Gentleman is right to touch on the dreadful story of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which we all watched unfold and which showed the desperate straits that many families go through privately. What lessons have been learned by our consulates and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about the importance of Government pressure and intervention at an earlier stage? If that had been done earlier, perhaps the lady would have got home earlier.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
As ever, the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is both compassionate and pertinent, and I will go on to say something about the way the Government handle these cases. The momentum that has been gained must be maintained and used by Ministers to redouble their efforts to reunite other British nationals in similar positions with their families.

Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East
Will my hon. Friend give way?

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
I will give way a couple of times to colleagues who might want briefly to mention individual cases.

Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He knows that I represent Anoosheh Ashoori, who was released with Nazanin. Does he agree that it is really important to keep the profiles of people who are detained in other countries right at the forefront of the Government’s attention? I truly believe that all the campaigning for Nazanin’s and Anoosheh’s release caused the Government eventually to respond and to do the right thing in the end.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
I do not underestimate the complexities and how difficult it is tactically for the Government to approach these sorts of cases, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where the families want their loved ones to be remembered and highlighted, that is exactly what should happen.

Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that, with the Prime Minister leaving to go to the Republic of India, it would be a good time for the Minister, in summing up the debate, to confirm that Jagtar Singh Johal is now arbitrarily detained by Indian authorities?

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I am sure the Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said and will want to respond to that remark. It is important that, when the Prime Minister visits other countries and meets their leaders, he highlights these sorts of cases as a priority.

Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North
May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the case of Mehran Raoof, a trade union activist who is in jail in Iran? He was not released when others were released. The Foreign Secretary rather erroneously said that he did not want his name to be made public. It has been made absolutely clear through Amnesty International that his family do want his name to be made public, they do want a public campaign, and they do want him to be released in the same way that the very welcome release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe took place.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

My right hon. Friend quite rightly highlights that case and makes that name public. I am sure that will have achieved what he wanted. There are other cases, of course: Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, whom we have heard mentioned, are two other British-Iranians whose arbitrary imprisonment continues despite the recent negotiations. There is also British citizen Jimmy Lai, who is being held in solitary confinement in Hong Kong under the dystopian national security law.

Today, however, I want primarily to tell the story of my 30-year-old constituent Luke Symons, who has been held without charge or trial by the Houthis in various prisons in Sanaa, Yemen, since 2017. Like many people in Cardiff, Luke has a Yemeni family background, owing to the seafarers who settled around the city’s thriving docklands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1914, the Yemeni population of Cardiff represented one of the two largest Muslim communities in Britain, and it continues to constitute a proud and vibrant part of the diverse population of Wales’s capital city.

In exploring his religious and cultural roots, Luke travelled to Yemen, where he met his future wife, Tagreed, a Yemeni national, in 2014. In 2016, they had a son together. Shortly after Luke’s arrival in the country, the civil war started, leading rapidly to the overthrow of the Yemeni Government, and he found himself caught in the middle of a violent conflict that came to involve military intervention by regional powers, including Saudi Arabia. Luke and his wife tried to flee to safety; they tried to come back to the UK via neighbouring countries. They managed to get to Djibouti, but they did not get the support they needed from the UK authorities to be able to travel to Britain; sadly and unfortunately, they had to return to Yemen. Following that, in April 2017, Luke was detained at a Houthi checkpoint in Yemen upon the discovery that he held a British passport.

In the ensuing five years, despite numerous promises from Houthi and Yemeni officials, talks between regional authorities and UK Foreign Secretaries, and a visit to the prison by the UK special envoy to Yemen, Luke has remained incarcerated. As the Minister will know, in October 2020, it appeared as though Luke might be included in a substantial UN-supervised exchange, which consisted of more than 1,000 prisoners. The Foreign Office says that, following extensive negotiations and logistical planning for Luke’s release, with arrangements also being made to ensure safe passage for his wife and child, Luke’s captors inexplicably broke the agreement and severed lines of communication with the UK Government. That was obviously devastating for Luke’s family, who watched helplessly as other foreign nationals, including some from the United States, were returned home by their Governments from captivity in Yemen.

Since then, there has been very little outward progress on Luke’s case. Occasionally, his family have been allowed to communicate with him via telephone. They have become increasingly concerned and distressed by his poor physical health, which has been exacerbated by the notoriously squalid conditions of his captivity and the ongoing covid pandemic. There is also concern about the lack of access to medical attention for Luke. I understand that his wife, Tagreed, was recently informed by Houthi officials that the visits that she had been able to make have been suspended.

Perhaps most notably of late, Luke’s grandfather, Bob Cummings, who is also my constituent and, along with other family members, has campaigned consistently and courageously for Luke over the years, has told me of Luke’s worsening mental health and diminishing spirit. Luke is isolated; he is alone in his cell and is not allowed outside. He is deprived of contact with any other prisoners, and sometimes he is not even aware of the day of the week. The telephone conversations he has had with his family in the UK, which have been few and far between, have been supervised by his captors and cut off after very short periods. I take this opportunity to appeal directly to his captors—after all, they are ultimately responsible for his incarceration—to release this innocent young man, who has no part in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, so that he can be reunited with his family and return to the UK.

Other countries have lacked diplomatic presence in Yemen, and that is often cited by the Foreign Office as a significant factor limiting the UK Government’s influence and options for intervention in this case. I appreciate that it is very difficult to deal with the Houthis and not a traditional Government of any kind, but we must note that other countries whose embassies in Sanaa are closed and vacant, including the United States and France, have been able to secure the return of multiple citizens in the past couple of years. That prompts the question: if those countries have been able to do that, why has the United Kingdom not been able to secure Luke’s release?

I ask the new Minister for the Middle East to make it clear to her officials that securing Luke’s release during her time in office is a high priority, if not one of her highest priorities. I ask her to commit to taking a fresh look personally at Luke’s case, mastering the details and doing everything in her power, with all her energy, to try to secure his release. I want her to redouble efforts to open channels of communication once again with the Houthis, by whatever means, and to engage personally with her counterparts in France and the United States to understand their recent successes in securing the release of prisoners by the Houthis.

As we enter the third week of the two-month-long UN-brokered ceasefire and the associated prisoner exchange negotiations between the Houthi regime and the Saudi-led coalition that have been reported, and during the opportunity that the holy month of Ramadan provides, it is vital that the UK Government exhaust all options and use their international influence, including via the UN and, quite frankly, their much-boasted relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to explore any avenue to achieve Luke’s release.

This country’s close ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are often controversial in this House because of that country’s human rights record. However, when Ministers are pressed on those ties, they are always quick to emphasise that the relationship allows us to influence the Saudi regime. Why, therefore, was Luke’s case not raised by the Prime Minister during his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman on 16 March, which, per the Government press release, included discussions relating to concerns about human rights issues?

Will the Minister undertake to speak with her Saudi counterparts to press them to include Luke’s name in any prisoner exchange that may take place during the current ceasefire? Recent discussions have not convinced Luke’s family that our diplomats are doing enough to leverage that relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is much discussed by Ministers, to press Luke’s plight.

The Minister will know that she is the fifth Minister to be appointed to the middle east portfolio since Luke’s arbitrary detention more than five years ago. There have also been four different Foreign Secretaries while Luke has been detained—the current Prime Minister, Jeremy Hunt, the current Deputy Prime Minister, and of course the current Foreign Secretary—all of whom have expressed support for Luke but none of whom has met his grandfather, despite extending opportunities for meetings to the families of other British nationals in similar positions around the world.

Luke comes from an ordinary working-class family in Cardiff. They do not have any special connections or friends in the media or anywhere else, but they deserve the same consideration and respect from this Government as anyone else. I ask the Minister to commit to Luke’s family that she will raise his case with the Foreign Secretary at their next meeting. I ask her to involve herself in this case personally, as she has done with other cases, and to take full advantage of this latest, time-limited opportunity to reunite Luke with his family. I also ask her to ask the Foreign Secretary to meet Luke’s family personally, so that she can truly understand their plight.

This incarceration has gone on too long. I believe that with a prioritised and renewed diplomatic effort, using the current window of opportunity, Luke’s release could be secured, and he and his family could be reunited. I implore the Minister to act now.

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)  5:13 pm, 20th April 2022
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I am incredibly grateful to Kevin Brennan for securing this afternoon’s debate and for his tenacious support for his constituent Luke Symons. I will return to Luke’s case in a bit more detail shortly. I am also grateful to other hon. Members for raising a number of different cases today.

I want to start by paying tribute to our consular staff and our diplomats around the world, who work tirelessly to meet the needs of vulnerable British people. Around 5,000 British nationals are arrested or detained overseas each year, and supporting them is a large part of the role of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Our consular staff are contactable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they offer empathetic and professional support, which—importantly—is tailored to each individual case. Our staff make no judgment about the innocence or guilt of those detained overseas. As this debate and the cases that have been raised have highlighted, there are often incredibly complex challenges to overcome.

When British nationals are detained overseas, their health, welfare and human rights are our top priorities. We provide information on the local prison system so that they understand how it works. Where relevant, we inform British nationals how to access medical treatment. We provide information on English-speaking lawyers and whether a lawyer is provided by the state, so that they can access legal advice.

We cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country, including court proceedings. Our ability to provide consular assistance is also dependent on other states adhering to their own and international laws. We can and do intervene where British nationals are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards and where there are unreasonable delays in procedures. We take all allegations of torture or mistreatment very seriously.

Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)
The Prime Minister has said:

“As we face threats to our peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it is vital that democracies and friends stick together.”

Does the Minister therefore agree, given the issues in respect of detention and torture, that we must not shrink from letting democratic friends know when they have fallen short on what we take to be shared values, especially around allegations of torture?

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his specific campaigning on behalf of his constituent. As I say, we take all allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously. In his constituent’s case, we take all allegations of human rights violations seriously, and Ministers and senior officials have raised Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and the right to a fair trial with the Government of India more than 70 times. Both the Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon have raised his case, and we have regularly raised it through officials. The hon. Gentleman campaigns passionately on behalf of his constituent, and I know that he raised his case with the Prime Minister yesterday in the House.

Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

The Minister will be aware of the case of human rights activist Karim Ennarah, the husband of my constituent Jessica Kelly, who is a UK national. We campaigned to get him released from an Egyptian jail, but he has still been slapped with an asset freeze and travel ban. They are now separated, even though he has been released. I appeal to the Minister and her officials to continue the work they are doing to get the asset freeze and travel ban lifted so that they can be reunited.

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that case, and I am happy to follow up in writing after the debate.

I would like to return to the case of Luke Symons, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West raised. As we have heard, Luke has been held by the Houthis in Yemen without charge or trial since 2017. The Foreign Secretary and I are both very concerned about Luke’s continued detention. I appreciate the anxiety and frustration felt by Luke and his family and I am personally monitoring the case very closely. The UK Government continue to pursue all possible avenues to secure his release and reunite him with his wife and family. We have consistently raised this case at senior levels within the Houthi regime, but we face a number of challenges.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned, we have been unable to provide consular assistance to British nationals in Yemen since suspending embassy operations there in 2015, but that has not stopped us doing all we can to support Luke’s family since 2017. We continue to raise his case at the highest level with Houthi leaders, including through our Ministers, ambassadors and the UN.

On the matter of Luke’s welfare, we share his family’s concerns over allegations of mistreatment. We continue to raise this issue with the Houthis, urging them to show compassion. We are also working closely with non-governmental organisations in Yemen, which have previously conducted a welfare check on our behalf. We also managed to secure a call between Luke and his family in January, and we will not stop working on his behalf until he is home in Cardiff where he belongs.

I want to touch on the matter of prisoner exchanges. In October 2020, Luke was due to be released as part of a prisoner exchange, but the Houthis did not fulfil their commitments. This was despite our using every lever possible to secure Luke’s release, including drawing on the support of regional partners. We continue to engage with our partners to explore every possible avenue to get Luke home to his family.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West is right to raise the issue of UN-mediated prisoner of war exchange. We understand that this involves only prisoners of war and that civilians are unlikely to be included in the deal.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
That does concern me because, although that is essentially true, in previous instances civilians have been included in this kind of exchange. My concern is that we are not using our influence with Saudi Arabia to ask them to include Luke in the names that they would like to see released. We should be leveraging that relationship more in this instance.

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)
We are using every lever in our power. We all want to see Luke back in Cardiff.

Colleagues have mentioned a number of cases of British nationals overseas in this debate, and another case was raised with me by my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins. The FCDO and its team work tirelessly to support British nationals detained overseas. Hopefully I have set out some of the areas in which we do this. I think it is really important to say that I really appreciate Members’ concerns and support for their constituents, and I thank them for their efforts.

Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North
Could the Minister assure the House that the Government are in serious negotiations and talks with the Government of Iran about the release of Mehran Raoof, who I mentioned, and others whose names are not revealed but are nevertheless equally meritorious of being released?

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)
As I say, we are in constant contact in relation to getting British nationals released. I will happily follow up on that with the right hon. Gentleman in writing after the debate.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions today on the cases that have been mentioned. We will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of British nationals detained overseas, and in the case of Luke to see him released and back in Cardiff, because that is what everyone wants to see.

Question put and agreed to.