House of Commons
Tuesday 10 February 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Cornwall Local Enterprise Partnership
The Government have already devolved powers and responsibilities to the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership through the growth deal, which was agreed last summer and extended just two weeks ago. It will mean that around £60 million is invested in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, including in a range of infrastructure investments in the area. In Truro, that will mean money for seven new low-floor buses to provide additional capacity for the city’s successful park and ride scheme.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential that we get clarity as soon as possible on the use of the European structural investment funds through the so-called operational programmes. She may be aware that there has been lots of to-ing and fro-ing between the Government and the European Commission to ensure that the operational programmes are agreed as soon as possible. We are looking at everything to mitigate the impact of any delay. For example, we are looking at extending the deadline for spending on the 2007 to 2013 ERDF programme for some projects from the end of June to the end of September this year. Of course, every step of the way, the local enterprise partnerships are rightly involved in how that money is subsequently spent.
Further to that exchange, I would be grateful if the Deputy Prime Minister ensured that he impresses on the Communities and Local Government Secretary the importance of Cornwall achieving intermediate body status, because only by doing so can we proceed with making decisions.
As much as my hon. Friend points the finger of blame, it is pointed not so much at Departments in Whitehall but at the European Commission, which appears to struggle with the idea that there can be lots of different intermediate bodies within the United Kingdom. As he knows, London already has intermediate status. We have found it very difficult to persuade the European Commission to grant similar or analogous powers to other parts of the UK. We want to ensure that, while we make that case—everyone in the Government is making that case—we do not lose the use of the money. That is the balance we are trying to strike.
I am pleased to report that the implementation of individual electoral registration is proceeding smoothly. [Laughter.] We have safeguarded the register by automatically transferring nine out of 10 existing electors on to the new system, and by ensuring that no one registered to vote at the last canvass will lose their vote in May. More than 5 million people have registered to vote since May; there have been more than 1 million applications since December; 35,000 people per day are registering on the Government’s new online system; and 166,000 people registered to vote on national voter registration day. In addition, the Government have invested £14 million in the completeness and accuracy of the register, working with local authorities and national bodies.
I missed the beginning of the Minister’s answer because of the hilarity it caused in the House. I understand that 1 million people have been lost from the register in the past 12 months. I asked him about the completeness of the register and the impact of his policies on that. Despite his very long previous answer, can he add anything that is pertinent to the question I asked?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman revels in his 2011 nomination for the Total Politics Labour point-scorer of the year. In fact, he has plastered the information all over his website. To answer his question specifically, since December, 1.3 million have been added to the register. Each day and each month, more people are being added to the register, so it is about time the Labour party stopped creating fear and uncertainty where there is none.
15. What measures is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that people who live overseas and wish to register to vote are able to do so? Equally, has he taken account of the fact that people who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years should also have the opportunity to vote in this country? (907526)
My hon. Friend asks a very good question. With the introduction of online voting, people who live overseas can register to vote more easily. We have made it easier for them as they do not now need another British citizen to attest to their citizenship before they register to vote. There is no consensus within the Government to change the 15-year rule at the moment, but, as he well knows, the Conservative party’s manifesto pledge is that, when elected after 7 May, we will get rid of it.
14. In 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister talked about the need for the biggest shake up of democracy since the Great Reform Act 1832. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said, is not the reality that, instead of extending the franchise, millions of voters are being lost from the electoral register, including 4,000 from my own constituency. Will the Minister agree to delay IER implementation? If not, why not? (907525)
The hon. Lady talks about the register. Let me make it clear: Electoral Commission data show that 3 million people were missing from the register in 2000. By 2011, 7.5 million people were missing from the register. The deterioration of the register happened when the Labour party was in government. IER is part of the solution to get the register right. Under the old system, people moved house but the register did not. With online registration, we are making it simpler and easier for people to get on the register. That is how we will ensure that more people get on the register.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the initiative, by Facebook and the Electoral Commission, to contact 35 million users of Facebook and encourage them to register online? Does he agree that this sort of innovative approach will lead to better use of online registration?
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. The way forward for the completeness and accuracy of the register is not to go back to the old system of block registration—I know the Labour party likes its block votes—but to use initiatives, such as using Facebook, to market to the vast majority of the British public who should be on the register but are not.
I join the Minister in welcoming the huge success of national voter registration day. Will he join me in praising the brilliant work of Bite the Ballot, which organised national voter registration day last week? If we are to maximise the number of young people on the register, will he think again about extending the Northern Ireland schools initiative so that it applies in the rest of the United Kingdom?
The Northern Ireland schools initiative was introduced after the introduction of IER, when Northern Ireland did not have the annual canvass, and voter registration rates plummeted to about 11%. In contrast, in the rest of the UK we moved to IER, but nine out of 10 electors are on the register. Specifically on schools, we are funding national organisations with experience of working with schools and getting attainers on to the register. I know the Labour party would like us to introduce some kind of duty on schools, but that would increase the burden on schools. We can do this through national organisations and electoral registration officers, who know their local area. In some local areas, the issue will be to do with the elderly population; in others, it will be to do with young people. There is no need for a legislative sledgehammer. We should leave it to EROs, who have a duty to maximise their local registers.
The Minister says it would be a burden on schools, but I spoke to the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents school head teachers. It says that to have such a scheme would be “easily organised” and deliver real benefits. The Northern Ireland electoral registration officer says that the schools initiative has been
“very successful in improving the rate of registration amongst young people”.
The Minister talks about nine in 10 being carried across. That is right, but the one in 10 are disproportionately students and young people. Why is he so afraid of getting more young people registered to vote in this country?
If it is so easily organised, as the organisations the hon. Gentleman spoke to have said, then we do not need legislation. As I said, every local area would have differing circumstances as far as the register is concerned. What we do not want is EROs spending their time having to go to schools because of legislation, when to maximise the register in their areas they should be going to care homes and talking to elderly people.
The shadow Justice Secretary asks me what I am scared of. What we know is that the Labour party is not against IER. Labour Members are pretending in this House that they are interested in students and young people when they are not. It is all about the block vote—that is what they want.
The low levels of electoral turnout are an important and long-standing issue. Turnout was 78% in 1992, it declined steadily to 61% in 2005, and it rose to 65% in 2010. The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that everybody eligible to vote is on the register—because if someone is not on the register, they cannot vote—which is why we are committed to maximising the register. However, it is the responsibility of politicians to set out an attractive offer that makes people want to vote, so the job of increasing turnout is a job not for the Government but for all of us in the House.
I have seen several proposals—some argue that moving elections to weekends would somehow increase turnout, others argue for compulsory voting—but the answer is not to introduce new processes and systems, but for us politicians to engage and excite the electorate. The huge turnout for the Scottish referendum had nothing to do with the day on which it was held—in fact, I think it was held on a Thursday.
I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend restate that it is the job of politicians and those who stand for election to enthuse voters and persuade them to vote. Does he agree that we should never blame voters if they choose to exercise their right to stay at home and abstain?
On electoral turnout, does the Minister think he can learn from the Scottish referendum and that the non-delivery of the vow will increase turnout, as Scots vote for a strong SNP voice to counter the failure of the three parties, the three amigos, at Westminster?
Medway: Growth Deal
The South East local enterprise partnership has a large portfolio of projects ready to start in April, including 22 in the Thames Gateway, 12 of which will have a direct impact in Medway. For example, a new Kent and Medway growth hub will deliver improved advice services to local businesses.
I thank the Minister for his answer and the Government for the £33.4 million given to Medway, which will create more jobs and businesses and get Medway moving with better transport infrastructure. I know that local authorities have received a letter, but when will the formal agreements be signed with them?
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but data are not available on the number of local authority areas in which people in more than 90% of households are registered to vote. As she is aware, each register is held locally. Aggregated electoral statistics are available from the Office for National Statistics, but these are not broken down by household. However, the ONS will publish its data at the end of February, by which time the Electoral Commission will also publish its assessment of the December register.
Ahead of that information being published, will the Minister explain to the House why his Department’s advice to local authorities made such a massive mess of capturing information on voters approaching the age of 18? The evidence suggests a catastrophic collapse in the number of attainers on the register. What will he do about that?
I do not agree that a catastrophic mess was made of the system. If the hon. Lady looks at the forms issued by the Electoral Commission to local authorities to get households to input all the names, she will see that it was clearly stated that people under the age of 18 should appear. This was user tested as well. In addition to the write out, electoral registration officers can knock on doors to make sure that people’s names are on the register. We have given EROs everything they need and everything they have asked for to get on the register everyone eligible to vote.
I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that registering involves faith in the political system. I am sure he agrees with me and the Deputy Prime Minister who said on 6 September 2010:
“Fewer, more equally sized and more up-to-date constituencies will help to bolster the legitimacy of parliamentary elections.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 40.]
Does the Minister agree that a failure of the Liberal Democrats, and particularly of the Deputy Prime Minister, to vote for his own Bill in 2013—he voted against bolstering the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections—has led to this diminution of faith in politicians, showing opportunism and political advantage at its worst?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Of course we regret going into another election with some constituencies such as Arfon having 38,000 electors and others such as the Isle of Wight having 110,000. Those are not equally sized boundaries, but, as they say, we are where we are.
Voter Participation: Young People
For getting young people on the register, I believe online registration makes it quicker, simpler and more convenient. It takes roughly three minutes and it will help get young people on the register. Indeed, more than 1 million applications from young people have been through the online process. We are funding a number of youth organisations who have a share of £2.5 million to promote voter registration among young people. These include the British Youth Council, UK Youth and the NUS. Finally, data sharing goes on at universities where academic registrars have to give data on enrolment to EROs, which is helping to boost registration rates at universities, as we have seen at Sheffield university.
Let me return to the value of enforcing the schools initiative from Northern Ireland, to which the Opposition are committed. As we have heard, it has been instrumental in bringing a 50% increase in the total population of young people on the register, which is really important. Why are Ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who appears not to be answering questions today as he should be, not bothered about this? Why do they mention care homes, but do not want young people to get registered and get into the habit of voting?
If we did not want young people to get on the register, we would not be funding the very organisations that have the experience and expertise for getting young people to vote. That is the first point. The second is that the Northern Ireland system was paper-based, but we have an online system spanning 363 local authorities. This is a much superior system for getting young people to register from their laptops, smartphones or tablets and computers.
I am grateful for such applause as I rise to my feet. As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy initiatives. Within government, I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
The Deputy Prime Minister talks a lot about cleaning up political donations, yet his Liberal Democrats were perfectly willing to take a donation of £34,000 from the managing director of Autofil Yarns, a company that is removing 160 British jobs to Bulgaria to protect its profits. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret that? Is he going to repay it, or is this just another yarn that is being spun by the Liberal Democrats?
The puns come thick and fast. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain why his party blocked party political funding reform recently, and whether his question was written by one of his trade union paymasters. Being lectured by the Labour party on how parties are funded really takes the biscuit.
As my hon. Friend will know, a number of steps have been taken to devolve and decentralise what has traditionally been the very over-centralised way in which we raise and spend money. We are not just devolving unprecedented fiscal powers to the various nations in the United Kingdom, but, for instance, giving greater borrowing powers to local government in England. However, the journey is not yet complete, and, in my view, further steps towards further fiscal devolution and decentralisation should be taken in the years ahead.
We are fast approaching the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Over the last five years, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Government have extended the use of secret courts, curtailed judicial review, and radically reduced access to justice by making massive cuts in legal aid. Which of those policies of his Government does he consider to be most in keeping with the spirit of Magna Carta?
Does the right hon. Gentleman not remember what his Government did to habeas corpus, and that great tradition? Does he not remember his Government’s flawed attempt to impose an identity card database, which we brought to an end? Does he not remember his push to fingerprint innocent children in schools throughout the country, and does he not remember wanting to store the DNA of innocent citizens throughout the country? For heaven’s sake, let him remember his own record and that of his own party before he starts trying to cast aspersions on this Government.
The Deputy Prime Minister has had five years’ experience of this arrangement. It works like this: we ask the questions, and he tries to answer them. Let me try one more question. It may be the last.
It is, of course, important for our country to use its influence with its allies to improve human rights abroad. As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, the Ministry of Justice wants to enter into a £6 million contractual arrangement with the Saudi Arabian justice system to share “best practice”. Many people are rightly concerned about the sentence of 1,000 lashes that was given to Raif Badawi, and the regular use of execution by beheading in Saudi Arabia. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think about the British Government’s making money out of the Saudi Arabian justice system, and what is he going to do about it?
The issue is not whether the right hon. Gentleman has the right to ask questions. The issue is his absolute amnesia about what his Government got up to, from invading Iraq illegally to shredding civil liberties on an industrial scale. As for the question that he has asked, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), says that no contract has been entered into with Saudi Arabia.
Like the right hon. Gentleman and, I suspect, many Members on both sides of the House, I consider some of the practices that we have seen in Saudi Arabia to be absolutely abhorrent, and completely in conflict with our values. What every Government, including his own, have done in such circumstances is make a judgment on whether to cut off relations with other Governments with whom we disagree, or whether to try to influence them and bring them more into line with our values. That is clearly what his Government did, and it is what this coalition Government are trying to do as well.
T4. I understand that if the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union in a referendum—the United Kingdom as a whole—the Scottish Parliament will, under the vow, have to pass a legislative consent motion before it can happen. Is that not a recipe for constitutional crisis? (907540)
The right hon. Gentleman’s views and my views on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union may be at a variance, but I am starting to agree with him that stumbling into a referendum on such a momentous matter without really thinking through the implications for the country as a whole would not only result in a constitutional quagmire, but would possibly jeopardise millions of jobs in this country. That is why I would counsel him and his party not to make breezy commitments in the run-up to a general election which could leave this country much poorer.
T2. We have talked a great deal about students this morning, but the students about whom I am concerned are young adult carers, who often struggle financially because their caring means that they cannot take on paid work. Indeed, a survey by the National Union of Students found that financial difficulties were the main reason why young carers considered abandoning their courses. Enabling carers to fulfil their educational potential is meant to be one of the Government’s priorities, so will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us why so little has been done to help young adult carers to fulfil theirs? (907538)
I certainly agree that the hon. Lady identifies a problem that is by no measure solved. Carers young and old work under huge pressures. They are unsung heroes and heroines for society. We have taken a number of measures, for instance to try to give greater respite care to carers of all ages, but I accept the hon. Lady’s challenge that we need to do more.
T7. Given reports over the weekend that Tony Blair will play a prominent role in Labour’s election campaign and given the fact that he still draws the maximum allowance—£115,000 of taxpayers’ money—for his public duties, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that he and all former Prime Ministers should be covered by the Nolan principles of public life? (907543)
The public duty cost allowance limited to £115,000 per year was created to help cover expenses incurred by former Prime Ministers in meeting the continuing additional costs they incur because of their special position in public life. The Nolan principles apply to public office holders. There are no plans to extend their application to present or former politicians, whether Prime Ministers or not.
T5. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister at this eleventh hour to step in and save Jarrow’s NHS walk-in centre? I have made a plea to the Prime Minister, and I have made a plea to the Secretary of State for Health. Can the Deputy Prime Minister stop this? Some 27,000 people are going to be dumped on overloaded local GPs and A and Es. It is deliberate sabotage of the NHS, to get the private sector involved through the backdoor. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to help. (907541)
I am, of course, more than willing to look into that. I doubt very much, however, that it could remotely be as the hon. Gentleman characterises it, as this Government outlawed the sweetheart deals with the private sector that the previous Labour Government indulged in, and, of course, decisions on how local health services are commissioned are taken by local commissioners, not decision-makers in London.
T10. Traditional industries in my constituency such as the mills at Abraham Moon and Hainsworth have had growing exports recently and have expanded, but they have concerns about the skilled work force they will need. Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the skills funding in the local growth deals will help such important businesses to address their needs? (907546)
Yes, I absolutely can. As my hon. Friend will know, the local growth deal in his area places a particular emphasis on making sure that there are, over time, no youngsters whatsoever who are not in employment, education or training—the so-called NEETs—and the skills provided to youngsters in the area continue to be boosted. One of the achievements that everybody in the coalition parties can be proudest of is that we have massively expanded the number of apprenticeships available across the country: 2 million new apprentices have been taken on over the past several years.
T6. When the lobbying Act went through the House concerns were expressed that it would prevent organisations from engaging in the democratic process. Have any concerns been put to the Deputy Prime Minister about how the law is actually working with an election looming? (907542)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A number of concerns have been expressed, but I think they are misplaced. It is clear from the way in which the legislation was crafted that there was no intention to stop anyone making their views known at any time; the intention was simply to expect anyone who wants to influence a particular election in a particular constituency to abide by the same rules as those who are competing in those elections in those areas.
T11. A recent growth deal saw tens of millions of pounds being invested in the future of Gatwick airport station. May I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend that further growth deals will focus on improving transport infrastructure for the area? (907547)
: I am pleased that we were able to support Gatwick airport station redevelopment as part of the growth deal. The growth deals that have been announced are not, of course, the end of the story. In total, I think we have announced £7 billion of the £12 billion that it was envisaged would be committed to growth deals over time. Local enterprise partnerships have been encouraged to identify their own local growth priorities, so that they can submit their own ideas to future growth deals, which I hope will continue in the next Parliament.
T8. According to the latest figures, a staggering 23,500 voters appear to be missing from the electoral registration lists in Cardiff. We have already heard how the scandal is affecting young people and students, but it also appears that a significant number of people in the black and minority ethnic community across the city are missing from the register. What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about this? (907544)
Nobody will have their right to vote taken away from them as we move to individual voter registration. What I find so fascinating as I listen to all this heat and fury from the Opposition is that when they were in government they supported the move to individual voter registration, and for good reasons. The previous system was patronising and out of date; it rested on the idea that the head of a household would register everyone in that household on to the electoral register. Do the Opposition now want to revert to that system? It was patronising, out of date and unfair to many voters.
T12. Since 2010, unemployment has fallen sharply and employment has risen dramatically, but all the while, we have had a large and growing trade deficit with the European Union. How does the Deputy Prime Minister square that with the Liberal Democrat myth that 3 million British jobs depend on our EU membership? (907548)
The figures cited are certainly not mythological; they have been arrived at independently by Government Departments and other researchers. It is not difficult to work out the economic value, given that the European Union, whatever its flaws and its present difficulties, is the world’s largest borderless single market, with more than 500 million consumers. It is also by far the largest destination for goods and services produced in this country, for the simple reason that we are a European country located in the European hemisphere.
T13. The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show a rise in youth unemployment of 30,000 compared with the previous quarter. May I offer the Deputy Prime Minister the opportunity to have a deathbed conversion tomorrow and to support Labour’s proposed bank bonus tax, which would help to get tens of thousands of young people into decent jobs? (907549)
It is—how can I put this politely?—brave of Labour to select jobs as the subject of its Opposition day debate. It is the party that crashed the economy in the first place. Youth unemployment is lower today than it was when the hon. Gentleman’s party left office. We have created countless more apprenticeships than Labour made available, and 1.8 million more people are in work now than when the Labour Government left office. Inequality, income inequality and relative child poverty are lower under this Government. He might not like the facts, but they speak for themselves.
May I welcome the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday on schools funding? I particularly welcome the fact that two schools in my constituency—Cheadle primary and Great Moor junior—will benefit as a consequence. Can he give me an assurance that investment in education will be protected while we continue to address the deficit?
I am very pleased that we have been able to make that significant announcement of a further £6 billion to be allocated from central Government to refurbish, rebuild and maintain school buildings up and down the country. We are now assisting twice as many schools across the country than were being helped under Labour’s school building programme. My hon. Friend makes an important point. All the political parties will need to set out their stall in the run-up to the general election. The Liberal Democrats have said clearly that we want to protect funding from cradle to college and from nursery to 19, and not to implement the kind of real-terms cut in the money going to our schools that other parties have recently revealed.
T14. The Electoral Commission’s own research shows that the electoral registration of private renters stands at 63%, compared with the overall level of 85%. Is not this yet another example of how this Government are totally disregarding “generation rent”? What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about it? (907550)
Again, the facts speak for themselves. Since last summer, 5 million people have been entered on to the new individual voter registration system. Nine in 10 voters are transferred automatically on to it, and 1.3 million more people have been entered on to it since December alone. Of course we need to do more, across the parties and across the nation, to encourage people to register to vote, but it is the worst form of shameless scaremongering to suggest that a transition to individual voter registration—which the Labour Government advocated and introduced—is somehow entirely responsible for the fact that some groups are more under-registered than others.
I recently welcomed the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to Gloucester, where he saw at first hand the regeneration in Blackfriars. That regeneration will be helped by the recent growth award via the local enterprise partnership. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is potential for small city deals or county deals to help to devolve and boost regeneration projects in cities such as Gloucester, or would he encourage us to bid for the next growth deal via the LEP?
I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to do the latter. First, he is right to point out that decentralisation should not be only an urban phenomenon or just something granted to larger cities, although they were the pioneer areas where the city deals and growth deals first happened. We have made a good start, with the £12 billion growth deals that are under way, on ensuring that every part of the country—county, city, rural, urban—gets more powers handed down to it from Whitehall, and I very much want to see that.
Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain to 16 and 17-year-olds in my constituency why they were deemed mature enough to vote in the recent Scottish referendum yet his Government do not think they are mature enough to vote in the forthcoming general election?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman; I have long believed that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote. They take on responsibilities and duties as adults in so many other walks of life, and they showed themselves to be enthusiastic, informed and impassioned participants in the Scottish referendum. Unfortunately, we have not been able to secure agreement between the two coalition parties on this, but I look forward to the day when the House, on a cross-party basis, votes finally to give the democratic rights to 16 and 17-year-olds that they deserve.
I was reading the Hansard record of the previous Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, and the Deputy Prime Minister answered the first topical question in the same way as he did today. He said that his main purpose is to “support the Prime Minister” over a whole range of activities—after that, in brackets, was the word, “Laughter.” Can the Deputy Prime Minister name one thing he has done to support the Prime Minister?
I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman, as I have it here. I said:
“As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 143.]
That does not mean “complete range”; it does not mean the whole, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Of course there are disagreements between myself and the Prime Minister, and of course there are disagreements between the coalition parties. I know the hon. Gentleman has not taken to the give and take of coalition government as readily as some Government Members have, but I think history will judge the two coalition parties kindly for having put the national interest first and working together, supporting each other, in order to fix the broken economy inherited from the previous Government. As he talks about support, I am delighted to hear that the Prime Minister and his party now support my party in, for instance, giving tax cuts to millions and millions of people on low and middle incomes—that was always our policy.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister be attending the lectures being given by the Rev. Lord Green, the chap who ran HSBC in such an ethical way? Apparently, he is giving lectures on “ethical banking”. Does the Deputy Prime Minister stand by the comments made by the Business Secretary when the Rev. Lord Green was made a trade Minister? The Business Secretary described Lord Green in terms of
“a powerful philosophy for ethical business.”
Even George Orwell could not have made that one up!
Again, the hon. Gentleman is a brave man to talk about regulation of the banking system from the Labour Benches, given his party’s total, singular failure to heed the warnings of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. I recall him standing there saying to the then Prime Minister, week in, week out, that the Labour party was heading for trouble because it did not regulate the banks properly. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might want to ask questions of his own colleagues about why HSBC was able to get away with such outrageous business practices back in 2007 and 2008.
The Attorney-General was asked—
Hon. Members will know that I cannot discuss legal advice that I may have given to members of the Government, but I have regular discussions with colleagues about a large number of issues. Domestic and international human rights are an important aspect of our law and are a key consideration in the Law Officers’ work.
The answer to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes. On the first part, I do not support the Human Rights Act, but I do support the European convention on human rights. There is a misunderstanding here, perhaps on his part and certainly among some of his Labour colleagues, as the abolition of the Human Rights Act does not mean the abolition of human rights. The Conservative party is in favour of human rights and we have a proud record on human rights. What we do not agree with is the mess his party made of the relationship between this country’s courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg—we will do something about it.
May I follow up on the Attorney-General’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) by asking whether he agrees that last week’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that British courts can hand down whole-life sentences without breaching human rights is a fine example of dialogue between our courts and Strasbourg? As we mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, will the Attorney-General join me in celebrating the European convention as Churchill’s legacy and one that provides vital protections that we would be unwise to deny our people?
I welcome clarification from the European Court of Human Rights on whole-life tariffs, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not just the outcome of these cases that can be problematic but the time, effort and taxpayers’ money spent defending them. He is quite right that the convention is an excellent document; there is very little to disagree with in it. The problem is the way in which the European Court of Human Rights has interpreted that document. Once again, the Conservative party will do something about that, but, as far as I can tell, the Labour party in government would do nothing whatever about it.
One of the basic human rights is the right of association and, through that, the right to combine together in trade unions. Will the Attorney-General say why his Government are making it harder for civil servants to exercise that basic human right by withdrawing the right to have trade union subscriptions taken off pay at source?
I do not accept that we are taking human rights away from civil servants. Let me repeat the point that I made: the Conservative party in government has a proud record on human rights. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a Conservative Home Secretary who brought forward the Modern Slavery Bill, of which we are very proud. Clearly, it was a “human-rights enhancing measure”. Those are not my words but those of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It was a Conservative Foreign Secretary, now Leader of the House, who has done excellent work on preventing the use of sexual violence in conflict—again, huge steps forward in the defence of human rights in this country and abroad. We are proud of that record, but see no reason to combine that pride with a blind and meek acceptance that every judgment of the European convention on human rights by the European Court of Human Rights, however eccentric, should be meekly accepted.
The Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights were set up to protect the citizens of Ukraine from the former Soviet Union. Should we not be doing more to protect the citizens of Ukraine with regard to their human rights at this present time?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Of course she is right that when the convention was originally drafted, it was precisely to deal with the most egregious examples of breaches of human rights across the world. That is what we have always supported, and we will continue to do so. What we do not support is the extension of that franchise to discussing things such as the insemination of prisoners in prison, and whether prisoners should be given the right to vote in British elections. That is in no way comparable to what my hon. Friend is discussing.
Will the Attorney-General confirm that neither the repeal of the Human Rights Act nor a British Bill of Rights could in any way diminish Britain’s obligations under the European convention on human rights, or does he disagree with his predecessor on that point?
As I have said, there is no direct connection between what we decide to do on the Human Rights Act and what we decide to do in support of human rights, both nationally and internationally. We remain wholly committed to the preservation of human rights, both in this country and abroad. As for my predecessor, I think that he would wholeheartedly support that position.
The Attorney-General refers to the Government’s leadership in tackling modern slavery. Given that traffickers operate across jurisdictions, what is he doing to support other countries to have effective justice systems to protect the victims and enforce the law?
My hon. Friend is right that we need to think about how we assist other countries in the way in which they implement their justice systems so that we can work together to confront what is, as he says, cross-border problems. It comes back to the dilemma that was being discussed with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister around what we do in countries that do not have the best records in the preservation of justice and human rights. We have to get the balance right, but it is important that we continue to co-operate.
I have been taking this welcome new measure through Committee with the support of Members from all parties. The new law of coercive control will help protect victims by criminalising sustained patterns of behaviour that stop short of serious physical violence but amount to extreme psychological and emotional abuse. It is likely to increase the number of cases of domestic abuse reported, which should result in an increase in the number of prosecutions.
I am grateful for that response. As the number of domestic abuse referrals has increased, which must be welcomed as people now have the confidence to refer such crimes of abuse, does the Solicitor-General agree that it is apparent that just as physical abuse should be consigned to the history books so should mental control, which is a form of torture that is equally unacceptable in this country today?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks. Only today on the radio, we heard about people using mobile apps to control the movements and behaviour of their partners. Modern technology can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be very dangerous in the wrong hands. I believe that the new law will embrace that, too.
The right hon. Gentleman and I share a passion for ending this scourge. It was important that the prosecution was brought and the number of referrals continues to increase—we did not have any referrals before 2010. That shows that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are taking the matter very seriously. The message must be sent out to everybody that those who indulge in this form of abuse will be subject to the law and to prosecution.
May I welcome the Solicitor-General’s recognition of the importance of dealing with the psychological intimidation of witnesses, which, as those of us who have prosecuted a case of this kind will know, can be every bit as difficult as physical intimidation? I congratulate him personally on the initiatives he has taken in this matter and the work he has been doing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. It was important that we fill the loopholes in the law. We now have the stalking and harassment legislation introduced by this Government and legislation on coercive control. We are doing everything we can to deal with the scourge of emotional and psychological abuse.
May I commend the Solicitor-General on his co-operative and informed attitude to the issue of coercive control and on the way in which he took the matter through Committee? I also thank him for sponsoring my ten-minute rule Bill on the subject last year; it would be remiss of me not to say that. On a more serious note, will he assure the House that prior to the commencement of the new law, welcome as we all say it will be, there will be sufficient time to train the police and prosecuting authorities and the necessary guidelines will be produced?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and I entirely agree that we must ensure that full training of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and all the authorities that will be responsible for dealing with the new legislation is put in place before we bring it into force.
Historical Sex Abuse
The CPS is working closely with the Treasury to manage the impact of the increasing numbers of large and complex cases, including non-recent sex abuse cases, and to ensure that the CPS has the resources to prosecute serious crime effectively and efficiently. Future funding will be determined as part of the spending review process in the usual way.
The victims of historical sexual abuse have a right to justice, like anyone else, but, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, these cases are complex and require adequate funding. How confident is he that the CPS will be able to cope with the demands on it and can he categorically say that such cases will not be consigned to the dustbin of history for want of extra resources?
I understand the hon. Lady’s concern and it is important to put on record that every case, regardless of the alleged crime, must be considered carefully by the CPS. The CPS must conduct the appropriate tests on evidence and on public interest, and these cases should be no different in that regard. We must certainly talk about resources, but we also need to talk about what also matters to victims, which includes being listened to in the first place, ensuring that the court process is as conducive as it can be to the giving of their evidence and ensuring that those who prosecute such cases are expert in what they do. All those things are important and we must ensure that the CPS is doing them. At the moment, the CPS is engaged in doing those things.
In his answer, the Attorney-General made it clear that funding is an issue and that discussions are going on with the Chancellor. Given that, is it sensible for the Crown Prosecution Service to commit millions of pounds to a retrial of journalists from The Sun when there is clearly no realistic prospect of conviction? The money could be much better spent pursuing some of the historical sex abuse cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). Are the cost of a trial and the likelihood of conviction together part of a public interest test that the Crown Prosecution Service should go through, because it seems to many people that a retrial is not justified on that basis?
My hon. Friend will understand that, as Attorney-General, I do not decide which cases should be prosecuted or commenced. He will also understand that whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction is already part of the test that the Crown Prosecution Service applies. Of course, it should also consider the public interest, which is what it has done in each and every case involving journalists—some have been convicted at the end of the process and some have been acquitted. However, I think that it is important to recognise two things. First, there should be no cases in which who a person is or what they do prevents the Crown Prosecution Service following the evidence where it leads—it should do so in every case. Secondly, some cases are complex and difficult and take time to prepare and to try, which increases their cost, but I do not think that we can say that we should not prosecute something because it is too expensive.
I welcome what the Attorney-General says, but the Director of Public Prosecutions has been to him on bended knee, begging for £50 million so that she can prosecute serious cases. Has he asked the Chancellor for that emergency funding—and if not, why not? If he has asked the Chancellor, what did he say about helping to plug the funding gap caused by the ill thought through cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service?
I do not think that the cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service have been ill thought through. They have certainly been significant, as I am afraid they had to be, given the huge economic mess we inherited when the hon. Gentleman’s party left office. We had to take those decisions, but I think that the Crown Prosecution Service has managed the reductions in its budget extremely well. It has not decided—I think that he would support this approach—not to prosecute cases where it thinks that it is appropriate to do so. However, we must recognise—the DPP recognises this in what she is saying—that there has no doubt been an increase in the number of complex and difficult historical sex abuse cases. We are talking with the Treasury about exactly that, and I am sure that it will understand the case we are making.
Serious Fraud Office
I meet the Home Secretary regularly to discuss issues of common interest. The UK anti-corruption plan, published in December, announced that the Cabinet Office will take forward a review of the enforcement response to bribery and corruption more broadly and will report to the inter-ministerial group on anti-corruption in June.
Is the Attorney-General concerned that there is now a conflict, with the Solicitor-General allegedly involved in tax avoidance schemes? [Interruption.] Can he properly oversee the work of the Serious Fraud Office, given its role in prosecuting serious fraud and tax evasion? [Interruption.]
In view of the fact that the police are being ineffective in prosecuting fraud, and given that reports to Action Fraud have gone up by 10%, what is the Attorney-General doing to ensure that the Serious Fraud Office has sufficient resources to deal with the most complex frauds? How much money has it got from fraudsters to enable it to fund future work?
The hon. Lady is right to refer to the fact that there are different kinds of fraud, which are dealt with in different ways in our system. The Serious Fraud Office, which falls within the ambit of the Law Officers’ superintendence, deals with the most exceptionally complex cases of fraud. To answer her question directly, in this financial year the Serious Fraud Office has recovered financial orders of £10.7 million. It is right to point out also that the way in which the Serious Fraud Office is funded is unusual. It relies on some core funding and also on what is called blockbuster funding for unanticipated, large and complex cases. I think that that is the right way to do it.
There is huge value always in looking at the way in which Government agencies do their business and in finding efficiencies and changes if it is beneficial to do so, but I think the Roskill model on which the Serious Fraud Office is based—that is, the combination of lawyers, investigators, prosecutors, accountants and the like, all in multidisciplinary teams—is a sensible model, and it is delivering effective results.
With the Serious Fraud Office doing some incredibly complex investigations into companies such as Barclays, Tesco and G4S, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a need for very close working between the Serious Fraud Office and other Government agencies, such as the NCA, the police and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?
The number of successful prosecutions in human trafficking cases has increased each year since April 2010, from 73 to 155, which is more than double. The Director of Public Prosecutions is seeking to increase the number of prosecutions further through the CPS contribution to the Government strategy on modern slavery.
Is the Solicitor-General aware that those of us who for many years have been involved in such cases, and involved in the problem of runaway children particularly, are still concerned about the number and level of prosecutions of those people, and now of gangs organising human trafficking? When will we see results—more people apprehended, charged, convicted and in prison?
The hon. Gentleman is right to be impatient—we all are—for progress in tackling this scourge. It exists not just here at home, but internationally. We have criminal justice advisers and liaison magistrates in 20 countries where we know that human trafficking is a source problem. Human trafficking will not be tackled just within these shores. The effort has to be international.
Crown Prosecution Service: Digital Working
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has made substantial progress in implementing digital working with other criminal justice agencies. Almost all police forces are now transferring over 90% of case files electronically. Savings are being made through business process change and other economies. By 2015-16, the CPS estimates that savings of approximately £30 million per annum will be achieved.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about more measures. That will come through initiatives such as the common platform between the Courts and Tribunals Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, so that everybody in the courts system is using digital technology. That will achieve real savings in the long term.
Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses
Measures to support vulnerable victims and witnesses are regularly discussed by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General’s office. The CPS works closely with the police and the voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses are well supported through the criminal justice system. The results of the first national CPS survey of victims and witnesses due in the summer will inform future actions.
The Crown Prosecution Service draft document, “Speaking to Witnesses at Court”, was published in January, and it is broadly welcome. However, will the Solicitor-General give some reassurance to those who are concerned that it might involve coaching of witnesses?
It is vital that everybody involved in witness care understands the old and well-established rule that witnesses must not be coached. Educating them in the process is absolutely right, but talking about the evidence and trying to coach them in some way would be wholly wrong.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Victims of human trafficking are the most vulnerable witnesses that can be had before the courts. Adult victims of human trafficking are looked after very well under the Government’s scheme, but child victims are not. Will the Solicitor-General look at ways in which we can improve protection and help for the child victims of human trafficking?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose track record in fighting modern-day slavery is well known to us all. The Crown Prosecution Service has clear guidelines that ask prosecutors to consider very carefully the public interest in prosecuting young people who are identified as victims of human trafficking where there is clear evidence of exploitation. That approach will turn people who used to be regarded as defendants into true victims of modern-day slavery.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the situation in Ukraine.
The past month has seen an escalation of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Fighting has been intense around the town of Debaltseve, a strategically important rail and road hub between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainians have suffered indiscriminate missile attacks on buses in Donetsk and Volnovakha and on the port city of Mariupol. What is happening on the ground now resembles, to all intents and purposes, a small-scale conventional war. Over 5,000 people have been killed since the crisis began last spring, and over 1.5 million people have been displaced from their homes.
In recent weeks, Russia has aggravated the effects of its initial incursion by stepping up the military support it provides to its proxies. It has transferred hundreds of heavy weapons, including rocket launchers, heavy artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles; and it maintains hundreds of regular soldiers, including special forces, in Ukraine, as well as command and control elements, air defence systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and electronic warfare systems. The Russian army is also the source of ex-regulars who resign their army posts to fight in Donbass as “volunteers”. The recent escalation in fighting would not have been possible without the military support and strategic direction that Russia provides.
In these circumstances, it is vital that all the countries who have a stake in the rules-based international system remain clear and united against Russian aggression. In Normandy last summer, we agreed with the US and our European partners that the most effective channel of communication with the Kremlin would be through a small group. This is known as the Normandy Format, comprising Germany, France as the host of the Normandy meeting, Ukraine and Russia.
Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande met President Poroshenko in Kiev last Thursday, and President Putin in the Kremlin on Friday. On Saturday, in Munich, I held meetings with Secretary of State Kerry and German Foreign Minister Steinmeier to assess the prospects for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. On Sunday, the German Chancellor and the French President held a conference call with Poroshenko and Putin, agreeing to meet in the Normandy format in Minsk tomorrow. Their aim is to reach agreement on an implementation plan for the Minsk ceasefire agreements that the Russians entered into last September, updated, as they need to be, to reflect subsequent changes on the ground.
The UK welcomes these efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution of the situation in eastern Ukraine, while remaining sceptical of Russian commitment to such a resolution. It is clear that Putin respects strength, so Britain’s focus has been, and will continue to be, on ensuring that the EU remains robust, resolved and united on the maintenance of economic sanctions, and closely aligned with the US.
The consensus within the European Union that Russia must pay a price for its disregard of the international rules-based system remains strong. Equally, there is a clear consensus that the EU does not, and will not, recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. The emergency EU Foreign Affairs Council on 29 January agreed to roll over all the Crimea-related tier 2 sanctions against individuals and companies. That is another clear sign that the EU remains united in its response to Russian action in Ukraine.
The package of economic sanctions which the European Union and the US has imposed on Russia, coupled with the catastrophic impact on the Russian economy of the decline in the oil price, is a critical element of the pressure on President Putin to change his behaviour. Britain was and remains at the forefront of the successful effort to build and maintain an EU-wide consensus on a sanctions regime on Russia, to the evident surprise and dismay of the Kremlin. Yesterday in Brussels I represented the UK at the EU Foreign Affairs Council, which discussed Ukraine and reconfirmed its decision to apply additional sanctions, but, at the suggestion of the Ukrainian Foreign Minister and as a gesture of support for the political process, decided to delay their entry into force until next Monday. The informal European Council of Heads of State and Government will have further discussions about Ukraine on Thursday.
The crisis has inflicted substantial damage on Ukraine’s economy. The World Bank estimates that it shrank by 8.2% in 2014. Public debt has risen sharply, foreign exchange reserves have fallen and the currency has lost nearly half its value against the US dollar. Ukraine clearly needs support from international partners to stabilise the economy, in return for which it must pursue the reforms to which it has committed under the association agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund programme. Britain is providing £10 million in technical assistance to support economic and governance reforms and the humanitarian effort. The EU will make a substantial contribution to the immediate estimated $15 billion financing needs of the country, the majority of which will be provided through an IMF-led package.
We shall also continue to work through NATO to offer technical support to the Ukrainian armed forces and reassurance to our eastern NATO allies. At the NATO Wales summit last September, NATO allies sent a strong message to Russia, agreeing to maintain NATO’s long-standing capacity building work in Ukraine by setting up five dedicated trust funds for Ukraine, one of which will be co-led by the UK.
The Wales summit also agreed a readiness action plan to reassure our eastern allies. As part of the package, NATO allies agreed to a new spearhead unit—the very high readiness joint taskforce—within the NATO response force, which, supported by the newly created forward integration units in the Baltic and eastern European states, will be able to deploy at very short notice wherever they are needed.
On 5 February, NATO Defence Ministers agreed the size and scope of that mission. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has announced that the UK will lead the force in 2017 and on a rotational basis thereafter. The UK also made a commitment to contribute to headquarters in Poland and Romania and the six NATO forward integration unit headquarters in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the UK will contribute four RAF Typhoons to operate alongside Norway in support of the Baltic air policing mission.
The UK also remains a strong supporter of the OSCE’s monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine. We have provided funding of more than £2 million, the second largest number of monitors and 10 armoured vehicles to allow monitors to move around dangerous areas in a more secure manner.
Our policy since the start of the crisis has been to supply non-lethal assistance to Ukrainian armed forces, in line with our assessment that there must be a political solution to this crisis. We have increased our defence engagement with Ukraine and are providing additional support on crisis management, anti-corruption, defence reform and strategic communications.
We have offered three members of the Ukrainian armed forces who were wounded in the Donbass life-changing specialist medical assistance in the form of reconstructive surgery at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. We are providing a substantial package of non-lethal equipment to Ukraine, comprising medical kits, winter clothing and equipment, body armour, helmets and fuel. The package is focused on reducing fatalities and casualties among members of the Ukrainian armed forces.
It is a national decision for each country in the NATO alliance to decide whether to supply lethal aid to Ukraine. The UK is not planning to do so, but we reserve the right to keep this position under review. Different members of the alliance take nuanced positions on this question, and are entitled to do so. However, we share a clear understanding that while there is no military solution to this conflict, we could not allow the Ukrainian armed forces to collapse.
By its illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilising activities in eastern Ukraine, including its direct military support of the separatists, Russia has demonstrated its disregard for international law. It is clear that President Putin respects only strength, and by standing united, using our combined economic muscle to impose significant economic costs on Russia, the international community has shown its determination to rebuff Russia’s anachronistic behaviour.
The ball is now firmly in Russia’s court. Until we see Russia complying with the terms of the Minsk agreement on the ground—withdrawing troops, stopping the flow of weapons and closing the border—there must be no let-up in the pressure. Fine words in a declaration tomorrow will, of course, be welcome, but we have seen them before. The proof of the pudding will be in actions on the ground. We will monitor the situation carefully, and we will agree to a relaxation of the pressure only when we see clear evidence of changed Russian behaviour and systematic compliance with Russia’s obligations under the original Minsk agreement.
Meanwhile, there will be no let-up in our efforts—with the US, in the EU and through NATO—to ensure that Mr Putin hears a clear and consistent message: civilised nations do not behave in the way Russia under Putin has behaved towards Ukraine, and those of us who live by the rules-based international system will be steadfast in defending it against such aggression. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for advance sight of it.
Although the conflict in Ukraine is clearly a geopolitical crisis, it is also a conflict of profound civilian suffering. As the Foreign Secretary has just reminded us, in a neighbouring European state more than 5,000 lives have already been lost, 5 million civilians are living in conflict-affected areas, and nearly 1 million people are internally displaced as a result of the fighting. The House was united in welcoming the Minsk agreement negotiated last year, but even after it was reached, the fighting, although it briefly subsided, did not stop. The situation has yet again deteriorated, with more than 200 civilians killed in the last week of January alone.
President Putin appears to have miscalculated the west’s commitment to sustained economic diplomacy. So long as the Russian Government refuse to change course, we must continue with a robust and united international response. With the collapse of the oil price in recent months, the sanctions still hold out the prospect of altering the calculus of risk in President Putin’s mind regarding Russian actions in eastern Ukraine.
The Foreign Secretary made it clear that, at the request of the European Foreign Minister, a decision was taken yesterday to delay the implementation of a further set of EU restrictive measures. While credible negotiations are ongoing, all efforts must be focused on ensuring that they are successful. In the absence of an agreed deal this week, however, does the Foreign Secretary believe that new EU restrictive measures, as opposed to simply an extension of existing measures, should be on the table at the upcoming EU Council meeting? In particular, in the absence of meaningful progress tomorrow, will the Prime Minister call for new tier 2 or 3 sanctions when he meets European Union leaders?
In recent days, attention has turned to the question of sending lethal arms to the Ukrainian army. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s reassurance that the UK will continue to work through NATO to offer technical support to the Ukrainian armed forces. This weekend, he said that
“the UK is not planning to supply lethal aid”.
He repeated that statement in the House today.
The Foreign Secretary has said:
“Ukrainians can’t beat the Russian army”,
and that the policy remains “under review” by the UK Government. Given those two statements, will he tell the House in what context he envisages that Britain could decide to export lethal arms to the Ukrainians?
I welcome the recent German and French initiative to help broker an agreement between President Putin and President Poroshenko. Talks in Moscow with Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany were held alongside US Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Kiev, and followed up by Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington yesterday. Further talks are scheduled in Minsk for tomorrow. The ultimate test is whether these talks are successful in ending the conflict, and it is in that sprit that I ask the Foreign Secretary about the extent of British engagement.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that given Britain’s unique assets and alliances, we could make a key contribution to help ensure that the diplomatic effort is successful? If so, why has the UK chosen to take such a back seat in trying to resolve the crisis? The Foreign Secretary does not need to take my word for that judgment. As General Sir Richard Shirreff—the top British commander in NATO until last year—warned last weekend, the Prime Minister is a “foreign policy irrelevance” and a “bit player” on the world stage. When questioned about the former general’s comments, the Foreign Secretary rather flippantly quipped:
“Having a sort of committee of ten traipsing in and out trying to talk to the Russians would simply not be effective”.
I agree with that judgment, but suggestions that Britain’s diplomatic role could only ever be part of a so-called “traipsing committee of 10”, tells us a great deal more about the Foreign Secretary than it does about the United Kingdom.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that under past Governments of all complexions, Britain has played a leading role in diplomatic negotiations of this sort? In his statement the Foreign Secretary tried to defend the British absence from the latest talks by claiming that the Franco-German leadership role was established in Normandy last year. Nevertheless, whether last year, this year or this month, the decision to exclude Britain, or to be excluded, raises real questions and concerns on the Opposition Benches. Can the Foreign Secretary offer any more hope that Britain in the months ahead—unlike in past months—will be an active, engaged and influential part of efforts to resolve the crisis?
The starting point surely must be to remain on guard against Russia’s efforts to find and exploit weaknesses among its European neighbours. Some European states have, of course, been weakened by recession and are vulnerable to subversion, subsidy and corruption, but the challenge is surely to sustain western unity in advancing robust economic diplomacy, while continuing with a more engaged effort to find a resolution to the crisis. If that is the approach of the British Government in the months ahead, they will have our support.
Despite the slightly churlish remarks towards the end of his remarks, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s generally supportive approach to this issue, and he is right that Vladimir Putin evidently miscalculated the resolve of the international community to stand firm on this issue. That resolve did not appear without prompting, however, and required a lot of consensus building. Candidly, I will say also that the catalyst of the destruction of Malaysia Airways flight MH17 pulled some of, shall we say, the weaker brethren into line, and ensured a clear and robust alliance on this issue. In particular, the UK and the Netherlands can claim credit for having been key elements in stiffening resolve in that crucial European Council meeting last July.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a sensible question about new restrictive measures, and our priority will be to achieve an early roll-over of the tier 3 sanctions. The package of tier 3 sanctions is due to expire at the end of July, and the strongest possible signal that could be sent to the Kremlin would be an early decision to extend that sanctions period, perhaps to the end of 2015. The Kremlin’s knowledge that sanctions will continue, and—most importantly—that it will not have the leverage point of the EU, at 28 member states, having to re-agree a consensus to renew them, removes a lot of its incentives for mischief making, so that will be our priority. I expect that tomorrow, if matters have not progressed or there is bad news from Minsk, the European Council will task the European External Action Service to scope options for further sanctions.
A number of perfectly robust allies are now beginning to be slightly concerned about the scale of damage being inflicted on Russia’s economy. We want to hurt the Russians and we want them to pay a price for their aggression in Ukraine, but we do not want the Russian economy to collapse. There is now concern about the scale of damage being inflicted.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me to clarify the position on lethal aid. He is right to say that Ukraine cannot beat the Russian army—it does not have the scale of forces, and the Russian army has enormous reserves that it could potentially throw into the conflict. He asked about the circumstances in which we would supply lethal aid, but we have not defined those circumstances. All I have said is that we will not rule out the possibility of supplying lethal aid, and we want to reserve the right to review that position. In my statement I said clearly that we cannot afford to see the Ukrainian army collapse, so perhaps he will take from that a steer as to where our thinking lies.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the UK contribution to the diplomatic effort, and there are two strands to that. There is a forward strand that includes discussions with the Ukrainians and the Russians. In my judgment—being perfectly objective about this and not waving a little flag for the sake of it—the German Chancellor is in the best position to conduct such discussions with the Kremlin. She has channels open with the Kremlin that we, the Americans, and others do not have.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about opening out the Normandy process, but if we were to open out that grouping—it is currently four: Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France—we would not be able just to insert the UK but would have to widen that group quite significantly. The United States, naturally, would say, “Well, if the UK is going to join, we must have a seat,” and other European Union partners would also expect to be present, most obviously Poland and Italy. We would therefore have a significantly wider group, and our judgment is that for this phase of the process, maintaining that Normandy format is the best way forward.
The second strand of diplomatic activity is behind-the-scenes activity to hold together the European Union consensus and ensure that the EU is aligned with the US, Australia, Japan and other partners. That is a significant diplomatic-legwork task—unglamorous but vital—and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK has played a leading role in designing the sanctions packages, identifying the individuals, companies and sectors to be targeted by sanctions, and building and maintaining consensus in Brussels and around the capitals of Europe. General Sir Richard Shirreff says that the Prime Minister is a “diplomatic irrelevance”, but I suggest that perhaps he should consider carefully the meaning of the word “irrelevance” and where it might best be applied.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about Russian coercion and the energy exposure of the European Union to Russian pressure, all of which we are acutely aware of. There is also Russian corruption and the influence of Russian money in the politics of some Balkan countries—even now, one party in the recent Bulgarian general election launched its manifesto in the Kremlin, which may provide a clue, and we are acutely aware of all those things. Europe must make itself more resilient against Russian influence, and that is an important part of the agenda going forward.
The Foreign Secretary and I were both at the Munich security conference when Chancellor Merkel explained her position and her opposition to helping with military assistance to the Ukrainians on the grounds that, even with that assistance, Ukraine would not be able to defeat the Russians. The Foreign Secretary has repeated that observation today, but may I respectfully suggest that that is missing the point? The question at issue is not whether the Ukrainians could defeat the Russians—of course they could not. At the moment, however, as the Foreign Secretary has pointed out, the Russians are flooding in a whole supply of military equipment—heavy weapons, rocket launchers, heavy artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles—to their supporters in Donetsk and Luhansk. If the Ukrainians are deprived of the military means to defend their territory, that matter will be resolved in the next few weeks. It will be no use coming to the aid of the Ukrainian army when it has already been defeated and when the territory controlled by the Russians has greatly expanded. At this stage, the objective must surely be to impress upon President Putin that Ukraine will be able to defend itself, and therefore that, if the Russians try to resolve the matter by military means, it will take not days or weeks, but months. Against that background, would there not be a much greater likelihood that President Putin would also see the inevitable need for a political and not a military solution?
I am afraid that my right hon. and learned Friend and I will probably have to agree to disagree on that. The position is this: if Russia was intending to make a full-scale military push into Ukraine, it has the forces available to do it. Approximately 10,000 Russian forces are along the border with eastern Ukraine, and it has sophisticated weaponry in large quantities and air forces that could be mobilised. The Russians are already able to do that.
We judge that the intervention the Kremlin is making is carefully calculated to improve the position of the separatists on the ground and to apply pressure to the Ukrainian regime, but there has not so far been a wholesale land grab—it has been the consolidating of separatists’ positions. We judge that the Ukrainian army at the moment is able to hold the line and that, broadly speaking, it is doing so.
I have said that we will reserve the right to keep under review the question of supplying lethal aid. As my right hon. and learned Friend very well knows, many in the United States are debating openly whether a large package of military equipment assistance should be provided to Ukraine. That would clearly change the parameters of the debate. We are watching that debate very closely.
The right hon. Gentleman said in his statement that it was a national decision for each country in the NATO alliance whether to supply lethal aid to Ukraine. He is absolutely right—that is a matter of fact—but does he accept that this cannot be left to unilateral decisions by individual countries? The Russians, for certain, would regard any provision of lethal aid—I certainly do not rule that out in certain circumstances—as a consequence of collective decision making within NATO and seek to respond in a similar way.
While accepting the reality the Foreign Secretary describes—it is a national decision—what efforts is he making to ensure that there is some co-ordination, not least so that we do not end up with a situation in which, within the NATO alliance, two policies are being pursued, which the Russians would skilfully exploit?
I am afraid that the reality is that, if the United States decides to supply lethal aid, there will be two policies within the NATO alliance, because the German Chancellor could not have been clearer about her position, which she set out on Saturday, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said. This is a matter for individual national Government decision, and individual countries will make their own decisions. As far as I am aware, no countries within the NATO alliance apart from the United States are actively contemplating the supply of lethal assistance to the Ukrainians.
Will my right hon. Friend stick to his opinion that, however well trained and equipped the Ukrainian army is, it is inconceivable that it could resist the Russian army, or even slow it down significantly, so long as President Putin determined that he was going to put in the necessary resources? Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the British contribution must be to remain resolute and comparatively hawkish on stepping up economic sanctions if Putin maintains his present stance of military aggression, because the President of Russia cannot protect himself against economic sanctions, and it is the only reasonable response we can make?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. That is indeed the role we have defined for ourselves, being the most forward-leaning partner within the European Union, urging, cajoling and persuading the others about the need to remain robust. When I say that we are the most forward-leaning country, I mean that we are the most forward-leaning large country—some of our small Baltic partners are very much forward leaning on this issue.
The underlying truth is this: hon. Members know, and the history of the Soviet Union reminds us, that, in the end, we cannot ignore the economics. Russia spends something like 20% of its GDP on defence and security. That is unsustainable in the long term. A small and shrinking economy—it is much smaller than the UK economy—attached to a very large military force is ultimately an unsustainable and unstable situation.
I agree with much of what the Foreign Secretary says, including that President Putin is a calculating, ruthless and lethal authoritarian. Does not the whole crisis spring from the failure after the cold war ended to establish a common European security system to which Russia felt attached? Instead, there has been a kind of cold peace. Surely the way forward is a negotiated solution, or an attempt at one, in which there are limits to NATO expansion and European Union expansion in return for an end to Russian aggression.
The situation is that, after the cold war, when 19 ex-Soviet republics, or whatever it was, liberated themselves from the Soviet Union and became independent countries able to set their own path in the world, we sought to build a normal relationship with Russia—one in which Russia would join the community of nations and become richer and more normalised, and one in which the Russian people were able to become more prosperous. President Putin has chosen to set his face against that future and to hark backwards to the Soviet Union or perhaps to the Russian empire. We should remember that he is on public record as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst disaster of the 20th century. Many of us would think it was one of the great achievements of the 20th century.
I do not think we can compromise with somebody whose avowed intention is to exercise control over independent neighbouring countries in such a way that they cannot determine their own future, whether that is a future aligned with the European Union and NATO or a future aligned with Russia and other allies. That must be for those people in those independent countries to choose for themselves.
I strongly welcome the clarity of the Foreign Secretary’s statement and his commitment to a united European response to the invasion. Does he agree that it is vital to pursue the diplomatic path, but equally important to ensure that diplomacy does not simply provide the space and time for the great chess player Putin to weaken Ukraine, regroup and attack again at a later date?
That is the great risk—that the Russian objective is simply to achieve a frozen conflict, and a situation in which, de facto, Russia exercises very extensive leverage over Ukraine, and Ukraine operates not as a truly independent sovereign nation, but as a semi-independent nation. We have seen Russian attempts elsewhere to manage frozen conflicts.
I sometimes think that one of the diseases we suffer from in the west is tidy-mindedness. We tend to think of conflicts such as this one as things that have to be solved and that have to have an end. I suspect that the mindset in the Kremlin is that the Russians can have any number of those conflicts, and that they can remain open, simmering for ever. That would suit them quite nicely.
It sounds to me as if President Putin is getting exactly what he wants. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) was absolutely right. I was at Munich, too. Not only was it obvious that the UK’s views were utterly irrelevant—nobody in the room asked what the United Kingdom thought—but it was clear that Chancellor Merkel was not going to arm the Ukrainians. More remarkably, she did not mention the possibility of further sanctions. The Secretary of State said that we should not weaken Russia any further. It seems to me that we are not supplying arms and not applying any more serious sanctions, with the explanation that that would destabilise Russia even further. If so, Putin will have got what he wanted.
No. If the existing sanctions are rolled over for a further period, the pressure on Russia will be maintained. It is not the case that we have imposed a bunch of sanctions that are not having any effect, and now we should be asking whether we should impose more. We have imposed a bunch of sanctions. Alongside the declining oil price the absence of access to the capital markets is having a crippling impact on Russia.
While the hon. Lady was listening to Mrs Merkel in the room at Munich, I was talking to the Iranian Foreign Minister, so I did not listen to the speech, but I spoke to the German Foreign Minister afterwards. We are actively discussing the maintenance and extension of the sanctions regime with the Germans. Of course, they want to explore the opportunity that tomorrow’s meeting, if it goes ahead, might offer, but the Germans, and the German Chancery in particular, are robust. They have been admirably robust on the case for maintaining sanctions.
This is a very serious and growing crisis. As my right hon. Friend knows, I have consistently warned that Russia plans to complete its illegal annexation of Crimea by forming a land link. Are Her Majesty’s Government content for that to happen? If not, at what point do we exercise that demonstration of strength, which the Foreign Secretary mentioned Mr Putin respects, to show we are no longer prepared to see him completely redraw the boundaries of Europe?
Sometimes we underestimate the influence that we have collectively. If Russia wanted to force a land link to the Crimea, it easily has the military capability in the area to do so and would have done so some time ago. However, it understands clearly that there would be a significantly higher price to pay. In circumstances where it is already suffering very significant impacts from the international response to its behaviour, it has shown no inclination to use the military capability it has in the area to achieve that objective.
We wish Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande well in their search for peace. I personally wish my constituents from RAF Lossiemouth well. They have been deployed to the Baltic as part of the air policing mission. In the past few years, the Russians have been restructuring their armed forces around professional personnel and units that are deployable, based entirely around deployable personnel. What analysis has been done by the UK Government on the reports that have emerged in recent days that the Russians are extending the period in which their conscripts are being made to serve, and what impact that may have on the situation in Ukraine?
I am not aware of any specific analysis relating to the Russian decision on the conscription period. I suspect that that may reflect a demographic challenge that the Russian Federation faces. It has a dramatically ageing population and it is clear that maintaining force numbers when there are declining cohorts of young men will be a challenge. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Russian military has been modernising and professionalising itself. There are now two parts to the Russian armed forces: a mass conscript body and an elite professional force. In our military planning, we need to be conscious of that evolution.
NATO was formed originally so that no aggressor could try to pick off one country after another without knowing that he would immediately be at war with the major powers. Is it not vital that we maintain the distinction between NATO countries and non-NATO countries? Is not the best way to reinforce the impression of the strength of NATO to give an open-ended commitment in future, as we have in the past, that we will spend 2% of GDP—the NATO recommended minimum on defence?
As my hon. Friend knows, at the Wales summit all NATO partners signed up either to maintaining that level, for those who are already spending 2% of GDP on defence, or to making progress towards achieving that level. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the cornerstone of our security in the UK is the article 5 guarantee. Our allies and partners in the Baltic states are acutely conscious that their position is different from that of Ukraine, simply because they are inside NATO and benefit from the article 5 guarantee. He is absolutely right that we need to maintain the clear distinction between the guarantee that we extend to NATO, which is absolute, and the opprobrium we heap on those who launch the kind of attacks we have seen on non-NATO members, but we will deal with attacks on non-NATO members in a different way from attacks on NATO members.
The commitments to give support to the front-line states in the Baltic and Romania, Poland and Bulgaria, and very firmly to enforce and maintain article 5 are absolutely vital at this time. Can it be made absolutely clear to the British public that we are in a very, very potentially dangerous situation given the pattern of Russia’s behaviour—Georgia, the frozen conflict in Transnistria and behaviour towards Armenia in trying to get it away from the European Union—and that we face a fundamental problem here unless there is a change of behaviour by Putin?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am almost sick of hearing myself say it, but this is not just a Ukraine problem. This is a Russia problem. Even if the problem in Ukraine solved itself tomorrow, we would still have a Russia problem. Other former Soviet Union republics are looking nervously at the scope for Russian intervention or interference in their affairs. The disappointment is that public opinion, neither in the UK nor in other EU countries, appears to have understood the significance of this threat. I was personally hoping that the events in the Crimea and the threat to gas supplies might have galvanised German public opinion into feeling willing to support a more forward-leaning German response on strategic and defence matters, but the opinion polling suggests that attitudes have hardly moved at all since the incursion in Ukraine. Hopefully, we can have a cross-party consensus to alert public opinion to the significance of this challenge to the established international order.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while the immediate priority must be to try to stop the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, if Ukraine is to have a future and avoid complete financial collapse it will require an international bail-out on a scale that is not yet under discussion, as well as very urgent political and economic reform to deal with the endemic corruption at every level throughout the country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I thank him for the important work his all-party group on Ukraine does to maintain Anglo-Ukrainian relations. He is right that Ukraine is going to need massive international support, but it cannot be delivered unconditionally. We cannot pour the money of our taxpayers and our international financial institutions into the sink of corruption that is, frankly, the Ukrainian economy at the moment. Ukraine has to make progress on sorting out the endemic corruption if we are to be able to support it towards a better economic future.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I wish the summit well and hope some good comes out of it. May I take him back to the answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain)? There is an issue that goes back to the early 1990s, when there was an agreement that Ukraine would become independent and non-aligned—it would not join NATO. In return, Russia would respect its neutrality and divest itself of nuclear weapons. That was a very good statement and very good progress. Does he not think that there would be a better chance of reaching some kind of agreement with Russia if there was a clearer statement that NATO does not intend to expand into Ukraine, and that in return Russia should withdraw from its border regions, so that we do not build up to two huge armed forces meeting in central Europe yet again?
On that last point—two huge armed forces meeting in central Europe—the hon. Gentleman will know that NATO has refrained from stationing non-national NATO troops in the front-line new NATO member states precisely to avoid that build-up. It is part of the Russia-NATO agreement to avoid that build-up of forces in a confrontational way. I am personally rather reluctant to dictate to independent third countries what they can and cannot do. I think Ukraine is perfectly entitled to aspire to membership of the EU or NATO if it chooses to do so. However, it is very, very clear that membership of either organisation would be many, many years away. Ukraine would have a huge amount of work to do before it was ready for membership of either organisation.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s clear articulation of the economic limits to Russia’s stance, but what is his assessment of the economic impact on Ukraine’s ability to sustain its position and the period of conflict with Putin’s proxies?
The Ukrainian Government are facing significant financial constraints. As the hon. Gentleman will know, they entered a Government-to-Government agreement on the supply of gas from Russia that required them to prepay and clear some old gas debts. That is why we are focused, alongside the strategic channel, on facilitating the $15 billion facility from the IMF, to which the EU will contribute $2.3 billion. That will give the Ukrainians some breathing space. They have to get their economy in order, deal with the corruption issues and make essential reforms, and if they do so, $15 billion will not be the last of it; it will be the first instalment of an ongoing support programme for the country.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the guarantee of peace in Europe and the world has been largely based on a strong EU and NATO and the strong defence capacity of this country? Does he believe that the reason some people say we are peripheral to the main foreign policy discussions in Ukraine at the moment has been the weakness of our support for the EU and NATO and the fact that we have had to be begged by President Obama not to run down our military forces any further?
I shall take that question in two parts. I agree with the first part. It is important that we have a strong EU response. We have already demonstrated, in relation to Iran, that the economic weapon can be a hugely important strategic tool. The EU and the US together represent about 46% of the world’s GDP, so if they align to impose economic sanctions on a third party, they will have an impact. We have shown that that is an important strategic weapon. NATO, of course, remains the cornerstone of our hard defence, and we must maintain the strength of that organisation, including by maintaining European NATO members’ level of defence spending in order to make a fair contribution and balance that of the US.
It is simply not true, however, that we are peripheral in this debate. It is true that we are not leading the discussions with Mr Putin. Mrs Merkel talks to him in Russian, and he talks to her in German; they have common languages and communicate with each other. We should use the best channel available, and that communication channel is the best available for that part of the task. We, on the other hand, are focusing on maintaining the backbone of the EU. Any of my EU colleagues who have been present in the Foreign Affairs Council meetings will confirm that we have been boringly insistent on the need to maintain these sanctions, however long the discussions take. We cannot afford casually to reduce our stance, because the Russians will take any sign of weakness or division, and open it out in a way that will be fatal to our position.
With respect to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), there is no point making war-like noises unless we are prepared to engage in war and see our sons and daughters die. The reason European public opinion is so relaxed is that we do not have a great stake in this matter. We talk about, “Putin this, Putin that”, but it is not just him; the overwhelming majority of Russians believe, for better or worse, that eastern Ukraine is inhabited by Russians who want to be autonomous and for centuries have been associated with Russia. If we go down the route advocated by my right hon. and learned Friend, we will have war without end. Russia could be in Kiev within four days. Surely we should support the present Foreign Secretary and the German Chancellor in trying to find a peaceful solution based on an autonomous eastern Ukraine.
My hon. Friend could hardly expect me to disagree with that last sentiment. His point about Russian public opinion is, of course, true. Sadly, nationalism is easy to whip up, and at the moment Mr Putin is riding on a tide of nationalist sentiment, but as we move through 2015 and the consequences of his actions begin to bite on Russian consumers—let us remember that the entire burden of the economic sanctions and the decline in the oil price is effectively being transferred to Russian consumers in the depreciation of the rouble—they will find life getting very difficult, and I suggest that such a level of public support might not last.
There are many thousands of Ukrainians and people of Ukrainian descent living in all parts of the UK, and obviously they are becoming ever more worried for the safety of their family and friends. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the UK-based Ukrainian organisations can make representations to the Foreign Office and will be kept informed as the situation unfolds?
Yes, I assure the hon. Gentleman that they do make representations to the Foreign Office, and of course we take them into account. I should be clear, however, that we have excellent communications with the Ukrainian authorities. I met the President and the Foreign Minister of Ukraine the week before last at the Auschwitz commemorations. We have regular dialogue with them, and they are hugely active in their engagement with the EU and hugely appreciative of how we collectively have responded to their plight.
Will my right hon. Friend describe what he thinks a successful outcome to the French and German-led talks with Russia would look like? Would it involve the de facto partition of Ukraine, and how would that be anything else than a permanent reward for Russian aggression?
No, a good outcome would not look like that. It would look like an agreement to a ceasefire and a withdrawal from the current lines of contact, along the lines already suggested, and not just an agreement to its happening tomorrow, but evidence by the end of the week that Russian forces were pulling back; it would look like an agreement on the effective policing of the Russian-Ukrainian border so that once Russian equipment had moved back across the border into Russia, there was an effective, transparent regime for monitoring further equipment crossing the border; and it would look like an explicit withdrawal of Russian support for and endorsement of the separatist forces.
If it does not look like that, what will happen? It is clear already that Russia denies it even has troops in eastern Ukraine, and the Speaker of the Duma denied at the recent meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that Russia was even a party to the Minsk agreement and protocol, saying it was a mere bystander. What will happen? Russia could be playing for time, and in the meantime the frozen conflict is increasing. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that something happens? For starters, how about expelling Russia from the Council of Europe for being in breach of its statutes?
We do not know the Russian game plan—one difficulty is the absence of a debate about this in Russia; it is one man making all the decisions. We do not know whether Mr Putin has agreed to this process over the last few days because he has seen the light, understood the pressure on him and genuinely wants to find a solution, or because there is an EU Council meeting on Thursday. Traditionally, his tactic has been to ramp up the rhetoric of peace ahead of Council meetings, and then to drop it like a stone afterwards. In response to my hon. Friend’s specific question, however, the single most effective measure we could take to signal our continued displeasure at the failure of this initiative would be to extend the tier 3 sanctions to the end of 2015. That would send a clear message to the Russians.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an opportunity for peace at present, and that by suspending further sanctions, having Chancellor Merkel, who understands Russian interests, negotiating, and not at this stage reinforcing the Ukrainians, rather than proceeding with further economic pressure, particular given Russia’s circumstances at the moment, there is the chance of an honourable peace that the Russians would be wise to accept?
My hon. and learned Friend is right. The key term is that there is a chance for “an honourable peace”. We understand that face will be important to Mr Putin. The German Chancellor grew up in East Germany under Russian control, so she understands the Russian mentality and how to engage with the Russians to try to reach a constructive solution. I am optimistic that we may see something coming from these discussions, but I will not believe it until I see it being delivered on the ground.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that President Putin’s grievances with the west can be traced back to the comments of the US Secretary of State James Baker at the time of the negotiations over the reunification of Germany, when he categorically said that there would be
“no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or NATO’s forces one inch to the East”.
Having gone to Moscow and met President Yeltsin with John Major, at his request when he was Prime Minister, and having personally talked to President Gorbachev in Moscow, I tell my right hon. Friend that I think we completely underestimate Russia’s security concerns and insecurity. The very minimum we are going to need for a negotiated settlement is a land corridor to Crimea, which most Russians believe to be part of Russia—whatever administrative changes President Khrushchev introduced.
I do not underestimate Russian paranoia, as Russia’s fears of encirclement are an historical phenomenon. Living as we do in a free, democratic NATO member state, we all know that NATO represents no offensive threat to anyone. That is not the way NATO works. It would be inconceivable that public opinion in the NATO countries could be persuaded to support any kind of offensive action against a peaceful neighbour. So Russia has nothing to fear from NATO. As for a land corridor, I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do not think it is our business to sit here discussing whether bits of the Ukraine’s sovereign territory should be given away to a foreign power. If the Ukrainians want to negotiate territory with the Russians, it is of course their prerogative to do so, but it is certainly not for us to do.
I personally would support further immediate economic sanctions led by the EU, but, whatever happens there, for how much longer can we in this country allow Russian nationals to have the benefit of secure and fine living here and to enjoy our banking facilities, for example, while their country wages war and terrorises people on our own continent?
Many Russians living in this country are not exactly friends of the current regime. Indeed, some of them live in pretty much permanent fear of the long arm of the current regime, so I do not think we should tar all Russians with the same brush. We need to be clear that while we have a fundamental disagreement with Mr Putin’s Government, we do not have a fundamental disagreement with the people of Russia. In the medium to long term, we must want to see Russia joining the international community of nations, becoming a normalised economy and the Russian population getting richer, more integrated and freer as the populations of the eastern European countries that lived under the Soviet yoke for so long have now done.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that a full-scale invasion could be mounted by Russia if she wanted to—she has the resources and there is nothing we could do about it. Her policy is “softly, softly catchee monkey”—not full-scale invasion, which would of course alert NATO, whose reaction to that would be far more aggressive than it has been to date. I agree, too, that jaw-jaw is better than war-war. However, there surely comes a time when the jaw-jaw no longer works, and we have to ensure that NATO’s counter-measures are up to the standard to meet such a threat. Let me reiterate a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) that we in this country and the rest of NATO must meet this minimum 2% commitment to NATO. I hope my right hon. Friend can tell us today that this will be in our manifesto for the general election.
It is not my role to write the election manifesto for the Conservative party, and still less to announce the details of it from this Dispatch Box today. I have a certain degree of sympathy for what my hon. Friend says, as he will be well aware. It is essential to maintain our defences against Russia’s asymmetric aggression, but it is also important to understand that economic sanctions are now a weapon in our toolbox alongside military forces. We have used them against Iran, and we are using them in respect of Ukraine. They are part of the new pattern of asymmetric warfare. We should hone and nurture these sanctions so that we can use them effectively in the future.
We have excellent relationships with our Latvian counterparts. I recently visited Latvia because it holds the current presidency. Various UK Ministers will be in Riga over the course of the next weeks and months. I had a discussion in Brussels yesterday with the Latvian Foreign Minister. As one of the Baltic states, Latvia is quite forward leaning on these issues, but in its role as EU president it takes a more measured position, stewarding the EU. We have good relations; we well understand the Latvian position; we greatly appreciate the insight that its knowledge of its Russian neighbour allows us.
It seems to me that the current sanctions are having a limited effect in halting the incursions into Ukraine. What will happen if these current sanctions fail? Further sanctions are implied, so what would those sanctions look like?
We have two levels of sanctions in place at the moment. We have sanctions targeted on individuals and companies—named individuals and companies—that include asset freezes, travel bans and so forth. Then we have the tier 3 sanctions, which are sectoral. These impose prohibitions on the export of goods and on trade with certain sectors of the Russian economy. In particular, there is an exclusion of Russian institutions, public and private, from the capital markets of the free world. We could clearly extend both lists if we chose to do so. We have to make a judgment about the balance of economic harm. There are costs to us as well as costs to Russia, so we need to target our sanctions carefully to make sure that the balance of harm is to the disadvantage of the Russians.
Tuition Fee (Transparency and Accountability)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require universities to report to those paying tuition fees on how those fees are treated and spent; and for connected purposes.
The aim is that letters should be sent by vice-chancellors and governors explaining in detail how they spend their students’ tuition fees. We have to remember that students are the universities’ clients and customers. They are paying a significant amount of money to receive a service. I firmly believe that students deserve accountability from their institutions.
As you know, Mr Speaker, Plymouth is the largest urban conurbation west of Bristol, with a population of 256,384, and it is a significant seat for higher education. Its institutions include Plymouth university, Plymouth college of art and the university of St Mark and St John, commonly known as Marjon. Plymouth university also includes the Peninsula school of medicine and dentistry, but this is split between Plymouth and Exeter universities, with a total of 1,500 students. The Plymouth sites are shared between my constituency and Plymouth, Moor View, which is represented by the shadow Minister for Defence, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck).
Plymouth university is the 15th largest university in the UK, with over 28,625 full and part-time students, including the medical students. I understand that 50% of Plymouth university’s income comes from tuition fees. Plymouth college of art, which is soon to become a university, caters for about 1,500 students. Marjon, also in the Moor View seat, caters for 2,665 students. The total undergraduate and graduate student population within Plymouth is 32,790—just below 13% of the city’s population.
I am very conscious that students in England are paying up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees, and that the vast majority must rely on student loans. It should be borne in mind that the Bill would not affect students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where university policy is devolved. I tabled it because I believe that accountability is essential, and that all university students throughout England should be allowed to know how their money is spent, including the money spent on development, facilities and staffing.
In last year’s annual grant letter, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who was then Minister for Universities and Science, expressed concern about the substantial upward drift of the salaries of some top managements at our universities. I believe that if universities were more accountable to their students, they would ensure that they could justify that expenditure. According to Times Higher Education, the best-paid 10 vice-chancellors of English universities earned between £365,432 and £480,000 in 2012-13. I am delighted to report that none of Plymouth’s universities features in the top 10. Members may wish to compare those academic fat cats’ salaries with the £142,500—including his parliamentary salary—that I understand the Prime Minister earns for running the whole country, rather than just one university. Needless to say, those amounts do not include any redundancy money that might have had to be paid. Last year, one university paid 25 members of staff more than £100,000, despite having spent £3.9 million on redundancy and restructuring costs.
I am convinced that if students keep an eagle eye on what university managements are spending, the institutions will be forced to make better use of the considerable funds with which their student populations provide them. I therefore propose that all university governors and vice-chancellors should not only send every student who is paying tuition fees a detailed letter—as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has begun to do for taxpayers—but give students an opportunity to question how the money is being spent. This Government have taken the lead in putting transparency, openness and accountability at the heart of this parliamentary term, and the English universities should follow.
Question put and agreed to.
That Oliver Colvile, John McDonnell, Chris Heaton-Harris, Chloe Smith, Mark Garnier, Jonathan Evans, Mr Andrew Turner, Philip Davies, Mr Brian Binley, Mr Andrew Love, Sheryll Murray and Mr Brooks Newmark present the Bill.
Oliver Colvile accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March and to be printed (Bill 173).
I beg to move,
That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) for 2015–16 (HC 930), which was laid before this House on 4 February, be approved.
I announced that the provisional police grant report had been laid before the House in a written ministerial statement on 17 December, so that there would be plenty of opportunity for it to be read and analysed before today’s debate.
It is an honour and a privilege to be the Minister responsible for what I often say—and I should often say—is the greatest police force in the world, and it is a great honour to be here today. Policemen and women, and backroom staff, do a fantastic job for us every day, keeping us safe in our homes and tackling crime. I now want to outline the way in which policing has been transformed under this coalition Government in the last four and a half years, and to describe the fantastic work that the police are doing and the innovation that we are seeing on a daily basis. The funding settlement reflects the difficult economic times that we are still experiencing as a result of what we inherited from the last Government, but the police have done a simply fantastic job in reducing crime by 20% over those four and half years, and I think that the whole House should applaud them for that.
The police have been responsible for some unbelievable achievements in the United Kingdom. I am thinking of, for instance, the G8 summit which was held in Lough Erne, in Northern Ireland, when I was Northern Ireland Minister of State. I know that it is not relevant to today’s debate, but I have to say that that excellent summit could never have taken place without the mutual aid provided by police forces that came to Northern Ireland from all over Great Britain to provide their assistance. Last September, that same mutual aid was an integral part of the NATO summit in Wales. I also pay tribute to the members of the intelligence services who ensured that we were safe at those summits, and who keep us safe on a daily basis.
Reforms have been made in difficult economic times during which the funding for our forces has been cut, and I believe that some of the innovation that we have seen would not have been possible had it not been for those difficult times. I recently had the privilege of visiting Hampshire, where I met the police and crime commissioner, the chief constable, and many of the officers who are doing such a fantastic job in the county. I was amazed to discover that what I, an ex-fireman, had assumed was a fire station was actually a joint fire and police station, something that I had not seen before. The two forces had come together to share their facilities and keep their costs down. I went to the police building at the bottom of the old-fashioned drill yard—as a former fireman, I still call it that—and met members of the armed response unit and officers who were based at the fire station as part of Hampshire’s police authority.
I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend is saying about the Hampshire police force, which is one of the most efficient forces in the country, but which receives one of the lowest per capita grants. Will he ensure, as he reviews the formula, that authorities such as Hampshire are not penalised for being efficient?
My right hon. Friend has raised an important point, which I discussed in depth with the chief constable and the PCC, Simon Hayes, during my visit. The 2016-17 formula is under review. As I would expect, a great deal of discussion and negotiation is taking place, involving chief constables, Members of Parliament and PCCs around the country who are all trying to make their case. I emphasise that they should be sure to submit their views to the consultation so that we can examine carefully the way in which the original formula was drawn up. I am determined that the new formula should not merely tweak the old one, and should represent the type of policing that we need in England and Wales today.
I wish not merely to echo what has been said by my right hon. Friend, but to pay tribute to the front-line officers in Hampshire, and to the bravery of one of them in particular. A uniformed female sergeant whom I met had been beaten so severely that she had become unconscious, after about the third time that her head was banged on the kerb. We know that her head hit the kerb about six more times, because the body-worn camera that has been piloted so brilliantly in Hampshire provided the evidence, and the person responsible then got the conviction that that person deserved. It was a real pleasure to see that brave officer back in uniform and back on the front line.
Police officers in Devon and Cornwall are doing a great job with fewer resources, and I am very pleased to hear about the review of the funding formula. Can my right hon. Friend assure me about the costs of policing tourism and students? We are very pleased to have universities in my constituency, but of course they bring policing costs. Will those extra costs be borne in mind in the review of the funding formula?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I know lots of colleagues from across the House will be standing up today and asking whether, as part of the review, there could be extra money for their constituencies. I fully understand that, but I also need the House to understand that policing in many parts of the country has fundamentally changed over the years. The demands and needs are now completely different from before, particularly in rural forces. As I suggested in response to the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), we must put the arguments together into the consultation, which will be taking place across the summer, so that, although I am not sure everybody will be happy, the 2016-17 formula will be much fairer than the current system.