House of Commons
Tuesday 3 March 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
We want to see the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, living in peace and security alongside Israel. We have been clear that the UK will recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a time when we judge it best to help bring about peace.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he not see that constantly saying that the UK recognition of the state of Palestine should be conditional on negotiations between Israel and Palestine in effect gives Mr Netanyahu or his successor a veto over the UK’s sovereign decision to recognise Palestine, especially as that Prime Minister is making a very divisive speech in Washington today? How can this be right?
Although I understand the hon. Lady’s passion—we have debated this matter in the House on a number of occasions—I hope she appreciates that such recognition is not simply a tick-box exercise but a strategic tool, which will have consequences when implemented, and which is therefore best used at a time when it will advance the process and leverage positive change.
The previous Foreign Secretary said that we were in the last chance saloon for the two-state solution. If the Government wait long enough, there will be no opportunity for a two-state solution and the question will then be completely irrelevant.
I am sad to say that I agree with my hon. Friend, as many of the ingredients that we witnessed in the build-up to last summer’s conflict are beginning to re-emerge. If we are to avoid another significant and punishing conflict, all parties must come together immediately after the Israeli elections are complete and a new Government are formed, to address these grave challenges.
There is no legalistic or bureaucratic route to Palestinian statehood and it cannot be imposed from outside. We will see a viable Palestinian state—the two-state solution that we all want—only as a result of proper negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which Britain should be doing everything it can to foster. We need to see the demilitarisation of Gaza, Iran no longer sending rockets to Hezbollah and Hamas, and Britain promoting organisations such as Project Cherish, the Parents Circle-Families Forum and Middle East Education Through Technology to bring together people on both sides who want peace.
I am not sure that was a question, but I certainly agree with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We want the Palestinian Authority to assert itself in Gaza, not just have a technocratic Government. We want the Palestinians to end the political stalemate with Hamas, as he implies, but we also want Israel to allow the free movement of people, particularly the politicians, into Gaza, and to increase trade between Gaza and the west bank.
The Minister is right—we have debated the subject a number of times. The House also voted by an overwhelming margin in favour of recognising a Palestinian state. Under what circumstances does he consider that the timing of such an announcement should be at odds with the sovereign will of the House?
As I said in my initial reply, this is not just a tick-box exercise. It is not something that we debate in Parliament and then move on to the next subject. There are real consequences of when we choose to recognise the Palestinian state. We want to be part of that process and to advance it. When we can leverage positive change, we will do so.
The political and security situation in Libya remains a concern. We call on all parties to agree to a ceasefire, to engage with the UN dialogue process to find a lasting solution, and to unite to defeat the Islamist extremism which is establishing a foothold in that country. I speak regularly to my Egyptian counterpart. I visited Algeria on 19 and 20 February for discussions which were dominated by the situation in Libya.
I welcome the Egyptian Government’s response to the terrible murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya and especially the bridge building shown by President Sisi and religious leaders to the Coptic community. What more can the UK do to support Egypt in its vital role in working for stability in Libya?
My hon. Friend is right that Egypt will play a vital role in the solution in Libya, as all European countries, many of which are very concerned about the situation there, and the United States recognise. Similarly, there are still significant challenges in the human rights situation in Egypt. We were very pleased with the clear statement that President Sisi made on the rights of religious minorities in Egypt. However, as with many other elements of the Egyptian constitution, we now need to see that being delivered on the ground.
Following engagement with ourselves, the Prime Minister appointed the National Security Adviser to engage with the Libyan authorities on reconciliation and finding ways forward for compensation for victims of IRA terrorism that was sponsored by the Gaddafi regime. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what progress the National Security Adviser has made in that work?
I regret to have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the reality on the ground in Libya is that there is no authority to engage with. I am afraid that at the moment I can report no progress on those measures. The urgent need now is to see a Government of national unity created and for the Libyan people to deal collectively with the threat to their society that is posed by the establishment of ISIL cells. Once we have such an authority in place, we will of course re-engage with that agenda.
As the United Kingdom was one of the leading countries that helped the Libyan people overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, do we not have both a political obligation and a political interest to help all the democratic forces in Libya trying to create a new, decent country? While I recognise that the Government do indeed have a priority in that respect, I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that the British Government do all within their power—perhaps even more than they are doing at the moment—over the crucial weeks and months that will determine whether Libya does indeed become a moderate, secular force or continues to be a hotbed of anarchy and potential terrorism.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the next few weeks and months will be crucial for Libya. Would that it was as simple as getting behind the democratic authority in Libya—it is not clear that there is a democratic authority behind which we can get. We need a coming together. I do not want to overplay the prospects, but the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Bernardino León, is making some progress, and the Prime Minister’s envoy, Jonathan Powell, is also working hard. We will continue to engage, because having a stable Government in Libya is vital to our security.
The Tobruk-based Government have agreed to return to the UN talks, but on the condition that they are recognised as the only authority that can take part in those negotiations. What is the view of Her Majesty’s Government? Do they support the Tobruk-based Government?
Our view is that both the Tobruk regime and the Misratans, and indeed the regime in Tripoli, must attend the talks with the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on a no-preconditions basis and on the terms he proposes in order to discuss how they can form a Government of national unity of some kind so that we can begin to rebuild Libya, which could be a prosperous and successful country, and one whose stability is vital to our own interests.
Middle East Peace Process
I have to be candid with my hon. Friend: progress has stalled pending the Israeli general election on 17 March. The British Government strongly supported US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to reach a final status agreement and were disappointed that the parties did not make more progress in 2014. I have discussed many times with Secretary Kerry, most recently when we met in London on 21 February, what the next steps will be. We will press the US to revive the initiative and all the parties to resume serious negotiations as soon as possible after the Israeli elections, and I urge them to be ready then to step up and show the bold political leadership that will be necessary to achieve peace.
I am glad to hear that my right hon. Friend will join me in asking for renewed international pressure on Hamas to disarm and renounce violence. Does he agree that unless that happens it is difficult to envisage a unified and prosperous Palestinian state existing alongside Israel?
My hon. Friend is right that for an enduring solution Hamas must disarm and be prepared to accept Israel’s right to live in peace, but Israel must also stop making illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We need to keep up the pressure on both sides if we are to get a sustainable solution.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most positive possibilities for advancing peace in the middle east would be the success of the international negotiations with Iran on its nuclear projects? Will he take this opportunity to make it clear that any attempt to disrupt those talks by the Israeli Prime Minister when he addresses the United States Congress later today would be bad for the whole of the middle east and bad for Israel too?
My reading of the US Congress is that it probably does not need much encouragement to instinctively be very sceptical about the process of dialogue with Iran on the nuclear dossier. However, some small progress is being made there, and I would very much regret any attempts to destabilise or derail that process. On the wider question, settling the Israel-Palestine issue is the big roadblock to a more enduring peace in the middle east.
Does the Foreign Secretary think that peace will not be forthcoming until Hamas renounces violence and can speak with a single voice? In Israel, we have seen the emergence of a moderate centre ground. Does he think that either condition is going to happen?
I am going to be slightly careful about the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question because Israel is two weeks away from a general election, so I do not want to speculate about different parts of the political spectrum. What is clear is that there needs to be a broad-based movement within Israel that seeks peace, understands that trade-offs are required in order to achieve peace, and places the greatest premium on getting an acknowledgement of Israel’s right to live inside peaceful pre-’67 borders in perpetuity.
It is true that Tony Blair remains the Quad envoy to the middle east. Mr Blair has made a large number of visits to the region; most recently he has been in Gaza. He continues to engage, and I have no doubt that his role will be kept under constant review.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question of settlements, which it is accepted throughout this House are wholly contrary to international law? More to the point, the continual encroachment by the Israeli Government makes it impossible for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state. Can he conceive of any circumstances where a leader of the Palestinians would be able to accept a peace arrangement based on giving up East Jerusalem?
I think that is highly unlikely. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, the Government’s position is that that should not be the case. I have said in this House before and I will say again that settlements are just buildings. Buildings can be built and buildings can be removed, and we must not allow illegal building to stand in the way of a sustainable solution if it can otherwise be found.
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary agrees that the middle east peace process will be more difficult to restart if reconstruction in Gaza continues to proceed as slowly as it is currently. What further efforts, if any, will Ministers be making to speed up the delivery of aid, including British aid, that was promised by the international community at the Cairo conference, before they hand over the challenge to this Front Bench on 8 May?
If I may say so, I think that the hon. Gentleman is getting a little bit ahead of himself there.
We have a good track record on the delivery of our aid pledges in respect of Gaza. A number of other countries have made very forward-leaning aid pledges but they have not yet been followed through. So there is a problem with money, but there is also a physical problem of being able to get materials into Gaza and get works progressed. That is caused partly by the security situation in Sinai and the Egyptian response to that, and partly by the situation between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. I do not think, honestly, that we are going to get much progress before the Israeli general election, but as soon as that election is out of the way, this has to be a major priority.
There have been no discussions between the UK and Argentina on the future of the Falkland Islands during the course of this Government. Any such discussions will take place only when the Falkland Islanders wish them to, and they have made it clear that they do not.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Argentinian Government have brought out new bank notes showing the Falkland Islands as part of Argentina. I think that we have all received a letter from the Argentinian ambassador and a book, “Malvinas Matters”, complaining that there has not been any dialogue. May I reiterate what the Minister has just said? We should not have any negotiations with Argentina on sovereignty until the Falkland islanders want to leave the United Kingdom.
I am aware that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have received that book, which seeks to discredit the Falkland islanders’ right to their own future. It ignores the inconvenient truth that some people on the islands can trace their Falklands ancestry back through nine generations, which is longer than the current borders of Argentina have existed. On the issue of the 50 peso bank note, we cannot stop the Argentinian Government doing these stunts. It is worth a whopping £3.72, according to today’s exchange rate—I think it probably has the equivalent political value.
Patagonia (Welsh Community)
Our embassy in Buenos Aires, in co-ordination with the British Council in Argentina and Wales, will facilitate official visits to Argentina for the celebrations in July to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Welsh settlers in Patagonia. It will also work hard to promote Wales in Argentina through cultural and other events.
The Minister will surely be aware that the 25,000 Welsh speakers in Argentina have a very special place in the hearts of everyone living in Wales. Does he agree that this important anniversary—notwithstanding other matters that, with amazing timing, have just been raised—perhaps offers the opportunity to rebuild a more friendly relationship? Will he come to a photographic exhibition on the Welsh colonies in Argentina, which I hope to organise in the House later this year if all kinds of other events allow?
I would be delighted to continue in this role after the May election, but that is up to the Prime Minister. We should all celebrate the great story of the arrival of 153 Welsh settlers in Chubut in 1865. I am pleased that the First Minister of Wales will go to Argentina, and I am delighted that the National Youth Choir of Wales, the London Welsh choir and the National Orchestra of Wales will all visit Patagonia this year. I hope that they will concentrate on Welsh relations with Argentina, rather than anything else.
The history of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia is an incredible story of tenacity, innovation, fortitude and triumph over adversity, with a thriving Welsh-language community in Chubut province today. Will the Minister ensure that the FCO Argentine mission has an obligation to strengthen relations between Patagonia and Wales?
We have absolutely no problem with the people of Argentina. We enjoy extraordinarily good relations with them, and the Welsh factor is enormously important. When the Welsh Affairs Committee visited last year, it was presented with a declaration on the Falklands, and I expect similar stunts this year. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members and the Argentinians will remember that the members of the Welsh community chose to emigrate and have become Argentine citizens by choice. By comparison, the Falkland islanders have exercised their own right of self-determination and, frankly, it is hypocritical for Argentina selectively to ignore that.
We support all diplomatic efforts that aim to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. Since the latest Minsk agreement was signed on 12 February, Russian-backed separatists have seized control of the strategically important town of Debaltseve. It is not yet clear that Russia has any intention of honouring the commitments it made in Minsk. I held talks with Secretary Kerry last weekend, and I will discuss Ukraine with EU Foreign Ministers on Friday in Riga. In all such discussions, we will continue to argue for a strong and united response to Russia’s actions until such time as we see full compliance on the ground.
I am sure that the House will want to take this opportunity to send its condolences to the friends and supporters of Boris Nemtsov, following his horrific murder last weekend.
The death toll in eastern Ukraine has reached 6,000 according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It also detects an escalation in hostilities, despite the signing of the ceasefire agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that the EU standing together on tougher sanctions is the only way we can make it clear to President Putin that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are unacceptable?
I of course share the hon. Gentleman’s view on the appalling murder of Nemtsov in Moscow.
The hon. Gentleman asked about stepping up sanctions in response to Russia’s failure to comply with Minsk. The Minsk agenda runs until the end of this year, so it will not be until the end of December that Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia, even if all the milestones are complied with. We believe that the tier 3 sanctions should be extended to last until the end of the year, so that we have a tool with which to ensure compliance. We can always suspend or partially suspend the sanctions if the milestones are being met, but we need to have the tool in place right the way through the programme.
I do not recognise the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are playing our part. While Mrs Merkel and President Hollande have done a good job of negotiating the Minsk implementation agreement under the Normandy process, which always involved the four countries of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, our role has been, is and will remain to stiffen the resolve of all 28 EU members to be united and aligned with the United States in deploying what has proved to be a powerful sanctions weapon.
I certainly echo the sentiment of the Foreign Secretary’s final remarks. At this difficult and dangerous moment, it is vital that Europe and NATO stand united in ensuring that the Minsk agreement is implemented in full. However, may I bring him back to his remarks about tier 3 sanctions? Does he believe that new EU restrictive measures should be on the table at the next European Council meeting, as opposed simply to the roll-over and extension of existing measures that he described in his answer?
The European Commission has been tasked to look at a menu of possible additional measures that could be taken. As I have indicated, I think that we need two tools. We need an extension of the existing tier 3 measures through to the end of December. Putin has been telling oligarchs around Moscow that the sanctions will be over by the end of July: “Just hold your breath and it’ll all be fine.” We need to show him that that will not be the case. Alongside that, we need a credible set of options that we can implement immediately if there is a failure to comply with milestones in the Minsk implementation agreement or a serious further outbreak of conflict in the region.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s answer, but let me return to the appalling murder of Boris Nemtsov on Saturday in Moscow, to which he has referred. Clearly, the priority needs to be a thorough and impartial investigation into the murder. President Putin has a personal responsibility to show that the Russian authorities are willing and able to identify Mr Nemtsov’s killers and to bring them to justice. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he has raised this matter with the Russian authorities, and give his assessment of the steps that have been taken by the Russian authorities to begin investigating the case?
We have heard a lot of noise from Moscow, but we have not yet seen any serious action. The omens are not promising. I heard just this morning that some countries’ intended high-level delegations to the funeral have not been able to obtain Russian visas. That probably tells us all we need to know.
The intransigence of the Russians is exemplified by the fact that they still hold in custody two Members of the Ukrainian Parliament, both of whom are members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. When will my right hon. Friend get tough and insist on expelling Russia from the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe itself?
We do not have plans to take that step at this stage, but I assure my hon. Friend that we raise the matter regularly—indeed, the Minister for Europe raised it with the Russian ambassador only last week. I am going to Kiev later this week, and we will continue to work with the Ukrainians to try to secure the release of those two Ukrainians, as well as the Estonian border guard who was captured by the Russians six months ago.
We are deeply concerned about proposals to demolish Bedouin villages. We are monitoring the situation closely, including talking regularly to organisations that work with those communities.
In an earlier answer to an Opposition Member, the Foreign Secretary said that we were talking only about buildings in relation to the peace process. He forgot to say that in order to facilitate the peace process, we have to get people out of those buildings, and that is the big issue. May I push the Minister a little further? There are a number of impending demolitions of villages to make way for Israeli settlements. Will the Minister discuss that issue with the Israeli Government, urge them to reconsider the upcoming evictions and demolitions due for next month, and instead consider villages co-existing side by side in the spirit of peace?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the displacement issues in southern Israel, and the potential demolition of the Umm al-Hiran villages, are not in the occupied Palestinian territories but in green line Israel. That is a slightly separate debate or concern—if I can put it that way—to the illegal settlements that have been put forward, but nevertheless we are concerned and are having a dialogue with Israel about that.
I welcome the Minister’s words, but may I urge on him a sense of urgency and purpose—urgency because the demolition order for Umm al-Hiran may be given in two weeks’ time, and purpose in the sense that action is needed? Will he ask the British ambassador to visit the village, and will he invoke the EU-Israeli association agreement that makes favourable trade relations dependent on Israel’s respect for human rights?
As I clarified, that is a different matter from the debate about the occupied Palestinian territories, but nevertheless we want a robust planning process that adequately addresses the needs of the Bedouin communities. We must keep pushing for that dialogue.
Again, I reiterate the difference between the two issues: one concerns the illegal settlements, and the other is a planning matter that we have raised concerns about. I visited the E1 area, which is where much of the attention is currently focused, and we have discouraged the growth of settlements in that area. Were the plans to go ahead, we would have a break between the Hebron and Bethlehem conurbations, and that would effectively end the middle east peace process.
It is contrary to international law in that sense, and any nation has obligations when dealing with occupied territories and their occupants. We are discouraging Israel from further build, but the land swaps will be integral to any future long-term peace agreement. That is why we are in this quagmire.
We have serious concerns about Iran’s support for militant groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. That includes financial resources and training, as well as the supply of military equipment.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As part of our talks with Iran on its nuclear programme, will there be a specific condition on Iran to stop sponsoring and harbouring terrorism, whether that is supporting the Houthis in Yemen, interfering in Syria, interfering in Iraq with its militias against the Sunnis, or supporting Hezbollah, to ensure that we have a long-term solution, not a short-term fix?
Discussions around a nuclear solution are separate to those other matters, but my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. Iran is having a destabilising effect in the region, and that is a violation of UN resolution 1747 which makes illegal the export of weapon systems and armaments from Iran.
Iran arms Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and it now threatens to arm Palestinians on the west bank who currently support President Abbas. In view of the Minister’s previous reply, what specific representations have the Government made to the United Nations about that flagrant breach of UN resolutions?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Prime Minister had his first meeting with the Prime Minister of Iran at the United Nations General Assembly and very much put those points down. She is right that Iran must question its role in the region. It must ask itself whether it wants to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. We have spoken about Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah is effectively propping up the Assad regime, because he is losing the officer class, which is depleted because of the war.
Next week, as chair of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I will be welcoming the first delegation of Iranian parliamentarians to visit this country for some time. Will my hon. Friend welcome that development? He knows not only that the House will give full and appropriate courtesy to parliamentarians from Iran, but that it will take the opportunity to engage them in the full and frank discussion of matters between us, which is the only basis on which parliamentarians can build a relationship.
EU Membership (Renegotiation)
I assess that mainstream opinion in the UK is that the EU is not currently delivering for Britain. We need to fix that problem, and only the Conservatives have a clear plan to do so. We will negotiate a new settlement with our EU neighbours, and one that works for Britain. We will then put that new settlement to the British people in an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. Only a Conservative Government will make that commitment. Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not want change, and UKIP cannot deliver it.
The Conservative party is the only sane and significant party to guarantee, following a renegotiation, an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU. How many countries has the Foreign Secretary visited to discuss that renegotiation, what levels of engagement has he had, and is there a positive desire for change in other states that matches ours?
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that vote of confidence.
I have currently visited 23 of our partners in the European Union. In a nutshell, there is a very strong view that all member states want Britain to remain in the EU, an understanding that that can happen only if there is significant change in the EU, and a clear willingness to engage with us, particularly on our demands for improved competitiveness in the EU, which all member states want.
19. The Conservative manifesto at the last general election states:“European countries need to work together to boost global economic growth, fight global poverty, and combat global climate change. The European Union has a crucial part to play…A Conservative government will play an active and energetic role in the European Union to advance these causes.”Will that be the Conservative party’s policy in the next Parliament? (907846)
That is exactly what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman seems to subscribe to the view of the world in which Britain sits isolated on the edge. We are a major player in Europe. We have the second largest economy in Europe. We are leading the way in so many areas within the European Union. We have to seize this opportunity to shape the European Union in a way that works for Britain. It went off the rails somewhere over the past 20 years, and we must take this opportunity of reform and renegotiation to get it back on the rails. Crucially, we must then let the British people have the final say on whether the package we have negotiated is good enough or not.
16. Like you, Mr Speaker, I have complete confidence in the Foreign Secretary. I am sure he has sensed not only that there is increased public demand for renegotiation, but that there is absolutely no movement in public demand for that referendum. Is that his assessment, and will he commit to a referendum prior to the end of 2017? (907843)
I reiterate the commitment that the Prime Minister has already made that there will be a referendum by the end of 2017 if there is a Conservative Government. There is virtually no movement in polling evidence in the demand for a referendum. I will say something else to my hon. Friend: by creating the referendum we have—I will use the phrase again—lit a fire under our partners in Europe. They now know that they have to deliver change that is substantive and meaningful; not some backroom political deal, but something that will satisfy the British people in a referendum. That is what is driving the debate.
It is clear that the European Union needs to reform to create more growth, more jobs and more competitiveness, so what is the Minister’s reaction to the warning issued this morning from the executive vice-president of Ford, Mr Jim Farley, who said, on the prospects of “Brexit”,
“We really hope that doesn’t happen and we believe that the UK being part of the EU is critical for business”?
Why does the Conservative party call for the march of the makers in one breath, yet pursue a policy that poses a direct threat to manufacturing jobs, manufacturing investment and trade? Is it that the Foreign Secretary does not see the contradiction, or is it instead a complete and utter absence of leadership when it comes to the European Union?
It is that we need to resolve this issue. Of course, most people in this country recognise the value of the single market to Britain’s economy, but that comes at a price and it is a price we pay in loss of sovereignty and loss of control over many of our own affairs, including some that we do not need to lose control of. The debate will be on the correct balance between what is done at national level and what is done at European level, on the accountability of the European Union institutions to the people of the European Union, and on the European Union’s ability to drive economic growth across all our economies. That is what people in this country want resolved, and by resolving it we will create a more certain climate for business in the future.
The Foreign Secretary has kindly shared with us that he has spoken to 23 other member states and that they all support the United Kingdom’s remaining in the European Union. Can he tell us whether he supports Britain remaining in the European Union? Does he understand the damage that his policy is doing to British business and British interests in order to maintain a temporary peace in his party?
What would cause continuing damage to British industry is not resolving this issue once and for all. The only way to do that is to have a frank and open discussion about the problems in the European Union, to renegotiate the package and to put it to the British people—and then we have settled it for a generation.
MV Seaman Guard Ohio (UK Citizens)
We have regularly raised this case at the most senior levels of Government, and have pressed for the legal process to be resolved as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be raising the issue yet again when he visits India next week. Last month, following requests from three of the men, we issued emergency travel documents. The men will still require permission from the Indian authorities before they are able to leave the country.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but it is now eight months since an Indian court quashed the charges against my constituent Billy Irving. He, and the other UK citizens, are still unable to leave India because the legal process has ground to a halt. Will the Foreign Office redouble its efforts to persuade the Indian authorities to conclude the legal process quickly and get these men home?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have raised this again and again at the highest possible level. Indeed, I am meeting him, and other Members who have been assiduous in raising this with us, in the next couple of days to update him. What we cannot do, however, is simply ignore the Indian judicial process or interfere with it. That is not to say that we do not share hon. Members’ frustrations about the pace of progress.
These six British soldiers all fought for the British Army on the front. They feel utterly betrayed by the Government because of what they see as a lack of assistance in their hour of need. They were all acquitted and freed on 10 July last year. We must be able to do something to get these people home. We must redouble our efforts.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised this with Prime Minister Modi in November 2014. The Deputy Prime Minister did so on his visit to India in August, as did the Foreign Secretary when he met his counterpart in October. I have done so numerous times at ministerial level and with the high commissioner here, and most recently British officials in Delhi raised concerns with the Ministry of External Affairs on 16 and 23 February. Members have been right to raise this again and again and we have kept Members informed. This has taken up a huge amount of time, but, in the management of expectation, I say again to the hon. Gentleman—I say it slowly and clearly—that we cannot ignore the Indian judicial process. We are dealing with a sovereign country, but we share the frustrations about the pace of progress.
UN Human Rights Council
13. What his priorities are for the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015. (907840)
Our priorities include the renewal of UN mandates on Syria, Burma and Iran, increasing international attention on Libya, Ukraine and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, responding to UN reports on Gaza and ISIL activity in Iraq, and thematic resolutions on freedom of religion or belief, combating religious intolerance, and privacy. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Anelay is representing us at the session.
No, and if the hon. Lady looks at our record, particularly when this Government held the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, she will see that, on the contrary, we upheld the standards and values embodied in the convention and successfully negotiated sensible, pragmatic reforms to the way in which the convention is implemented that are in the interests of all states.
It is true, of course, that many of the members of the Human Rights Council, who have been elected by the membership of the United Nations generally, still have the death penalty. The United Kingdom, both at the UN Human Rights Council and in our bilateral and multilateral relationships of all kinds, continues to stress that we regard the death penalty as completely unacceptable.
Will the Minister use the opportunity of the Human Rights Council to raise the human rights crisis in central America, in particular in Mexico? Will he also raise these matters with President Peña Nieto during his visit and tie any future trade developments with Mexico to improvements in its human rights record and dealing with those who killed, probably, the 43 students—but also thousands of others who have died—and the forces that have acted with impunity in that country?
The hon. Gentleman will recall from the recent debate in Westminster Hall, in which he and I spoke, that we have a strong relationship with Mexico. We use that to seek improvements to Mexico’s human rights record and to give Mexico practical help in trying to improve its judicial and police systems in particular. That work will continue.
British Influence in the World
Despite the very tight spending environment, this Government have since 2010 opened nine new diplomatic missions in emerging countries and fast-growing economies and upgraded a further six posts. We have opened an FCO language centre and a diplomatic academy, and shaped the international agenda, including through groundbreaking conferences on the preventing sexual violence initiative, cyber-security and Somalia, and hosting successful summits of NATO and the G8.
My constituents certainly recognise the increased standing of this country across the world under this Government. The Government have rightly made a priority of ending the practice of rape and sexual conflict as a tactic of war and addressing the shameful failure to bring perpetrators to justice. Will the Minister update us on this important initiative?
It is a cause of pride for this Government and this country that the FCO, particularly under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, has for the first time got the international community to take seriously the scandal of the sexual abuse during war and conflict of countless numbers of women and, let us not forget, many men as well. We are now seeing the fruits of that, in the way in which countries such as Nepal, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kosovo are taking up the challenge to put right the wrongs of the past and amend their practices for the future.
When this question was handed out, I was not sure that the Government would be aware that US General Ray Odierno would express concern about our defence capability, following Government cuts, or that the British General Sir Richard Shirreff would describe the Prime Minister as “a bit player” in the Ukraine crisis. When will the Minister recognise how much this Government have marginalised Britain?
I wish the right hon. Gentleman could talk to the leaders of countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, who have been grateful for the resolute political leadership this Government have given, and for the very practical contribution we have made to Baltic air policing and NATO training exercises to defend their security. The—[Interruption.]
This week, we are delighted to welcome the President of Mexico and Senora Rivera on their state visit to the United Kingdom. Indeed, right about now, they should be being received by Her Majesty on Horse Guards parade. The UK and Mexico enjoy an excellent bilateral relationship, and we look forward to broadening and deepening that partnership this week.
My three key priorities continue to be Russia and Ukraine, the struggle against violent Islamist extremism and our plans for the reform of the European Union. Later this week, I will visit Ukraine to discuss the situation on the ground and to assess implementation of the latest Minsk agreement. I will then travel to Warsaw and on to Riga to meet my EU counterparts over the weekend.
As part of the Mexican state visit, it is good to see the flags of the British overseas territories flying in Parliament square today. I am encouraged to hear that London and Madrid are talking about better relations over Gibraltar. I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend, however, that there will never be any discussions over the future of Gibraltar’s sovereignty so long as the people of Gibraltar wish to remain loyal to this country.
Last year, 2014, was dominated by news of horrendous violence against those of different faiths, from Boko Haram abducting Christian girls in Nigeria to the attacks by ISIL against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities within Iraq. In the light of those developments, does the Foreign Secretary agree that a global envoy for religious freedom, reporting to the Foreign Secretary should be appointed? If this Government choose to act, we will support them; if they do not, a Labour Government will act.
Our general approach is to try to get things done using the mechanisms we have. We have an extensive diplomatic network around the world, and we have large amounts of soft power at our disposal, including the leverage that our large aid budget gives us. I do not think simply creating new posts and ticking a box delivers in the way the right hon. Gentleman and the previous Government seem to think it will.
T4. The Minister will know that the UN has delayed by six months its report on human rights in Sri Lanka. A number of Sri Lankan constituents in my constituency are waiting for this report and are actively contacting their MP about it. Will the Minister push for the urgent release of this document, and will he please update us? (907820)
We have worked closely. I have been to Sri Lanka and met the new President, the new Foreign Minister and the new Prime Minister, and the new Foreign Minister has been here. We recognise the concern of all the victims. We remain firmly committed to the Geneva process. This will not be an indefinite deferral; the report is due by September. The extra time recognises the changed political context in Sri Lanka, and it will allow the new Government to deliver on their commitment to engage with the high commissioner and establish their own credible accountancy process.
T2. The persecution of the Rohingya by the Burmese Government still continues, and the appalling humanitarian situation they, and especially the refugees, face continues, too. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to Ban Ki-moon and ask him to go to Burma and personally to negotiate unrestricted humanitarian access for the Rohingya in the Rakhine state? (907818)
Ban Ki-moon chairs a Friends of Myanmar meeting in New York, which I have attended. He is fully aware of what is going on in Burma. We remain extremely concerned about the plight of the Rohingya, not least the white card issue that has just emerged, and we continue to lobby the Government in Burma on that basis.
T6. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and our relationship with Russia have real implications for the United Kingdom’s energy security. Many might say that, had energy security been a more key component of strategic foreign policy for successive European Union Governments, we might now have more room for manoeuvre with Putin. Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that full consideration of our long-term energy security is currently at the forefront of, and central to, our response to the evolving situation in Ukraine? (907822)
Yes, it is a key agenda item. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom is in a much better energy security position than many of our European Union partners. However, as our non-military response to Russia essentially depends on EU unity, we often find that we are as weak as the weakest link in that chain. There is an urgent need to ensure that the European Union as a whole improves its energy security over the coming years, both for reasons of competitiveness and for the sake of our own national security.
T3. What work will the Foreign Secretary do with his international counterparts to build on the progress that was made at the United Nations climate change conference in Lima last December? What role does he think that the Commonwealth has in that regard, given the vulnerability of a number of small island states? (907819)
We are strongly committed to seeing a successful outcome to this year’s Paris meeting, and we played a leading role in the EU discussions on securing a forward-looking EU position. We will use our Commonwealth membership and our bilateral relationship with the Commonwealth countries to reach out to the nations to which the hon. Gentleman refers, so that we can seek the ambitious global agreement that I think Members on both sides of the House would like to see.
We continue to give strong support to the efforts of the United Nations envoy, Espen Barth Eide, to bring the two communities in Cyprus together. A settlement would be in the interests of all communities there. I was very pleased that yesterday the Foreign Office re-hosted a meeting at which the chambers of commerce of both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities were represented by their presidents, both of whom spoke eloquently about the way in which a settlement would increase the prosperity of everyone on the island.
T5. There is huge frustration among my many constituents who have roots and family ties in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Little progress has been made for decades, and the region still suffers as a result of militarisation, violence and human rights abuses. What recent discussions has the Secretary of State had with India and Pakistan, and what hopes has he for a better future for Kashmir in which account will be taken of the views of Kashmiri people? (907821)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Nawaz Sharif when he was here recently, and will raise it again when he travels to India. We are encouraged to note that some talks appear to be taking place between India and Pakistan, because we know how much concern there is throughout the country.
Given our admission that we were unsighted over Russia and Crimea, and given that we were short of Arabists following the Arab spring, is there not a case for spending more on our foreign policy capabilities? Would that not only ensure that we were better sighted, but reduce costs in the longer term because we would be able to avoid making further mistakes?
The Foreign Office makes a huge effort, in difficult fiscal times, to focus our resources on key elements of policy analysis and capability, including those involving the middle east and Russia, which, as my hon. Friend suggests, are particularly important. About 170 of our officers are now registered as having ability in Arabic, and a similar number are registered as having ability in Russian.
T7. We know that 163 Palestinian children are being held in Israeli military detention, and that many are being held inside Israel in direct violation of the fourth Geneva convention. What representations is the Secretary of State making to the Israeli authorities with a view to ending that brutal aspect of the illegal occupation? (907824)
As the Government prepare for renegotiating the European treaties, will they give their full support to the Swiss in their efforts to change their terms of free movement of people as a sign of their sincerity and a symbol that free movement of people is not an unchallengeable part of the European state?
As everybody knows, Switzerland is outside the European Union and has negotiated terms for access to the single European market, as has Norway, but those terms require the Swiss and Norwegians to accept wholesale the body of EU law without having any say in the making of it, to contribute financially and to abide by the principles of free movement. The Swiss have sought unilaterally to change that arrangement and they have been firmly rebuffed by the EU.
T8. Does the Secretary of State agree with his fellow Conservative and counterpart in Norway Vidar Helgesen that with the single market needing bold leadership for its completion and with Europe facing its biggest security crisis since the cold war, it would be a disaster for Britain to sleepwalk out of the EU? (907825)
I had another very good meeting with Vidar Helgesen when he was in London last week, and he is quite open in saying, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just said to the House, that Norway has access to the single market but has to contribute to the EU budget, implement EU law and accept freedom of movement without any say in how those decisions are made, which is why my view is that this country is better off in a reformed EU, rather than adopting the kind of status Norway has.
Is the Foreign Secretary able to update the House on any progress in the Syrian peace talks and in particular, if it remains the Government’s ambition to remove President Assad, what progress we have made in building up an alternative Government capable of taking on IS?
I have to tell my right hon. Friend candidly that the co-ordination between the civilian Syrian opposition and the moderate armed opposition is still disappointing. It is one of the areas on which we and our allies are working. We are committed to taking part in the programme of training and equipping members of the moderate Syrian opposition outside Syria, and that programme is beginning to gather pace now.
Was it the UK that first offered, or was it Ukraine that first requested, the presence of British military advisers, and can the Foreign Secretary assure us that their presence is more likely to lead to a peaceful settlement, rather than an escalation of the process?
There has been a discussion between the Ukrainian Government and ourselves and a number of other European Governments and the United States about various types of assistance, including non-lethal military assistance, and there was agreement among those different allied Governments to supply help to Ukraine. We think that the training will enable the Ukrainian army to operate more effectively than it has been able to do up until now, and that that offer of training would have been justified irrespective of the Russian intervention in the east.
Recent reports emerging from Iran say the regime has been secretly enriching uranium since 2008 at an underground plant in suburban Tehran named as Lavizan-3. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of this concerning news, and does he agree that no deal should be signed with Iran until the International Atomic Energy Agency has unfettered access to all the nuclear programme?
My hon. Friend is right that this is a new piece of information. We have no corroboration of that report at the moment, but he is absolutely right that we will need to look into it and be clear before we reach any conclusion with Iran in the nuclear negotiations.
The Minister, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), earlier said that he did not feel it was right to do anything about the Israel-Palestine situation until after the Israeli election, yet given that none of the major parties in that election is committed to withdrawal from the occupied territories, is not now the time to say that Britain intends to recognise Palestine?
If only it were that simple. I understand that the hon. Lady’s point is well made, but I can tell her exactly what any such statements now will do: they will play to the hard right in the Israeli elections. That will not make a settlement more likely; it will make it less likely.
Pendle is home to a number of Pakistani Christian families, whose concerns I raise in the House. Given our long-standing cultural and economic ties, and the support that we provide to Pakistan via the Department for International Development, what more can my ministerial colleagues do to ensure religious freedom and tolerance there?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Pakistani diaspora in this country is a large one and we have a very strong relationship with Pakistan, but we are concerned about the misuse of blasphemy laws there. I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister and through the parliamentary delegation that went to Pakistan only last week.
Child Sexual Exploitation (Oxfordshire)
I thank the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for his question. No child should have to suffer what the victims of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire have suffered. The serious case review published today by Oxfordshire’s local safeguarding children board is an indictment of the failure of front-line workers to protect extremely vulnerable young people over a number of years. Reading the details of what happened to them has been truly sickening.
The serious case review makes it clear that numerous opportunities to intervene to protect those girls were missed, as police and social workers failed to look beyond what they saw as troubled teenagers to the frightened child within. I welcome the publication of the serious case review. It is only by publishing such in-depth accounts of what happened, and what went wrong and why, that children’s social care systems locally and nationally can address the failings that have betrayed some of our most vulnerable children. That is why this Government have insisted that serious case reviews be published, and in full.
The children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), has also written today, with Ministers from the Home Office and the Department of Health, to the Oxfordshire safeguarding children board requesting a further assessment of the progress being made, and we will send an expert in child sexual exploitation to support the board this month.
Sadly, Oxfordshire was not alone in failing to address the dangers of child sexual exploitation. We now know from Professor Alexis Jay’s and Louise Casey’s reports into Rotherham and the report by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) in Manchester that child sexual exploitation has been a scourge in many communities around the country. This Government have been determined to do everything within their power to tackle child sexual exploitation, and that is why we are today publishing an action plan setting out the action we have already taken to strengthen our approach to safeguarding children from sexual exploitation, along with the further steps that we think are necessary to address the culture of denial; improve joint working; stop offenders; support victims; and strengthen accountability and leadership.
We are setting up a national centre of expertise into tackling child sexual exploitation, to support local areas around the country, and there will be a new whistleblowing portal so that anyone can report their concerns. We have also prioritised child sexual exploitation as a national threat, so that police forces will now be under a duty to collaborate across force boundaries, and we will consult on extending the criminal offence of wilful neglect to children’s social care, education professionals and elected members.
This afternoon, I will be joining the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and other Secretaries of State in Downing street to discuss with local and police leaders how we will collectively take forward the actions set out in today’s plan. The experiences of the children set out in this serious case review should never have happened. We are determined to do everything in our power to stamp out this horrific abuse and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Does she agree that the victims, the 370 other children identified as at risk, their families and the public, who are horrified that these sickening crimes were allowed to continue for so many years, are owed answers to crucial questions which the serious case review could not address? How was it that there was a culture in the county council and the police whereby such serious incidents were not escalated to senior officers? How was it that a professional tolerance of under-age sexual activity developed, as the report says, to the extent that it contributed to the failure to stop the abuse?
Who takes responsibility for the catastrophic failings? The chief constable and the council chief executive have apologised, but they did not know what was happening. The chief constable is moving on; the former directors of social services and of children and families have left; the former leader of the council retired; the lead member for children’s services was reshuffled; and the chief executive of Oxfordshire council saw her position made redundant at the end of January, only for the council leader last week to admit that they had made a hash of it and so the situation has to be reviewed.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the highly commendable work done by the council, the police and other agencies to improve protection and prosecution since Operation Bullfinch cannot distract from the horrors of what went wrong? We saw failure to act on clear evidence of organised sexual exploitation; failure to provide protection to children; failure to draw serious issues to the attention of senior management; failure to heed the concerns of junior staff; chaotic arrangements for child protection; unminuted meetings; and a professional disregard for the illegality of young girls being forced to have sex with older men.
Should there not be wider, independent scrutiny of the internal management reviews which underpinned this serious case review? Do the public interest and redress for victims not dictate that those responsible for these failings should be fully held to account? Will the Government set up an independent inquiry into what went wrong and who made the mistakes that enabled this depraved exploitation of vulnerable girls to go on for so long, so that the lessons are learned from these awful crimes and from the failure of public bodies to provide the protection that it was their duty to provide to children who were suffering such unspeakable abuse?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for his questions, and I fully respect the emotion and passion with which he and other Members will be discussing these matters—these very serious matters, as he has set out. He talks about failures and he is right to do so. He is also absolutely right to say that at the heart of this are the young people who have been utterly let down by the system and whose lives have been blighted. It is important that we think about all the victims and their families, and I am pleased to confirm that part of today’s summit and the announcements thereof is a £7 million fund to support those who have been victims. Clearly, however, there is much more that we all need to do.
The right hon. Gentleman asks how the culture arose and why things were not escalated. He also mentions the so-called professional tolerance of these crimes and asked who takes responsibility. On accountability, he set out the position of various people working within Oxfordshire, some of whom are still in their positions and some of whom have moved on. It is not for me to apportion blame—that is a matter for Oxfordshire county council, the police and the health agencies locally—and the purpose of this serious case review is to understand what went wrong and why, and to ensure that we learn the lessons for the future. He is absolutely right to highlight another point, which Maggie Blyth, the independent reviewer, talked about this morning when she said that although
“there was no disregard of clear warnings at top level and no denial by those in charge, their lack of understanding of what was happening on the front line caused unacceptable delays. This allowed offenders to get away with their crimes. The review describes a culture in Oxfordshire where the value of escalation to the top was not understood.”
The review also contains some heart-rending comments from the victims. One that particularly stands out was:
“If a perpetrator can spot the vulnerable children, why can’t professionals?”
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that many more questions will need to be answered.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about future reviews and inquiries, and the letter signed today by Ministers from my Department, the Home Office and the Department of Health makes it clear that we are proposing that the local safeguarding children board leads a specific piece of work on the impact of the multi-agency approach to tackling child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire. We have appointed Sophie Humphreys to work alongside Oxfordshire county council to gather the evidence on the effect of its reforms to front-line practice.
The right hon. Gentleman correctly highlights the fact that the council has taken action since these allegations all first came to light. As has been recognised by the serious case review, there has been tremendous investment in services to support children at risk of sexual exploitation, including the establishment of the specialist Kingfisher team, a multi-agency front-line service for victims of child sexual exploitation; the training of thousands of front-line staff in raising awareness; and an increase in the number of front-line staff as a whole. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the fact that lives have been blighted by these crimes. Questions need to be answered, some of which will be addressed this afternoon in the Prime Minister’s summit in Downing street.
The right hon. Gentleman says that lessons need to be learned, which is a phrase that is often used in these sorts of cases. But that is not enough. We want action. It was very clear that those who came across this information, not just in Oxfordshire but in other authorities, did not act on it—and that is unacceptable.
Nothing more distressingly demonstrates how completely local agencies failed in this area than the words of survivors. One victim said, “I turned up at a police station at 2 am or 3 am with blood all over me, soaked through my trousers to the crotch. They dismissed me as being naughty and a nuisance. I was bruised and bloody.” Another victim said, “Social services washed their hands. ‘It is your choice’, I was told.”
We must not only pay tribute to the victims for their bravery in coming forward, but recognise that such serious abuse has long-term and complex consequences. I ask the Education Secretary today to make it a personal priority to ensure that these survivors get the long-term and sustainable support that they need.
I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know that she, as an Oxfordshire MP, has been deeply involved in these matters, and I pay tribute to her for her work. I can assure her that my Department and all relevant Departments will do all we can to help and support the victims of these crimes. She is absolutely right to talk about the culture of denial, and the unwillingness to look at the signs of physical and mental abuse inflicted on the victims, which will undoubtedly affect them for the long term. That is why dealing with these issues and ensuring that the front-line professionals take action is so important.
After Rochdale and Rotherham comes an account of the horrific events in Oxford. Let us be clear that it is the heinous crimes and the callous wickedness of Mohammed and Bassam Karrar, Akhtar and Anjum Dogar, Kamar Jamil, Assad Hussain and Zeeshan Ahmed that needs to be condemned again today. They are the ones responsible for the sadism, the grooming, the abuse and the torture that was inflicted on vulnerable girls in Oxford, robbing them of their adolescence, their health and their sense of worth. The serious case review report also reveals that both Thames Valley police and Oxfordshire county council completely let down those victims. In the words of one victim,
“The police never asked me why”
I went missing;
“I made a complaint about a man who trafficked me from a children’s home. He was arrested, released and trafficked me again.”
As we saw in Rochdale, the voice of victims was not listened to and prejudicial thinking around lifestyle choices blocked detailed investigation. These were young girls, exploited teenagers, suffering terrible abuse. Once again, we need to ensure that care homes, the police, social workers and health workers eradicate any cultural tolerance of the abuse of young girls. As Maggie Blyth from the Oxfordshire safeguarding children board said, there were “repeated missed opportunities” that could have been “identified or prevented earlier.”
Government have a role to play, so let me put these questions to the Secretary of State. Is she satisfied that the safeguarding arrangements in place for children in Oxfordshire today are right and proper and will prevent more children from being vulnerable to child sexual exploitation? Do the Government now intend to establish an independent inquiry into Oxfordshire county council to see whether it has the capacity to safeguard its children? We know that the work of Alexis Jay and Louise Casey in Rotherham was instrumental in sorting out that council in its approach to child sexual exploitation. Will the same approach be taken with Oxfordshire? Will further action be taken against those agencies and individuals who are found to have failed these children?
The Prime Minister is today setting out new measures to end “wilful neglect”. What is the Government’s definition of “wilful neglect”? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the definition places sufficient onus on individuals who come into contact with children to report signs of abuse? Will she and the Home Secretary now support stronger laws on child exploitation and abduction? Will she look again at child abduction warning orders and the specific offence of child exploitation?
Finally, will the Secretary of State now join the cross-party consensus—the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Education Committee and all professionals in the field—and support age-appropriate statutory sex and relationship education to teach young people about consent and healthy relationships? We need to give young people the armoury and the education to know that this kind of sexual abuse is wrong and needs to be stripped out of British society?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and his questions. I agree with his analysis that voices were not listened to. He points out that prosecutions have already taken place for crimes that have been committed. He is right to say that there should be no holding back on prosecutions because of the perpetrators’ background. As the Prime Minister rightly said this morning, that relates not just to Oxfordshire. There have been other terrible cases, as we have seen in the past few months, if not years. The Prime Minister said that a warped sense of political correctness had potentially prevented some investigations from taking place.
The hon. Gentleman asks about inspections. Ofsted inspected Oxfordshire children’s services last year and highlighted, as he did, the steps that had been taken in relation to Oxfordshire children’s services. I have already mentioned the letter sent by my right hon. Friends this morning in relation to the appointment of a senior children’s services expert to go back into Oxfordshire to look into the points raised in the serious case review.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Louise Casey report. That was a wider report on council governance in Rotherham, in particular. In Oxfordshire we are looking specifically at the children’s services departments, but clearly this is an ongoing issue. He mentions the offence of wilful neglect, which we have said we will consult on. That concept is set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and has been proposed by my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary in relation to the lessons and the consequences of the Mid Staffs issues. It is a failure to act by a person who has a duty of care, in this case to children and young people.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the offence of child sexual exploitation. There are already many offences under which the perpetrators have been prosecuted, including, clearly, sexual relations with children and child rape. He mentions the education of young people in schools. I am fully in favour of excellent PSHE, sex and relationship education and education on consent, but it must be excellent. It cannot just be about ticking boxes. He talks about young people perhaps not knowing that what was happening to them was wrong. I think he knows that that is not the case, given the quotes from the victims in the serious case review. They knew that what was happening to them was wrong. They asked for help but they did not get it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that every police officer, council official and social worker should consider whether a youngster is a child, and if they may be a child, they should be regarded as a child, listened to as a child and protected as a child, and that any professional who fails to provide that protection should risk disciplinary and criminal proceedings?
My right hon. Friend is right. The offences in this case and in many others were committed against children. There can be no doubt that children of the age involved cannot give their consent to what was perpetrated against them. That should have made it much clearer to those who received reports or should have taken action that they needed to do so, and they were professionally incompetent for not doing so.
Does the Secretary of State agree that these ghastly crimes against children are a blight on any civilised society and that we must stop them occurring? Does she further agree that it is too often too easy to provide a fast knee-jerk response and get it wrong? Let us look very carefully at the evidence and consider how to respond. Let us look also at the way in which we are shrinking childhood in this country. Personally, I would like to see the age of consent raised. I oppose votes at 16 because that will bring the end of childhood closer. There is too much pressure on childhood and we as a society must look carefully at the preciousness of the childhood years.
The hon. Gentleman is right that what we have seen in Oxfordshire and elsewhere are abhorrent, sickening crimes, and they are crimes. He is right to say that any of us in any position of authority feels that those are a stain on our society and must be eradicated. He is right to say that we do not want to rush into responding, but where immediate action must be taken, it is important that it is taken. That is what we have seen in Rotherham, for example, with the appointment of the commissioners. The Secretaries of State have been meeting since last autumn to discuss the Government’s response to Rotherham in particular, which will be announced at Downing street this afternoon. We have taken time and there will be further consultations coming out of the response. We have already announced reforms to children’s social work practice, and that is a long-term response about improving training. He will understand that there needs to be a mixture of responses to something as sickening as this.
We must do everything we can to reduce the vulnerability of the young people we have heard about today. Further to the question from the Opposition spokesman and the Secretary of State’s response, my Committee agrees about the need for excellent sex and relationship education in schools precisely to give resilience to young people, to enable them to talk about consent in a meaningful way, as one witness put it, and to tell them about age gaps and predatory behaviours so that they start to recognise those. We wrestled with how we would get the curriculum time and the investment in teacher quality if we do not make such education statutory—reluctantly, because we do not want to impose further duties on schools. We came to the conclusion that that had to be made statutory if we are to deliver it. If the Secretary of State thinks it should not be statutory, will she tell us why, or tell us what else could be done in lieu of what we suggested to make these things happen?
I thank my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee for his remarks. The Committee produced an interesting report and I know that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), gave evidence to the Committee. We will consider the conclusions carefully. In relation to consent, it is important to know that the victims in these cases knew that they had not given consent. There was no question about consent being given. They knew that what was happening to them was absolutely wrong. Sex and relationship education is already compulsory in secondary maintained schools. Most academies and free schools also teach it, and I suspect that many primaries do so in an age-appropriate way. I was at Eastbourne academy last week talking to the students there about what they call SPHERE, which is like PSHE. The academy taught it in a fantastic way. It did not need to be told to do so; it did not need such teaching to be statutory. It was doing it because, exactly as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, it was preparing young people to be resilient.
The whole House will be appalled at what has happened in Oxfordshire, but does the Secretary of State understand that we are appalled also that individuals who preside over these failing systems are not held to account? If there was a council where junior social workers have not referred these things up the system, where senior officers and senior councillors were unaware of them, that is a sign of a failing system within a council, and a proper independent outside inquiry is needed to get to the heart of why that system failed and to put it right, as was rightly done in Rotherham. Will the right hon. Lady explain to us why that is not happening now?
The serious case review is an important step in what the hon. Lady calls for. It identifies the fact that, as she said, in Oxfordshire’s case there were junior people who were producing reports but those did not reach a senior enough level. There are other councils, as we know, one of which is Rotherham, where junior people did put in reports which were raised at a senior level, and the people at a senior level chose not to act on them. I have sympathy for the hon. Lady’s point about accountability and people taking responsibility. It will clearly be a matter for Oxfordshire county council, the police and others to think about who needs to take responsibility for these matters. We have already seen that in Rotherham my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has appointed a whole new set of commissioners to run that council. There are other councils where those in charge have taken responsibility and have resigned.
I welcome the measures announced today and the Secretary of State’s indication that child sexual exploitation is now seen as a national threat, which shows the scale of abuse that I think is suspected. Thames Valley police suffered from many failings, but they have made some progress since 2013—I believe that 47 offenders have been successfully charged with 201 child sexual exploitation offences. What can she say at this stage about the support that she and her colleague in the Home Office, the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, will give to police officers and those on the front line who have to deal with these terrible offences?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that child sexual abuse will now be prioritised by every police force in England and Wales as a national threat, just like serious and organised crime, which means forces will now have a duty to collaborate to safeguard children, including through more efficient sharing of resources, intelligence and best practice. They will also be supported by specialist regional CSE police co-ordinators. I think that the national policing lead will be at this afternoon’s summit, where I expect to hear about much better training for all police officers.
Sadly, this report echoes many of the examples of child abuse we have heard about in my own borough of Rotherham and elsewhere. I have two things to say to the Secretary of State. First, Ofsted also carried out an inspection in Rotherham and gave it a clean bill of health when that clearly was not the case. Secondly, she is right to say that Louise Casey’s report on governance went wider than child protection, but it was set up specifically because of the child abuse taking place in Rotherham. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the scrutiny by elected members in Oxfordshire is up to the standard necessary to protect our young children? It clearly was not in my borough, and people are rightly having to take responsibility for that. Is she happy that that is being done in the elected Oxfordshire county council as well?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Ofsted inspected Rotherham before the issues came to light. The Ofsted framework has since changed, so the inspection carried out in Rotherham was based on a different framework and asked different questions from those of the inspection that we see today and the one that was carried out in Oxfordshire last summer. He is right to raise the issue of elected members, which is one of the questions that we will continue to go back to in Oxfordshire. He will be aware that the proposals on wilful neglect that the Prime Minister announced this morning will also apply to elected members.
I, too, pay tribute to the victims of these appalling crimes. Has the Secretary of State taken into account the fact that Operation Bullfinch, which brought the perpetrators to justice, has transformed the legal landscape in which cases can be heard? Have the good points that were brought out from Operation Bullfinch been taken into account across the country?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to put support for the victims at the heart of all this. He is right that things have moved on as a result partly of Operation Bullfinch and partly of other operations and lessons learned from other cases. It is a different landscape but, as he will appreciate, that does not take away from the harm done to the victims.
I think that is a matter for the leaders and elected members of Oxfordshire county council to consider. The serious case review obviously covers failings from 2004 to 2011. We have today asked for a further locally led assessment of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire and for Sophie Humphreys to continue that work. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that this work is ongoing.
Two weeks ago I was with the Metropolitan police jigsaw unit and paedophile unit, and they will be delighted to a degree to hear her statement on education, because they feel that that is the answer, but they want it to be slanted more towards prevention. Teach what is normally taught, but also teach children about prevention, particularly on the internet. The Metropolitan police used to have a very good scheme that certainly worked for children and teachers, but it seems to have disappeared.
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of education. It is all about the quality of the teaching materials and of the teaching that goes on in schools. There is no point having some sort of lip service paid to lessons about consent or anything else if the lessons do not sink in. The Government have invested in the PSHE Association, supporting improved teaching materials and improved guidance on consent.
May I press the Secretary of State on the need for an independent inquiry? If the cultural issues that led to complaints and concerns not being escalated have not been addressed, why should there not be an independent inquiry?
As I said earlier, the serious case review is an independent inquiry and, under this Government, it will be published in full so that we can all see what has been said. As I have said, we propose that there should be a specific piece of work led by Oxfordshire’s safeguarding children board on the impact of the multi-agency approach to tackling CSE, and we are appointing a children’s services expert to work alongside the council and gather evidence of the reforms it has already made to front-line practice.
I know that many police officers at all levels of the service are appalled at the policing failures that led to the wider failures in this terrible set of cases. I appreciate that this does not fall within the Secretary of State’s ministerial responsibility, but does she share my view that the key thing in the training of police officers now is to change the culture of disbelief so that they treat vulnerable young women no longer as a problem but as victims of crime?
My right hon. Friend is right to point to the culture of denial and disbelief. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), there was sometimes a reluctance to believe allegations, even when victims presented themselves in a state at a police station. The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims is sitting alongside me, and I know that he is as appalled as we all are about this. As we have learned, there are lessons for the police that will be picked up at today’s summit.
The Secretary of State earlier said, “We on this side of the House are concerned”. May I take this opportunity to remind her that all Members on both sides of the House are united in their determination to drive out child sexual exploitation? I ask her to look at two particular proposals to increase resilience to such exploitation among children: first, to feed into the Home Office review of child advocates the lessons from this review; and secondly, to take up a suggestion made by worried mums in my constituency for parents’ PSHE so that they can better protect their children.
The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot speak for Opposition Members, but I think that the tone of remarks from the shadow Education Secretary and others has shown that Members on both sides of the House are appalled by what has happened to the victims, and sadly not only in Oxfordshire, but in other local authorities. She will be well aware of what has happened to Slough’s children’s services and of the work that has been done there to set up the trust over the years. I understand her point about child advocates, which has already been taken up, and what she says about parents, whether in relation to PSHE or anything else. In this case, however, looking again at the serious case review, there were parents of victims also saying that they needed help, but they were not believed. That makes this case even more appalling.
As my right hon. Friend has said, child sexual exploitation has been a scourge in many communities across the UK. I am pleased that Lancashire police have taken a lead on those issues for a number of years now and regularly update me on local prosecutions. Will she say more about the level of support she can provide for the charities and non-statutory bodies that are doing such fantastic work to support victims but find themselves under increasing pressure at this time?
Although many statutory agencies will be responsible for dealing with these issues in supporting victims and their families, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the charities and the voluntary and community sector, which provide that support as well. This afternoon, for example, representatives from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and Rape Crisis are attending a summit on this. I know from my role as Minister for Women and Equalities—the policing Minister will appreciate this too—that smaller organisations often find very valuable support in communities. We absolutely want to help them to do their job.
When the Education Committee carried out a year-long inquiry into child protection, we found that more needed to be done to support professionals in responding effectively and consistently to the early signs of neglect. Neglect causes long-term damage to thousands of young people every year. Therefore, should not prevention of neglect be as much of a priority as finding the perpetrators and supporting the victims, which the Secretary of State has talked about, and should that not include support for professionals, as recommended by the Committee and accepted by the Government two years ago in their response to our report?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the need to deal with neglect, and I entirely agree. Sadly, there are many vulnerable children across our country. I am sure that we see them in our role as constituency Members of Parliament and work with them and their families. I mention to him the work that this Government have undertaken through the troubled families programme, which is turning round the lives of thousands of children. We also have the new knowledge and skills statement for children’s social workers that has been prepared by the chief children’s social worker, Isabelle Trowler, who does a fantastic job in my Department, and the wider reforms that I have announced in training for children’s social work. It all very well to have lots of children’s social workers, but it is also very important to ensure the quality of their training and of the work that they do in supporting vulnerable children and families.
Detention is an important part of a firm but fair immigration system. It is right that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily, but a sense of fairness must always be at the heart of our immigration system, including for those we are removing from the UK. That is why the allegations made by Channel 4 about Serco staff at Yarl’s Wood are serious and deeply concerning, it is why they required an immediate response to address them, and it is why the Government have ensured that that is being done.
All immigration removal centres are subject to the detention centre rules approved by this House in 2001. Those rules, and further operational guidance, set out the standards that we all expect to ensure that the safety and dignity of detainees is upheld. No form of discrimination is tolerated. In addition to the rules, removal centres are subject to regular independent inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and by independent monitoring boards that publish their findings. The chairman of the independent monitoring board for Yarl’s Wood is Mary Coussey, the former independent race monitor. The most recent inspection by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons found Yarl’s Wood to be a safe and respectful centre that is continuing to improve. The last annual report of the independent monitoring board commented positively on the emphasis placed on purposeful activities within the centre and the expansion of welfare provision, and raised no concerns about safety. None the less, the Home Office expects the highest levels of integrity and professionalism from all its contractors and takes any allegations of misconduct extremely seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the recent allegations, Home Office officials visited Yarl’s Wood to secure assurances that all detainees were being treated in a safe and dignified manner.
The director general of immigration enforcement has written to Serco making our expectations about its response to these allegations very clear. We told Serco that it must act quickly and decisively to eradicate the kinds of attitudes that appear to have been displayed by its staff. Serco immediately suspended one member of staff who could be identified from information available before the broadcast, and has suspended another having seen the footage. The company has also commissioned an independent review of its culture and staffing at Yarl’s Wood. This will be conducted for Serco by Kate Lampard, who, as the House will be aware, recently produced the “lessons learned” review of the Jimmy Savile inquiries for the Department of Health. However, more needs to be done. The Home Office has made it clear that we expect to see the swift and comprehensive introduction of body-worn cameras for staff at Yarl’s Wood. In addition, we have discussed with Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons how he might provide further independent assurance.
This Government have a proud record of working to protect vulnerable people in detention. We have reviewed the Mental Health Act 1983 and set out proposals for legislative change as a result; held a summit on policing and mental health, highlighting in particular the concerns of black and ethnic minority people; and commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to undertake a review of vulnerable people in police custody that will be published shortly. Before these allegations were made, the Home Secretary commissioned Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, to lead an independent review of welfare in the whole immigration detention estate. We will of course invite him to consider these allegations as part of that overarching review.
This country has a long tradition of tolerance and respect for human rights. Detaining those with no right to remain here and who refuse to leave voluntarily is key to maintaining an effective immigration system. But we are clear that all detainees must be treated with dignity and respect. We will accept nothing but the highest standards from those to whom we entrust the responsibility of their care.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and the Minister for her answer and her explanation of why the Minister for Security and Immigration is not here today. I am very pleased to see the two local MPs, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller).
Channel 4’s film on Yarl’s Wood, shown last night, revealed shocking footage about the detention centre, which has been under heavy criticism for the treatment of its 400 detainees since 2001. What was uncovered was deeply disturbing. Serious questions were raised over standards of health care in Yarl’s Wood. What was detailed included examples of self-harm by detainees, including three women who jumped from the stairs and people slashing their wrists in an attempt not to be removed. It took a freedom of information request to reveal that there were 74 separate incidents of self-harm needing medical treatment at the centre in 2013. Guards who appeared in the footage merely dismissed information about people harming themselves as “attention seeking”. Will the Minister explain why her ministerial colleague, Lord Bates, told Parliament on 24 February that there had been no serious incidents of self-harm taking place in the past two years?
Arguably the most concerning element was the contempt that was shown for detainees through the use of racist, sexist and generally abusive and degrading language. We saw a guard advocating violence towards a person who was detained there. One guard said:
“Headbutt the bitch…I’d beat her up.”
Another was recorded as saying:
“They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up.”
These are appalling statements that should never be tolerated by anybody, particularly from employees of a company in receipt of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Yarl’s Wood is not a prison but an immigration centre that has a duty to protect some of the most vulnerable, who are in most cases escaping violence and instability in their countries of origin in search of a better life. Frankly, some are there because the Home Office has taken such a long time to deal with their cases. Instead of being protected, detainees are verbally abused and poorly treated.
This is not the first time that Yarl’s Wood has been the subject of parliamentary criticism. The Home Affairs Committee has been highly critical of the centre’s performance following damning reports of sexual misconduct and excessively long detentions. Of course I welcome the suspension of one of the people involved, and the fact that an independent inquiry is to be established, but the Minister is absolutely right that more needs to be done. We need a timetable for that inquiry. Will she send in her inspectors not just to visit but to write a report having spoken to detainees?
Has the Minister spoken to Rupert Soames, the chief executive of Serco, to express the Government’s concern? Serco’s right to bid for other contracts should be suspended pending any review. Despite reports of catastrophic failings in November last year, Serco was awarded an eight-year, £70 million contract at Yarl’s Wood. Will the Minister look at her procurement processes? All of Serco’s contracts should be reviewed immediately. The Select Committee has recommended in the past that those who fail the taxpayer should be put on a register and should not be given any other contracts. Only a few months ago, the Lord Chancellor sent in the Serious Fraud Office in order to discover why Serco had overcharged the taxpayer by £70 million.
I agree with the Minister that this treatment is inhumane. The United Kingdom has a reputation as a world leader in human rights—that is clear from the number of people who risk their lives to come here—and we simply cannot allow this behaviour to continue in a centre that has a duty to protect them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, for all that he and his Committee have done over many years to highlight problems in immigration detention centres. In 2009, his Committee reported specifically on UK Border Agency immigration detention centres, and this Government legislated to implement its recommendations.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are all shocked and appalled by the evidence we have seen, and action must be taken. Hon. Members should be under no illusions: this Government are breathing down the neck of Serco, and we want to see action swiftly.
The right hon. Gentleman said that one person has been suspended. In fact, one person was suspended before the broadcast. We were unable to see the programme before it was broadcast, but on the basis of evidence available before the broadcast, one person was suspended. Another has since been suspended, and I know that Serco will shortly look at whether to suspend others.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a comment about self-harm by my colleague the noble Lord Bates in the other place. In fact, Lord Bates said that there were no cases of suicide or attempted suicide in Yarl’s Wood, and that is correct. There is evidence of self-harm, which we take extremely seriously, but there have been no suicides or attempted suicides.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the language and behaviour of the staff is completely and totally inappropriate. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that this Government and this House take that very seriously. The message to Serco is that this needs to be sorted out and needs to be sorted out quickly.
I spoke this morning to the chair of the independent monitoring board at Yarl’s Wood, and she is shocked and horrified about what was shown on television last night. There is no justification for what we saw, and the action taken by the Government and Serco is quite right. What bothers me is that we are here again: this is not new. I am also bothered by the disparity. The Minister was quite right to refer to a series of reports from the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, whom we all know, and to the report of Mary Coussey of the independent monitoring board, but those reports are at odds and at variance with such individual incidents. These incidents keep happening, and I do not know who is missing what.
As the review takes place, as it must, I urge the Minister to look at this point in particular. Over a period of time, I have pleaded with the Government to allow proper journalistic access to and transparency in Yarl’s Wood—if the press cannot get in one way, they will get in another. There is also the refusal to allow the UN rapporteur the opportunity to go in. The regime in Yarl’s Wood is completely different from the one originally set up by the previous Government. I have seen it change over many years, but there is no way to convince people of that unless they can get in. As well as dealing with this incident, will she look at the disparity between the reports and such incidents, because we should not have to meet in the Chamber and discuss this again in future?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all his work, as the local constituency MP for Yarl’s Wood, in highlighting problems in the past. I am sure he agrees that to have a fair immigration system, there comes a point at which some form of detention is needed for people who refuse to leave the country voluntarily, but they must be detained with dignity and fairness to ensure that they are treated with respect.
My right hon. Friend will know that Stephen Shaw is carrying out a review of the whole immigration detention estate, and I look forward to that report. He will also know that the independent monitoring board has the keys to Yarl’s Wood: it can access Yarl’s Wood at any time. Knowing that, and given the review that is taking place, we will look at everything to make sure we have certainty and can be confident that detainees are treated with dignity.
The revelations on Channel 4 were shocking, but they were not at all new or even surprising for many of us who have worked with people in Yarl’s Wood over the years. It is eight years since I worked with a 13-year-old girl who attempted suicide in Yarl’s Wood and was taken to Bedford hospital, where she was shackled to her bed by prison guards. Since then, we have had numerous reports from charities and independent monitors about sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, self-harm and mental health problems left untreated. This is not just about isolated individuals.
I would say to the Minister that a system run for profit and to targets leaves very little room for compassion or humanity. Although it is absolutely right that individuals are prosecuted and brought to justice for the shocking things that we saw on Channel 4 last night, it is about time that we got a grip on the system. Will she make sure that the review of detention includes the impacts of private sector, for-profit involvement in detention on some of the most vulnerable people in this country?
The hon. Lady talks about having worked in this area for many years, including things she saw eight years ago. I agree that things were wrong and that they need to improve. This Government are proud of the measures we have taken—for example, on stop-and-search and mental health in custody—and the review we have instigated from Stephen Shaw is the next step in a natural progression to ensuring we safeguard people while treating detainees with appropriate dignity. I do not think that the question is about whether that is done through the public sector or the private sector; the question is about how we make sure that people in detention are treated with the dignity that they should rightly have. We are all shocked by what we have seen, and we need to make sure that it is rectified.
I have chaired a cross-party inquiry on the issue of immigration detention, and our report was published this morning. The panel’s concern is that if the response to the scandal at Yarl’s Wood focuses only on conditions, it is likely to tackle just symptoms, rather than the underlying causes. The Minister says that the question is about how people are treated in detention, but our question is why some of these people are in detention in the first place. Our evidence suggests that most of the problems arise because we detain too many people for far too long and inappropriately.
Will the Minister commit the Government to responding in full to our inquiry? In particular, will she look at the international evidence we have presented, which suggests that there is a cheaper, more humane and more effective way of operating by making better use of community alternatives?
My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly and ceaselessly on this issue, and I pay tribute to her and her committee for the report. I have a copy of it, and I have to say that it is quite lengthy. I have not had a chance to get through all its points, but I assure her that I will look at it, and I will make sure that we respond to it.
My hon. Friend talks about the fact that more people are detained. It is important to make it clear that we have taken measures so that when people arrive clandestinely in the UK, we can be certain who they are—their nationality and identity—and ensure that they pose no risk to the British public. I do not apologise for putting the safety and security of the British public first and foremost when someone arrives clandestinely by making sure that they are who they say they are, while treating them appropriately.
Women in Yarl’s Wood are detained on the instruction of the Home Office, and the Home Secretary is therefore responsible for ensuring that they are treated humanely. There is a history of problems at Yarl’s Wood going back many years, but we were told that it had been dealt with.
Yet in September 2013 it was reported that women at Yarl’s Wood had been sexually assaulted by guards from Serco, which the Home Secretary had contracted to manage the centre. I called on her to set up an independent inquiry, but she did not. In March 2014, a woman died in Yarl’s Wood. I asked an urgent question in the House, and again called on the Home Secretary to set up an independent inquiry. She would not come to the House, and she did not set up an inquiry. In May, more allegations came out, including that another vulnerable woman was sexually assaulted, and that a woman who poured boiling water over herself was left for hours in a state of shock. I called on the Home Secretary to set up a proper independent inquiry, and I again called on her to do so at the end of last year.
The Home Secretary has repeatedly refused to establish an independent inquiry, refused to investigate allegations of rape and sexual abuse, refused to let even the UN rapporteur visit and refused to come to this House to answer for it.
Instead, in November, the Home Secretary renewed Serco’s contract. She gave the company whose guards stand accused of abuse a contract for another eight years. We called on her to have an inquiry before she renewed the contract and she refused. Last month, she said that she would review the policies and procedures in detention centres. Again, that should have been done before the contract was renewed.
Here we are again with even more serious allegations. A pregnant woman was left to have a miscarriage without getting all the medical support she needed. Guards are calling women “animals”, with one saying,
“Take a stick with you and beat them up.”
Those are the Serco guards to whom the Home Secretary gave the contract just a few months ago. There is no point in Ministers pretending to be shocked at the news of abuse—it is not news. Even now, Ministers have not set up an independent inquiry; Serco has. We are leaving it to the company to set up the independent inquiry that should have been set up by the Home Office.
The Home Secretary should have come to the House today to answer this question. What has been happening is an utter disgrace, as is the continued failure to look into it. The Minister has been sent out to defend the indefensible. She should go back and tell the Home Secretary to take some responsibility for a change, to stop pregnant women and victims of sexual violence being held in Yarl’s Wood, and to hold a proper independent inquiry, because this is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch, and it needs to end now.
It is very disappointing that the right hon. Lady comes to this House, not having called for the urgent question, and makes comments about the Home Secretary not being here. She knows that the Home Secretary is at No. 10 at the moment dealing with child abuse—something that we all agree is an incredibly important, urgent matter that needs to be dealt with.
It is also disappointing that the right hon. Lady talks about abuses at Yarl’s Wood. Let us remember what the report on the announced inspection of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in 2008 said. Let us remember who was in government at that time. The report stated:
“we were dismayed to find cases of disabled children being detained and some children spending large amounts of time incarcerated.”
“Escort vehicles with caged compartments were inappropriately used to transport children.”
It is this Government who have legislated to end the detention of children for immigration purposes.
In 2008, just 68% of detainees said that most staff treated them with respect. The figure is now 84%. The report said:
“Not enough was done to communicate with detainees who spoke little English”.
“Women complained about the food. Healthcare needed further improvement, particularly to address mental health and child health needs.”
That was the report in 2008 under the right hon. Lady’s Government. It is this Government who have looked to ensure that those things are dealt with.
We have set up the review. We have set up the review into the whole immigration detention estate that is being led by Stephen Shaw. I am confident that he will uncover the abuse.
The right hon. Lady asked about the renewal of Serco’s contract. Let us remember what the policy is. The rules that determine the renewal of contracts were drawn up by Parliament in 2001. That is a rigorous and robust process, and it was set up by her Government. We will take no lessons on this matter from the Labour party. We have a proud record and we will root out the abuse.
The individual employees at Yarl’s Wood let down their colleagues, their company and their country with their vile comments, which were exposed on Channel 4. However, the issue is not just individual people; it is the policy of the overuse of detention in managing immigration. That policy was introduced by the last Labour Government and has been continued by the coalition Government. When will the two Front Benches wake up and smell the coffee? Immigration detention is costly, ineffective and unjust. It costs millions of pounds a year. Some 70% of people who go into immigration detention go back into the community. These experiences in Yarl’s Wood are a stain on the conscience of this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the work that he has done as the constituency Member of Parliament for Yarl’s Wood. He is right that the individuals in question have let down many people. He is also right that it is not just about the individuals. We need to get to the bottom of what is going on there and to understand it exactly. The measures that we have insisted that Serco undertake urgently, including the use of body-worn cameras by all staff, will make a difference by exposing where there is abuse.
My hon. Friend talked about people being in detention for too long. I agree that people have been kept in detention for too long. That has happened because the previous Government’s immigration system allowed up to 17 appeals. The Immigration Act 2014, which we brought in, brings that number down to four. I hope that we will see a difference in the length of time people spend in detention. It is not something that any of us want to see, but it is a necessary evil if we are to have a fair, robust immigration system.
I am disappointed that the Minister is reacting in the way that she is. This is a very important issue. It is a stain on our country’s reputation for human rights. Does she agree that we all have to learn from the tradition of using these big, monopolistic companies? G4S let us down at the Olympics, Serco is involved in this case, Capita was involved in the tagging of individuals and now the Government are putting our probation service out to one of these companies. When will we learn that these companies have poor management, the wrong ethic, the wrong culture and the wrong priorities? It is about time we changed all that.
Yarl’s Wood has been a disgrace for well over a decade. It was a disgrace under the last Government and it is a disgrace under this Government. When children were detained there, they were left at serious risk of harm. We now have adults being left at serious risk of harm. That is completely unacceptable. Yes, the individual employees were at fault; yes, the company is at fault, but changing that will not fix the system. Getting in a new company, a new organisation and new employees will not solve the problem. What we have to do, as is suggested in the report by the panel that was chaired so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), is completely rethink the system. No other country in Europe has indefinite detention and holds people for years on end. I hope that the Minister will look at that again. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State will look at the report and change their policy.
My hon. Friend referred to children being treated badly in Yarl’s Wood. He will know that this Government have taken action and stopped that. I will look at the report, as I have said. I look forward to seeing what suggestions have been made. It is worth repeating that we have reduced from 17 to four the number of appeals a detainee can make against their removal. It is also worth saying that 63% of detainees are released within 28 days. We need to get that percentage up, but we also need to ensure that the system is fair for those who play by the rules.
I have been sickened by and ashamed at the reports about the treatment of detainees at Yarl’s Wood that we have seen this week and on so many previous occasions. I am also ashamed of some of the partisan comments that have been made in the discussion this afternoon. They are of absolutely no interest to the women I have met who have spent time in Yarl’s Wood and who have emerged incredibly distressed. I ask that we all think about the tone in which we conduct this discussion.
May I ask the Minister a specific question about the investigations and reviews that are taking place? In the past, there have been reports that women who have evidence to give or victims of abuse have been deported before their cases could be properly investigated. What assurances will she give that that will not happen, that all the evidence will be gathered in, and that those who have a story to tell will be heard and will remain in this country to tell it?
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is about the people—I absolutely agree with her about that. It is the victims of abuse that we really need to think about and put at the forefront of what we are doing. She will know that, through the Modern Slavery Bill, we are introducing new protections for victims of trafficking, including those who come to light in detention. I heard a horrific story recently about somebody who had been treated as a victim of domestic abuse, but it was only when her immigration status began to be questioned and she ended up in an immigration detention centre that she came forward and said that she was a victim of trafficking as well. It is absolutely paramount that front-line staff receive training to make sure that they can identify those victims so that we can get them into the national referral mechanism, give them the support they need and catch the evil perpetrators of those crimes. I totally agree with the hon. Lady that that must be at the forefront of what we are doing.
Detention is part of the immigration system, but we must ensure that all detainees are treated in a safe and dignified manner. On Sunday, I met a local family who are very concerned that a family member with mental health issues will shortly be detained before being deported. Although I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases, will she say more about what is being done to ensure that those with mental health issues are safely detained if they need to be detained?
As my hon. Friend says, I cannot comment on the specifics of that case, but it clearly sounds like a heart-rending situation. We have taken action to make sure that those suffering from mental health conditions are not detained in police custody, and we are taking steps to ensure that they are not detained in immigration detention.
The Minister has said that about two thirds of the women in Yarl’s Wood are there for more than a month. Overwhelmingly, these are people who have not been convicted, or even accused, of any crime, but who are put in administrative detention for extended periods. What is the Minister doing to make sure that they have the high-quality legal advice and representation they require to make sure that their case is properly heard before she organises their removal?
To correct the hon. Lady, she said that two thirds are held for more than a month, but 63% are discharged within 28 days and either removed or released. The issue with the length of time for which people are detained is that the system that we inherited had too many layers, too many procedures and too many appeals, which meant that we could not get to the bottom of whether somebody was right to claim asylum or whether they should be returned to their home. By reducing the number of appeals to four, I hope we will see a shorter time period.
The managing director of Serco’s home affairs business has said that an independent review was required because the
“public will want to be confident that Yarl’s Wood is doing its difficult task with professionalism, care and humanity”.
Given the catalogue of shame and controversy over many years, is not the only way to regain public confidence to strip Serco of its responsibility for running Yarl’s Wood?
I do not think that the answer is to strip Serco of its responsibility; the answer is to make sure that we get to the bottom of what has happened. My hon. Friend is right to say that any form of abuse is an embarrassment. We need the public not just to see that there are no problems, but to believe that there are no problems. We need them to be happy that detainees are being treated in an appropriate and acceptable way. We are holding Serco’s feet to the fire: I want to see action, we are making sure that it takes action, and we will take action against it if we need to.
In her opening remarks, the Minister said that a recent inspection had found Yarl’s Wood to be safe. Clearly, it is not. Could she explain the discrepancy between the reality and the inspection report, and what is she doing about it?
As I said in my opening comments, there have been a number of inspections of Yarl’s Wood by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and the independent monitoring board, which, as I have said, has the keys to Yarl’s Wood and can go in any time it wants. We have found no evidence that anybody is at risk. However, the allegations made in last night’s programme are very serious and we need to get to the bottom of them and take action.
The recent footage was disturbing, but, unfortunately, allegations of sexual abuse of vulnerable women and abuse at the centre are not new. Given the apparent gulf between official reports, what the Minister has said today and life at Yarl’s Wood, and given that we have seen so many repeated failures over such a long time and the reluctance of Ministers to act so far, can we be confident that change will really happen?