House of Commons
Monday 29 February 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.
Bill to be considered on Monday 7 March.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Campaign against Daesh
On 20 January, I attended the first Defence Ministers meeting in Paris, where we reviewed and agreed options for intensifying the military operation against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. On 11 February, I attended the full counter-Daesh ministerial in Brussels, where we agreed an accelerated campaign plan, including agreeing on the importance of the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa, and pressing Daesh from all sides.
The international community had previously asked Arab countries to do more in the fight against Daesh. Having just returned from leading a parliamentary delegation to Saudi Arabia, I understand that the Saudi authorities are prepared to send ground troops into Syria to defeat Daesh but require air cover from their international partners. Will the United Kingdom and other international partners look at that request?
I welcome the contribution that co-operating Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which was present at the Daesh meeting in Brussels, are making to the fight against Daesh, and I welcome the Saudi redeployment of F-15 aircraft to the coalition air campaign. I have seen the reports my hon. Friend mentioned that Saudi Arabia is prepared to send troops to the fight in Syria. We will wait to see the details of any plan before commenting on what support the UK would provide as part of the global coalition.
Russian airstrikes are clearly targeting civilian populations in Syria, killing and maiming innocent men, women and children, as well as degrading the moderate Syrian forces that we are relying on to defeat Daesh in the region. Will the Secretary of State outline what actions we are taking now, and might take, to protect these populations and underpin our military strategy in the region?
I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the cessation of hostilities at the weekend. That appears largely to be holding for now, but it will succeed only if there is a major change of behaviour by the Syrian regime and by its principal backer, Russia. Russia must honour the agreement by ending attacks on Syrian civilians and moderate opposition groups and using its influence to ensure that the Syrian regime does the same. As for the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, there has been some progress in the past few weeks in reaching besieged areas. Some 60,000 people have recently been reached with aid through the United Nations food convoys.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have been very clear and public that Russian actions have been undermining the prospects for ending the conflict in Syria. We welcome the Russian contribution to the most recent agreement that came into effect on Saturday. Russia can and should play a positive role in the fight against Daesh and in ending the conflict in Syria. I have to tell the House, however, that over 70% of Russian airstrikes have not been against Daesh at all but against civilians and moderate opposition groups in Syria—an appalling contribution to a conflict that must be ended.
There have not been discussions about extending airstrikes to Libya because at the moment there is no Government in Libya. We have been working to assist the formation of a new Government in Libya, and it is then for that Government to make clear what assistance they require. We are party to the Libyan international assistance mission, and we will see exactly what kind of support the new Government want—whether it is assistance with advice or training, or any other kind of support.[Official Report, 2 March 2016, Vol. 606, c. 6MC.]
Last week in Iraq, members of the Defence Committee were informed of the full horror of Daesh, specifically in Ramadi. As it is forced out of territory, it leaves behind minefields of improvised explosive devices, including in people’s fridges and toilets, but there are no resources available to remove them. What conversations is the Defence Secretary having with partners to ensure that those resources are made available?
The hon. Lady is right to say that Daesh has been seeding with improvised explosive devices those towns and villages from which it has been expelled. The British contribution to the training effort of the Iraqi forces has focused on counter-IED training, which we are now supplying at all four of the building partner capacity centres. If there is more we can do to assist the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in that training, we will certainly do so.
What support will the UK Government give to the United Nations, which is today giving fresh aid to Syria, and to the albeit very fragile ceasefire?
We have been making our contribution through the United Nations and we are ready to help do more. It is not easy for convoys to get through to some of the very hard-to-reach areas. Last week’s aid drop was not entirely successful; it was dropped from a great height into a high wind, and a number of the pallets did not reach their target. The best way of getting aid in is by land convoys, but that is not easy in some of the particularly hard-to-reach areas.
Members of the Defence Committee also visited Jordan and Lebanon, and we were particularly concerned to see that Daesh was threatening the borders of relatively stable countries that Britain has assisted with huge and impressive investment. What more can my right hon. Friend and the Government do to support those countries in dealing with the clear and present danger of this evil organisation?
My hon. Friend is right to say that Daesh represents a threat to the stability of the entire region, including the neighbours of Iraq and Syria. We have already made a huge contribution towards training the Jordanian forces, and we have more to do. We have recently been playing role in Lebanon, too, in helping its border defences.
Brimstone is one of the precision munitions available to our armed forces, alongside Paveway bombs and the Hellfire missile. The United Kingdom forces have flown more than 2,100 combat missions against Daesh and have carried out more than 600 strikes, including with Brimstone missiles. One of the points for review at the recent ministerial meeting was what more we can do to target the infrastructure that supports Daesh—its command and control, logistics and supply routes—as well as our efforts in support of Iraqi forces.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he comment on recent reports in The New York Times that say that, although Daesh numbers have fallen in both Iraq and Syria, those in Libya have doubled in the same period? Is it not the case that, rather than diminishing Daesh, the current bombing campaign is simply displacing it?
No, I do not think there is direct evidence of movement from one country to another. Daesh is on the back foot in Iraq. The Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with support from the coalition, have liberated Tikrit, Baiji, Ramadi and other cities, and Daesh is being pushed back there. That is not happening yet in Syria, and I, like the hon. Gentleman, am extremely concerned about the proliferation of Daesh along the Libyan coastline, which is why we have been urgently assisting the formation of a new Libyan Government.
As the Secretary of State has said, coalition efforts have a significant effect on stopping and degrading Daesh not only in Iraq, but, to a lesser degree, in Syria. Does he agree, however, that a conventional, full-frontal assault on Mosul and Raqqa might well have the opposite effect to that we are seeking, and that trying to do something about Daesh’s poisonous ideology and funding is possibly more important than purely conventional attacks?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We have to look at all those things and deal with Daesh across the board. We have to combat its ideology, we have to cut off its financing and we have to deal with the message that it is putting out to local populations. Preparations for the liberation of both Mosul and Raqqa will require very careful preparation to reassure the Sunni population, particularly of Mosul, that it will be able to enjoy better security once Daesh is thrown out.
As we consider these issues, our thoughts are very much with the brave members of our armed forces who are serving in the middle east, with all those who are living under the brutality of Daesh and with the victims of the terror attacks that have been carried out all over the world. The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that we can simultaneously welcome the progress towards a ceasefire and the contributions that the Russians have made, and condemn the previous Russian attacks on the moderate forces that the coalition is working with. Will he tell us how reliable he feels the estimate of 70,000 moderate Syrian ground forces is at this moment in time?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful for the official support that has been given to the campaign against Daesh. The 70,000 figure was not the Government’s figure; it was a figure produced independently by the Joint Intelligence Committee. We have no reason to believe that it is wrong. Indeed, the civil war in Syria has been raging for six years, so considerable forces, of which the 70,000 are a formidable part, have been engaged against the Syrian regime.
Just two days ago, ISIS launched a series of attacks on the headquarters of the Kurdish forces in Tal Abyad, to the north of Raqqa. Given that we were hoping that the moderate forces were waiting to take the fight to Daesh, that is obviously very concerning. Will the Secretary of State tell us a little more about how effective he thinks UK airstrikes have been in achieving our objectives of weakening Daesh and supporting moderate forces to take back control and liberate Raqqa?
The UK is playing probably the second most important part in coalition air activity in the strikes, in surveillance and in intelligence. As I have said to the House, Daesh is being pushed back in Iraq. There is no doubt about that. It is being pushed up the Tigris and it is being pushed back west along the Euphrates. In Syria, the position is much more complicated. We are concerned at some of the more recent reports that may suggest co-ordination between Syrian democratic forces and the Assad regime, which is not helpful to the long-term aim of defeating Daesh.
In the strategic defence and security review published last November, the Ministry of Defence agreed a new strategic objective of contributing to the nation’s prosperity. We do that in many ways, not least through our procurement spend of some £20 billion a year with UK industry, around half of which is in the manufacturing sector. The British defence and security industry is the largest in Europe, and it plays a vital role in delivering battle-winning capabilities for our armed forces. As a Department, we are driving greater innovation into defence procurement, maximising opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses, investing in skills and contributing to a more prosperous economy.
That sounded good, and I am glad that the Department has such an objective, but the manufacturing industry in my constituency tells me that the Government have taken far too little action in favour of manufacturing, not least on business rates. In pursuit of those objectives, will the Minister tell me when he last spoke to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about refreshing and improving its industrial strategy?
I can tell the hon. Lady that I have meetings with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on a monthly basis. In fact, I was in its offices earlier this month. We are constantly looking for better ways to encourage medium-sized and small businesses, in particular, to engage in the Ministry of Defence supply chain, and I am pleased to tell the House that we have confirmed with the Cabinet Office a target of 25% of MOD spend through SMEs, both direct and indirect.
I am genuinely interested in the Minister’s approach. I would like him to explain to the House why, for example, 60% of the steel for the new Royal Navy offshore patrol boats is being procured from Sweden, when in my part of the world, Wales, we have a real crisis on our hands with the steel industry.
I am happy to try to respond to the right hon. Gentleman, particularly in relation to the specifics that he has raised. About 20% of the steel used in the three offshore patrol vessels has been sourced from UK steel mills. As the prime contractor, BAE Systems issued invitations to 24 companies to tender for the steel contract. Only four were returned, of which only one was from a British contractor. It won the contract to provide steel, which was then sourced from a wide range of suppliers.
On Friday, I visited BAE Systems at Samlesbury, where I saw not only the skills that help it to manufacture parts for the Typhoon and the joint strike fighter, but the results of the millions of pounds it is investing in the training academy for 112 apprentices, which will open later this year, and in 3D printing, which means that it will be able to make parts and prototypes both in plastic and in metals. Does the Minister agree that such investments will help to keep BAE Systems at the forefront of its field in the world?
As my hon. Friend knows, the UK defence and security industry is the largest in Europe. As the default position, we continue to place contracts on the basis of open competition. EU procurement directives apply to our procurement, which means that EU contractors are eligible to compete for our contracts in the same way as UK and other international companies, other than when we declare an article 346 exemption for warlike stores, which accounts for about 45% of our procurement.[Official Report, 2 March 2016, Vol. 606, c. 5MC.]
On procurement, I hope that the remarks about Europe made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) also apply in relation to our overseas territories. During the last recess, I had the chance to visit our servicemen and women in the Falklands. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the 1,200 personnel there? Will he confirm that this Government will work closely with the Falkland Islands Government to improve the accommodation there and will procure such improvements through British providers?
My hon. Friend might have preferred to put that question to the Secretary of State, who has just visited the Falkland Islands. He is the first United Kingdom Defence Secretary to do so for over a decade. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that, as part of the SDSR conclusions, the Ministry of Defence has committed to investing £180 million in the Falkland Islands, including the improvements he seeks to the accommodation.
18. There are more than 15,000 high-skill, high-value jobs in the defence sector in the north-west alone, with earnings that are more than 40% higher than the national average. We have heard previously about the lack of a proper industrial strategy for defence with respect to steel, so when will the Government look at the wider economic benefits when it comes to protecting those high-skill, high-value jobs and to creating new ones in the context of defence procurement? (903773)
The hon. Gentleman should have a word with the leader of his party. Government Members care about both security and prosperity, and the hon. Gentleman may like to remind his leader that grandstanding on a Saturday places at risk not only the ultimate security of the nation, but the tens of thousands of jobs and the hundreds of companies in the submarine industry in this country.
Perhaps the Minister should listen to the questions, stop throwing out allegations of grandstanding and take the issue of the steel industry in this country seriously. The chronic under-investment in steel in this country by this Government is nothing less than a national disgrace. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, 60% of the steel required for the Royal Navy’s offshore patrol vessels has been sourced from Sweden, to name but one example. Does the Minister not agree that the MOD should consider wider employment, industrial and economic factors in its procurement policy? Its policy is obviously not working given that, as he has said, such a low level, in truth, comes from British companies.
UK suppliers make a significant contribution to the supply of steel for our defence programmes, including some 94% of the steel in the aircraft carriers—77,000 tonnes—being sourced from UK mills. The Government and I recognise that there is an issue that is affecting steel production in this country. That is why we established the steel procurement working group, on which the Ministry of Defence is represented. I instructed the Department and wrote to our major defence prime contractors last December to ensure that the guidance on steel procurement was implemented across defence. That will enable proactive engagement with the UK steel market on procurement pipelines through the supply chain and ensure that cost calculations can be taken into account over the whole life, and not just at the initial price.
Our civilian workers do an excellent job. I recognise that reductions in our workforce will require the Ministry of Defence to look strategically at the way in which we operate. The majority of the planned reductions are under way and there is an opportunity to identify further efficiencies across defence. Our priority is to deliver a smaller, more productive workforce that will ultimately generate savings for reinvestment in front-line capability.
Does the Minister acknowledge that further cuts to the civilian workforce will inevitably shift the burden on to armed forces personnel? How does he think that will affect the retention, recruitment and morale of our troops, which, according to servicemen and women in my constituency, are already worryingly low?
Under the “whole force” approach, we have tried to find the balance both between regular and reserve service personnel, and between MOD civilians and contractors. This is a mix that successive Governments have followed. We try to use the right people in the right place at the right time.
Civilians at Defence Equipment and Support fulfil one of the MOD’s most important responsibilities—making sure that our troops have the right kit—yet they, along with the rest of the MOD’s civilians staff, face 30% cuts. DE&S requires highly specialist expertise, for example to make sure that our aircraft are safe, so will the Minister explain how he can impose 30% cuts without losing such vital skills?
The Minister is telling us that although there will be 30% cuts across the civilian staff, some areas will face cuts to civilian staff higher than 30% and other areas will face 20% cuts. It is in the strategic defence review that there will be 30% cuts to civilian staff, but he tells me that they will not be at DE&S, so where will they be instead? In the last two years alone, DE&S has lost 5,000 staff. At the same time, the cost of contractors has spiralled. We are in the ludicrous position where the Public Accounts Committee says that we are spending £250 million on contractors who are advising us on how to reduce our reliance on contractors. Surely the Minister ought to learn from experience and make these cuts in a strategic way, as opposed to introducing arbitrary cuts.
I am grateful for the pithy question. There is a basic misunderstanding here. The hon. Lady needs to understand that many of these programmes are already in place. For example, the footprint strategy, which will see our footprint reduced by some 30%, will naturally mean that there is less need for civilians in certain parts of the estate. Some of the measures are already under way, so we do not simply have to impose a blanket 30% cut in DE&S.
EU Membership: National Security
4. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of EU membership on the UK’s national security. (903758)
NATO is the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s defence. The European Union plays an important complementary role in supporting NATO’s response to international crises, by applying economic, humanitarian and diplomatic levers that NATO does not have. The Government therefore believe that the United Kingdom’s continued membership of a reformed European Union will make us safer and stronger.
Cyber threats pose a significant risk to the defence of the UK, and that issue was identified as one of four security challenges in the 2015 defence review. The EU network information and security directive was created in 2014 to enhance data security throughout EU member states, and it is vital that cyber security continues to be a priority for the MOD. Does the Minister agree that remaining a member of the European Union greatly enhances our ability to respond to future cyber threats?
Our recent strategic defence and security review identified cyber as one of the key threats facing this country. My Department has now taken overall responsibility for cyber security, and we are spending more than £2 billion to ensure that we keep the institutions of government properly protected and do our best to spread good practice in our industry.
As I have said, NATO is the cornerstone of our defence and the EU plays a complementary role. I have not yet come across any NATO Defence Minister who thinks that we should leave the European Union or that we would be safer and stronger outside it. Taken together, membership of those two organisations—the alliance and the union—keeps us stronger and safer in an uncertain world.
Does the Secretary of State think that President Putin would shed a tear if the UK left the European Union? Is it not clear that we are better off being part of that collaboration and sitting round the table with France, Germany and Italy, and thinking about all those security issues? Are we not better off and safer remaining part of the European Union?
Does my right hon. Friend accept that by advancing the rather quaint idea that somehow our membership of the EU enhances our national security, he is merely playing into the hands of people such as Mr Juncker and Chancellor Merkel who, if Britain votes to remain in the EU, would advance towards a European army and permanent structured co-operation, the result of which would be to undermine NATO—the very organisation that the Secretary of State says is the cornerstone of our national defence?
We have made it absolutely clear that we would not support any move towards a European Union army of the kind that my hon. Friend suggests. These two organisations have different memberships and slightly different objectives. As I have said, NATO is the key part and cornerstone of our defence, but legal, economic, diplomatic and humanitarian levers are available to the European Union that NATO does not have. Being a member of both gives us the best of both worlds.
When the Secretary of State talks to fellow European Defence Ministers, he must acknowledge that some would prefer a European defence force ultimately to replace NATO. What is his view on that, and will he acknowledge that most of our European security successes are bilateral and not as part of the EU?
I have not heard a fellow European Defence Minister call on us to help to create any kind of European defence force. At the last NATO meeting I attended in Brussels last month, it was interesting that Germany specifically asked for NATO to help police the Aegean sea and deal with the migrant pressure. There is a role for NATO in some of these operations, and a role in other areas for the European Union. We are fortunate in being members of both.
Yes. The arrangements for voting in the referendum, as I understand it, are exactly the same as in a general election. Following my hon. Friend’s reminder, we will of course make every effort to ensure as high a turnout by the armed forces as possible.
When I announced to the House on 16 December that veterans diagnosed on or after that date with diffuse mesothelioma as a result of their service would have the option of receiving a lump sum of £140,000, I also committed to looking at whether it could be extended to veterans diagnosed before that date. We have kept our word and I am delighted to confirm that the option of a lump sum payment will be extended to veterans in receipt of a war pension for mesothelioma diagnosed before 16 December 2015.
That is thoroughly good news. Following the campaigns of many in this House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) and my friend the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), this announcement will be very, very welcome. How will people affected be able to claim the money?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind comments. I have instructed the Veterans Agency to contact all those we know of with immediate effect. I hope the payments will be made on or shortly after 11 April.[Official Report, 2 March 2016, Vol. 606, c. 6MC.]
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to Members, such as the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and others, who have campaigned on this issue? I welcome the direction of travel. Will he also pay tribute to Rhod Palmer, a third generation Royal Navy sailor who has just recently been diagnosed and stands to benefit, who thought of the wider issue that more research needs to be done into this devastating disease?
I have recently been contacted by my constituent, George, whose father sadly passed away from this rare cancer. He is concerned that research is not being properly funded. Does the Ministry of Defence currently fund such research and will the Minister commit to looking at funding levels for mesothelioma research?
I am delighted to welcome today’s announcement to the House, but I would just like to add a little word of caution. We must make sure that when people are given the option—specifically, widows who may survive by many years servicemen who die from this deadly disease—there are no unintended consequences. We must make sure that if widows choose the option of a lump sum, it will not have the impact of their losing benefits over the years.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has been one of the campaigners ensuring that this change has come forward. He is absolutely right to make that point. I emphasise to the House that this is very much an option and I will ensure that when recipients are notified they are fully informed about what the options actually mean.
The Ministry of Defence has been actively undertaking site monitoring and removal since 2011. We are keen to move to the next stage of investigation when the other three parties involved agree to site access. Discussions around that have already taken place and it is anticipated that an agreement will be signed shortly. We will continue to work closely with all parties to ensure that the matter is resolved as quickly as possible.
After 26 years, this non-action is just not good enough. In recent weeks, Defence Infrastructure Organisation officials have cancelled meetings with landowners to discuss access arrangements, have failed to turn up to meetings with local elected officials, and are treating the local community with contempt. When I meet the Minister on Wednesday, I hope I can get a detailed timeline for when action will be taken.
I do not entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says. My understanding is that we have been making positive progress, and that action has been taken through monitoring and removal on the beach since 2011. I am absolutely clear what the MOD’s responsibilities are in this matter. I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman later this week. I hope we can have a constructive approach to moving this issue forward.
Type 31 General Purpose Frigate
The new light general purpose frigate will be crucial to the longer-term future of the UK’s warship-building industry and will form a central part of the national shipbuilding strategy, which is due to be published later this year. No decision is expected to be made on the build location until the programme has further matured.
Given the expectations raised by the Government following the strategic defence and security review, that answer is most unwelcome. Does the Minister not agree with me—I may be biased as a Glasgow MP—that, given that the finest ships anywhere in the world were built on the Clyde, it would be the perfect location for this building to take place?
To date, £3.5 billion has been spent on the aircraft carrier programme in Scotland. In 2014, we placed a £348 million contract for three offshore patrol vessels, helping to sustain 800 Scottish jobs, and helping, too, to secure the skills for the eight Type 26 global combat ships planned to be constructed on the Clyde. The general purpose frigates may also be built on the Clyde, but it is too early to commit to a decision.
We have already heard today how the patrol vessels have been made with Swedish steel, and the Ministry has admitted to me that the Tide class tankers are being made in Korea with Korean steel but cannot tell me where the steel will come from for the Type 26, so what assurances will we have that British steel will be used in the manufacture of the Type 31?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement has already given a comprehensive answer on the use of steel. There will be an opportunity to bid, as has always been the case, but we clearly cannot commit in advance. We do not even know for certain that British companies will bid. We cannot commit at this stage.
Ministry of Defence Police
As part of the Defence efficiencies programme, we are reviewing a series of options that are expected to change the way we police or guard some of our establishments. It is too early to say what the impact will be on the numbers of the MOD police.
We are looking at a number of options on how to make the best use of our MOD police and to move them away from simply static guarding towards taking a more proactive role in the communities and our service communities. A number of discussions have taken place, but these options are yet to be fully explored. I shall come back to the House in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall indeed try to get in there.
While I do not wish to detract in any way from the wonderful work done by MOD police, will the Minister take this opportunity to praise the work of the Royal Marines who police our nuclear facilities in Scotland?
Armed Forces: Legal Claims
Where there are allegations of serious wrongdoing, they need to be investigated, but we are very aware of the stress this places on our service personnel and we must honour our duty of care to them. This will involve funding independent legal advice and pastoral support. We are also aware, however, that a great many allegations are being made on grounds of malice or by some law firms for profit. We will shortly bring forward measures to close down this shameless and shoddy racket.
The allegations that British soldiers murdered innocent Iraqis were found by the al-Sweady inquiry to be wholly false. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that we should do all we can to reclaim costs from law firms that shamefully promoted these allegations and that anyone who received financial backing from them would be well advised either to return it or to make a donation to Help for Heroes?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. The defence in the case that he mentioned cost the British taxpayer £31 million, and the law firm involved, Leigh Day, has been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. We are looking at ways in which we can recoup costs, in that case and in others. Those who have their own associations with Leigh Day will need to make their own judgments.
May I ask the Minister to speak more clearly, over the heads of the current brave soldiers and other servicemen, to those who might wish to join the Army, the Air Force or the Navy? It is very worrying for young people to think that, in serving their country, they might end up being accused of dreadful crimes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to send that clear message about a matter that obviously causes huge stress to individual service personnel. It corrupts their operations, and it undermines human rights by undermining international humanitarian law. I fully understand why someone who wanted to join the armed forces would be concerned about all three of those issues, and we shall be introducing a number of measures to address them.
The Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State have been very vocal about the importance of introducing a Bill to protect service personnel from spurious, costly and stressful legal actions. However, there have been apparently well-informed reports that the Bill is ready to proceed, but is being held up in Downing Street for fear that it might somehow impinge on the forthcoming European Union referendum debates. Can the Minister confirm that her Department will do as much as possible to ensure that the Bill is introduced at the earliest opportunity, and is not delayed for spurious external political reasons?
I can give my right hon. Friend those reassurances. I think that, in all respects, the information on which he based his question is not correct. A number of measures will be introduced, some of which may be attached to pieces of legislation, and we hope to be able to make announcements before local government purdah kicks in.
We do not envisage deploying ground forces to Libya in a combat role. The United Kingdom is considering, with our partners, how we can best support a new Libyan Government. Planning to date has focused on capacity building and security sector reform, but it is too early to say exactly what form that support would take. Before taking any military action in Libya, we would seek an invitation from the new Libyan Government.
I was disappointed to read in the media the Secretary of State’s recent statement that he had personally authorised the use of United Kingdom bases for United States airstrikes in Libya. The matter was not brought to the Chamber in advance. Furthermore, yesterday’s papers reported that the Government had now deployed British advisers to Libya. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to stopping this mission creep, and to ensuring that no further such action is taken without the leave of the House? Will he also explain his assessment of whether the action to date was lawful according to UK standards relating to the use of force, international humanitarian law, and human rights law?
The United States followed standard procedures, and made a formal request to use our bases. Once we had verified the legality of the operation, I granted permission for the United States to use our bases to support it, because they are trying to prevent Daesh from using Libya as a base from which to plan and carry out attacks that threaten the stability of Libya and the region, and indeed, potentially, the United Kingdom and our people as well. I was fully satisfied that the operation, which was a United States operation, would be conducted in accordance with international law.
As I have said, we do not intend to deploy ground forces in any combat role. Before engaging in any military operation in Libya, we would of course have to seek an invitation from the Libyan Government, and would also have to involve this Parliament. As part of the international community, we have been party to the Libyan international assistance mission, and we are ready to provide advice and training in support of the new Libyan Government. A training team of some 20 troops from the 4th Infantry Brigade is now moving to Tunisia to help to counter illegal cross-border movement from Libya in support of the Tunisian authorities.
Reporting of Civilian Casualties
Airwars has been proactive in submitting written reports of civilian casualties and we are grateful for its efforts and for the value that they add. Each case has been individually reviewed and it has been demonstrated that the civilian casualties were not caused by UK activity. Our targeting processes are extremely robust in this respect and in others, but I would welcome any further ideas about how value may be added.
I understand that the Department is now seeing people to discuss accurate civilian casualty numbers, and I will be most grateful if that is indeed the case. However, the report on compensation for the families of the innocent victims of our bombing has been with the Department for some five months. Can it now be surfaced?
I have committed to review any such reports of civilian casualties and I have oversight of the whole process, including compensation. I would be very happy to look at the report, but if the hon. Gentleman has any specific cases that he wishes to raise with me, he should please do so.
Our priorities are our operations against Daesh, which I reviewed earlier this month with some 40 of my international counterparts, and delivering our defence review commitments to increase the size and power of our armed forces to keep this country safe.
In the light of Russian aggression, the threat of Daesh and growing cyber-attacks, can my right hon. Friend confirm that this Government are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence in every year of this Parliament? Does not the failure of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to match this commitment show that Labour is a risk to our security?
Let me confirm that this Government are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence every year in this Parliament. The defence budget will rise by 0.5% above inflation every year of this decade and additional funding will be made available to the armed forces and intelligence agencies through the joint security fund. We have the largest defence budget in the European Union and the second largest in NATO, and this investment keeps us safe.
Alcohol misuse and dependency continue to create serious health risks, including those that can lead to loss of life, in the armed forces, where its use is three times higher than in the civilian population. It is now a year since the Defence Select Committee highlighted the fact that the Government’s alcohol strategy for the armed forces had made no noticeable difference. What steps is the Secretary of State now taking to set targets to manage alcohol consumption patterns and to address this serious issue?
T5. Can the Minister confirm that the last Government looked at all the alternatives to our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, and that none offered the protection that we need? Does he agree with the two former Labour Defence Secretaries who have said that it is “self-evident that a British nuclear deterrent will be essential to our security for decades to come”? (903799)
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that in 2013 the Trident alternatives review concluded that no alternative system was as stable, capable or cost-effective as the current Trident-based deterrent. There is no alternative. The part-time deterrents and half-baked measures currently being suggested by some Labour Members could be ruthlessly exploited by our adversaries and would present a real danger to the safety and security of the United Kingdom.
Russia’s failure to halt airstrikes on the civilian population seemed designed to push that population towards the Turkish border and to make it Europe’s problem. That is why it is enormously important now that the ceasefire holds and that Russia returns to a more constructive path of working with us to get this terrible civil war ended.
T9. Given the rapid growth in the volume and sophistication of cyber-attacks, a number of which are thwarted by GCHQ in my constituency, what steps are being taken to ensure that our rising defence budget actually translates into enhanced sovereign capability in cyber? (903804)
I pay tribute to all my hon. Friend’s constituents who work to protect our country against cyber-attacks, which are indeed growing. We have increased spending in this area to £2.5 billion, and as 80% of cyber-attacks are preventable by some extremely simple, straightforward good practice, a lot of that investment will be going to protect British businesses and private individuals in that respect.
T3. The strategic defence and security review supposedly included £12 billion of additional expenditure on equipment, but with £16 billion extra allocated for nuclear submarines, massive cuts have been made elsewhere to support that. A written answer referred me to the defence equipment plan, but it has insufficient detail on the changes, so will the Minister commit to providing further clarity on the changes within the 2015 SDSR? (903797)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking such an interest in the equipment plan, which is a bit of a specialist subject. We will be publishing the next annual iteration of the equipment plan, just as we have done for each of the past three years, and it will demonstrate that there will be an additional £12 billion committed to spending on military equipment over the next 10 years. That will take it up to £178 billion, but he will have to be a bit more patient before he sees how that is allocated.
In December 2014, the Secretary of State told this House that the legal aid wrongly claimed by Leigh Day and co—because of inadequate disclosure—should be reimbursed. Is it still his view that it will be reimbursed in full? Given the timescales that have passed so far, when does he think the money will be received?
We are awaiting the Legal Aid Agency’s response to our request to revoke the legal aid award on the grounds that it would not have been made in the first place had the agency been made aware of all relevant documentation in that case. We are still waiting on that judgment, but we believe it is imminent.
Not content with comparing himself to our country’s wartime leader—the greatest ever Briton and saviour of the free world—this weekend the Mayor of London compared his opposition to the EU to James Bond taking on a sinister supranational organisation. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State whether, in all his dealings with the intelligence and security services, and with the special forces, such a similarity has ever occurred to him?
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Ministry of Defence has had to spend £100 million on legal claims? Will this Government make sure that we spend money on our troops, and on giving them the best support and equipment, rather than on filling the wallets of unscrupulous lawyers?
My hon. Friend raises a good point: the money we are having to spend on dealing with malicious allegations against our armed forces would be better spent on equipment and training for them. I can assure him that commercial legal spending in the Department is down a third on last year’s. I think he was making reference to the amount spent on Iraqi historic allegations, and we are doing what we can to ensure that this works more effectively and efficiently. I have had some good conversations with the Attorney General’s office about this and he will be visiting the team shortly.
T4. Given the increasing double-counting of defence expenditure towards both the official development assistance and the NATO targets, through mechanisms such as the conflict, security and stability fund, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor about the redefinition of ODA at the OECD level?
Given the importance of our nuclear deterrent to our national security, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what representations he has had from the Labour party in support of this Government’s clear policy in this important area?
I have so far received some rather conflicting representations on the future of our nuclear deterrent. Like many Members across this House, there are mainstream Members of the Labour party who support—as every previous Government have done— the renewal of the nuclear deterrent that has helped to keep this country safe. There are some other Labour Members who seem to think that we can turn our nuclear submarines into water taxis.
All our defence exports to the King of Saudi Arabia or to any other country go through the same rigorous export control system that we have in place. We are proud of that system as it is more rigorous than that of any other country, and that will continue to be the case while this Government are in post.
I recently visited the Royal Marines on Arctic warfare training in northern Norway with my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth). Will my hon. Friend join me in applauding 1 Assault Group Royal Marines and 45 Commando, which are known as some of the most elite commando forces in the world, and explain how the strategic defence and security review will support the Royal Marines?
My hon. Friend is very brave to have joined the Royal Marines in the Arctic. I pay tribute to her and her colleagues for doing so. The SDSR is committed to maintaining amphibious capability. We will be making modifications to one of the two Queen Elizabeth carriers to ensure that that persists for the life of that platform.
T7. Under this Prime Minister, the number of RAF police personnel has dropped 340, from 1,480 to 1,140. Royal Military Police numbers have dropped 80, from 1,700 to 1,620, and Royal Navy Police numbers have dropped 40, from 340 to 300. Does the Secretary of State think that those cuts are acceptable? (903801)
Along with many of my colleagues, I also went away during the recess. I had the pleasure of visiting the Falkland Islands. People there expressed concern about leaving the EU from an economic point of view, but will my right hon. Friend confirm, from a national security point of view, that a Conservative Government will always defend the right of the islanders to determine their own future, and reject calls from the Leader of the Opposition for a power-sharing deal?
As I said earlier, it was a pleasure to be the first Defence Secretary to visit the islands for more than a decade and to meet many of the 1,200 service personnel who are based there and to confirm our investment programme of £180 million over the next 10 years. Unlike the situation with the Labour party, nobody can be in any doubt about our commitment to the right of the islanders to determine their own future, and not to have it bargained away by a possible Labour Government reaching some accommodation with Argentina.
My constituent, Chris Hartley, was wounded while serving with our armed forces in Sierra Leone in 2000 when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded next to him, resulting in the loss of his right leg above the knee. He is unable to get funding or NHS support for a life-changing operation that would allow him to work and to restore some of the pride that he had before his injury. Will the Minister convene a meeting with a colleague from the Department of Health and me to explore what can be done to help my constituent who gave so much in the service to this country?
I would be delighted to do that.
Is it not the case that, if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, France and Germany are more likely to dominate Europe’s defence structures, which means that, in the medium term, over the horizon, we are more likely to see European defence structures compete with, rather than complement, NATO?
My hon. Friend has made his views in this great debate very clear. As I said to the House earlier, NATO is the cornerstone of our security and the European Union complements that, with a number of other levers and weapons at its disposal—humanitarian, diplomatic and economic. There is no doubt in my mind that the fracturing of either the alliance or the Union would not aid the collective security of the west.
Since the parliamentary vote on Syria at the beginning of December, there have been 319 RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq and 43 RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. As we are meant to be targeting the head of the snake, why have there been seven and a half times more airstrikes in Iraq?
There were more airstrikes in Iraq than in Syria in December and January because we were engaged in assisting the Iraqi forces in liberating Ramadi, which was where most of the military action was, and assisting the Kurdish forces in the liberation of Sinjar, further north. As I discussed with my fellow Ministers in Brussels, it is also important to continue to attack the infrastructure that supports Daesh, including the oil wellheads from which it derives its revenue, and some of our strikes have been on those oilfields in eastern Syria.
Child Refugees: Calais
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on child refugees in Calais.
Last Thursday, a judge in France ruled that the authorities in Calais could proceed with clearing the tents and makeshift accommodation from the southern section of the migrant camp located there. Over recent weeks the authorities, working with non-governmental organisations, have ensured that the migrants affected by the clearances, which have begun today, were aware of the alternative accommodation that the French state had made available. For women and children, that means the specialist accommodation for about 400 people in and around the Jules Ferry centre, or the protected accommodation elsewhere in the region. For others, this means the recently erected heated containers that can house 1,500 people.
The French Government have also, with the support of UK funding, established more than 100 welcome centres elsewhere in France where migrants in Calais can find a bed, meals and information about their options. To be clear, no individual needs to remain in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk. The decision to clear part of the camp in Calais is of course a matter for the French Government. The joint declaration signed in August last year committed the UK and France to a package of work to improve physical security at the ports, to co-ordinate the law enforcement response, to tackle the criminal gangs involved in people smuggling and to reduce the number of migrants in Calais.
Both Governments retain a strong focus on protecting those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, and have put in place a programme to identify and help potential victims in the camps around Calais. The UK is playing a leading role in tackling people smuggling, increasing joint intelligence work with the French to target the callous gangs that exploit human beings for their own gain.
The UK shares the French Government’s objective of increasing the number of individuals who take up the offer of safe and fully equipped accommodation away from Calais so that they can engage with the French immigration system, including by lodging an asylum claim. It is important to stress that anyone who does not want to live in the makeshift camps in Calais has the option of engaging with the French authorities, who will provide accommodation and support. That is particularly important for unaccompanied children. When an asylum claim is lodged by a child with close family connections in the UK, both Governments are committed to ensuring that such a case is prioritised, but it is vital that the child engages with the French authorities as quickly as possible. That is the best way to ensure that these vulnerable children receive the protection and support they need and the quickest way to reunite them with any close family members in the UK.
The UK is committed to safeguarding the welfare of unaccompanied children and we take our responsibilities seriously. No one should live in the conditions we have seen in the camps around Calais. The French Government have made huge efforts to provide suitable, alternative accommodation for all those who need it, and have made it clear that migrants in Calais in need of protection should claim asylum in France.
This morning the French authorities started to move people out of the southern part of the Calais refugee camp, in theory into container shelters and reception centres elsewhere. The charities say that there is not enough alternative accommodation and around 2,300 people have nowhere to go. That includes many from Syria and Afghanistan, and over 400 children and teenagers with no one to look after them, such as the 12-year-old boy I met from Afghanistan with a huge scar across his face, which had happened when his home was attacked.
Unaccompanied children are not allowed into the new container shelters and the Jules Ferry centre for women and children is full. The tents and volunteer support network are about to be bulldozed and there is no safeguarding plan in place at all. There is a massive reality gap between what the Minister said and what is happening on the ground. Save the Children warns that things are extremely chaotic and this is making
“an appalling situation for children even worse.”
This is dangerous. The Minister well knows that there is a serious risk that those children will now just disappear into the hands of traffickers, criminal gangs or prostitution—another 400 children on top of the 10,000 who Europol says have already disappeared in Europe.
Some of those children have their closest family here in the UK. Citizens UK estimates that there are up to 150 such children. That is why they are there, rather than heading to Germany or Sweden, and the Government say they agree that child refugees should be reunited with their family. They also agree that if their closest family is in the UK, they should be able to apply here for asylum, and have promised funding to help that happen. A court case confirms that relatives in Britain should be able to look after children while they apply, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has offered to process cases and speed things up, but that is not happening for the kids in Calais. Even if they manage to apply, their cases are taking nine months. They do not have nine months—their remaining tents are being bulldozed now.
So will the Minister make urgent representations to the French Government to provide immediate safeguarding support for children and young people, and not to remove their accommodation until there is somewhere safer for them to go? Will he accept the offer from the UNHCR to help process applications and set up a fast system to reunite children with family who are here? Finally, will he agree to Lord Dubs’ amendment to help child refugees?
The Minister has talked a good game on stopping trafficking and modern slavery, and he is right to be appalled at the criminal gangs, but this is where it gets real. The Minister has the power now to stop the trafficking of hundreds of children on our doorstop. Will he do it?
We do take our responsibilities seriously, as I indicated in the statement that I made to the House. On the level of alternative accommodation, I mentioned the welcome centres that are available around other parts of France, which now number more than 100. Around 2,500 people have left those camps to go to the reception centres. I stress the importance of getting asylum claims into the system in France.
The right hon. Lady highlights, rightly, the interests of children in and around the camps. We are obviously aware of the containerised accommodation adjacent to the Calais camp. Priority, we understand, is being given to women, children and other vulnerable migrants. This is in addition to the 400 places in heated tents already available for women and children.
In response to the right hon. Lady’s point about close family members, I can tell her that we remain committed to our obligations under Dublin III. The UK and France are running a joint communication centre at the camp, which informs individuals of their rights to claim asylum in France and gives them information on family reunification.
Equally, to assist in the handling of such cases, the UK and France have established a senior-level standing committee and agreed single points of contact with respective Dublin units, and the UK is about to second an asylum expert to the French administration to facilitate the improvement of all stages of the process of identifying, protecting and transferring any relevant cases to the UK.
The right hon. Lady referred to a period of nine months, but it should take nowhere near that amount of time. We remain committed to seeing an efficient and effective process for what we judge to be a small number of cases that might have that direct connection to the UK. She will also be aware of the broader family reunification provisions, over and above Dublin, that would allow children to be reunited with their parents, with direct applications not only from France, but from elsewhere in Europe and, indeed, from the region, where there is that direct link. The Government have also committed an additional £10 million through the Department for International Development to support better reunification and to assist children in transit in Europe, but we are very cautious not to make an already difficult situation even worse.
Therefore, the emphasis is on giving practical support to the French Government, who are leading in this regard, and providing expert support. Equally, there is the support that we are giving in Greece, Italy and countries in the region so that such children are more easily identified and helped at the earliest opportunity.
My right hon. Friend is right that the best way to protect the maximum number of vulnerable children is by minimising the number who are taken to live in squalor in the camps outside Calais in an attempt to make a dangerous and illegal crossing to this country, and the way to do that is by maintaining our close co-operation with the French authorities and doing what we can to strengthen the Dublin convention. Does he agree that the worst thing this country could do is anything that would disrupt our close relationship with the French authorities on this matter?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. We have established a very close working relationship between the UK and French Governments, and between the Home Secretary and Bernard Cazeneuve. There are regular meetings at that level and at operational level, highlighting the exchange of expertise to which I have already referred. My right hon. Friend is right; we will need to maintain that sort of support in the months and years ahead.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for raising this issue. The Opposition have repeatedly raised the plight of the 26,000 or so unaccompanied children in Europe, who are in desperate need of protection. I listened to what the Minister said this afternoon, and I have listened to what he has said before, but there is, as my right hon. Friend has said, a reality gap here.
I have been to see the camps in Calais and Dunkirk for myself. The squalor is hard to describe, and it is worse in Dunkirk than it is in Calais. There are 300 or so unaccompanied children in Calais, and they are not there by choice. In Dunkirk the conditions are such that the volunteers—there are only eight of them—are so busy trying to keep people safe and provide them with somewhere to sleep that they cannot even count the number of unaccompanied children. There is no process on the ground for these children, there is no meaningful advice for them and the reunification rules are not working. That is the reality on the ground. We have to start from that position. That was all borne out by the judgment of the upper tribunal in January.
The situation is now urgent because of the action that has been taken today. I urge the Minister to look at the issue again and consider what practical support can be given in the next 24 hours to these desperate children, who until now have not had the support they need.
The joint declaration signed between the UK and French Governments last August actually provides for the direct financial support that we are giving to the French Government to provide the centres outside the immediate area of Calais. Indeed, as I have already highlighted, there is the Jules Ferry centre, and there is the work we are doing on a regular basis to identify and highlight the appropriate support that is there. I stress again: there is no need for people to be in those conditions. There are services—[Interruption.] There are facilities and services away from the camps that are available to support people. We take our responsibilities seriously, which is why—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) keeps interjecting from the Opposition Front Bench. We are working closely with the French Government to see that there are experts in place, and I have already indicted that an additional person is going out next week to see that there are procedures in place so that there will be efficient and effective reunification for what I judge to be a small number of cases. However, support and alternative accommodation are available in France, and I would urge people to take up those choices.
I am glad the Government put a high priority on reuniting children with their parents, or orphans with close relatives—that is the best answer. However, is it not the case that the European Council’s conclusions at its last meeting were very clear: the best way to help is to prevent these things from happening in future, by ensuring that the EU enforces its border controls when people first enter the EU and provides safeguarding and support for those who need it when they first enter the EU, rather than putting them through the ordeal of a long journey across the whole of its territory?
It is also about ensuring that there is support in and around the region to prevent people from going out in boats, putting children’s lives at risk. That is why the work done at the London conference, in providing additional education to ensure there is a sense of positive hope, was absolutely the right thing to do. That was backed up by our £2.3 billion commitment to aid and assistance in and around the region. My right hon. Friend is right about ensuring that the hotspots initiative is in place to see that help and support are given at the first opportunity, and that is what the Government are committed to doing.
Does the Minister not understand that France’s Dublin procedures for unaccompanied children are just not fit for purpose and that it takes up to a year even for take charge requests to be issued? In that light, should we not be welcoming, rather than challenging, the recent tribunal decision in ZAT to shortcut the admission of three children from the horrendous Calais camps so that they can join their families here? As the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) suggested, should we not be looking to welcome the other 100 or so Calais children identified by Citizens UK as having family in the UK, so that they, too, can be reunited with their loved ones? Just how much public money has been spent on litigation in this case in an attempt to prevent refugee children in Calais from reaching their families here? Would not that money be far better spent on ensuring that Dublin III processes are fit for purpose and on safeguarding those children?
The most appropriate thing to do is to see that those young children receive help and support at the earliest opportunity, which is why I emphasise again the need to see that asylum claims are made quickly in the French system. The Dublin III arrangements can operate effectively; indeed, senior French representatives have told us they see no reason why appropriate claims cannot be completed within a period of two months. There are clear processes and procedures that should be adopted, and we urge everyone to get behind them and make them work effectively.
As other hon. Members have said, the conditions in the camps are awful, and action did need to be taken by the French Government—as long as it is not heavy-handed. However, when I spoke to migrants there, they were very wary of the French Government and French officials. I welcome the fact that the Government are working so collaboratively with the French, but will my right hon. Friend advise us what outreach the Government are doing to encourage people to apply for asylum through the French system, so that they can come here legally if they have a right to do so?
The number of asylum claims made in and around the area of Calais over the recent year or so is about 2,800, and there has been a significant increase, which we support and encourage. We have people who go into the camps to deliver and make very clear the message about the need to make claims quickly so that assistance can be provided.
On our visit to The Hague last week, the Home Affairs Committee was told that 90% of migrants who enter the European Union had been able to do so because of criminal gangs. Will the Minister tell the House how many people have been prosecuted by individual countries as a result of that smuggling? The long-term solution is the proper operation of the hotspots that have been created in Italy and in Greece, and, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said, the tracking of children before they have to make the long journey to Calais. The short-term solution is for the Minister to ring his opposite number in France to see whether a more humanitarian approach can be arrived at, because this is the fault of the French Government, who have been warned about Calais and have done nothing about it.
I think that is an unfair criticism. The French Government have taken significant steps to provide alternative accommodation and to see that there is information so that people are able to make their asylum claims effectively. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point about the role of organised crime. The figure of about 90% that he highlighted has been confirmed by Europol, so the work we are doing with our organised immigration crime taskforce is absolutely right. By getting intelligence to Europol, we are taking action against gangs that, frankly, do not care whether these young people live or die.
We are working closely with the UNHCR in relation to the resettlement programme, particularly through work in-region to see how unaccompanied children could potentially come to this country. The UNHCR is monitoring the situation in and around northern France but, as far as I am aware, has no formal remit.
The Minister is aware that for 12 years we have had juxtaposed immigration controls in the northern ports of France. How does he think one official will be able quickly to determine the asylum claims to be refugees here in Britain of the 50 children identified by respectable charities as having family in the UK? One person cannot do that job.
The right hon. Lady should be aware that there is not just one person but a senior-level connection between officials in both Governments, so broader teams are working on these exchanges. If there is information to support a claim highlighting a close family connection under the Dublin III regulation, we will stand by our obligations.
I strongly welcome the considerable efforts that the Government have made to keep children and families together close to places where many of the refugees come from, such as Syria. However, if 300 minors were living in a squalid camp in Dover, they would be taken into care and given a place of safety, and there would be an investigation into the adults responsible for getting them there, so why is that not happening in France?
I cannot comment on the operations of the French Government, but I can say that we stand ready to support them in joint efforts to see that children and other refugees are appropriately housed and supported. We are providing funding to identify vulnerable children and ensure that the necessary facilities are there. We have given and will continue to give the French Government that support.
As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, if these were British children, the test that would have to be applied to the Government’s actions would be that of the best interests of the child. The Minister is describing colluding with the French Government in a process that will push these children into the hands of people traffickers. Is he really saying that we apply such a different standard to the children of refugees compared with our own?
I utterly reject the right hon. Gentleman’s assertion. The joint working that our enforcement agencies are engaged in in confronting the people traffickers, going after the gangs and seeing that there is not such exploitation is part of the joint agreement that was signed last August. We are supporting the French Government to identify the vulnerable and see that they are given support, and we will continue to do so.
Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that children and young people who have a legitimate claim to be in the UK because of having close family relatives here will not be disadvantaged by starting their asylum claim in France? Although he has made it clear that there is not currently any formal process for the UNHCR to be involved in processing such claims, will he consider that for the future?
I can certainly say that if there are children who qualify under the Dublin regulation—in other words, if they have close family here—we will stand by our obligations. We will ensure that they are processed efficiently and effectively, which is precisely why we are taking the action we are with the French Government.
My hon. Friend highlights the issue of the UNHCR’s role. There is a clear process, and we are working to ensure that it operates. As I have said, we believe that it can be made to operate efficiently and effectively, and we will work with the French Government to achieve that.
I must be mishearing, because the Minister seems to be implying that it is the responsibility of children to declare themselves to the relevant authorities. That cannot be correct—it is our responsibility here to make sure that children are cared for. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, the UNHCR has offered to set up a fast process for us. The Minister has implied, but not yet said, that he has told it no, so will he be specific and say whether he has told it yes or no?
French non-governmental organisations operate in the camps to help identify unaccompanied children and to help them to register with the authorities so that they can be properly looked after. That is the right approach, and it is precisely what the French Government seek to do. There is a process between the French Government and the asylum system, and that is the way in which assistance can be given. I strongly urge everyone to get behind that process, to ensure that children in need receive the care they require.
The fact that there are many unaccompanied children wandering across Europe without any effective means of support is the biggest stain on how the European Union is operating its border and asylum policy. Will the Minister confirm that many thousands more children would be in such an awful plight were it not for the fact that this Government are providing such a huge amount of aid to Syria and neighbouring countries so that other children do not make this perilous journey?
I entirely support what my hon. Friend says about the impact that aid assistance is having on the region. There is a sense of support, hope and opportunity for young people to get the education they need and to be well looked after. Equally, we will continue to work with other European partners on the entry points into the EU, to ensure that the people who have made journeys are processed and that children with claims of settlement are reunited with their parents.
May I politely say to the Minister, and through him to his French counterpart, that this response is just not good enough? The real danger for children is now, during the demolition and dispersal of the camps in Calais and Dunkirk, when they are at real risk of being picked up by the gangs responsible for child sexual exploitation and people trafficking. Will the Minister get on with putting in place a proper and coherent registration system so that children can be picked up by the relevant authorities and looked after as they should be?
My understanding is that the French Government are approaching this work on a phased basis. Places of worship and schools will not be subject to the clearance as a consequence of the court ruling, and the French authorities are focused on areas with unoccupied tents and are encouraging migrants who remain to move to the new accommodation in Calais or elsewhere in France. On children in need of support, I underline again the need to ensure that claims are made, and the NGOs are going in there and helping to identify children in need of help.
The Minister will remember the evidence given by the Mayor of Calais to the Home Affairs Committee and what she has said in public, which is that the majority of those in the camps have been informed that they need to claim asylum in France, but they do not want to do so because they want to come to the UK. Does he agree that it is incumbent on the French Government and the Calais authorities to ensure that children, who cannot make asylum applications on their own, are assisted in doing so, and that adults are informed again that they must claim asylum in France, which is a safe country?
The Minister has said that for unaccompanied children with family connections claiming asylum in France, the process should take two months. How long do the UK Government say the asylum process should take for children with family connections in the United Kingdom, and what practical steps is he going to take to ensure that that is achieved?
In respect of asylum processing and deciding whether to uphold claims, we in this country have done a great deal to ensure that claims are properly assessed and that straightforward claims are dealt with within six months. The Government have done a great deal of hard work to introduce that effectiveness into the system, and that has been recognised in the recent independent inspector’s report.
Does the Minister agree that we and the French Government should make efforts to encourage people to seek assistance in France from the authorities, rather than living in squalor, vulnerable to criminal gangs? Does he also agree that we must make sure that we have strong security at our borders, so that people realise that it is not worth putting their lives in the hands of people traffickers, because they will end up losing their lives, as so many have done?
My hon. Friend knows from his constituency interests the work that the Government have done to secure the port area around Calais and the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles. We keep that security under review in a joint group with the French Government. He makes the powerful and important point that asylum claims should be made at the earliest opportunity so that help and assistance can be given at the earliest opportunity.
The press are reporting this afternoon that riot police are using tear gas and water cannon to support the destruction of the “jungle” camp. I do not know whether that is what the Minister meant by the French authorities engaging with young people and encouraging them to move on. Given that there is plenty of money to provide fencing, and bilateral co-operation with the French, why can he not simply get together with his French counterpart, identify the young people who have a legal right to come to the UK and get them over here immediately?
It is a clear question of people claiming asylum, and children are being supported by the work of the NGOs that the French Government have put in place precisely for that purpose. We have taken a consistent joint approach, building on the agreement of last August, to support the French Government in their work to ensure that those in need of help get it.
Everyone has concerns for vulnerable children in the camps in Calais. When children have identified that they have relatives in the UK, how many of those relatives the UK Government are preventing from travelling to France to be reunited with the children? Why does he think refugees would rather be in the UK than in France?
These issues are often complex. The factor at the forefront of our minds is always what is in the best interests of the child. When we receive applications under Dublin or under family reunification, we always have to assess what is in the best interests of the child and whether the parents or other close family members can support the child. We give that focus to every case.
Exactly a week ago, I asked the Prime Minister for an assurance that the United Kingdom Government’s response to the refugee crisis would be driven entirely by humanitarian need and not influenced in any way by considerations of the impact that it might have on the referendum that is likely to happen at the end of June. The Prime Minister was either unable or unwilling to give such a general assurance last week. Will the Immigration Minister please give that assurance, at least in relation to these most desperate and vulnerable young people?
I think that the hon. Gentleman can see from the Government’s actions that we take our responsibilities very seriously. With the funding that we have committed not just in and around Syria but in Europe, and with the additional £10 million fund that the Department for International Development is operating to ensure that children in transit who are in need of help, counselling or other support can receive it, that is precisely what we will do.
The reasons are often quite complex. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee highlighted the role of people traffickers and smugglers, as well as those who sell false hope through a whole host of different means and networks, including social media. Other reasons may relate to the existing diaspora communities and the whole issue of language. Through the actions on which we are supporting the French Government, and indeed those that we are taking ourselves in the camps, we are giving the clear message that people should claim asylum in France.
I say to the Minister in all earnestness that there is precious little evidence of UK expertise on the ground in any of the camps. He was wrong in what he said about Christian places of worship, because one was wiped out by the French authorities just a few weeks ago. What advice would he give to the likes of the Caritas Social Action Network, Citizens UK and civil society organisations, as well as elected Members and anyone trying to help individuals who have the right of leave to remain in the UK or who have a close family connection, about how they can continue to give such help?
I would say to anyone in that situation that they should claim asylum in France, which will ensure that there is a direct connection and that we can make the system work. I stress that the fact that different messages are being given does not help the situation. In respect of the whole issue of the clearance of the camps, I understand that the court specifically ruled that it should go ahead with the exception of places of worship and schools. The French Government should therefore adopt that approach in the actions they are taking.
Before I entered this place, I worked as counsel on hundreds of asylum and trafficking cases. A core principle of the Dublin regulations is that the first country of entry should take responsibility for the claimant, which imports fairness and equity into the system. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House of his commitment to that principle, and confirm that to discard it without legal basis would be undemocratic and illegitimate?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the benefits and the strength of the Dublin arrangements. We believe that they should be upheld, not undermined. They include the core principle that those who make a claim should do so in the first safe country in which they arrive. Equally, the principle of family reunification for close family members operates under Dublin III, and the Government stand by that principle.
I recently met constituents from St Stephen’s church in Worcester who have been to the camp in Dunkirk. They describe the situation for children as appalling. There is very poor sanitation, and with men-only kitchens, there is a danger that children and the women looking after them are missing out on food. I completely agree with the Minister that everyone in the camps should claim asylum in France, but where that does not happen over a long period, what more can we do to reach out and get that information to the most vulnerable? How can we make sure that the humanitarian assistance that reaches the camps reaches the most vulnerable in the camps?
I again underline the specific facilities there, such as the 400 places for women and children, and the 1,500 places in the new containerised area. We are giving support at 102 centres away from the Calais area to which people can go to receive support, which will ensure that they can make their case. On the specific element of vulnerability, we are supporting the French Government and ensuring that the NGOs are in the camps. Equally, our own officers are going into the camps to reiterate the message that help and support can be given, and that the way to get it is to claim asylum. In that way, we can ensure that assistance is given as early as possible.
EU Referendum: Civil Service Guidance
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement about the instructions issued by the Cabinet Secretary to permanent secretaries in respect of EU referendum guidance for the civil service and special advisers.