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Commons Chamber

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 12 April 2016

House of Commons

Tuesday 12 April 2016

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—

EU Referendum

1. What assessment he has made of the effect of the EU referendum on the UK’s diplomatic relations (a) within the EU and (b) globally. (904400)

Other Governments respect the fact that this is a decision for the British people. Our EU partners agree that many of the reforms that we have secured in the renegotiation will benefit Europe as a whole, and more and more of our friends and allies around the world are telling us that they value this country’s membership of the European Union.

Order. It would be a courtesy to the House to tell Members what I think Front Benchers know—namely, that the Foreign Secretary is away on ministerial business.

I apologise for not doing so at the start. My right hon. Friend is in the far east on the final leg of a tour covering several countries.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever the outcome of the referendum in June, the threats we face mean that our bilateral intelligence-sharing relationships with other European countries will remain vital, and that, working with those outside the EU, European relationships will continue unimpaired to ensure we remain as safe as we can be from external threats?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to maintain strong bilateral relationships in intelligence sharing between the relevant agencies here, in Europe and around the world, while strengthening the intelligence sharing and sharing of information between our police forces. The recent renegotiation confirmed that responsibility for national security rests solely with national Governments, but EU membership enhances our ability to co-operate with other European countries to combat crime and terrorism and keep the British people safe.

What contingency planning is under way with our European and NATO allies for a new provocation from President Putin after our referendum? Putin is of course hoping and praying that Britain votes to leave the European Union and, as the Minister will know, there is a widespread view in security and foreign policy circles that Putin is planning just such a fresh provocation after the referendum, whatever the result.

Given the recent history of the Kremlin’s activities, not only in Ukraine and Georgia but the pressure brought to bear on the Baltic states and the use of the energy weapon against central European countries, we are right to be on our guard. This will be a matter of prime concern at the forthcoming Warsaw NATO summit, and it is important that NATO is prepared for hybrid aggression from the Kremlin that might involve information, the use of energy and the use of soft power, as much as conventional hard power.

Our EU partners will see the EU referendum as a question of our solidarity with them. What lesson will our Italian partners draw from our lack of absolute solidarity with the Italians over the case of Giulio Regeni?

My hon. Friend will want to know that the Minister for the Middle East recently saw the Egyptian ambassador about this case and emphasised that the British Government want to see a full and thorough investigation. Given Mr Regeni’s nationality, the Italian Government and authorities are in the lead, but we remain in very close contact with them and are giving every possible assistance to try to secure an outcome that will give some answers to Mr Regeni’s family.

When the Prime Minister described European discussions as “abrasive” and “difficult”, he was not talking about other European countries; he was not talking about debate across the Floor of the House; he was not even talking about debate within the Conservative party. Rather, he was talking about discussions within his own Cabinet. What does that fractious disunity do to the credibility of this Government’s foreign policy in Europe and beyond?

Our counterparts around Europe are robust democracies and they recognise that this country’s membership of the European Union has divided politicians of all parties for very many years, and that it is possible for people on the right and the left to come to opposite points of view. What the Prime Minister has secured—a firm Government position to support our continued membership of the European Union but with licence given to Ministers to express their dissent in a private capacity—is a fair outcome.

Does the Minister not feel that the robust democracies in Europe and beyond—not to mention the people of this country—are crying out for a debate on our future in Europe that rises above the internal divisions in the Conservative party?

That is precisely what the Government are leading at the moment. I think that at the end of this week, when the Electoral Commission designates the two campaign organisations for remain and leave, we will indeed see that debate continue, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his party will wish to play a constructive part in it.

There has just been a referendum in the Netherlands, where the people overwhelmingly rejected the extension of privileges to Ukraine and its membership of the European Union. How will our Government recalibrate our policy on that?

The Dutch vote was a consultative referendum on a Dutch parliamentary decision to ratify the European Union-Ukraine association agreement. It is a matter entirely for the Dutch Government and the Dutch Parliament. The United Kingdom remains a strong supporter of the efforts being made by Ukraine to defend its national sovereignty and integrity in the face of Russian aggression, and to implement much-needed, far-reaching political and economic reforms that will benefit everyone in Ukraine.

Does the Minister agree that the only thing that Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Vladimir Putin have in common is that they want Britain to leave the European Union? Does that not say a lot about the consequences of our possible departure from the EU?

There are indeed some strange bedfellows in that particular camp, and none of those three gentlemen is one from whom I would want to take advice about where the best interests of the British people lie.

Migration (Western Balkans)

2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of recent steps to reduce migration to Europe through the western Balkans. (904401)

The Government believe that the EU-Turkey agreement will make a genuine difference to the migration flows into Europe and through the western Balkans. The plan disrupts the smugglers’ business model, and breaks the link between getting into a boat and settling in Europe. We continue to monitor the impact on the ground and help countries in the region to manage the pressures that they currently face.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to help Greece to manage the pressures on its borders and avoid the distressing scenes that we have witnessed in the western Balkans?

Yes. To date, we have allocated more than £19 million to Greece for urgent aid such as food, water and medical assistance. We are also supporting organisations that are helping the Greek Government to build their capacity to manage arrivals and monitor borders. So far this year, for example, we have offered 139 months’ worth of screening and debriefing expertise to Frontex to help it to beef up the capacity of the Greeks to manage the very large number of asylum claims that they will need to process.

I understand that the British Government have also contributed eight judges, but I also understand that the shortfall in expertise amounts to 2,500 staff. What more can the Government do to support the Greeks?

We continue to consider whether there are ways in which we can help further. We are not members of the Schengen group, so under the group’s rules we are barred from providing some forms of assistance. However, the Prime Minister talked to Prime Minister Tsipras very recently about what more we could do, and we continue to discuss with Greece and our other European partners how best we can help to manage the pressures on Greece. It is in all our interests that European countries come together to manage the crisis in the Aegean and ensure that migrants are treated humanely but also fairly, and that if they do not have well-founded asylum claims, they can be returned.

If a migrant claims asylum in Greece and then makes his or her way to the United Kingdom, we are unable to send that individual back to Greece because the Greek asylum system is deemed unfit for purpose. What steps is the Minister taking with his EU counterparts to ensure that Greece brings its asylum and detention systems up to the requisite standard?

Anyone in the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes who was not a Greek national would need a visa to enter the United Kingdom from the countries to which asylum seekers are going from Greece. The whole purpose of the EU-Turkey agreement and of the assistance we are giving to Greece is to manage the situation in the region so that we do not face the pressures he describes.

Thousands of Yazidi women who have been kidnapped, tortured and raped by ISIS cannot come through the Balkans and are unable to access the medical and psychological support they need in the region. Will the right hon. Gentleman encourage our EU partners to follow the example of Germany by admitting some of those women so that they can access the medical support they need? Will he also talk to the Home Office about allowing some of those women access to Britain so that we too can assist them?

Each asylum claim in Greece has to be considered according to international law and judged on that basis. The United Kingdom is giving strong financial and political support to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are bearing the brunt of supporting the very large numbers of refugees coming from Syria, including the Yazidi women about whom the hon. Lady is particularly concerned. She is right to be concerned about those people, but the best way to offer them the help they need is to ensure that the money that was promised at the recent London conference on Syria is provided to give them assistance in the first safe country they get to, rather than encouraging them to make a perilous journey across the Aegean sea in the hands of the people smugglers.


3. What discussions he has had with other members of the international coalition on improving diplomatic co-ordination of steps to tackle Daesh. (904402)

Britain has helped to create the global coalition against Daesh that now includes more than 60 countries. The last meeting of the smaller group of countries, which the Foreign Secretary and I attended, took place in Rome in January this year.

I thank the Minister for his answer. As reports emerged of the genocide being committed by the Nazis, the allied Governments made a co-ordinated joint statement on 17 December 1942 to condemn those crimes and pledge to bring those responsible to justice at the end of hostilities. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that co-ordinating a similar statement today would be appropriate, given the evidence of similar crimes being committed by Daesh against Christians and other religious minorities?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. The regular images on our screens confirm the scale and the barbarity of Daesh’s inhumane treatment of minorities. We are now witnessing systematic and horrific attacks against Christians, Yazidis and others, based on their religious beliefs or their ethnicity. I too believe that acts of genocide have taken place but, as the Prime Minister has said, genocide is a matter of legal rather than political interpretation. We as the Government are not the prosecutor, the judge or the jury. Such matters are determined first in the international courts and in the United Nations Security Council, but we are helping to gather evidence that could be used to hold Daesh to account appropriately.

Daesh poses a particular threat to civilians in Syria, as does the ongoing besieging of communities across that country. With the Syrian regime continuing to block United Nations trucks, less aid is now reaching those communities than before the cessation of hostilities. Does the welcome news on Sunday that the World Food Programme was able to deliver 20 tonnes of aid to Deir ez-Zor in a successful airdrop demonstrate that the Foreign Office, along with the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, should now re-examine the possibility of airdrops to all besieged communities in Syria?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Lady does in this particular area, and to her knowledge of these matters. She is right to recognise the extra work that is being done to ensure that aid gets through to those difficult areas. This is one of our focuses as the cessation of hostilities begins to endure. We must ensure that those who have been caught up in this horrendous war are able to receive the aid that they require.

22. Tackling Daesh online is as important as tackling the menace on the battlefield. Together with the international community, what more can the Government do to ensure that social media is closed down when it poisons the minds of young people and opened up to promote tolerance, fairness and opportunity? (904424)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The difference between Daesh and al-Qaeda or others before it is that this and future groups will use the internet to recruit, to fund themselves and to encourage people to fight. That is why we formed the coalition’s strategic communications working group. In London, we have formed a cell that shares best practice to ensure that we stop the movement of funds and fighters and that we challenge the poisonous ideology that Daesh puts out online.

Yesterday, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors met and carried out an assessment of its ability to face terrorism, stating that its capability to deal with the international terror threat was imperfect. Will the Minister indicate whether he will host a conference with Garda officers and draw up a plan to ensure that the threat does not permeate our border?

That is a little bit off my beat, but it is something that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, the Home Office and I should want to move forward. We have been at the forefront of sharing best practice in recognising when extremism starts to embed itself, whether in universities, prisons or elsewhere, but if lessons are to be learned and if co-ordination can be better, we should absolutely look into that.

The international peace agreement is effectively dead as a result of recent Russian action in Aleppo. What further action can the group of countries that my hon. Friend mentioned in answer to an earlier question take to tackle Daesh more effectively?

I understand that my hon. Friend considers these matters closely, but I do not agree with his analysis. Russia is playing an important role in the cessation of hostilities given its influence over the Assad regime. He is right to identify the consequences and challenges facing Aleppo, which is Syria’s largest city by some margin. There has been an awful lot of frustration at the lack of humanitarian aid, which Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy, is focusing on to ensure that support can get in.

Daesh is trying hard to radicalise sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Maghreb. What efforts are the Government making to ensure that east African countries, such as Kenya, and the nations of the Sahel—Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad—do not fall prey to this malignant cancer?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on not only the challenges of Daesh in Iraq and in Syria, and we are also familiar with what is happening in Libya. Further afield, unless we are able to work and encourage local police and forces and local capability to recognise extremism, we will see it permeate other places, such as sub-Saharan Africa. That is exactly what we are doing with our local programmes in each of those countries to ensure that they have the strength and capability to recognise when extremist groups, such as Daesh, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram, are trying to penetrate their areas.

Order. Unfortunately, progress is rather slow today. I am keen to accommodate as many questioners as possible. A short sentence by way of question and a short sentence by way of reply will usually suffice.

EU Referendum

4. What assessment he has made of the effect of the EU referendum on UK trade with countries with which the EU has a free trade agreement. (904404)

The Government believe that the UK will be stronger, safer and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union. Were we to leave, we should expect to lose our preferential access to not only the European single market, but the 53 markets outside the EU with which the EU has free trade agreements.

The EU has preferential trade agreements with 53 countries, including high-growth Asian nations such as Vietnam and Korea, where I believe the benefits have boosted British trade by some £2 billion a year, and talks with Indonesia and the Philippines start soon. Will my right hon. Friend explain whether we would easily be able to replicate those 53 agreements in the case of Brexit and how long that would take?

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he does as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the ASEAN—Association of Southeast Asian Nations—region? I agree with him that the record shows that alternative trade agreements would take years to negotiate and there would be no guarantee whatsoever that we could obtain terms that were anything like as good as those that we enjoy through the European Union today.

Conservative Members do not like to hear this, but will the Minister confirm that he listened to the wise words of David Miliband on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning? Is what he said not absolutely true: our international trading partners are already postponing decisions on investment in this country and ceasing to hire in this country?

I missed that interview this morning, but I do agree with what Mr Miliband says. What I hear direct from businesses in this country is that they are concerned about the uncertainty, that some have indeed postponed decisions and that many more would consider reducing the levels of employment or of investment in this country if there were a decision to quit the European Union.

I would point my hon. Friend to the fact that the Government’s case—that we are better off remaining in the EU—is supported by the overwhelming majority of business leaders and of trade union leaders in this country. I just wish he and others who advocate leaving the EU would, for once, come up with a coherent and consistent description of the alternative.

As we know, the Government are in favour of the European partnership, trade and the benefits of remaining in the EU. The EU referendum provides the opportunity to display exactly that, so when will the Minister be inviting and, we hope, welcoming President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel to the UK, with the strong campaign message, “Shoulder to shoulder. It is better for the UK to remain in the EU”? Will he welcome and invite them?

Both Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have made it clear that they believe the United Kingdom contributes a huge amount to the political and economic weight of the EU in the world, and they want to see us vote to stay within the EU. They are also clear that this is a decision for the British electorate to take, and they respect that fact.

In answer to the Minister’s question, our vision of the UK outside the EU is very simply that we would be like most other free trading nations around the world: trading as we see fit. I suggest the Government are playing with fire, because the more they wade in in favour of remaining during this referendum debate, the more the referendum will be seen as being unfair, and that could create further uncertainty, particularly if the vote is narrowly for staying.

The Government are not going to be silent or neutral on an issue that we believe is central to the future prosperity and security of the United Kingdom. I am glad that my hon. Friend seems to believe, on leaving, we should continue to be part of the European single market, but he is yet to say how that would involve not having to accept freedom of movement, agreement to all European rules although we would have no say or vote on them, and contributing to the EU budget. That is the situation Norway and Switzerland are in today.

Given the claims some have made about possible free trade deals outside the EU, is the Minister for Europe aware of any major trading partner that wishes the UK to leave the EU?

The key point here is of course that we have a free trade agreement with the European Union, as we have with other nation states. There is a question that has to be answered: why are so many of the states that have said we should stay in the EU the ones that the other side seem to think we can have some sort of agreement with?

The consistent message that we hear from friends, allies and partners, not just in Europe, but in the Commonwealth and around the world, is that they want to see us stay in the EU. I am still waiting for the advocates of quitting to come up with an example of a friendly international leader who supports their case.

There are more cars manufactured in one city in the north of England in one month than that great car-producing country Italy makes in a year, and the vast majority of those cars are exported to Europe—and that is just one city in one region. We see that being replicated right across the country. Early assessment suggests that any post-Brexit deal would place a tariff of up to 10% on every single car manufactured in the UK and sent to Europe, and that, over time, that would damage both manufacturing and jobs in the UK. Will the Minister confirm the possibility of a tariff of at least 10% being placed on every car manufactured in the UK?

That is indeed the case. If we were outside the single market, and World Trade Organisation rules applied, we could expect that 10% tariff on every car exported to the rest of Europe from the United Kingdom, which is why exit would be such a bad deal.

Order. I made an appeal for a speed-up a few moments ago, but unfortunately, to put it bluntly, the Member concerned made a mess of it and did not speed up. We must now speed up.

Honour-based Violence

Tackling violence against women and girls—including so-called honour killings—and the promotion of women’s rights remain central to UK foreign policy objectives. We work closely with the most affected countries, including with the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I support the work that the UK Government have done with the Government of Cameroon in tackling the abhorrent practice of breast ironing. Does the Minister agree that unless we seek to find ways for these so-called honour-based crimes to be prosecuted in their country of origin, we will struggle to pursue prosecutions here in the United Kingdom?

I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he does in this area. He has called debates in Westminster Hall and in other forums to ensure that we recognise the important role that Britain and the international community must play in relation to female genital mutilation and breast ironing. As he says, those are abhorrent crimes, and we are working with other Governments in countries where such practices exist.

Karma Nirvana based in Headingley in my constituency does amazing work highlighting this so-called honour-based violence, which is a scandalous practice. It trains police officers. Will the Minister tell me what he is doing to work with foreign Government to ensure that they are also training their police forces?

We have doubled our commitment to human rights and increased the Magna Carta Fund to promote better understanding of these issues. What we find is that states have the laws in position, but they do not apply them. That is where we need to work closely with Governments to make sure that they follow through the laws that are already in existence.

Middle East

I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in February and I remain clear that a two-state solution is the only credible way to resolve the conflict. We continue to work closely with international partners to preserve the viability of the two-state solution and to encourage a return to meaningful negotiation.

In 2016, there has been an acceleration of evictions and property destruction on the west bank. By these continuing actions, the Israeli Government are showing complete contempt for the notion of a two-state solution—a fact recognised by President Carter. When will the Government update UK policy to reflect reality on the ground in this area?

During my meetings with the Deputy Foreign Minister and indeed with the Prime Minister, I found that they remained committed to the two-state solution, but my hon. Friend is right to recognise that measures are being taken and events are taking place that seem to take us in another direction. We need to ensure that people are able to come back to the table, and that we are able to make progress. There is no other solution to this. We cannot continue with the status quo.

Hezbollah is constructing a base in Syria to fire Iranian ballistic missiles into Israel. How seriously does the Minister regard that?

Again, the hon. Lady highlights the challenges that the region faces. We need to ensure that we work with the international coalitions to prevent such events from taking place. Iran is starting to take incremental steps towards greater responsibility in the region. Unless it is able to control Hezbollah and have an influence, we will see that this nuclear deal will mean little.

There have recently been two initiatives in the region: the extension of fishing rights for Gazan fisherman with Israeli co-operation, and the naming of a basketball tournament after a terrorist who killed 36 people, including 12 children. Which of those two initiatives does the Minister think is more likely to bring about a two-state solution?

My right hon. Friend highlights the dilemma that we face. We need grassroots initiatives on a low level such as extension of fishing rights, for which I have pressed for some time. Oil and gas reserves can be tapped into off Gaza, which will also help the economy. At the same time, basketball courts and, indeed, schools and streets are being named after terrorists, which does not suggest that the Palestinians are as serious as they should be.

The Minister will know that Israel is demolishing Palestinian homes and other structures at three times the rate at which it did so last year. I was in the region last week, with the hon. Members for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) and for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), and Lord Warner, and we saw that for ourselves. Given that a number of these structures are EU-supported and EU-funded, what are the Government going to do not simply to express concern but to hold Israel to account? What mechanisms are available to do so?

The hon. Gentleman highlights a challenge that we face. Britain has been working closely with Israel to change the approach that Israelis have taken on administrative detention. We have also funded and facilitated independent reports on the challenges that we face, and I raised this matter with the Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely. I will continue to press Israel to move forward. Again, this takes us back —it is a retrograde step.

Question 7 would be a good start. No more today about the Israelis or Palestinians—the next question is about the Chagossians.

Chagos Islands

7. What progress his Department has made on allowing Chagossian people to return to the Chagos Islands. (904407)

This is much more familiar territory for me.

Officials met over 500 Chagossians in their communities in the UK, Mauritius and the Seychelles. The public consultation we published in January received over 800 responses. I recognise that Chagossians have urged us to announce a decision soon, and we very much hope to do so.

Does the Minister agree that the £60 million estimate for the resettlement of the Chagos islanders, at 0.002% of the international development budget, is a price that the Government must pay this year so that the Chagos islanders can return home? Every day they are not allowed to do so is a day of shame for this country.

Perhaps I might outline for the House some of the costs. We estimate that the initial costs would range from £55 million for a 50-person pilot on Diego Garcia to £256 million for a 1,500-person resettlement on Diego Garcia and the outer islands. In addition, operating costs would range from £5 million to £18.5 million a year on a potentially open-ended and escalating basis.

Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office commit that financial resource, which is desperately needed, to recognise the human rights of this group of people who have suffered for so long under many different Governments?

Following the detailed KPMG report and subsequent consultation, Her Majesty’s Government are looking closely at the matter. The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not come to a conclusion at the Dispatch Box, but go through due process, and I will try to do so as quickly as possible.

Refugees: Middle East

8. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in the EU, Africa and the middle east on steps to tackle the refugee crisis in the middle east. (904408)

Ministers have frequent discussions with both EU and non-EU partners about migration and refugees. Our focus is on securing a durable solution to the crisis which tackles the causes of migration as well as the consequences, and we continue to play a leading role in that work.

The Libyan Government recently requested help to prevent illegal migrants from departing from their coast. When does the Minister think we will be in a position to begin returning those intercepted in the Med to the north African coast, rather than allowing them to make landfall in the EU?

We are ready to respond positively to requests for support and assistance from the new Libyan Government to tackle the criminal gangs of people smugglers and prevent tragic deaths at sea. We have not yet had a specific request for assistance on tackling migration as my hon. Friend described, but we are ready to take action if we receive such a request.

21. What is the Minister’s current assessment of political progress in Tunisia, and what are the British Government doing to support the progress there? I do not mind if the Minister with responsibility for the middle east answers.


We continue to support the democratic evolution of Tunisia, and we are working actively to support the Tunisian authorities to ensure that they have control over their borders so that there can be checks against the risks of terrorists moving across borders and in order to disrupt the work of people smugglers.

As we successfully engage Daesh in Syria and northern Iraq, what assessment has the Minister made of the threat of Daesh moving to Libya?

It is a very serious threat indeed. That is why we give such a high priority to international work to establish a proper system of government in Libya and very much welcome the work that has led to the creation of the Government of national accord. We are working actively with European and wider international partners to ensure that that new Government get the support that they need.

Many on the Opposition Benches strongly agree that there should be a strategy in which the UK is involved to strengthen countries in order to stop their people wanting to flee. However, far more should be done by the UK to allow more people in, and one process would strengthen the other. Does the Minister agree?

No. We have given a commitment, on which we are delivering, to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees from camps in the region during the lifetime of this Parliament. Let us not forget that we also pledged £2.3 billion in humanitarian assistance to support Syrian refugees, giving them help in the regions where they are present and trying to deter them from taking the appalling risk of putting themselves in the hands of the people smugglers.

EU Referendum

9. What discussions his Department has had with the Department for Work and Pensions on the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on employment. (904409)

The Government’s view is that the UK will be stronger, safer and better off remaining in a reformed EU. More British people are in work than ever before, and nine out of 10 people in work in this country are UK nationals.

Airbus, which is based near my constituency, employs 15,000 people directly, has 100,000 people in associated businesses and has taken the unprecedented step of writing to all its employees urging them to vote yes to stay in Europe, because it says that

“we…don’t know what ‘out’ looks like.”

Will the Minister endorse that decision and tell the House what “out” looks like?

Airbus is typical of a large number of advanced manufacturing companies that are based across national borders within Europe but benefit from the European market, and which also give business opportunities to a host of small enterprises through their supply chains. That reinforces my view that it would be a severe blow to employment and hopes of growth for this country to withdraw from the EU.

Given the cross-departmental nature of the question, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister could very helpfully agree to go before the Liaison Committee to deal with all these cross-departmental questions?

The Prime Minister agreed with the Liaison Committee that he should make three appearances during 2016. The next one is scheduled to take place before the summer recess. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has also been at this Dispatch Box on many occasions to answer questions about European policy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) has taken ample advantage of the opportunity provided by those events.

It is not just those in employment, but pensioners who would suffer the consequences of Brexit. What can the Minister say about any British pensioners living in Europe who may be caught up in the “frozen pensions” scandal if we leave the European Union?

It is the case that British pensioners and other expatriate UK citizens who are resident in other EU member states get certain rights and benefits as a consequence of our EU membership. We cannot guarantee that in the event of a British withdrawal, the negotiations on exit would lead to those rights and benefits being retained.

In the Minister’s publicly funded glossy brochure—I have a copy here—which claims to set out the facts, the Government state:

“Our EU membership magnifies the UK’s ability to get its way on the issues we care about.”

Will my right hon. Friend explain how that squares with the fact that the UK has been outvoted every time it has voted against an EU measure—72 times in total, and 40 of those defeats under this Government?

I suggest that my hon. Friend checks the footnotes to the leaflet, which have been published online so that everybody can see the basis on which those statements are made. We have been successful in roughly 87% of votes in the Council of Ministers, and most outside observers say that we have a better track record than most other member states in getting our own way.

Given that after 40 years the European Union has still not managed to negotiate a trade deal with the United States of America, surely if we left and regained control of settling our own trade deals, we would be able to make trade deals much faster than the EU.

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend speaks for that faction of the Brexit camp that supports the transatlantic free trade agreement, because not everybody on his side of the argument does. The United States, through its chief negotiator and the head of its chamber of commerce, has made it clear that it is interested in a deal with 500 million people, the biggest market in the world, but not terribly interested in giving priority to a deal with a country of just 65 million people.


We finally have a fragile ceasefire in the region, but not before thousands have been killed and millions displaced. There have been wide accusations of serious war crimes. Will the British Government now finally support a full investigation into the allegations?

I join the hon. Lady in welcoming the cessation of hostilities. The peace talks will begin on 18 April in Kuwait. A number of organisations have been created, including the Yemeni national independent commission of inquiry, which is the appropriate body to look into human rights issues in Yemen. The Saudis have themselves organised their own investigative committee in order to analyse and put their hands up when mistakes were made.

I commend the Minister for his tireless work in seeking an end to the horrendous conflict in Yemen. What steps are the Government taking to support the UN-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait in little under a week’s time?

We have participated fully in bringing together what has been a very complex situation. Often people simply try to knuckle it down to one, two or three sides, but al-Qaeda is in Yemen, as is Daesh. There are not only the Houthis and other groupings, but many militias that are looking at which way the winds will blow. I have spoken on a number of occasions to President Hadi, and indeed to Ismail Ahmed, the UN envoy, to encourage the ceasefire. I hope that we will see real progress when the talks commence in Kuwait on 18 April.

I welcome the ceasefire, but since Sunday there has already been an attack on Taiz. Will the Minister confirm that he will be in Kuwait on 18 April and that he will do all he can to ensure that the ceasefire holds?

I cannot confirm at this moment whether I will be attending, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to outline the breaches, which are taking place not only in Taiz, but elsewhere, including east of Aden, where 15 Yemeni soldiers were killed, and not by the Houthis or any other militia, but by al-Qaeda. It is important that we ensure that the talks work and that the international community supports them fully.

May I just push the Minister on the answer he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) about the Saudi investigation into the conduct of the coalition campaign in Yemen? Does he have faith that the investigation will be thorough, independent and transparent? Does he expect the initial findings to be published? What follow-up will the UK take if allegations of war crimes are substantiated? Will he also outline the steps that the Government have taken to ensure that the UK liaison officers supporting the Saudi military campaign have not been unwittingly involved in potential war crimes?

As I have said in the Chamber a number of times, we have one of the most robust systems of arms export control licences in the world, and it is important to make sure that they are robust. We have been working closely with the Yemeni authorities, but also with the Saudis, to make sure they put their hands up when a mistake is made. We have frank conversations with them privately to make sure that the investigation will work as we expect it to.

Topical Questions

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is currently in Vietnam holding meetings with Vietnamese Ministers about trade and political relations. This follows visits to China, where among other things he pressed the Chinese authorities for action to bring greater stability to world steel markets, and to Japan, where he represented the United Kingdom at a meeting of G7 Foreign Ministers.

In the wake of the recent visit by Premier Modi to the UK and the current visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to India, can my right hon. Friend highlight the trade and investment benefits to both countries from these important high-level exchanges?

Indeed I can. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the current visit by Their Royal Highnesses, which is going extremely well. We have incredibly good bilateral relations with India, and the visit here by Mr Modi was a great success. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the soft power we have in our diplomatic armoury, from the BBC, to the British Council, the GREAT campaign, the Newton Fund and the Chevening and Marshall scholarship programmes. All those are part of the jigsaw that helps us to do business and to project British values right around the world.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that all of Britain’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies, apart from Anguilla and Guernsey, have now agreed to provide our law enforcement and tax authorities with full access to information on beneficial ownership. Why will there not be public access to the registers, given that the Prime Minister wrote to the overseas territories on 25 April 2014 to say that making such information open would help “to tackle crime”, and given that, from June this year, the British register of beneficial ownership will be open to the public? If openness is good enough for the UK, why should we accept a different position in our overseas territories?

It is disappointing that the shadow Secretary of State does not congratulate the overseas territories on the enormous progress they have made on tax transparency and on opening up for law enforcement agencies. This is really superb progress, but as the Prime Minister outlined yesterday, it is not an international standard, and we need to move towards eliminating all corrupt, terrorist and money laundering practices across the globe. While there are states in the US where people can open companies and not have full public registers, it is only fair to say to the overseas territories, “Congratulations on progress so far.” Longer term, the Prime Minister and the Government are clear that we want greater transparency, and that will be about a move towards public access.

I do welcome progress; I was just asking why the overseas territories will not meet the standard Britain is going to set.

Our membership of the European Union helps us in the fight against money laundering, terrorist financing and tax evasion—an example being the fourth anti-money laundering directive, on which the UK has taken the lead. The directive will, for the first time, oblige all member states to keep registers of beneficial owners and to make those open to tax and law enforcement authorities and to others who have a legitimate interest, including investigative journalists. Does that not show that leaving the EU could hinder the fight against financial criminality in Europe, because the best way to tackle such criminality is to work in partnership with our neighbours?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there are many ways in which we benefit, in taking action against crime, through this kind of European co-operation. What I hear from the police service is that almost all serious crime these days has an international dimension of some kind, and countries need to work together to tackle that. The current system, where we can choose whether to opt in to individual justice and home affairs measures, really does give us the best of both worlds.

T2. What more can be done to prevent vulnerable people from being indoctrinated to become suicide bombers? (904351)

The Koran actually forbids suicide, and if we look at the profile of suicide bombers from Sousse to Bali, we will see that martyrdom is sold by extremists as a fast track to paradise to people who have scant knowledge of the Koran. They are promised a ticket to heaven with little, if any, service to God. If we are genuinely to defeat extremism and stem the tide of vulnerable recruits, greater emphasis needs to be placed on duty to God in this life as well as the next.

T3. The Minister will be aware of reports that Libya paid $1.5 billion into the US compensation fund for relatives of victims of terror blamed on Libya. Why have the UK victims of IRA terrorism that used Libyan Semtex not received similar support? The Minister recently indicated that he would support those victims of IRA terrorists who used Semtex. What is he doing and what support is in place for them? (904352)

It is for a previous Government to explain why that opportunity was missed when the United States advanced discussions in that area. What I have done, in meetings both in Belfast and here in London with those victims of terrorism that involved Semtex or, indeed, that was supported by Gaddafi, is facilitate a visit to Tripoli when the security measures allow it.

T4. Could a Minister update the House on the support we have given to the Government of the Ivory Coast following the terrorist attack in Grand Bassam in March? (904353)

Last week I visited the scene of the attack in Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire, which killed 19 people and injured more than 20, and laid a wreath on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. Furthermore, I met President Ouattara and discussed how the UK can support efforts to prevent the radicalisation of young people in his country. We all offer our condolences, support and, indeed, solidarity.

T9. Developing countries lose three times as much to tax havens as they gain in international aid. Although yesterday’s announcement was a welcome, partial step in addressing that, registers of beneficial ownership will be ineffective unless they are public. Does the Minister agree that the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption summit next month would be an appropriate deadline to insist that all of the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies adopt public registers of beneficial ownership? (904358)

First, we should congratulate the Prime Minister. This is the first international conference on anti-corruption. We have already made great progress on beneficial ownership, but it is not the only issue of corruption. Having visited Ghana last week, I know that many other issues need to be tackled. Although beneficial ownership is an important issue, it is not the only issue for that corruption conference.

T5. The huge Mosul dam is crumbling and might collapse. If it does, Mosul will be covered with up to 70 feet of water and 1.5 million lives will be threatened in Tikrit, Samarra and Baghdad. What work is under way to maintain the integrity of that structure? (904354)

To use your superlative, Mr Speaker, this is one of the most serious things that Iraqis face, on top of everything else that is going on in Iraq. If a 14-metre tsunami along the Tigris goes through the Mosul dam, it will take out the city of Mosul and put Baghdad under 5 feet of water. The Iraqi authorities need to recognise the sense of urgency with regard to the dam, which is built on gypsum, and put in place emergency measures and alerts. We have already taken precautions at the embassy.

I raised the issue of the Baha’is and other minorities in meetings with the Foreign Minister when he visited in March. I also have regular meetings with the chargé d’affaires—the ambassador in waiting—in London.

T6. Could we have an update on the Havana process, which is working to bring an end to the conflict between the FARC rebels and the Colombian military, and which should offer the best opportunity to focus much more on tackling the drugs trade? (904355)

I do not think we need to get too hung up on the actual date; what is important is the result, which is the big prize towards which all have been working for a considerable amount of time. We again congratulate the negotiating team under President Santos, as well as the Cuban Government in Havana on the part they have played. I am also pleased to say that the United Kingdom has helped the process with advice and financially, with an EU trust fund and a UN fund.

Last week, the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, said that there is a greenhouse effect in terms of the extremist groups that are bringing their influence to bear in the wake of the Syrian conflict. Can the Minister confirm what the Government’s strategy is for defeating Daesh, as opposed to simply displacing it?

The hon. Lady is right. Not only is that the case at the moment, but when the Bali bombing took place, there were 21 registered terrorist groups from a British perspective, and today that number is more than 50. It is important that we focus on eradicating Daesh in all its forms not only in Iraq and Syria, but where it is starting to spread, and its franchises, such as the Khorasan group, the Taliban, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. Those other groups are trying to get support from Daesh. Internationally, we must wake up and focus on the scale of the problem.

T7. Given that so many are now using the proper name for the terrorist organisation Daesh to defeat its ideology, propaganda and appeal, is it not unfortunate that the BBC still refuses to do so? (904356)

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who, I think, got an award in your presence, Mr Speaker, for his campaign on that very issue. I am puzzled about why the BBC, from John Humphrys to John Craven, continues to use the term Islamic State. There is nothing Islamic and nothing state-like about it. I do not know what more we need to do. Perhaps we need to write to “Points of View”.

I am sure the whole House will join my condemnation of the human rights abuses, documented by the United Nations and Amnesty International, that have been committed by the South Sudanese Government forces, which included deliberately suffocating men and boys in a container and allowing government soldiers to rape women in lieu of wages. Following his recent visit to South Sudan, can the Minister tell the House what representations he has made to the Government of South Sudan and what process is in place for peace?

I made a number of representations to President Salva Kiir and to Riek Machar during the African Union meeting. The UK Government secured agreement at the UN for a new commission on human rights, and the Government of South Sudan must now fulfil its commitment to co-operate with the commission, which is charged with investigating gang rapes, the destruction of villages and attacks on civilians that may even constitute war crimes.

T8. Many of my constituents have expressed concern about the possible admission of Turkey to the EU. Is it still the Government’s policy to support Turkish admission? Bearing in mind public hostility, are they prepared to reconsider their position? (904357)

As the Prime Minister said the other day in the House, Turkish membership of the EU is not on the cards for many years indeed. That is not least because there would have to be a Cyprus settlement before Cyprus lifted its block on a whole number of the negotiating chapters. That is not something that we are likely to face in the lifetime of this Parliament or the next, and possibly not in the one after that.

The recently elected MPs of the new Hluttaw in Myanmar are acutely aware of the scale of the task that they face in building democracy in their country. On my recent visit, I was really quite touched by the extent to which they appreciate the support of the UK Parliament for the work they have to do. On that note, may I ask what dialogue the Government are engaged in to promote freedom of expression and political rights in Burma?

I am glad that the hon. Lady called the country Burma towards the end of her question, unlike the BBC, which continues to call it Myanmar. We are hugely supportive, as she knows, of the new Government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has just appointed herself State Counsellor and Foreign Minister, among other titles. She is basically running the Government. It is very early days.

We continue to support Burma across the whole range of issues, from human rights, to the issue in Rakhine, to the peace process and the ceasefires. I congratulate hon. Members from across the House who have taken the trouble to go to Nay Pyi Taw to try to teach some of the new politicians there the basic elements of how to run a democratic Government. There is a long way to go, but I believe that we are moving in the right direction.

This Government and the previous Labour Government have deliberately undermined authoritarian regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad, and they have unleashed totalitarian regimes as a result. Will the Government accept that Assad, however unpleasant, is not going to go? Will they accept realpolitik, pick up the phone and try to broker a deal between Russia, Assad and the other anti-Daesh movements in order to try to get some chance of peace in the benighted Syrian countryside?

It is for the people of Syria to decide who should lead their country. The majority of people in Syria do not accept that Assad should be part of its long-term future. He has used barrel bombs, he has used chemical weapons and he should have no part at all in the long-term future of the country.

Will the Minister give us an assessment of how far away Libya is from having a stable Government? What is the strength of Daesh there, and are real steps being taken to bring in ground forces to push them out of the country?

I am pleased that Prime Minister Siraj and the Presidency Council are now meeting in Tripoli. It has taken a long time to get the General National Congress and the House of Representatives to agree to support the Prime Minister. These are important initial steps, but the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that Daesh has a foothold in Derna and Sirte. That is why the sooner the Prime Minister is able to make the important decisions, the sooner the international community can come in and provide support to make sure that Daesh does not gain a long-term foothold.

British exports to China have more than doubled since 2010, led by firms such as Havant-based manufacturer Colt. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Colt, and encourage other firms to follow its lead?

Indeed, I congratulate all the companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Trade with China, despite the recent setback, is still doing extremely well. Our bilateral relations have been reset, following the successful state visit to this country of President Xi. The Foreign Secretary has just been in Beijing. We both encourage British companies to trade more in China—it is a huge market—and all of us, as local Members of Parliament, to do everything we can to encourage our small and medium-sized enterprises to trade with China. Equally, the United Kingdom still continues to attract huge Chinese investment in our infrastructure, which of course provides employment and jobs.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have made the Minister for Community and Social Care aware of my intention to make this point of order. In an answer to my written parliamentary question asking for the number of deaths that have occurred in child and adolescent mental health units since 2010, the Minister said that only one such death had been recorded by the Care Quality Commission. However, freedom of information requests conducted by Inquest have found that at least nine young people have tragically died in England while receiving in-patient psychiatric care since 2010. In response to this research, the Minister stated in an interview on last night’s BBC “Panorama” programme that he did not know how many children and adolescents have died in psychiatric units in recent years. This discrepancy between the Government’s account of the number of child deaths and the data collected from FOI requests raises serious questions about how the deaths in psychiatric care of some of our most vulnerable people are treated, recorded, investigated and learned from.

Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, whether you have received any indication from Ministers that they intend to clarify for the parliamentary record what the accurate figure is for the number of children who have tragically died in all NHS-funded psychiatric in-patient settings since 2010?

Extremely important questions are raised by this matter and by the broadcast, although not for me. We cannot have Question Time on the basis of points of order, but as the Minister of State is in the Chamber and apparently willing to say some words, we are happy—exceptionally—to hear him.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful to you for allowing me to respond. I appreciate the fact that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) gave me notice of her point of order. Some very serious questions were raised by the “Panorama” programme last night. I have agreed to meet Inquest’s Deborah Coles, the lady who put in the FOI request. There is a discrepancy in the numbers. There are difficulties in definition in relation to this matter, but the present situation is not acceptable. I will look as quickly as possible at finding a way of correcting the record as soon as we know exactly what the figures are, and at making sure we have sorted out this data problem effectively for the future.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his courtesy. On a personal note, may I wish the Minister very well in that important meeting with Deborah Coles? She is a very formidable character, as I know myself, because we knew each other at university. She is very formidable indeed, and I wish him well.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have just had questions to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. We had an excellent team of Ministers here, but we did not have the Secretary of State. The Minister for Europe made the point that the Secretary of State was on the last leg of an overseas visit. I thought it was a convention of this House that Parliament came first and that Secretaries of State should be here for questions unless an emergency took them away from the House—clearly this trip was planned. Will you give guidance to the House on whether Secretaries of State should be on overseas trips when questions to their Department are scheduled?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Things may have changed since I was paying attention to this—it is 25 years since I was a Minister—but in my day, a Minister for the Government spoke with the same authority no matter what rank of Minister they were.

Certainly the team communicate with the House as a team. That is undeniable. This is not within the power of the Chair. The Secretary of State did courteously write to me to notify me that he would be absent. My sense is that he is not likely to be absent on anything like a regular basis. If that were to happen, it would be strongly deprecated not just by the Chair but by Members across the House. Let us hope it does not happen again. If there are no further points of order, perhaps we can move on to the ten-minute rule motion.

Events and Festivals (Control of Flares, Fireworks and Smoke Bombs Etc)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it an offence to be found in possession of, or to use, certain articles or substances capable of causing injury or behaviour likely to lead to injury at, or in transit towards, certain events, concerts or festivals or other public gatherings; and for connected purposes.

In plain English, this Bill proposes to prevent audience members at concerts and festivals from using dangerous pyrotechnics such as flares, fireworks and smoke bombs. There are places where items like these can safely be used, but not in the close confines of a live music audience.

Flares can burn at up to 1,600 °C; fireworks can be even hotter, at up to 2,000 °C. There is also the added danger of an unexpected projectile. Smoke bombs are also hot and pose particular risks at indoor venues and also for fellow audience members with asthma or other such breathing difficulties. The surprise throwing of pyrotechnics from within a crowd can also create dangerous and distressing crowd disturbance.

In 2014 there were 255 incidents involving flares at live music events, both indoor and outdoor, ranging from festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival and T in the Park to popular city venues such as Brixton Academy. Like many right hon. and hon. Members and our constituents I enjoy live music, but no one should be seriously burned as part of a fun afternoon or evening. No one wants to see panic at the disco or any other music event. We want to get the number of these incidents down to an all-time low.

Gigs and festivals are particularly popular with young people. They and their parents have a right to feel safe both in attending and in sending their children. Unfortunately that was not the experience of an 18-year-old girl who attended an Arctic Monkeys concert and required three dressings to burns on her arms from a flare that had been thrown, or of the 17-year-old girl at the Reading festival who suffered a panic attack after being burned across her abdomen and thighs by a smoke bomb.

When I mentioned the subject of the Bill to other people, many outside the music industry were surprised that audience use of pyrotechnics was not already banned. Their surprise is understandable given that such protection has long been afforded to football fans by the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985, which made it an offence to enter or attempt to enter a football ground while in possession of a flare, smoke bomb or firework. Courts have taken such public endangerment very seriously, and even those without previous criminal records have been given custodial sentences of one or two months and banned from football grounds for up to six years.

The numbers bear out the fact that that is an effective approach, both legislatively and judicially. By contrast with the 255 incidents at music events in 2014, there were just three incidents at football grounds.

In my capacity as chairman of the all-party group on music, I have found broad support for the Bill throughout the music industry. Live Nation, one of the largest concert organisers and ticket providers in the UK, has been campaigning on this subject for a considerable time, as yet without success. I would like to see that change sooner rather than later, because, with the right support, these injuries and incidents are absolutely avoidable. The Association of Independent Festivals, which represents many popular events including the Secret Garden Party and the Isle of Wight festival, has asked for the law’s support:

“It is the responsibility of organisers to provide a safe and enjoyable environment for fans and the Government should support this objective by creating a level playing field between music and sports fans.”

Concert organisers have every reason to want to protect concert goers. Unfortunately, with their powers basically limited to expelling someone from a venue, they feel rather toothless when it comes to deterring this kind of dangerous behaviour, despite their desire to do exactly that.

Unlike at football grounds, the current legal situation at festivals and music venues is as follows. Under-18s are banned from carrying fireworks, a classification that also includes smoke bombs, in public places. However, an overwhelming majority of concerts and festivals occur on private property. There is no such regulation for flares, which are not controlled under the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997 because they are not intended for entertainment use. There is no offence for adults carrying fireworks or smoke bombs, unless it can be proven that it is done with intent to cause injury. Concert injuries from these articles are usually a case of—I will be frank—bone-headed disregard for others and stupidity, rather than malice. Essentially, it all amounts to no rules or protection when it comes to audience possession of pyrotechnics at music events. When an industry wholeheartedly welcomes a proposed law not as a burdensome regulation but as an essential tool to protect safety surely this is one of the most clear-cut cases where Parliament should act. We would not be doing our duty if we ignored it.

The Minister for Policing, Fire, Criminal Justice and Victims confirmed in a letter to Live Nation in March 2015 that in his view the matter required

“proper examination of how best to deter the misuse of these devices”.

That is a view I share and welcome, but little progress has been made. I believe that proper examination of the effective results achieved by the ban on the misuse of these devices at football grounds leads to the conclusion that a ban covering music events would be the best next step. Thus, in proposing the Bill, I believe the time has come to take that forward.

Right hon. and hon. Members will know that I am not, by instinct, someone who likes to ban things. By and large, I believe people should have the right to choose to take risks and make informed decisions for themselves, even if they are not decisions we would make ourselves. However, audience members have not chosen to be exposed to the danger of flares and fireworks deployed in improper conditions, possibly by those who do not know how, or are in no fit state of mind, to use them. They have come to enjoy live music, and these incidents both endanger them and ruin their events.

To be entirely clear, my Bill would apply only to audience members and spectators at these events. There has been a little misreporting today online on the “billboard” website. Venues and artists would still be able to use pyrotechnics in their act and in their stage set-ups as they currently do. I certainly do not want to curtail the ability of trained professionals to put on a vibrant and exciting show. Having enjoyed many a gig myself, I know that “the fire has always been burning since the world’s been turning”, and that when tested properly and used safely it can be part of a great spectacle. I am not sure whether you are a fan of the Kings of Leon, Mr Speaker, but I am sure you would agree that we should ensure that nothing untoward is ever on fire.

There is support from the industry, venues, artists, fans and colleagues from across the House—I am grateful to my co-sponsors for showing there is cross-party agreement. This is a problem on which there is a consensus of concern among music fans and the music industry, and I am grateful for the opportunity to bring it before the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Nigel Adams, David Warburton, Steve Rotheram, James Heappey, Mark Pritchard, Pete Wishart, Valerie Vaz, Byron Davies, Craig Williams, Kevin Foster and Nigel Huddleston present the Bill.

Nigel Adams accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 April, and to be printed (Bill 157).

UK Steel Industry

Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Tata Steel’s decision to sell its UK steel operations; and action the Government is taking to secure the future of the UK steel industry.

Mr Speaker, may I place on the record my thanks to you for granting this debate under Standing Order No. 24? Such debates are rare, but the situation facing the steel industry cannot be categorised as anything other than an emergency. Today’s debate provides an opportunity for the Secretary of State to come to the House with a comprehensive plan to secure the future of our vital steel industry which is hanging by the thinnest of threads. Anything less from him will be an abdication of his duty.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State said he was looking at the possibility of “co- investing” on commercial terms. I hope he will take the opportunity to explain to us in more detail exactly what this means. Call it what you like—“co-investing”, “part-nationalisation”, “temporary public stewardship” or “sheltering the assets”—it is clear that circumstances might require the Government to do this. They should spare their ideological blushes and just get on with it.

It is also important that today the Business Secretary hears directly from Members of Parliament who represent steelmaking communities. Between them, they have great expertise and knowledge that I hope will inform his response to the crisis from now on. Up until now, the Government and the Secretary of State have been found wanting. They have been behind rather than ahead of events. Their response to the biggest crisis in steelmaking for a generation has been warm words but little effective action. There has been what can only be described as an ideologically driven reluctance to get involved as the crisis has deepened. It has been a mixture of indifference and incompetence.

I will give way, but I must say that I will not give way as generously as I normally do, because this is a three-hour debate and it is really important that Members from steelmaking communities have their say.

The First Minister of Wales has called on all parties to come together to work towards a future, rather than—for want of a better phrase—political point scoring. The hon. Lady is very passionate on this issue, as we are on the Government Benches—it is vital that we have a British steelmaking sector—but will she assure the House that she and her colleagues are taking that combined political approach between the parties to secure that future, rather than trying to drive a wedge between the parties?

We will judge the Government by their actions and their achievements rather than their words.

The complete absence of either a manufacturing strategy or an industrial strategy has hampered the Government’s ability to think strategically about what is needed, and never has it been more urgent that the Business Secretary does so. This is urgent because on 29 March Tata announced it would sell its entire steelmaking operations in the UK, leaving the future of the UK steel industry hanging by a thread and putting 40,000 jobs in communities up and down our country at imminent risk.

As someone with a Tata presence in my constituency, I wonder whether the shadow Secretary of State shares my concern that although we knew about this on 29 March—people going to Mumbai knew it was going to happen—we have not discussed it formally until today, and yet three years ago, the Prime Minister reconvened the Chamber within two days, during an Easter recess, to talk about the death of Margaret Thatcher. What does that say about the Government’s priorities?

It is regrettable that there was not a recall of Parliament, but we are where we are, and we have this debate now, thanks to you, Mr Speaker.

It is imperative to underline the fundamental importance of this industry for our economy and our country. Steel is a foundation industry. While it might make up just 1% of total manufacturing output, that output is crucial. I believe that our world-leading automotive, aerospace and defence industries and our rail and construction sector all depend on a strong and sustainable domestic steel industry.

Our manufacturing sector is already facing tough times. The Secretary of State said yesterday in the House that manufacturing was up since 2010, but Office for National Statistics figures show a different picture. Manufacturing output in the last quarter of 2015 remained frozen at the level of five years ago, while output in January was actually lower than the year before and is still 6.4% down on the same period before the global crash.

In his 2011 Budget speech, the Chancellor espoused his vision of a Britain

“carried aloft by the march of the makers.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]

But he has failed to match his rhetoric with reality, because since then the manufacturing sector has actually shrunk. His much promised rebalancing of our economy has in reality failed to materialise. In this context, the challenges facing the steel industry represent an existential crisis for the UK’s manufacturing sector as a whole. I do not believe we can safely allow it to shrink further. And I for one am glad that the Government appear finally to have realised this.

Now we need action. Beyond the impact on manufacturing, the crisis in the steel industry matters for the wider economy too. Much has been said about the cost of supporting our steel industry, but far too little has been said about the costs of letting it be destroyed. Recent estimates show that its collapse would lead to additional costs to the Government of £4.6 billion through reduced tax receipts and increased benefit bills. It would also suck demand out of the economy, reducing household spending by £3 billion in the next decade. There would be secondary shocks, too, especially in the steelmaking communities up and down the country. For example, Tata is the biggest business rates payer in Rotherham, with an annual bill of £3.2 million. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) pointed out today, the loss of this revenue stream to the local authority is equivalent to a 1.8% increase in council tax there.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the way forward was shown by the Labour Government before the 2010 general election, when they introduced the car scrappage scheme to support our automotive sector? It was supported by all parties in the House at a time of dire threat to the sector. As a result of intervention and an intelligent industrial strategy, the automotive sector was preserved and now prospers. Is not that the model we have to follow?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that the Secretary of State is taking note.

The loss of our steel industry would worsen our already record-breaking trade deficit, which is now the worst since 1948. The value of the goods and services we import now exceeds the value of those that we export by £32.7 billion. The loss of steel and our current exports of steel combined with the need to import far more steel would make this barely sustainable record deficit even worse.

Beyond the economic cost, there would also be an intolerable social cost. There are 15,000 jobs directly at stake in the industry and a further 25,000 jobs at stake in the wider supply chain. These are the kind of high-skill, high-paid jobs of which we need to see more. The end of steelmaking in the UK would be devastating for 40,000 workers and their communities. Some people have highlighted the potential costs of intervening to save the steel industry, but I believe the costs of letting steel fail are far greater.

I do not want to pre-empt what the hon. Lady may say, but will she confirm that it is the policy of Her Majesty’s Opposition that the steel industry should be nationalised, and should remain in public hands until it can successfully go back into private hands?

What needs to be done is what is necessary to preserve, restructure and ensure the survival of our steel industry for the future. That is the Government’s job. We will be as supportive as we can—I shall set out some parameters later in my speech—but this is about the Government getting their act in order. The Opposition are holding the Government to account for their actions, rather than just their words. That is what this debate is about.

On that point, we heard nothing yesterday from the Secretary of State, either at the meeting of the all-party group on steel and metal-related industries or in the Chamber, about what action the Government will take on energy costs and business rates—costs that are burdening the steel industry, and on which the Government could act, yet we have seen no sign at all that they will change their policies in these vital areas.

I hope that we will have the chance to hear about concrete action from the Government in this debate.

I was talking about the costs to the community of letting steel fail. The costs to manufacturing and the economy are high, but the costs to the workers and their communities would be much higher. We very much welcome the recent commitment from the Business Secretary to do everything he can to protect steel-making and processing in the UK, but this Business Secretary has form. Warm words are all very well, but they are worthless, as the community in Redcar know to their cost, unless they are followed up with meaningful action.

Opposition Members are in no doubt that there are huge challenges facing the UK steel industry, but we believe that it can have a strong and sustainable future, and we know that decisions made by this Government now will ultimately determine whether it does. That is why I welcome the commitment the Business Secretary appeared to make in yesterday’s statement to what he called co-investment. Perhaps he will tell us whether he is considering co-investment to save the blast furnaces at Port Talbot, because we did not get an answer to that question in yesterday’s statement.

Will the Business Secretary confirm here and now that he will avoid a fire sale of these assets, and ensure that irreversible mistakes are not made in the way that they are sold? If Tata is to act as a responsible seller, it must consider only those offers that seek to maintain both upstream and downstream assets—that is, both the strip business at Port Talbot, and the specialist business based in and around Rotherham, Stocksbridge and the rest of south Yorkshire. The Government must also make sure that enough time is made available to ensure that an appropriate consideration of responsible offers can take place. It took nine months for the Scunthorpe deal to be developed, yet Tata has indicated that it wishes to exit the UK in four months. What is the Business Secretary doing to reassure the existing customer base that their current and future contracts will be fulfilled during this period of uncertainty? The plants cannot be saved if their order books disappear.

Let me turn to a number of areas where I believe the Government can make a positive difference. The most significant cause of the crisis facing the steel industry is the dumping of huge amounts of cheap Chinese steel on the market. It is priced below the cost of production; Chinese state-owned steel companies are making billions of pounds in losses, yet they continue to pour out more and more product. UK steel producers simply cannot compete with this state-subsidised unfair trade, which is threatening to destroy the European industry as well as ours. We are not calling for protectionism, but we are standing up for fair trade, and calling for quick and effective tariffs that will help to level the playing field. The Business Secretary must abandon his opposition to the abolition of the lesser duty rule and block unfair Chinese imports.

Granting market economy status to China must not be automatic. China meets only one of the five criteria that must be met if this status is to be granted, yet the UK Government support granting market economy status to China as early as the end of this year. Action to level the playing field using trade defence instruments, and on market economy status for China, would give potential buyers of Tata’s UK steel operations the surest sign that the Government stand ready to act.

On procurement, the Government should take concrete action to ensure that UK steel producers are able to benefit from large public sector contracts. The Ministry of Defence will spend £178 billion on defence equipment over the next 10 years, yet the Conservative-led coalition Government scrapped Labour’s defence industrial strategy, which made British jobs and industries the first priority in all decisions on MOD contracts. We are now in the deeply regrettable situation of an aircraft carrier, British surface ships and armoured vehicles all being manufactured in the UK with mainly imported steel, when, with more planning, our domestic industry could have supplied those needs.

The Government must also take action on infrastructure investment. Despite all the Government public relations about this, public sector net investment in the UK will in reality be lower as a percentage of gross domestic product at the end of this Parliament than at the start, and half what it was under the last Labour Government. Of the projects announced in the Government’s infrastructure pipeline, just one in five is actually under way. For the sake of our steel industry and the wider economy, Labour calls on the Government to bring forward shovel-ready projects that require a significant amount of steel, and to ensure that the changes to the procurement rules, which the Government keep boasting about, actually begin to make a difference.

I would like to share with my hon. Friend the fact that I received a letter from the Prime Minister yesterday praying in aid and praising an infrastructure project investment in the railway between Wrexham and Chester. However, this is being funded by the Labour Welsh Government and, unfortunately for the Prime Minister, it appears to be the only example that he could put forward of investment in rail in north Wales.

My hon. Friend makes a telling point, and I hope that the Government will connect those two things in their procurement efforts, so that we can make a real difference to the potential customer base for UK steel at this very difficult time.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that certain major procurement projects, such as High Speed 2 and nuclear, are being given to the Chinese? My fear is that they will naturally want to use Chinese steel. Also, if these were British companies, they would be paying British corporation tax, national insurance and income tax, and would be developing supply chains and export capacity. Does my hon. Friend share my fear that there is no proper joined-up industrial strategy to protect our jobs and our future?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and when we see the Chancellor travelling around China and asking the Chinese to bid for all these contracts, it is hard to avoid realising what is happening.

Business rates represent a far higher cost for UK steel producers. There had been reports that the Government were planning to exempt plant and machinery from business rates, which EEF has described as a “tax on investment”. The Chancellor reportedly even costed this change with a view to including it in his now infamous Budget last month before dropping it at the last minute. It seems that the measure, which would have significantly improved the future prospects of the industry, was sacrificed in pursuit of his economically illiterate and increasingly unachievable surplus target.

I said earlier that part of the problem is ideology. Labour has been calling for a modern and intelligent industrial strategy, and I am pleased to say that in yesterday’s statement the Business Secretary actually uttered the words “industrial strategy” for the first time. Now that that Rubicon has been crossed, all we need is action to match the words. Today, let us spare a thought for the thousands of steelworkers whose futures hang in the balance. The Government ignored the warning signs for far too long, and now they must act to find a suitable buyer, and to work with the steel producers, the workforce, and the clients and customers to ensure that the industry is placed on an even keel. The cost of failure, both economically and socially, is unthinkable. We need urgent action to save our steel.

The whole House will have been deeply concerned by the crisis that has affected the global steel industry over the past year. The facts are familiar, but they bear repetition. Around the world, steelmaking capacity is about 35% higher than demand. In China alone, excess steel capacity is 25 times the United Kingdom’s entire annual production. Demand has slumped in China as its economy grows, and demand here in Europe has yet to return to pre-crash levels.

That surge in supply, coupled with a fall in demand, has inevitably led to a large fall in prices, and the knock-on effect for steelworkers around the world has been, quite simply, devastating. Here in the UK, we have sadly seen the closure of the SSI plant in Redcar after its Thai parent company ran up unsustainable losses. Across Europe, some 70,000 steelworkers have been laid off since 2008. Last week we heard that the United States Steel Corporation, the biggest steelmaker in the United States, was laying off a quarter of its non-union workforce, and earlier this month, the owner of one of the two heavy steel mills left in Australia went into voluntary administration.

This is, of course, about more than just numbers. It is a human tragedy. When we talk about job losses in the abstract, it is easy to forget that each of them represents a person: a hard-working, highly skilled man or woman. Many of those men and women will have husbands, wives, children and other dependants to support, or there will be local businesses that rely on their custom, and the same pattern will be repeated throughout the supply chain. That is why, when job losses have happened in Britain, we have done everything we can to support the communities affected.

The Secretary of State said that we must not forget. I assure him that there are people in this House who do not forget. I am one of the people whom his Government did this to some 30 years ago, when they closed the coal mines. They looked at the economics, and they did not care about the social cost, which destroyed areas like mine. The Secretary of State needs to bear that in mind during this debate.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that when there are job losses and the Government can help, of course they must do so.

I will plough on, but I will give way in a moment. I am about to speak about Redcar, and I know that the hon. Gentleman is interested in that as well. We have committed up to £80 million to helping people affected by SSI’s closure. That includes more than £16 million to help local firms to employ former SSI workers, and a further £16 million to support firms in the SSI supply chain and the wider Tees valley. Millions more are paying for retraining at local colleges. For example, there was a £1.7 million package to help former SSI apprentices to remain in employment, education or training.

The Secretary of State said that the Government would do everything possible for the communities and people affected. As he knows, on the day of the liquidation at Redcar, he announced an £80 million total package—

Order. Shush, junior Minister. We do not need you to burble from a sedentary position. Be quiet! Your burbling is not required. Learn it. I have told you so many times; try to get the message.

Not so long ago, at that Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State changed the figure to £50 million. Moneys on top of that have only been acquired because the Community trade union claimed a protective award from the tribunal to ensure that the workforce got what they were entitled to. The Government could have fast-tracked that some seven months ago.

I thought I heard the hon. Gentleman say “up to £90 million”. What we have always said is “up to £80 million”, and that has not changed. I agree that there is a long way to go, but so far, in respect of Redcar, nearly 700 jobs have been created, safeguarded or supported, and only a quarter of the more than 2,000 workers at SSI were claiming jobseeker’s allowance at the end of February.

I do not want to take up too much time, because I shall be speaking later, but the figure of 600 jobs relates to those who are in work or full-time training, not just those who are in work. That is important, because it is work that will be vital at the end of the training.

The hon. Lady has made a very important point: at the end of the day, it is about work. Training can lead to work, as can retraining, so it is important to invest in it. I know that, to the people of Redcar, this seems like a drop in the ocean. When a community is built around a single industry, the death of that industry takes away more than just the jobs. I do not want to see any other steelmaking community suffer the same fate, and that is why the Government have been taking real action to support the industry.

Does the Secretary of State begin to appreciate how this flows into the community? A medical centre on Teesside that I visited recently lost two nurses, who had to give up their bursary-funded training programmes because their husbands lost their jobs at SSI. The consequences and the ripples spread right out. It is not 2,200 people who have lost their jobs; it is up to 9,000 people, and the Secretary of State should understand that.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there can be a devastating effect on the community that goes way beyond the actual job losses at SSI. That is why we must do everything, together, to prevent the same thing from happening to any other community, and we must support the supply chain, because, as he says, there is a ripple effect throughout the community on many, many businesses.

The Secretary of State may know that I worked very hard with Members on both sides of the House to secure a proper pension for the Visteon pensioners from Ford when it had short-changed them. Given that Tata has almost fully paid up its pension fund, will the Government socialise that fund, so that the pensioners can be secure in the knowledge that they will have a pension in future, and so that prospective buyers need not be concerned about that?

I will move on to the subject of Tata in a moment, but the hon. Gentleman is right to identify pensions as an issue, and we are considering all possible solutions.

Let me say a little about the action that we have already taken. We have taken action on power: £76 million has already been paid to steelmakers to compensate for high energy bills, and we expect to pay more than £100 million in the current financial year alone. In the autumn statement, just five months ago, we announced that we would go further. Energy-intensive industries will be exempted from renewable policy costs—a move that will save the steel industry more than £400 million by the end of this Parliament.

Surely my right hon. Friend agrees that, rather than compensating businesses for a tax that we levied, it would be far more sensible and logical to scrap the tax.

Given what my hon. Friend has said, I presume that our move towards exemption rather than compensation is exactly what he wants to see.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the support that the Government are giving our steel industry in respect of energy costs is only a fraction of the support that Germany and other countries are giving their steel industries? It will still leave our industry with much higher energy costs than those of other European Union countries. Is the Secretary of State not prepared to consider going further to help our industry when it is in such a difficult position?

By calling it a fraction, the hon. Gentleman underplays the help that this support is providing to the industry. The manufacturers in the industry see this as a big game-changer in how they account for the cost of power. I can agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, in that I think there is still more to look at in this area, particularly with regard to Tata and securing a buyer.

In a meeting with the Industrial Communities Alliance, which represents traditional industrial areas in the UK, the EU Commission reiterated its commitment to change the trade defence instruments, which would tackle the cheap steel issue. We are in line and the Commission is in line. Will the Secretary of State get in line to ensure that we can make these changes?

I will come on to trade defence instruments in just a moment.

I want to talk about the delivery of a new flexibility on emissions regulations. This was asked for by the industry and we have delivered, potentially saving the industry hundreds of millions of pounds. We have also taken action on procurement, and we have become the first country anywhere in Europe to take advantage of EU rules to make it easier for the public sector to buy British. That is on top of our proud record of procuring British steel.

The Secretary of State makes much of the changes he is making on procurement. The Minister for Defence Procurement, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who is sitting next to him, told me in answer to a recent question that the Ministry of Defence did not even have full records of where it was getting its steel from for UK defence projects. How can we be sure that the Secretary of State will follow through on his commitment on procurement when Government Departments are not even keeping records and when so many UK defence projects are being made in Korea, China and elsewhere?

The hon. Gentleman might hear more from the Minister for Defence Procurement in the coming days, but I can tell him that the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are being built with almost 100,000 tonnes of British steel, that Crossrail, the biggest construction project in Europe, is using almost exclusively British steel