House of Commons
Monday 5 September 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
On the front page of today’s Order Paper it is noted that on 4 September 1916, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Frederick Campbell DSO, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding), Member for North Ayrshire, wounded at the first battle of Ypres, November 1914, and again on the western front in 1916, died from his wounds in Southwold, Suffolk. We remember him today.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Syrian Families: Resettlement Programme
Under the scheme, local authorities sign up to accept refugees on a voluntary basis. Between the start of October 2015 and the end of June 2016, 2,646 people were resettled under the scheme across 118 different local authorities. The resettlement programme has sufficient pledges of places from local authorities across the UK to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Syrians and will continue to work closely with them to turn those pledges into places.
I welcome this Government’s record in supporting the people of Syria. Many councils across this country are playing their part by taking in refugees. I am encouraging the local authorities in my constituency to do that, but they need support. Will the Home Secretary update the House on what support and encouragement she is giving to local authorities to do just that?
I ask my hon. Friend to pass on my congratulations to his authority on its kind support. It is essential that the scheme is implemented on a voluntary basis. He is right: we provide support over a five-year period, and it is tapered, but we recognise that it is important to provide essential financial support to the local authorities which are supporting these vulnerable Syrians.
I welcome the Home Secretary to her first Home Office questions and wish her well in the job.
I welcome the work that local authorities are doing. The right hon. Lady will know that two weeks ago several of us met a Syrian teenager in Calais whose family is here in Britain and who was given take charge leave by the British Government two months ago, but who is still in Calais alone in awful and dangerous conditions. He has now been given a transfer date for later this week, but only because three MPs and two national newspapers intervened in his case. There are hundreds more children and teenagers in Calais in awful conditions. Will she urgently intervene, speed up the bureaucracy and sort out those cases?
I recognise the excellent work that the right hon. Lady does in this area in drawing attention to the needs of the people in the Calais camp. She may already be aware of this, but I point out to the general public that that is French territory and it is French law that we have to engage with in order to help those people. We are identifying the children who we can help and we are now able to speed up that process and will continue to watch it carefully.
Will the Home Secretary join me in commending local volunteer groups such as Refugees Welcome in Richmond, which has set up its own initiative, liaising with local councils to make sure that new people coming over—vulnerable Syrian refugees—are locally and specially welcomed in our local communities?
I join my hon. Friend in making that point—how important it is for families to be welcomed by the community. These families are not foisted on the community; communities are saying that they want to welcome them. I commend what is being done in Richmond, and I know that many other communities and individuals are volunteering to help. Some of them are going on the website Help Refugees in the UK in order to find out how they can help.
I welcome the Home Secretary to her first Home Office questions. I also welcome her confirmation yesterday that there are going to be enough local authority places for the promised quota of 20,000 vulnerable Syrians to be resettled by 2020. I am sure she will wish to congratulate Scotland on welcoming more than 1,000 of those refugees under the scheme to date, which is more than a third of the total number who have been accepted in the whole of the UK. Will she now commit to extending the Government’s resettlement commitment past 2020 and opening it up to other refugees in need of protection?
I join the hon. and learned Lady in congratulating Scotland on the work that it has done and on its early adoption. Who can forget the early pictures of the refugees arriving on the Isle of Bute and what a heart-warming sight that was? There is still work to do to welcome the 20,000. I was pleased to announce over the weekend additional funding for language courses for those people. For now we will not go further, but we will of course continually keep the situation under review.
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her more than deserved place. I strongly suspect that you, Mr Speaker, and indeed the whole House, will welcome the four Syrian refugee families who are now housed in Beeston in my constituency, and congratulate Broxtowe Borough Council and Councillors Jan Goold and Janet Patrick on all their hard work. What assurances can the Home Secretary give to councils such as Broxtowe that the current financial support will extend for as long as it takes to keep people safe in our country?
I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Broxtowe Council on the work that it has done to welcome those families. I can reassure her and her council that the funds are in place for the five years that are tapered. I hope that she will also welcome the announcement I made at the weekend on additional funding for English language lessons, which are so important as part of allowing these families to form part of the community and fully engage in it.
I commend the Home Secretary for the early initiative she has taken on this issue. She will be aware, however, that many local authorities have not yet been required to take any refugees, while others are taking them and would take more. Does that willingness to take refugees not illustrate that the target of 20,000 by 2020 was unnecessarily modest and could now be revisited?
I am not yet ready to say that 20,000 is not enough. We have worked incredibly hard to make sure that the 20,000 are welcomed and are going to be properly looked after. The important thing is to concentrate on making sure that every one of those 20,000 gets the proper support from the communities in which they are housed, and gets the important language lessons. I ask for the right hon. Gentleman’s patience in making sure that we support the 20,000 over the next few years.
It is not just a question of numbers; we have to make sure that we get the right people. I very much welcome the fact that we are bringing them in from the middle east rather than from Calais. I congratulate Wiltshire Council, which has taken on, I think, 20 Syrian families so far. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just a question of the people but of finding education, healthcare, social care and so much other infrastructure in the local area, and hopefully jobs for them as well, and not just bringing them in and leaving them to it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are taking these families through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which vets the potential arrivals very carefully and ensures that we are getting the people who are indeed most in need, to which my hon. Friend rightly draws attention. Local authorities decide whether they have the capacity in terms of health places and school places. We are very fortunate in this country that sufficient authorities have volunteered to help the 20,000. That is testament to the strength and generosity of the British people.
Family Reunification: Europe
We continue to work with the French, Greek and Italian authorities and others to improve family reunification processes for unaccompanied children. We have seconded a UK official to Greece, we have a long-standing secondee working in Italy, and we will shortly be seconding another official to the French Interior Ministry. Transfer requests under the Dublin obligation are now generally processed within 10 days and children transferred within weeks. More than 120 children have been accepted for transfer this year from Europe.
As we speak today, there are hundreds of children in Calais who have a legal right to be reunited with their families in this country. Those children are putting their lives at risk by jumping on trains and lorries. What, specifically, are the Government doing to help those children in Calais?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that under the Dublin obligation we have an obligation, which we are acting on, to work with the authorities in France to remove the children who have a family representative in the UK. We are working on that. Since the passage of the Immigration Act 2016 in May, we have agreed to take 30, of whom we have taken approximately half, and we have taken 120 this year. He should not underestimate the difficulty in making sure that we always do what is lawful under French law and EU law at the same time.
The Home Secretary will be aware of significant concern about this issue in humanitarian organisations. With the onset of winter just a couple of months away, and given the time that it is taking, will she commit to additional resources and to coming back to the House within the next month to tell us how many children she will take?
I am always keen to update the House on the latest results from what my Department is doing. We are aware of the humanitarian need and that is why the Government are so committed to ensuring that we work in the best interests of the children. We will always work in the best interest of those children and we will always ensure that that is within French and EU law.
I welcome any sense of urgency from the Home Secretary. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I visited Calais just two weeks ago and were disappointed yet again to find young, vulnerable children with no one to support or look after them. What can the Secretary of State tell me about whether we can put safeguarding in place in Calais when we have identified those children and had take charge requests to look after them there? May we also have a Home Office official based there, and not in Paris?
I met my French counterpart last week as well as our representatives, who attend the camp. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware, like many other Members of the House who have visited the camp, that there is a fine line between wanting to ensure that we help and safeguard those children and ensuring that we do not encourage the traffickers to bring more children to the camp, thereby making more children more vulnerable. We are doing our best to tread that fine line and ensure that we always support those vulnerable children, but it is not as simple as my hon. Friend tries to pretend.
The situation in the “jungle”, which I visited recently, is truly horrific. I invite the Home Secretary to join me on a visit to Dover and Calais to see the situation in the “jungle” and the evil activities of the people traffickers. Will she work with me to do our best between Britain and France to end the evil trade of modern slavery that these people traffickers are pursuing?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work to keep me informed and to support what the Government do, to ensure not only smooth traffic between Dover and Calais but that we are always well informed of what is happening there. I will work with him to ensure that we do our best. The real criminals in this are the traffickers, who do such terrible, violent work and take advantage of families.
May I take the Home Secretary back to those young people for whom take charge requests have been accepted? They have family here waiting for them to arrive. When we talk about fine lines, surely in the case of these young people, when we have accepted the responsibility and when they are at risk of attack, as we saw, or of exploitation and trafficking, the line has been crossed and we have a responsibility to ensure that they get back to their family and that they avoid situations that are not safe. Let us make them safe rather than putting them at risk of exploitation and trafficking.
My hon. Friend is right to refer to the fine line and to the fact that the camp is a place of terror and danger. We will follow up on our obligations, and as I said in answer to an earlier question, we are now managing to move more quickly. I ask him not to underestimate the difficulty sometimes of dealing with French law and EU law. We cannot simply move in and take action; we must act within the law, which is always in the best interests of the child.
I welcome the Home Secretary to her new role. I was in Calais at the weekend for the second time this summer. Both times I met some of the 800 young unaccompanied children in that camp—children who told me that in the many months they have been there they have not spoken to a single Government official. I met a pregnant woman who said that she had tried to claim asylum in France, but the system is so broken that she was told it would be months before they would even begin to process her application. These people are living in hell because of a lack of bureaucracy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) is absolutely right. They need our safeguarding, because they are sleeping in tents with strange men. Will the Home Secretary meet me and other MPs affected by this issue and concerned about it to discuss how we can change that?
I would point out to the hon. Lady that the French have already dispersed 5,000 people from the camp. The Interior Minister has already said that he has plans to make sure, by the end of the year, that the camp is phased out so that everybody can be rehoused. It is important for the children to know, as the adults know, that they are not forced to come to the UK to find a bed; they can claim asylum in France, and the French Government are willing to do that. The hon. Lady should have a care not to encourage unwittingly the traffickers to bring more children to the camps.
Police Community Support Officers
PCSOs have played a key role in policing our communities in recent years and they should play a greater role in the future, which is why the Policing and Crime Bill sets out a series of reforms that will allow chief constables to designate them with a wider range of powers. Obviously, decisions on the size and composition of a police force’s workforce are for individual chief officers and police and crime commissioners.
St Ives town will be well known to the Minister from his former role as Housing Minister. I am sure that he is glad to be rid of that role, but he has a new problem in St Ives. Sergeant Friday is a popular and influential neighbourhood police officer and a valued member of the local policing team in St Ives. Some 5,000 people support him in his current role, and yet he will soon be moved by Devon and Cornwall police to, in effect, a back-office role. What can the Minister do to support local community policing in St Ives and safeguard front-line policing roles?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on highlighting an issue that is clearly important to his constituents. This must be an impressive PCSO and sergeant for so many of them to get behind him and sign his form. Obviously, those kinds of operational decisions are for the force’s chief constable, but I will visit my hon. Friend’s area soon and hope I get a chance to meet a sergeant who can endeavour to get that kind of support from his local community.
In Wrexham town centre we have fewer police and more antisocial behaviour under this Government. PCSOs, introduced by a Labour Government, are very welcome and perform a valuable role, but there is a disturbing lack of understanding and clarity about their powers. Will the review that the Government should undertake make clear to the general public and to offenders how important PCSOs are?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about PCSOs being important. They play a key role, which is why I am pleased that their number has increased by about 40% in his part of the world since 2010. It is also important that the Policing and Crime Bill will give chief constables the power to look at what is right for their area and to give powers to PCSOs and other volunteers to do the work that is appropriate for their local area.
I was with one of the few remaining PCSOs in Kettering on Friday for a walkabout in the town, and it would appear that, were it not for the funding provided by Kettering Borough Council, of which I am proud to be a member, there would be no PCSOs at all in the borough of Kettering. Does the Policing Minister agree that PCSOs are vital for developing the intelligence picture locally, and that without them it would be difficult to see how front-line officers could do that?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I was a council leader in local government when PCSOs were first introduced, and my council funded them even back then. They play an important part in the remit and powers of chief constables and, indeed, PCCs to make sure that they gather the intelligence they need to prevent crime, which is obviously our first priority.
The Minister must be aware of the survey conducted by Unison which shows that 78% of PCSOs say that they have become less visible, that their units have got smaller and that they have stopped doing patrolling and preventive work and are just doing call-backs on crime for other police officers. Is it not true that PCSOs are no longer doing what we created them for, and that, as a result, our communities feel abandoned by the police?
I disagree with the right hon. Lady. She needs to think about the fact that crime is changing, so the way in which police forces fight crime needs to reflect the modern world that we live in and the crime that is happening in local areas. That is why it is absolutely right that the Government have moved crime fighting to be locally driven, with PCCs and chief constables having the powers that they need to fight crime locally in the way they see best.
We continue to strengthen our counter-terrorism powers. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 provided the police with new powers and created a general duty on public bodies to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. To apprehend terrorist suspects, the police and security agencies need to collect intelligence to support arrests and develop evidence to secure prosecutions.
A major terror threat to the United Kingdom comes from people who are trafficked into this country. It is vital that we maintain the strongest possible intelligence-sharing relationships and agreements with other nations. What steps will the Home Secretary be taking to ensure that these agreements are prioritised and protected following the vote to leave the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question, and I am aware of his expertise as a former police officer. We are leaving the European Union but I can reassure him that our co-operation on security with our European and global allies will be undiminished. We are about to begin negotiations and it would be wrong to set out unilateral positions in advance, but I share his view on this important matter.
May I warmly welcome the Home Secretary to her post? I hope that she has a long and successful term as Home Secretary. As she knows, earlier this year Siddhartha Dhar left the country, having not handed over his passport to local police officers, and went to fight for Daesh. The Home Secretary’s predecessor, who is now the Prime Minister, changed the Policing and Crime Bill to make the situation tougher for those who seek to go abroad. Will the Home Secretary follow the advice of Mark Rowley, the head of counter-terrorism, and expect suspects to hand over their passports as a precondition for bail?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this very important matter. This was a very distressing case, where the suspect was able to go away while on bail to do such damage and join Daesh in Syria. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is something that the former Home Secretary addressed, and we are looking at the best way to implement it. We may well follow the particular route that he has outlined, but rest assured that we take it very seriously.
I congratulate the Home Secretary on her new role. Does she agree that the Investigatory Powers Bill is essential if the intelligence services are to retain their existing capability to collect communications data, which is crucial in detecting terrorism and serious crime?
From her former role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland my right hon. Friend will know how important it is to be able to collect that information. She is absolutely right that the Investigatory Powers Bill is critical to making sure that our police, security services and intelligence services have the tools that they need to get the convictions that we hope they will achieve.
On behalf of my party, I welcome the Home Secretary and her entire team to their roles. In Northern Ireland, we know the true benefits of the police and security services working together. The chief suspect in the murder this year of my constituent Adrian Ismay has been bailed and, despite having breached bail twice, he remains at large. When the police and security services succeed, what conversations will the Home Secretary have with the Ministry of Justice to make sure that the judiciary plays its part as well?
In welcoming the Home Secretary to her new role, may I ask her whether she has had a chance to see to what extent profiling of those who commit terrorist atrocities has been examined by her Department, by the police and by the security services? People such as the journalist Peter Hitchens have noted a correlation between drug abuse and the commission of atrocities that is rather greater than any link with a Muslim faith background, despite what one would normally expect. Therefore, if profiling is to be carried out successfully, will the appropriate effort be invested?
In Birmingham, we are only too well aware that terrorism has not arrived on our shores only recently. I want to welcome the Home Secretary to her place. Does she agree with me and most of Birmingham that the relatives of the victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings should be treated equally and in parity with the relatives of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, and should be provided with access to legal representation so that they can participate effectively in the inquests into the murder of their loved ones?
I know about this case—the hon. Lady has of course raised it with me previously—and I know about the campaigning she has done on behalf of her constituents and of the city in general. I do not know whether she is aware of this, but I am seeing the representatives of the Birmingham families this evening, and I will follow up with more information after that.
Disclosure and Barring Service
Protecting the public is a priority for this Government, and it is important that checks undertaken are thorough. I visited the Metropolitan Police Service last week to see the work it is undertaking to tackle the delays, and I will also visit the DBS in the near future. I will continue to maintain a close interest in disclosure turnaround times and the work of the DBS.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position, in which she is taking on the seemingly intractable problem of making sure that the Met police deal with DBS checks in good time. I have had 20 cases in the past 12 months, including of teachers and teaching assistants unable to get their checks in time to start work. The delays are causing havoc in people’s lives. I wish all power to her elbow in resolving this, but it has been going on for nearly a decade. What practical steps is she going to take?
I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s frustration at the delays in the Met police, but I assure her, based on my visit last week, that the DBS has increased the resources it has made available to the police. In the past six months alone, over 100 new members of staff have been recruited. It has made improvements to the processes it is undertaking, and I am looking at weekly performance statistics. She can be assured that I am doing everything in my power to speed up the processing of this very important service.
As crime falls, we know that it is also changing. The internet and new technology offer criminals new opportunities to commit crimes, such as fraud and cybercrime. We welcome the increased reporting to Action Fraud: such reporting has trebled since it was set up. With new experimental data from the Office for National Statistics, we will be able to better map the trends in cybercrime and, I hope, take steps to combat it.
On the day Parliament went into recess, the Office for National Statistics confirmed that there had been 5.8 million incidents of cybercrime in the past 12 months, affecting one in 10 of the population. This means that crime has near doubled. Does the Home Secretary agree that the legacy of her predecessor—now the Prime Minister—is one of 20,000 fewer police and soaring crime?
I do not think that that is much of a point. The reality is that, under the hon. Gentleman’s Government, there was no proper reporting mechanism for fraud. We set up Action Fraud, which has received the massive number of 300,000 referrals. Rather than playing politics with crime, the best advice we can all give our constituents is that GCHQ advises that if people change their passwords regularly and have up-to-date anti-virus, they will cut their vulnerability to cybercrime by 80%.
I hate to play politics with crime, but this Government have an excellent record on tackling both crime and cybercrime by setting up the National Cyber Crime Unit. I wonder whether the new Minister, whom I warmly welcome to his position, will use his imagination and energy to consider a bespoke career path, at graduate level, for people entering the police force. People tackling cybercrime perhaps need very different skills from those the police have relied on hitherto, before the growth of digital crime.
Yes, we are working on that. We are working on direct recruitment to ensure that both the police and the National Crime Agency have the skills they need. We have already invested in upskilling members of the NCA, which hosts the National Cyber Crime Unit. It is also very important to make people understand that everybody can play a role in defending against cybercrime, and that if they follow the advice of GCHQ, they will go far.
Every day the police get good co-operation from many multimedia companies and internet service providers. We would, of course, like to see more, and will keep pressing companies for more because it is very important that we all protect vulnerable people from the effects the internet can have in turning them into radicals and attracting them to terrorism.
Given the increase in cybercrime, will the new Minister commit to investigating the storage of seized hardware and, specifically, ethical concerns that destruction orders on hardware containing child pornography can be successfully challenged by convicted offenders in court?
That is a very good point. We must make sure that the data are always there to help convict people of their crimes, and that those data cannot be challenged or put aside. I hope the hon. Lady will therefore support the Investigatory Powers Bill when it returns to this House, because the retention of data is one of the best ways to counter crime.
For clarity, no one, particularly a child, chooses to be or facilitates being trafficked.
The Minister will know that online child abuse has reached unprecedented levels and is increasing. The Internet Watch Foundation states that there has been a 417% increase in child sexual abuse images since 2013, with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre stating that 50,000 people in the UK downloaded or shared images in 2012. However, children and parents are woefully underprepared when it comes to recognising or preventing abuse and exploitation online, despite the fact that 65% of 12 to 15-year-olds own a smartphone. What does the Minister plan to do to address and prevent online child abuse, other than changing passwords?
The obvious answer is that we need to continue to educate both parents and children, either in the school setting or at home, to make sure that they operate safely when they surf the net. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and the National Crime Agency have engaged in making sure that there are guides online for everyone of every age to follow. That is the first step. Certainly, the National Cyber Crime Unit, which I went to visit at the NCA, is responsible for making sure that we catch people whether at home or abroad, through its network of overseas postings, to make sure that we bring people to justice whatever side of the channel they are on.
The latest figures show that the reforms we have made to cut abuse across non-EU visa routes and toughen welfare provisions are working. Reducing the number of migrants coming to the UK will be a priority for the negotiations to leave the European Union.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his new role, which must be one of the most challenging and difficult in Government. The most recent figures demonstrate, if proof were needed, that despite the steps already taken by the Government we urgently need new, clear, workable and effective policies. Will he set out when he intends to bring such policies before the House?
We are committed to bringing down net migration to sustainable levels as soon as possible. It will take time to do so, because until we leave the European Union we will still be affected by the free movement rules, but we are doing everything we can now to ensure that the numbers come down. At every step of the negotiations we will work to ensure the best possible outcome for the British people and it would be wrong to set out unilateral positions in advance of that.
I welcome the new Minister, who probably has the most difficult job in Government. He will be a national hero when he reduces immigration to the tens of thousands. Will he tell the House how he is going to work with the Department for Exiting the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; we may have been on different sides of the referendum campaign, but we are quite clearly all on the same side now in delivering the result for the British people. The Home Office will be the lead Department in negotiations on this, but we look forward to working with the Brexit Department, and I suspect that the Prime Minister may be taking an interest, given her experience in the Home Office.
In China, the Prime Minister has unilaterally announced that Britain will not be adopting the points-based system on which the leave campaign put so much emphasis during the referendum, but that we will be doing something more effective. Can the Minister tell us what that is?
When the Labour party introduced a points-based system, the numbers went straight up. Australia has a points-based system and higher immigration per capita than Britain. A points-based system would give foreign nationals a right to come to Britain if they meet certain criteria. An immigration system that works for Britain would ensure that the right to decide who comes to the country resides with this Government.
The Logan practice in my constituency—it is my own GP practice—has already sponsored medical students from the American University of Beirut for a four-week learning experience. This year’s student, Ghaith Rukba, a Syrian national, has been refused entry, although he would be coming on exactly the same basis as previous applicants. Will the Minister meet me urgently to review the case, as Mr Rukba is due to arrive on 24 September?
It is certainly the aim of the Government to ensure that those who wish to come to our blue-chip universities—the Russell Group universities—to study can do so, but I understand that there are specific cases for courses. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that case and facilitate it.
I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to his post. It is essential that our excellent universities continue to attract students from all over the world, but does he agree that it is not sustainable to go on with a situation in which almost two thirds of all non-EU students who come into this country stay? Our existing rules need to be enforced.
It is very important that when people come here to study from abroad and gain a qualification, they take it back and improve the development of the countries from which they came. It is not the intention that getting a place at a university in the UK is a licence to stay in the UK for the rest of someone’s life.
A decade ago, Labour introduced a points-based system for non-EU migration. In the referendum campaign, five of the Home Secretary’s Cabinet colleagues and many Conservative MPs pledged to extend it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) has said, without consultation or debate, the Prime Minister today ruled that out but failed to tell us what she would do instead. That comes as the Italian Government make this warning: the more the UK Government limit EU citizens in the UK, the more the Italian Government will limit the presence of UK goods in Europe. The stakes are high, but just when the country needs leadership, we have confusion. The Home Secretary presented proposals to the Cabinet last week. Will the Minister tell us what they were so that we can begin finally to have a proper debate about what Brexit means for Britain?
The right hon. Gentleman may have heard somebody saying this morning that a points-based system is not a silver bullet. When we took power in 2010, Labour’s immigration system was chaotic and broken. People from outside the EU with no skills at all were allowed to come. Indeed, search parties were sent out to encourage mass immigration.
That was a complete non-answer. People at home might wonder why we are getting non-answers on Brexit: it is because the Government told the civil service not to plan for it, hence the confusion we are in. There is one issue that the Minister could clear up today—the status of EU nationals who are already here. The failure to address that is creating uncertainty for families who have chosen to make their lives here, and hostility towards some EU nationals. The whole country was appalled by the attack in Harlow in late August that led to the death of a Polish national, Arkadiusz Jozwik. It is in the Minister’s and the Home Secretary’s gift to change that climate. Will he and she respect the unanimous vote of this House back in July and confirm the status of all EU nationals who are already here?
We have always made it clear that the status of EU nationals is not under threat at all. Indeed, we have always made the point that, during the negotiations, so long as those same protections are available to UK citizens living abroad, they will be there for those who come here from the rest of Europe. I pay tribute to the contribution made to the British economy by those who come to work not just from the European Union, but from further afield. We want to attract the brightest and best, but we must control the numbers that come.
European Arrest Warrant
Co-operation between the UK and European Union member states has continued following the referendum result, including on European arrest warrants. Officials are exploring options for future co-operation arrangements once the UK has left the European Union. We will do what is necessary to keep people safe, but it would be wrong to set out unilateral positions before that negotiation has taken place.
But the Brexit Secretary has always campaigned for us to leave the European arrest warrant and so has the Foreign Secretary. Does the Home Secretary agree with them, or does she agree with her predecessor—now the Prime Minister—who, when we debated this in this House, said that 901 suspected serious criminals, including paedophiles, rapists and murderers, had been extradited either in or out of this country thanks to the European arrest warrant? Would it not be far better for her to say now that she will protect British people by making sure we remain within the European arrest warrant?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we on the Government Benches value the European arrest warrant. We know how important it has been in keeping people safe. When people voted to leave the European Union, they did not vote for a less safe country. We will make sure that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, we protect people in a way that is as effective as with the European arrest warrant.
I, too, welcome the Home Secretary to her first questions, but I do hope we will get better answers than the ones we have just had from the Immigration Minister. I will give it one more go, Mr Speaker, this time on security.
Last week, in relation to discussions with the French Government on Calais, a senior Government source briefed The Times that the UK might withdraw co-operation on counter-terrorism if it does not get its way, referencing the Nice attack. At a time when France is facing an unprecedented terror threat, that is utterly crass. It is also counter-productive, as the terror networks that threaten France could have links here. Will the Home Secretary today distance herself from this insensitive threat, vow that there will be no repeat of it, and commit to maintaining the fullest co-operation with our EU counterparts and neighbours on counter-terrorism, including to maintaining our involvement in the European arrest warrant?
There is something completely derisory about the right hon. Gentleman trying to lecture the Government on security measures when we know how divided his shadow Front Bench is, with a leader of his party who refuses to defend this country, and a shadow Chancellor who calls for the disbandment of the police and does not support MI5. Government Members are absolutely clear that we will do what is right to support and protect this country. The right hon. Gentleman is right on one element: in my many conversations with European counterparts I always say to them that we will work with them, irrespective of Brexit, to ensure our joint security.
EU Nationals: Residency
The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals here. The only circumstances in which that would not be possible are, as I have already said, if British citizens’ rights in other EU member states were not protected in return.
In the two months since the EU referendum, the EU citizens in my constituency have become increasingly anxious. They literally lie awake at night wondering whether they will still be able to call my constituency their home. Will the Home Secretary do the decent thing and guarantee that no EU citizens will be used as bargaining chips in the forthcoming negotiations following the triggering of article 50?
I repeat again that there is no change in the status of EU nationals living and working in the UK. The issue is not simply about the immigration status of an individual; EU citizens’ rights are far broader than just the right to reside in the UK. The right to work, entitlement to benefits and pensions, the rights of access to public services and the ability to be joined by family members from countries outside the EU all need to be discussed.
I hope I have already made that clear, but I recognise that EU citizens make an invaluable contribution to our economy, our society and our daily lives. They provide vital services, including in the NHS, where almost one in 10 doctors and one in 15 nurses are from an EU country. That is why the Government will seek an early resolution to this issue.
Last week, in a statement issued by the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party press office, a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament, Alexander Burnett, questioned the right of EU citizens resident in Scotland to participate in Scottish politics. This has caused great concern in Scotland. Will the Minister unreservedly condemn this statement and give EU citizens resident in Scotland, and indeed across the UK, the assurance that they are still welcome to participate in politics and civic society?
Fraud is a heinous crime, which can have a devastating effect on individuals, families and the most vulnerable members of society. That is why this Government launched the Joint Fraud Taskforce last February with law enforcement and banks, and have committed to spending £1.9 billion over the next five years on cyber-security, including to tackle cyber-enabled fraud.
The Joint Fraud Taskforce will obviously cover all of the United Kingdom. Of course, members of the banks and other organisations that are on the taskforce will be involved in ensuring that when people commit fraud, they cannot take the money out of the country, which will provide at least some time to track it down. I congratulate the Dorset police who in 2015 launched a fraud prevention campaign called “Hang up on Fraudsters” after reports that my hon. Friend’s county had lost over £1 million to fraud.
The right hon. Gentleman might have to wait a bit for the answer, because my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and her ministerial colleagues will be meeting Europol. What we want to continue to do, first and foremost, is co-operate with Europol, Interpol and all the other forces of the European Union to make sure that this country is safe and secure.
The Policing and Crime Bill will introduce statutory safeguards to the pre-charge bail process, including time limits and judicial oversight, which will increase accountability and scrutiny in a way that is manageable for the courts as well.
I have met a now 18-year-old constituent of Lincoln—and his family—who has been on a pre-charge bail for over a year since he was 17. As far as anyone is aware, there has been no admission of guilt, and nor are the police or the CPS in a position to charge or take my constituent to trial, which is yet another disturbing aspect of the case. I am fully aware that this is an operational matter for the police, but my constituent’s rights to a family life and education are currently being detrimentally severely impacted by what I feel is the police’s underfunded and understaffed investigation. Will my hon. Friend please agree to meet me to discuss my constituent’s situation and how police forces across the country can best avoid lengthy periods of pre-charge bail, particularly for young suspects?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not right that some people can spend months or even years on pre-charge bail, with few or no safeguards. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how reforms might affect the case he mentions. We will bring forward further amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to ensure that 17-year-olds are treated as children and are safeguarded as such.
We are meeting this September after terrible events over the summer—in Nice, Charleroi, Normandy and Munich. We must step up international efforts to keep our people safe and tackle violent extremism. I have spoken over the summer to a number of my counterparts—not least the French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve—and they all agree that the UK must not step back from international co-operation on security and counter-terrorism. We will not shirk that.
In 2015, Northumbria police were involved in 13 extraditions. If the Home Secretary is unable to commit to retaining the European arrest warrant—I listened to her earlier answers, which did not offer a great deal of comfort—will she set out in much more detail how she will make sure that we continue to have the powers we need to tackle cross-border crime, keep our country safe and bring criminals to justice?
I remind the hon. Lady that nothing has changed yet. We will still have the European arrest warrant in place. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that she will not trigger article 50 until next year, so I urge the hon. Lady to work with her police force and reassure them that nothing has changed for now—so we can carry on with the European arrest warrant.
First, we are investing in a new software programme for ActionFraud that will not only improve the analytics of crimes that are reported to it, but allow victims of fraud to track their cases in live time online. In response to my hon. Friend’s concern, I have also asked officials to look into how ActionFraud communicates with members of the public. I think it important to remember that these are victims, many of whom have done nothing wrong whatsoever and have been preyed upon by some of the worst people in society.
The Home Secretary will be aware of continuing concern about the historical conduct of South Yorkshire police. I understand that she is meeting members of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign next week to discuss their call for a public inquiry. Is she also aware of the tragic case of Terry Coles, a Swansea City supporter, who was trampled to death by a police horse at a football match in 2000? Will she agree to look at the evidence, and accept that, unless we have the truth about all these past injustices, we shall not be able to restore trust in South Yorkshire police?
The hon. Lady is right: I am meeting members of Orgreave Truth and Justice, and I look forward to having the opportunity to hear from them. The Government have not shirked in looking at historical cases, and if the hon. Lady wants to bring any more to my attention, I shall certainly look at those.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: local authorities are leading by example and showing how to welcome families into their communities, and I particularly congratulate Redditch on being ahead of the pack. So far 118 councils are participating, and we hope that that number will grow.
It is incredibly important that when people return—and we hope that they do—they are properly introduced back into society. If they pose a threat, it is important for that threat to be managed, and it is also important that if they can be removed from radicalisation, we take the right steps to do that. I will certainly review the hon. Lady’s request for the publication of the number of passports, for instance, that have been withheld from individuals. First and foremost, however, I assure her that we have measures in place to ensure that these people are not just left alone and we do not lose track of them of them, which would pose further risks to the British people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership that he has shown on not only fraud but consumer rights in ensuring that the vulnerable in society are not taken advantage of. We have set up a Joint Fraud Taskforce, inviting, for instance, Age Concern to help to protect the elderly, so that we can do more to ensure that in future the people who commit those crimes are caught and the elderly are defended from unscrupulous behaviour.
We take our obligations under the Dublin agreement very seriously, and will always look into how we can help unaccompanied refugees. We have seconded officials working with Greek, Italian and French counterparts, and we hope to be able to speed up the process.
Obviously, decisions on whether to recruit individuals are for the chief officer of the police force concerned and each case should be treated on its merits, but I can say that we have no plans to change guidance, and the college guidance is very clear: the candidates
“should not have tattoos which could cause offence…or undermine the dignity and authority”
of the role of the police constable.
I am more than happy to meet the hon. and learned Gentleman. I understand exactly the point he makes that Daesh, the Taliban and Boko Haram in Nigeria, where I was last week, can indulge in some of these terrible acts, and we need to make sure we address that particular situation.
My hon. Friend highlights an important case, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) did a lot of work on this and is working with Councillor Peter Golds. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend if he feels that would be useful, but this is the subject of an ongoing investigation, and, indeed, commissioners have been put into Tower Hamlets by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Recently I visited a UN Gift Box event in Southend on human trafficking organised by the Soroptimist society. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that the general public should do everything they can to co-operate with the police and other authorities to stamp out this dreadful trade?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The public have a vital role to play in tackling this horrendous crime. In July 2014 the Home Office ran a national TV, radio and online campaign raising awareness of human trafficking, and the campaign materials are available on gov.uk for use by partners.
Despite a UN resolution in May, the targeting of medical facilities, predominantly by the Syrian Government, continues, with at least 72 further attacks over the summer. This is clearly exacerbating the refugee crisis, so will the Home Secretary work with colleagues across Government to ensure that this despicable targeting of hospitals by the Syrian Government is stopped and international law is immediately complied with?
Tragically, ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson recently died outside his father’s house in my constituency, following the deployment of Tasers by the police. The officers involved were not wearing bodycams. Does the Minister agree that all police carrying any sort of weapon should wear bodycams to protect both police and public?
My hon. Friend raises a tragic situation. The loss of any life is obviously tragic, and the deployment of body-worn video is an operational matter for police, but I hope she will appreciate that it would be inappropriate of me to comment further as there is an ongoing Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation ahead of the coroner’s inquest.
A young couple in my constituency from Slovakia who have been in Scotland for 14 years began the process of applying for British citizenship after the Brexit vote. As the Home Secretary will be aware, the first stage is permanent right of residency. The lady in this couple was refused. The Home Secretary says nothing has yet changed, but I cannot understand how an EU national could be refused residency after living here for 14 years.
To be frank, it is difficult to comment on individual situations like that, but if the hon. Lady would like my Department to have a look, I ask her to please write to us about it and we will do so. I also ask her and other hon. Members to reassure their constituents that at the moment nothing has changed.
There is no point in blaming the French for the mess in Calais if we continue to be a magnet for illegal migrants. The fact is that we grant asylum to more illegal migrants than France does, and we deport fewer of them. Of the 44,000 applications received up to June, more than half were granted and only half those who were refused were deported. Will the new Home Secretary take action to deal with illegal migration?
I am always keen to take action to follow the law where it is appropriate. There are many reasons why we are more popular with asylum seekers than some other countries. It is often to do with language, with families or with the diaspora in our communities; it is not simply about the process around asylum seeking. My hon. Friend should rest assured that we take getting the numbers down very seriously.
Has the Home Secretary seen the report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which suggests that children as young as 11 are becoming the victims of revenge porn? These are primary school-aged children. When will Ministers in her Department and across Government start working together to eradicate this? We know that once these pictures get out into cyberspace, they can fuel online child abuse.
The hon. Gentleman raises a truly horrendous crime, and the Government have taken a great deal of action not only to bring in new offences and to prosecute them but, critically, to educate young people and their families about the risks they take when they share images of themselves online. We will do everything possible to protect young people.
Humanitarian Law (Yemen)
I should like to thank the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) for raising this important matter and to pay tribute to him for his work on keeping the House up to date on these matters and providing the scrutiny we need. Recognising the importance of the issue, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary issued a written ministerial statement today to update Parliament on the situation in Yemen, and this update specifically includes references to international humanitarian law.
We are aware of reports of alleged violations of international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict. As I have said on many occasions, we take these allegations very seriously. The Government regularly raise the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law with the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue of international humanitarian law compliance most recently with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, on 22 August. I also did so in Jeddah on 25 August, at the Yemen conference chaired by Secretary John Kerry.
It is important that, in the first instance, the Saudi Arabian-led coalition conducts thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents where it is alleged that international humanitarian law has been breached. This follows international practice. The coalition has the best insight into its own military procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations. This will also allow the coalition forces to understand what went wrong and to apply the lessons learned in the best possible way. This is the standard that we set for ourselves and our allies. In this respect, Saudi Arabia announced more detail of how incidents of concern involving coalition forces are investigated on 31 January. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition joint investigations assessment team publicly announced the outcome of eight investigations on 4 August, and further publications will follow.
I also want to reiterate that clarifications made in the 21 July written ministerial statement do not reflect a change in position. The changes were made to ensure that the parliamentary record is consistent and that it accurately reflects policy. The statement of 21 July outlines that it is
“important to make clear that neither the MOD nor the FCO reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an IHL violation has taken place in relation to each and every incident of potential concern that comes to its attention. This would simply not be possible in conflicts to which the UK is not a party, as is the case in Yemen.”
The MOD monitors incidents of alleged international humanitarian law violations using the available information. This has been used to form an overall view on Saudi Arabia’s approach and attitude to international humanitarian law. In turn, that informs the risk assessment made under the consolidated criteria on whether there is a risk that something might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. We are not acting to determine whether a sovereign state has or has not acted in the breach of international humanitarian law. Instead, as criterion 2(c) requires, we are acting to make an overall judgment.
I am sorry that there has been confusion. We are responding to two written ministerial statements that were in error. After trawling through other such statements, of which there are more than 90, four more were seen to be in error. I came to the House today in order to clarify that, but as soon as I became aware of it I made a statement and wrote to the right hon. Gentleman and the Chairs of the International Development Committee, the Committees on Arms Export Controls, and the Foreign Affairs Committee. I hope that that has clarified the situation.
I thank the Minister for his reply. As he knows, there have been many reports by the UN and others of breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen by both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, which uses British military equipment. Ministers have been repeatedly questioned about that and the Government told the House that they
“have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”
Then, as we have just been told, on 21 July—by chance, the day on which the House rose—a written ministerial statement corrected that and other answers, stating that the Government have
“been unable to assess that there has been a breach of IHL by the Saudi-led Coalition.”
That is the very opposite of what the House had been repeatedly told. I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say, but he offered no satisfactory explanation of why that happened. First, will he do so now? It was not a minor correction but a consistent failure to provide Members with accurate answers.
Secondly, the mistakes were identified on 24 June, as I understand it, but they were not reported to the House until 27 days later, even though the “Ministerial Code” says that Ministers must correct
“any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
Why did it take so long?
Thirdly, after months of the Government being apparently incapable of doing an assessment of international humanitarian law, they have managed to undertake one during the recess in relation to the arms export tests, which state that a licence should not be granted
“if there is a clear risk... of a serious violation”
of IHL. The Foreign Secretary said in a written statement only this morning:
“Having regard to all the information available to us, we assess that this test has not been met.”
When is an assessment not an assessment? Will the Minister now tell us what detailed assessment preceded the conclusion that was reported to the House today and what information it drew upon? Will he publish both?
Finally, will the Government now suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they are able to assure the House that they have done a proper assessment and can explain why they believe that international humanitarian law has not been breached in Yemen when the UN clearly says that it has?
Let us take a step back and make it clear why Saudi Arabia is leading the coalition to support President Hadi. It is allowed to because of UN resolution 2216, of which the right hon. Gentleman is fully aware. Were it not for that, the atrocities that we see and the devastation that is taking place would be a lot worse. The Houthis would have pushed far down through Sana’a, the capital, and all the way to the port of Aden. It would be a humanitarian catastrophe.
Having said that, we absolutely need to make sure that our allies and partners are honouring international humanitarian law, which is why we have regularly raised these matters. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to join me when the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister comes to this place on Wednesday to address any questions that are put by parliamentarians; it is at 10 o’clock and the right hon. Gentleman is more than welcome to come. I will make sure, because I will be moderating the event, that he is able to put some of these questions to the Foreign Minister.
On the general point, the right hon. Gentleman simply repeated the difference in the two lines, which I have endeavoured to correct. I have answered more than 90 parliamentary questions on this matter. We found out that two of them were incorrectly written, with a further trawl showing that four more were incorrectly written, and we immediately decided to correct the matter. I agree that the timing, first in replying to the various heads of the Committees, was slower than it should have been. If he knows me, he will know that I would not sit on this matter; the reason for this was simply that there was a change of government, and there were delays—I did not even know whether I was going to continue in this portfolio. As soon as I became aware of the situation, I made sure that the necessary information was out there and that we did a further trawl to make sure nothing else was erroneous. I then wrote to the relevant Committee Chairs and to the right hon. Gentleman.
Will the Minister confirm that it is in our interest, and in their interest, that our regional allies in the Saudi-led coalition comply with international humanitarian law in their operations in Yemen? Will he remind the House that the Gulf Co-operation Council states are our allies and that the coalition is operating under the authority of a unanimously adopted UN resolution, in response to an illegal usurpation of power in Yemen?
I am grateful for the question, which gives me licence to spell out the fact that this is new territory for Saudi Arabia. We have learnt to make sure that when errors are made on the battlefield and there is collateral damage, we put our hand up and say that something has happened that should not have happened; that is exactly what the Americans did in Kunduz, in Afghanistan, when the hospital was hit. We are dealing here with a conservative nation not used to such exposure, and I am pleased to say that we are making progress to make sure that it answers to the international scrutiny that it must answer to.
I echo strongly the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn); the incorrect answers that he and other Members were given were totally unacceptable, as was the time in which they were corrected, which has added insult to injury. It is clear that the assurances this House was previously given on breaches of humanitarian law have proved inaccurate. Do other assurances that we have been given remain valid? In May, the then Minister for Defence Procurement, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), told this House that there was “no evidence” that coalition forces in Yemen had used cluster munitions in civilian areas. Indeed, he claimed that the cluster munitions found in Yemen, which had been responsible for the deaths and maiming of many innocent civilians, had come from “previous conflicts” in the region. Does the Foreign Office stand by that assessment? In May, we also asked a question that that Minister repeatedly failed to answer, so I give today’s Minister an opportunity to answer it: have the coalition forces in Yemen used weapons or planes manufactured in Britain in this conflict? Have they used them to drop cluster munitions? Have they used them to commit breaches of international humanitarian law? If we simply do not know the answers to those questions, is it right to continue selling weapons and planes to Saudi Arabia until we have answers?
The hon. Lady began by saying that it was unacceptable that these erroneous statements were put out, and I agree with her, which is why I wrote and took measures to make sure that the record was corrected. I make it very clear that the profile of interest in Yemen, with more than 90 written ministerial questions on the matter, is such that we had to correct the issue. Two errors were found, with a further four found on a trawl. That is why I wrote the necessary letters and produced the necessary statements to correct the matter, and I apologised to the Chamber. I hope that that apology is recognised; this was not some big plot or conspiracy to mislead. Our policy remains extremely clear on where we stand on our support for our friends in the Gulf.
The hon. Lady raises the sale of cluster munitions by Britain, which did happen before we signed the convention on cluster munitions—I think she is referring to the BL-755. I have seen one piece of evidence on that incident, and the bomb was unexploded; the bomblets themselves were in the case.
I am not saying that it was okay at all. What I am saying is that as soon as we found out about it, we asked Saudi Arabia to do exactly what any other country should do in the same situation, which is to determine what is going on. As soon as we have more information, we will certainly share it with the House. I invite the hon. Lady to pose those questions to the Saudi Foreign Minister when he comes to the House on Wednesday.
It is tragic when anyone who is innocent is killed in such a conflict. I visited the Saudi-led air operations centre some months ago in Riyadh. I specifically asked the pilots and the commanders about their rules on weapons release on targets in Yemen, and I was very reassured by their answers. It was clear that their procedures now seem to be as good as our own. Does the Minister agree with me?
There is no doubt that this has been a learning curve for Saudi Arabia. The conference that I attended and represented Britain at last week in Jeddah moved us forward from conflict and a military approach to looking at what agreement can be made politically and militarily so that we can put the matter behind us and create the stability that we need in that country.
The UK has a clear role in the conflict, and yet we are still no closer to learning why this Government have failed to carry out their own independent investigation into whether international humanitarian law was breached. Hospitals have been bombed and civilians have been killed. We must end arms sales to Saudi Arabia now and conduct our own investigation. Ministers must remove their heads from the sand and apologise to this House for attempting to brush the issue under the carpet. Parliament was misled six times. Rather than facing the music, did Ministers deliberately hide this knowledge from the House until the last day before the recess? This House and the public deserve more respect from this Government. A humanitarian disaster continues to unfold in front of our very eyes in the Yemen. We need answers and action today; nothing less will do. Will the Minister commit to ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady has adopted that tone. It is absolutely right that she holds the Government to account, and, in all fairness, she has been very consistent in doing that, but I have not been brushing any issues under the carpet—quite the contrary. I have been as open as I can be about these matters. I make it very clear to the House, as I said in my letter to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that if we are not satisfied with the Saudi Arabian investigation, we will not oppose an independent investigation. First, though, we must honour international standards and allow Saudi Arabia to conduct its own investigations, as we would be doing in similar circumstances.
Will the Minister confirm reports that the Prime Minister has raised concerns about the Yemen directly with Saudi Arabian leaders at the G20? Will he also say a bit more about what the Government are doing to try to get Saudi Arabia to sign up to the UN cluster munitions convention?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her words. She is absolutely right that the G20 posed a huge opportunity for the Prime Minister to share thoughts and concerns about a number of matters pertaining to the middle east. I am not aware of what happened, but I will find out whether she was able to take up such an opportunity. I was certainly able to do so when I was with the Foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and John Kerry last week. As I have said, there is a further opportunity for this House to raise those questions too. My right hon. Friend also raised the issue of the cluster munitions convention. I have invited Saudi Arabia to consider signing it as an indication of where it wants to move to in the future.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and correcting the record in respect of the errors that occurred. He will know that three Members of this House—the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and myself—were born in Yemen. Our fear is that Yemen is bleeding to death. There is a massive humanitarian crisis, the worst in the world. What is being done to get food in to the population of Yemen and to make sure that that happens as quickly as possible?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done. He obviously has a personal interest in the matter, as do others, and he has raised this subject on many occasions. I am pleased that he has raised the huge concern, which I think he House shares, about the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Yemen. For example, in July only 43% of the monthly food needs and only 23% of the fuel needs were met in that country. That is because there is no access or no complete access to the country. We need to see aid coming in not just through the port of Aden, but Hodeida further up the west coast opened up to provide access to the northern part of the country.
Do the Government support the establishment of an international independent investigation following the human rights council, as we have done in other initiatives relating to conflicts in other countries, such as Sri Lanka?
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. The process that we follow is to encourage any country to conduct its own investigation, as we would do. As I stated in answer to a previous question, if we find those investigations wanting, we will call for an independent investigation. As I said in my opening remarks, eight publications have already come forward, having analysed certain breaches or events that have taken place, and there will be further publications on other events in the near future.
Is it not a fact that the Saudi-led coalition to support the Yemen Government is clearly targeting civilian areas? Can the Minister remind us why we are supporting it?
The conduct of war in Yemen is complicated. Much of the conflict is taking place in urban areas. The Houthis are using civilians as guards in order to deliberately take the battle into the towns and cities. It is very complicated indeed. We have encouraged Saudi Arabia and the coalition to make sure that as little collateral damage takes place as possible. The hon. Lady seems to suggest that if we did not support UN resolution 2216 and if we did not support President Hadi’s request for support, somehow Yemen would be in a better situation. I can tell her that quite the opposite would be the case.
I can confirm that. As this House is only too aware, where there is conflict and instability, it is very easy for extremism to flourish, and Yemen is a great example of that. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most active branches of al-Qaeda, responsible for the printer cartridge bombing and for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. As long as there is instability, it will continue to flourish. The port of Mukalla in the south—an entire city—was until recently run by al-Qaeda. That is why we need a political solution for that country.
Just over a year ago my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and I presented a petition to this House about the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In the light of today’s statement, may I urge the Minister to revisit the issue of immediate relatives and dependants of British citizens who cannot get out of Yemen, many of whom are stuck in areas that do not have access to humanitarian aid workers and who are having to wait up to 12 months for a decision on their applications to come to Britain? May I urge him to work with his colleagues in the Home Office to speed up this process?
The hon. Lady raises two important and related issues. The first is to do with the international humanitarian support for the country. This is something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be raising at the UN General Assembly to see what more the international community can do. On the migrant situation and those being granted refugee status, I will raise that with my Home Office colleagues.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point—the responsible role that Iran can and should take given where it is now in relation to the nuclear deal. If it wants to play a helpful role on the international stage in the region, then it needs to check its proxy influence in places such as Bahrain, Yemen and Damascus, and indeed in Baghdad as well.
Only last month, Oxfam claimed that the UK Government had switched from being an enthusiastic backer of the arms trade treaty to one of the most significant violators. The Government have lost immense credibility over this saga, and that was not helped by last-minute retractions. Do they not accept that if they echoed calls for an international independent inquiry, the added transparency and accountability would be a benefit to all stakeholders involved?
I do not agree with the first part of the hon. Lady’s question, as she might guess, but the second part I do agree with. The process that we must follow is to allow and encourage Saudi Arabia to make sure that it does the necessary investigations, as it is now starting to do. If we find that those investigations are wanting, it is absolutely right that we should then call for an independent international investigation to be carried out.
Of course Iran has equal responsibility under international humanitarian law, as well as Saudi Arabia. The Minister, as the surviving Minister in the Foreign Office, will know that several months ago, when it was revealed that the UK was supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia for the Yemen campaign, the justification for the Government’s position was that those weapons were accurate and needed by Saudi Arabia, and that the technical targeting assistance was being provided by the British to make sure that those accurate weapons were even more accurate. Given that that is the case, why have so many weapons gone astray?
We have a very robust relationship with Saudi Arabia. We are able to raise matters in confidence and in private that we would not be able to raise in public, and that applies to many of the issues that have been raised today. However, this is a legitimate coalition, and it is allowed to use weapons that are provided and sold by the United Kingdom.
One of the accusations against the Saudis is that UK-made cluster munitions have been used in Yemen. The former procurement Minister, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), told the House before the recess that the last time the UK sold cluster munitions was 30 years ago. What assessment has the Minister or the MOD made of the usability of those weapons and whether they have ever actually been used?
I recognise the interest and also the expertise that the hon. Gentleman brings to the House given his work as a Minister in the MOD. As a reservist and an ex-member of the regular forces, I would not go anywhere near any ordnance that was over 20 years old. The cluster munitions that are being discussed are well past their sell-by date. They are dangerous and should not be used by anybody.
I welcome the efforts that my hon. Friend’s Department has made in helping the Saudis with their application of international humanitarian law in the Yemeni armed conflict. Has he used any of our wonderful British imams who have served in the armed forces of the United Kingdom, many of whom have studied the sayings of Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, who set out many of the rules of war that would apply very well in these circumstances, to remind the Saudis that these are not western concepts at all but actually Islamic themes?
My hon. Friend touches on quite a deep issue that reflects his knowledge and expertise in this area, to which I pay tribute. I spent some of the summer reading the works of Gertrude Bell, which I know he has studied. She illustrates, and learned over a long period, the complexity that we are dealing with in today’s Saudi Arabia. We have to understand and recognise that it is a conservative society which is being obliged and encouraged to move at a far faster pace than many other countries in the world, not least in the legitimacy of running a complex and sustained campaign of war.
The key test for the UK Government’s continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to international humanitarian law is whether there is a clear risk that those weapons might be used in the commission of a serious violation of that law. If the Government do not consider the repeated bombing of hospitals, schools and markets, and the designation of whole cities such as Ma’aran as war zones, a serious violation of humanitarian law, what does fall into that category?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a number of events that have taken place and are being looked into by Saudi Arabia, but there is also a comparison with what happened with the United States, when a hospital was also attacked. The question is whether any nation puts its hand up and says that a mistake has been made or whether it tries to cover things up and say that they did not happen, which would be a breach of international humanitarian law.
These were not minor corrections issued on 21 July; frankly, the Government are now saying the complete opposite of what they said before. I am reminded of Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s former press secretary, who said that all previous statements were inoperative. It is not just that the Government said that there was no evidence that IHL had been breached and are now saying that they are unable to assess whether there have been breaches. They also said that the MOD was of the opinion that the Saudis were not targeting civilians; now they say that the MOD has not assessed whether the Saudis are targeting civilians. This is a deeply serious matter. The Government must take action and we now want answers to these questions. Are the Saudis actually targeting civilians, yes or no? The Minister must come back to the House and give answers on these serious matters.
My hon. Friend makes his point, but I will just say that each case is considered in its own right. Each arms export is considered under the ruthless criteria under which we operate. We look to the future, to the intent of that country and at how those weapon systems will be used. As things stand, we do not believe that they will be used in breach of IHL.
It is rare that I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but communications from Ministers and the Government on this issue have been positively Kafkaesque to say the least. The lack of clarity in the information given in answers and to Committees of this House is not acceptable. Let us get back to the facts, Mr Speaker. Saudi Arabia admitted on 4 August that it had mistakenly bombed a residential complex, a World Food Programme convoy and medical facilities, never mind the other examples that have been raised by non-governmental organisations and other humanitarian organisations. Is the Minister satisfied with that? If he is not, will he suspend those arms sales?
Thousands of sorties have been made not just by Saudi Arabia but by the entire coalition. Errors have been made as well. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening statement, which implied that I have either misled or not been up front about what is going on. I have been very clear indeed. If he wants to talk about the specific issues that he has raised today, I am more than happy to meet him outside the Chamber and we can look into them. I have encouraged Saudi Arabia to look into every one of those cases and provide a report.
The Minister will be aware that sometimes with situations in the middle east we must be careful what we wish for because of what might come in its place. Does he agree that Saudi Arabia could do a lot to reinforce people’s confidence in its operations by joining the international ban on cluster munitions, to which we are already party?
That is absolutely right. I know that there is an intention among the establishment in Saudi Arabia to move forward in that regard, but as I have touched on in the past, this is a conservative society led by a liberal wing of that society. It needs to move at a pace that is workable for Saudi Arabia, and a major step forward would be the consideration of signing the cluster weapons convention.
It is clear that the situation in Yemen is not improving and respected organisations are calling for independent investigation of violations of international humanitarian law, yet in the second quarter of 2016 this Government, and the Minister’s colleagues in the Home Office, refused 13 asylum applications, and 57 applications from Yemeni citizens remain pending. Will the Minister speak with his colleagues in the Home Office and impress on them the need for certainty for those Yemeni citizens that they will not be removed to a country that is a war zone because of bombs that we are selling to the Saudis?
The answer to that is yes—that is absolutely the case. We have now moved forward in our discussions. The Houthis, after walking out of the discussions in Kuwait, are now working with the UN envoy, and I hope that we will be able to move forward from the phase of war and armed conflict to one of political resolution.
I cannot answer the latter part of that question but I can say that, yes, we have sold weapons and aircraft systems to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition which have been used legitimately, following a request by President Hadi under resolution 2216.