House of Commons
Tuesday 10 January 2017
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—
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is one of the most serious crises in the world. The UN estimates that 19 million people are in need of help. The UK is providing support, and we are spending more than £100 million to provide assistance. We all agree that a political solution is the best way to end this conflict. I met foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and the United States on 18 December in Riyadh, along with Ismail Ahmed, the UN envoy, to advance the UN road map, which I hope will bring all parties back to the table.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is deteriorating, and the UN estimates that 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian aid—about 21.2 million Yemenis. According to the Government’s own figures, British aid, although welcome, has reached less than 5% of the people in Yemen who need it—obviously nowhere near enough for a major emergency that is affecting people not only in Yemen, but in my constituency. What plans does the Minister have to increase the number of people in Yemen who can directly benefit from British support?
The hon. Lady raises an important aspect of this very sad conflict: we are denied a political solution, but it is the people of Yemen who are suffering. The cause of the problem is the inability to get aid into the country. The port of Aden is used as a conduit, but the main access to the majority of the country is through the port of Hodeidah, which unfortunately is currently in Houthi hands. The cranes are out of action, but we must ensure that we can gain greater access through. I spoke with Ismail Ahmed about what we can do to repair the cranes so that bigger ships can get in with equipment and support, which can then be distributed across the country.
I wholly endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). The UN reports that there might be up to 370,000 starving children in Yemen, so in addition to our own aid what discussions has my hon. Friend had with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states about providing significant humanitarian aid themselves?
It is fair to say—this is an important question—that while the headlines are about the military campaign Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition are doing huge amounts to provide support and humanitarian aid for refugees in their countries. This is often done outside the auspices of the United Nations. During the United Nations General Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development held a conference to bring further countries together to support Britain’s work to get aid into and across the country.
I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for their personal efforts in trying to broker a ceasefire. That is the key: we need a ceasefire in the same way as Turkey and Russia managed to achieve one for Syria. Have there been any further discussions with the United States about getting this back on to the agenda of the Security Council? I know that the Foreign Secretary was in America at the end of last week, so was this issue raised? When can we get this back for discussion at the UN?
A later question on the Order Paper focuses on a UN Security Council resolution, but to touch on it now, yes, it is our ambition to gain a resolution along the lines of what the road map sets out. We met on 19 December and confirmed the direction of travel in which we want to go. The right hon. Gentleman will know from his understanding of the country that it is not so simple as suggesting this is all about the Houthis versus President Hadi and forces on his side. The complex tribal structures that are involved require the buy-in of many parts of the country to ensure that the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities can last.
I can confirm that Yusuf bin Alawi, foreign Minister for Oman, was at the discussions on 19 December, along with Adel al-Jubeir, the Foreign Minister for Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah bin Zayed from the United Arab Emirates. These are the key nations providing support, and I pay tribute to the work that Oman has done through its discussions, bringing the Houthis to the table so that we can get something secure for the ceasefire that we are all searching for.
Inaccurate information has been provided to Parliament a number of times on Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Minister has said previously that he acted immediately. However, a new freedom of information request reveals that not only the Minister but the former Foreign Secretary knew as early as 28 June last year that Parliament had been misled, but this was not corrected until 21 July. Does the Minister believe that the ministerial code was complied with?
I can only guess that the hon. Gentleman’s question relates to the sale of cluster munitions, because he did not explain its context. Perhaps we can meet later so that he can ask me a fuller question. Alternatively, he can attend the debate on Thursday, when we shall doubtless discuss Yemen in more detail.
Last month the Defence Secretary informed the House that the Saudi Government had given assurances that they would no longer use UK-manufactured cluster bombs. Has the Minister received confirmation from the Saudis that they have now disposed of their stocks of those weapons?
They have confirmed that that is their intention, and I hope to be able to ensure that it has actually happened in time for Thursday’s debate. I can go further, and tell the House that, before the Prime Minister’s visit to Manama for the Gulf Cooperation Council conference, I invited all the GCC nations to sign the convention on cluster munitions so that they could join other countries around the world in condemning those horrific weapon systems.
What the hon. Gentleman has said returns us to the original question. It is vital for us to gain full access to Sana’a, but again, unfortunately, that is in the hands of the Houthis. We are unable to utilise the airport, which would be the best way to get aid into the country, because of disagreements that are taking place. The sooner we can get all parties back around the table—including supporters of Saleh—the sooner we can bring about a cessation of hostilities and get that important aid back into the country, including the capital.
Let me begin by saying that I think it fitting for the House to welcome the fact that, whatever else 2016 brought, it was the first year in nearly four decades in which no member of our armed forces was killed in operations. Sadly, however, that is not because we live in a more peaceful world. In Yemen the conflict remains as fierce as ever, and the suffering of its children is worse than ever. As the Minister himself has said, it is the worst crisis in the world. One child is dying every 10 minutes from a lack of food.
I have here a copy of the United Kingdom’s draft United Nations resolution, which could bring an end to that conflict and allow the delivery of humanitarian relief. There is not a single word in that draft resolution with which any reasonable party could possibly disagree. Let me ask the Minister a simple question. Three months after the resolution’s first appearance, why is the UK still sitting on it?
A UN resolution must be drafted in a way that makes it workable. That means that all parties must sign and agree to it, because otherwise it is just a piece of paper. If we are to ensure that the resolution can stand on the basis of what we are saying and can be enforced, the parties must get round the table and bring about a cessation of hostilities. The hon. Lady is right: we work towards the drafts, but we do not implement them until we are sure that the resolutions can work in practice.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but I must tell him that we have heard all this before. I know that the Ministers do not listen to their ambassadors any more nowadays, but this is what our UN ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, said back in November when he was asked what it would take to achieve a permanent ceasefire:
“The UK will continue to support efforts…including through the use—if necessary—of our draft Security Council resolution.”
That was 50 days ago—50 days of continuing fighting—and we are still seeing the same old delaying tactics on the Government’s part. Let me ask the Minister again: when will the Foreign Secretary pull his finger out, present the resolution, and end what even he has acknowledged is a terrible proxy war?
I am sorry to use these words, but the hon. Lady has just illustrated that she has no grasp of the United Nations process itself, or of what is taking place on the ground in Yemen; and to suggest that any member of the Government does not listen to our ambassadors is to disingenuously mislead the House. I invite—
Order. Of one thing we should be clear: that the Minister has a grasp of parliamentary protocol. He cannot accuse somebody of disingenuously misleading the House; both words are wrong, and both must be withdrawn.
I withdraw those remarks; if I add “inadvertently”, and say inadvertently disingenuously misleading the House, would that work with you, Sir?
If somebody is disingenuous there can be nothing inadvertent about it, which I would have thought the hon. Gentleman was well-educated enough to recognise; do try to get it right, man.
I think the point has been made, Mr Speaker, and I am sorry to test your patience, but it is important to understand that we take the words of, and work with, our ambassadors very seriously indeed. I spoke to Matthew Rycroft only a few days ago. We are the penholders on this matter at the UN Security Council, and I will make sure there is a phone call between him and the hon. Lady. He can explain the processes of the United Nations so that she becomes aware that we will not get a Security Council resolution passed until we get the cessation of hostilities in place.
Progress, apart from anything else, has been glacial—far, far too slow—so we need to speed up.
The Foreign Secretary raised this consular case in November last year, and our high commission in Nicosia is also raising this delicate matter, including in discussions with north Cyprus. We will continue to push to see those guilty of the murder of George Low brought to justice.
I thank the Foreign Office for its hard work in trying to secure justice for both George Low and Ben Barker. Natural justice demands that people should not be able simply to walk away from custody when accused of murder, yet northern Cyprus has allowed this to happen with one of the suspects and it is feared that the second will soon follow. Please can the Minister reassure the victim’s family that every possible effort will be made to persuade northern Cyprus to allow decency to prevail and for these men to face trial?
The House will not be aware of this, but I know my hon. Friend is. It has been a delicate and difficult case and I commend the work he has done, including in working with the families, and I can assure him that the Minister with responsibility for Europe and FCO officials are fully engaged to provide the necessary support to both families. My hon. Friend will realise that because this involves north Cyprus, we cannot speak too widely about what discussions have taken place, but we are working hard to ensure justice is seen to follow.
The Minister is right that this has been a complicated case, but there have been far too many complicated cases involving British nationals in the various different parts of Cyprus. Does he agree that the truth of the matter is that until we get a proper settlement of Cyprus so we no longer have a divided island and a divided city, there will be no long-term justice either for the people of this country in Cyprus or for that matter for the people of Cyprus?
I hope the former Minister for Europe will join me in congratulating the two leaders, who are coming together this week. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is going to Geneva to try to push forward what will be monumental discussions to finally provide that important solution. I hope that then cases such as this will be able to be resolved much faster.
Colombia: Political Prisoners
We are concerned by reports about the detention of human rights defenders and activists in Colombia, often held without trial or access to legal representation. Our embassy in Bogota closely follows specific cases. The Prime Minister raised our concerns about threats to human rights defenders with President Santos during the state visit in November.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but, following the amnesty law passed by the Colombian Congress on 28 December, will the Minister urge the Columbian Government to release all civil society prisoners, as agreed, as soon as possible?
We welcome the approval of the new amnesty Bill of course, and we believe it will lead to a benefit for all citizens and the wider region as part of the Columbian peace process. We look forward to all aspects of that law, particularly with regard to disarmament and reintegration.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker.
The transition zones are an important, if not crucial, aspect of the peace agreement, yet we are hearing reports of work on living quarters not even having started, of food being so rotten that people are suffering from severe and possibly lethal food poisoning, and of the supply of water being very scarce. Given that the transition zones are where the FARC troops are supposed to be concentrated as an essential element of the peace agreement, will Her Majesty’s Government please put absolute pressure on the Colombian authorities to ensure that the zones are properly completed?
We do of course raise these matters with the Colombian authorities on a regular basis. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and we will of course relay it back.
The United Kingdom has supported the Colombian Government of Juan Manuel Santos throughout the difficult, recently concluded and very welcome peace process, and we have pledged our continuing support through the United Nations and the European Union. Will the Minister outline what specifically will be supported, and tell us whether the Colombian people and civil society will be included in the discussions on how the funds will be allocated?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that 2016 was an historic year for Colombia. The peace deal with the FARC ended the longest conflict in the western hemisphere. He asks about the range of support that we are providing for the peace process. It includes a contribution of £7.5 million to the UN trust fund, with more than £2 million dedicated to de-mining.
According to a report from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies in 2016, there is now a paramilitary presence in 31 of the 32 Colombian departments. Will the Minister make urgent representations to the Colombian Government to ensure that the proliferation of paramilitaries and private armies is countered, and that the articles of the peace process are upheld?
I can confirm that we are concerned by reports of violence against human rights defenders, which has increased in 2016. Those attacks have increased in areas from which the FARC is withdrawing, which is disturbing. We will of course raise these matters with the Colombian Government, particularly the importance of security in conflict-affected areas.
Despite signing the partnership for peace agreement, the Houthis invaded the capital, Sana’a, placed Ministers under house arrest, took over ministerial buildings and committed extra-judicial killings. The Saudi-led military coalition was formed, following the legitimate request from President Hadi as set out in United Nations Security Council 2216. It is in this context that the UK supports the military intervention.
At a time when millions in Yemen are facing starvation, it beggars belief that the Saudi coalition is routinely targeting airstrikes at cattle markets, dairy farms, food factories and other agriculture infrastructure. Can the Minister explain why the coalition is doing that, and why we are supporting it?
We are not supporting them doing that, as the hon. Lady can no doubt imagine. We are working closely with the Saudi Arabians and the coalition to ensure that the protocols and standards that they are using in sustained warfare meet the international standards that we would expect, were we to be involved ourselves. Much of the information that comes from the battlefield is very unclear indeed, but we are enforcing transparency in a way that the Saudi Arabians and many other members of the coalition have never seen before.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the Saudi-led coalition intends to restore the legitimate Government in Yemen, it is clearly right and proper that we should support it?
My right hon. Friend knows the region well and he is absolutely right. I want to make it clear, however, that the coalition has made errors. It has made mistakes. It has not endured sustained warfare in this manner before, and it is having to meet international standards as never before. It is having to provide reports when it makes mistakes, and it has never done that before. It has no experience of even writing reports. It wants to meet those standards and to work with the international community. We need to ensure that when errors are made, the coalition puts its hand up in the same way that we do and that the Americans did in Afghanistan only a few months ago.
Given that Saudi Arabia has finally admitted to using illegal cluster bombs in Yemen, what consequence or sanction is being planned by the UK Government against Saudi Arabia for that clear breach of international humanitarian law?
If I may attempt to correct the hon. Gentleman, those cluster bombs are not illegal, because Saudi Arabia has not signed up to the convention on cluster munitions. Therefore it is in its right—indeed, any country’s right—to use cluster munitions should it wish. As I mentioned earlier, I have encouraged Saudi Arabia to make sure not only that it has destroyed all the cluster munitions that we sold it in the past, but that it gets rid of its entire arsenal of cluster munitions and signs the convention.
Has the Minister talked to the Saudi coalition about dealing with the long-standing threat from al-Qaeda and the growing threat from Daesh in Yemen, which threatens not just the Gulf but our security at home?
In all our discussions with the Saudi Arabians and other coalitions that are learning how to conduct necessary warfare to the standards that we expect, we sometimes gloss over the fact that the absence of a solution allows the incubation of extremism in the form of Daesh, which is now present in the peninsular, and al-Qaeda. Until very recently, the port of Mukalla was completely run by that extremist operation. From our security perspective, more terrorist attacks are plotted in the peninsular by al-Qaeda than by any of its wings. Yes, it is very important that we work with our coalition friends to ensure that we defeat extremism in Yemen.
May I endeavour to make a better case for Britain’s policy on the Yemen tragedy than the Minister made in his earlier replies? Will he now make clear the value to our security and to our dynamic aerospace industry of our relationship with the Saudis and the Gulf states? Will he also make clear the concern of the UK and the international community at the expansionist and subversive activities of the Iranian regime?
There is nothing in that question with which I would disagree. Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the region. Its security and the region’s security is our security, too, but as the right hon. Gentleman also articulated, Saudi Arabia is unused to conducting such sustained warfare and it needs to learn. We are standing with Saudi Arabia to make sure it is learning lessons and to make sure that we work towards peace in Yemen, for all the reasons that we have discussed in the Chamber today.
West Bank: Illegal Settlements
I spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu—he is also the Israeli Foreign Minister—on 23 December and raised the subject of illegal settlements. I probably spoke for a large majority of Members when I said that I am a strong and passionate supporter of the state of Israel, but I also believe that the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the west bank is by no means conducive to peace.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Will he further advise us on what assessment his Government have made of the Israeli Government’s intent to comply with UN Security Council resolution 2334 on illegal Israeli settlements?
That is clearly a matter for the Israeli Government, but I repeat our position that we believe—this is a long-standing view of the UK Government—that settlements in the west bank are illegal, and that the 20% expansion we have seen in those settlements since 2009 is a threat to the peace process. That was why we resolved as we did. Of course, there has been a certain amount of argument about that and a certain amount of push back from the Israeli Government, but the hon. Lady will find that there is a wide measure of international support for that view, which in no way diminishes this Government’s strong support for a Jewish homeland in Israel.
Is there anything in the substantial analysis presented by Secretary Kerry on 28 December, following the adoption of Security Council resolution 2334, with which the Foreign Secretary does not agree?
Let me repeat my point: John Kerry was completely right to draw attention to the illegal settlements and to the substance of resolution 2334. I remind the House that the UK was closely involved in its drafting, although of course it was an Egyptian-generated resolution. We supported it only because it contained new language pointing out the infamy of terrorism that Israel suffers every day, not least on Sunday, when there was an attack in Jerusalem. I was glad that the resolution identified that aspect of the crisis in the middle east, and John Kerry was absolutely right to point out the rounded nature of the resolution. May I pay tribute to John Kerry, who is shortly to step down as Secretary of State, for his tireless work for peace not just in Israel-Palestine, but across the wider middle east?
I welcome the Government’s vote in favour of UN Security Council resolution 2334, not least because it stated that
“the cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-State solution”.
Following the Foreign Secretary’s discussions in the past couple of days with members of the incoming Administration in the United States, does he think that that view is shared by President-elect Trump?
I think it is a widespread view in Washington, and across the UN Security Council, that settlements are illegal, which was why the resolution went through as it did, without any opposition. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question directly, I think it is too early to say exactly what the Administration will decide on this matter, but he can rest assured that the British Government will continue to make the points that we have, not because we are hostile to Israel—on the contrary—but because we wish to support the state of Israel.
Let me try to get this right: the British ambassador is summoned formally in Israel because of the way the UK voted at the UN Security Council; meanwhile, in the UK, an employee of the Israeli embassy is caught on film conspiring with a British civil servant to take down a senior Minister in the Foreign Secretary’s Department, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and other Members of this House; and the Israeli ambassador makes a couple of phone calls and all is forgiven and forgotten. Can the Foreign Secretary enlighten us on the thinking behind all this?
I certainly can enlighten the House, in the sense that, as my right hon. Friend points out, the Israeli ambassador made a very full apology for what had taken place and the diplomat in question no longer seems to be a functionary of the embassy in London. Whatever that person might exactly have been doing here, his cover can be said to have been well and truly blown, and I think we should consider the matter closed.
Order. I am sorry, because these are very important matters, but I must say that progress is lamentably slow, so long questions will be cut off from now on, because there are people lower down the Order Paper who must be reached.
But if a UK embassy official had been caught on film in Tel Aviv talking about “taking down” an Israeli Government Minister, they would have been booted out of the country without any further ceremony, so why did that not happen to Mr Masot? If the Foreign Secretary showed even a teensy-weensy bit of resolve in such matters, perhaps Israeli diplomats would not talk about him in such disparaging terms.
The right hon. Gentleman seems, alas, to have been failing to pay attention to the salient point, which is that the Israeli diplomat in question is no longer doing his job in London—whatever his job is, he is no longer doing it in this city. The Israeli ambassador has made a full apology for the matter and I am happy to consider it closed.
Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and colleagues to discuss our grave concerns about resolution 2334, which my constituents believe will make peace in the middle east harder to achieve by imposing a complex set of preconditions that the Palestinians will use to avoid serious engagement in negotiation?
I am very grateful for that question, and I am happy to offer exactly such a consultation with colleagues. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has already undertaken to do just that.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning the horrific attack on Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on Sunday. We will never achieve a lasting peace in the middle east until the state of Israel, its soldiers and civilians are free from the threat of terror. Nor will we achieve that lasting peace until all sides accept a two-state solution and a viable Palestinian state can be built, free from illegal settlements. In his allegedly frank discussions with the incoming Trump Administration on Sunday, was the Foreign Secretary frank about those points, too? If so, what response did he receive?
The answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second is wait and see.
I call Virendra Sharma. Not here. Where is the feller? I am becoming accustomed to having to say this every day; it is very unsatisfactory.
Diplomatic Relations: UK/Germany
First, let me repeat the condolences that we have offered, and that I am sure that many Members will want to join me in offering, to the people of Germany for the terrible attack that they sustained on 19 December. We continue to work with our German counterparts to strengthen security. We have superb relations with Germany, and it is vital, both as we go through the Brexit process and beyond, that we deepen and intensify that friendship.
I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s expression of condolence to the people of Berlin. Given that Germany is a net exporter to the United Kingdom and would not want its economy to be affected through the imposition of tariffs, what extra work is being done to build diplomatic relations for the benefit of future reciprocal free trade between our two countries?
I am grateful for that question because, as my hon. Friend will know very well, a big operation is now going on. UK Trade & Investment and British diplomacy are pointing out the salient facts that German investment in this country is responsible for around 344,000 jobs here in the UK, and UK investment in Germany is responsible for 222,000 jobs. It would be the height of insanity to imperil either of those sets of investments.
The Foreign Secretary speaks of our relationship with Germany as being very good and special. Is it not a fact that many leading Germans are concerned about Britain leaving the European Union and the impact that that will have on Europe’s security, particularly in terms of our commitment to NATO, given the instability we see in Russia?
The hon. Gentleman asks an acute question. Of all the countries in the EU and the rest of Europe that care about our departure, I would say that it is certainly the Germans who have been most psychologically and emotionally affected by the 23 June referendum result. That is why the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) is so apposite and why engagement is vital.
On NATO and our joint defence, the hon. Gentleman should not forget that we contribute 25% of the EU’s defence expenditure, and that will continue, because while we may be leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe, and our commitment to Europe’s defence is undiminished.
Gulf Co-operation Council
Thanks to our historical connections and our shared economic and other interests, which include foreign policy, defence, security, trade and culture, we have exceptionally strong relationships with the Gulf Co-operation Council nations. That was reflected in the warm reception that the Prime Minister received when she attended the GCC summit in November and established a new UK-GCC strategic partnership.
So does the Minister agree that Britain has a unique competitive advantage in securing a free trade agreement with the GCC due to those desired sectors and our long-standing friendship, as well as the GCC’s desire for economic diversification?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason why the Chancellor was visiting the region only a couple of weeks ago was to enforce those exact points. I am sure that once the Brexit discussions have moved forward, one of the first areas with which we will consolidate a trade agreement will be the GCC nations.
In December, the Foreign Secretary accused Saudi Arabia of “playing proxy wars” and destabilising the region. Soon afterwards, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that that was not the Government’s view. Whose view was the Foreign Secretary expressing?
Let me expand that out further to our relationship with the GCC nations. As I said earlier, those countries are advancing, but they are still very new. Saudi Arabia became an independent country in modern terms only in 1932. It is because of our close relationship with those countries in a wide variety of sectors and the trust that we have in them that we are encouraging them to advance in their governance systems.
The diplomatic stature of the GCC has risen significantly in recent years, not least because of the wise guidance of the GCC Secretary-General, Abdullatif al-Zayani, who is a friend of the Minister and of mine. In view of the impasse in the middle east peace process and the GCC’s relationship with the Arab states and Israel, does he believe that the time is now right for the GCC and the Arab states to take some initiative to move the middle east peace process forward?
I know that that is close to my right hon. Friend’s heart, and that he worked very hard on it when he was Minister for the middle east. He is absolutely right that, as the GCC grows in its prowess, strength and authority, it has an important role to play in what is arguably one of the longest-running concerns, which started with the occupation of the occupied territories more than 50 years ago. In the year that we mark the Balfour declaration, I hope that we will also make progress in this area.
Is not one of the biggest challenges facing the GCC countries the conflict in Yemen, where they have in excess of 100,000 troops? They are up against a rebel group that has been involved in extra-judicial killings, that is trying to overthrow the country, and that is involved in torture. The Library briefing notes put the number of child soldiers in the rebel group at 30%. Is that not a disgrace? Is it not the biggest challenge facing the GCC countries, and should we not be supporting them?
I agree that it is one of the biggest challenges for the GCC. We forget that this is its neighbourhood—its backyard. Those countries want regional security in the same way that we do—we want it near where we live, work and want to raise families. Exactly the same applies to the GCC nations, and it is something that I will explore more in the debate on Thursday.
Exiting the EU: Diplomatic Relations
We have regular consultations about the future shape of our diplomatic relations with the rest of the EU. The hon. Lady should understand that we may be leaving the EU treaties, but we are not leaving Europe. There will be plenty of ways in which we will continue to collaborate on all the issues that are vital to us, whether in the EU or out.
I welcome that answer. Free movement is a key issue in discussions with our EU counterparts. Have the Government therefore considered that in order to get the best possible access to the European single market, we should propose a managed migration system that still gives preference to EU workers, welcoming those with high skills, but limiting the numbers of low and semi-skilled workers coming here to work?
I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I say that that would come under the category of our giving a running commentary on our negotiating position. We cannot do that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) says that Brexit means Brexit, and she is perfectly right.
I call a Kentish knight, Sir Julian Brazier.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Given the trade ties that my right hon. Friend has already mentioned and the fact that we are Europe’s largest defence contributor, does he agree that we should not have to make deals on immigration and free movement to secure a good trade agreement with our allies and friends in Europe?
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on his well-deserved knighthood in the new year’s honours list? He speaks very good sense. I think that I can agree with him completely without in any way being convicted of giving a running commentary on our negotiations, so I thank him very much.
Never mind a running commentary, has the Foreign Secretary given any commentary at all to his own officials, such as Sir Ivan Rogers, who left the service saying that he had not been given any sense of the Government’s negotiating objectives? Will the Secretary of State perhaps speak to Sir Tim Barrow and give him a clue about what the Government intend to do?
If the hon. Gentleman consults the speeches of the Prime Minister more closely, he will discover a wealth of information about our negotiating position, but since he has not bothered to do that, I do not propose to enlighten him now, except to say that Sir Ivan Rogers did an excellent job and always gave me very good advice. I think his reasons for stepping down early were persuasive. Sir Tim Barrow, as anybody who has worked with him will know—I think that people on both sides of the House will have done so—is an outstanding public servant with long-standing experience of UK representation in Brussels, and he will do a superb job in the forthcoming talks.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that not only are diplomatic relations important, but relationships between Members of this House and European partners have been important. Membership of the Council of Europe, of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and of all-party groups has never been more important, so can he give an assurance that his Department will assist in every way in making sure that bilateral relationships that exist between Members of this House and Europe will be encouraged?
Absolutely—I am very happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. As he will know, there are parliamentary bodies of one party or another that have links with sister parties across the continent, and we will do absolutely everything we can to promote that in the years ahead.
On behalf of Labour Members, may I pay tribute to the long and distinguished career of Sir Ivan Rogers? He served successive Governments with great distinction, and most of the Secretary of State’s predecessors had the good sense to appreciate it; it is a pity that he could not do so until just now when my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) managed to press him. In his resignation letter, Sir Ivan said:
“Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen”.
Can the Secretary of State explain who Sir Ivan had in mind?
I have given my views about Sir Ivan, but I am happy to repeat them: I think he is, as the hon. Gentleman said, an outstanding public servant, and he always gave me very frank advice. It is vital for officials to continue to give their round, unvarnished views of matters such as the ease of negotiating free trade deals. It is not necessarily going to be simple, but there is no reason to think it cannot be done speedily, and no reason to think we cannot have fantastic free trade deals, not least with the United States of America.
Middle East Peace Talks
We are using every forum at our disposal to try to encourage both sides to get to the negotiating table. It is deeply frustrating. I join hon. Members on both sides of the House who have condemned the appalling attack on—the murder of—four Israeli soldiers at the weekend. All I can do is repeat what we have said: the only way forward has to be a two-state solution, and that is why it was important to restate the Government’s position in resolution 2334.
The General Secretary of the UN has warned about Iran’s activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon through its base in Syria. What can the Foreign Secretary do to combat this growing menace to the prospects of any peace in the region?
It is very important to recognise that Iran is a malign influence across the region, and we must be very vigilant about what it is doing. On the other hand, we have to engage with Iran. I think the JCPOA—joint comprehensive plan of action—does represent, still, a substantial and valid way forward, and it would be regrettable if we were to junk that process now.
As my hon. Friend will know, the level of violence, as we have discussed, has been down by comparison with 2015, but it is still too high. I think it was important, therefore, that the resolution, which has been so much discussed this morning, had that balance in it and that language in it pointing out the threat that Israel faces. It is important that we stress that, and that we encourage the Palestinians to understand that there can be no hope of peace unless they get their extremists under control.
I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary is using every forum to bring peace. Will he, therefore, be attending the Paris conference, and what new initiative will the UK Government be putting forward there?
I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK Government will be attending the Paris talks and we will be reinforcing our message, which is that we think that both sides must get round the table and negotiate. That is the only way forward. It would be folly now to abandon a two-state solution, because, in the end, a one-state solution is not in the interests of Israel.
Middle East (Persecution of Christians)
The Government regularly receive reports of sectarian attacks on Christian and other religious communities in the middle east. We want to work with all Governments across the middle east and north Africa to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is respected.
Although the genocide of Christians in the areas ruled by Daesh has rightly taken the most attention, my hon. Friend will be only too aware that the persecution of Christians across the region is way too common. Will he join me, therefore, in welcoming the work done by Open Doors to highlight that, and what plans does he have to consider its latest report, which is due to be launched in the House tomorrow?
May I briefly say that I very much welcome the work that is done by organisations such as Open Doors, and the work that my hon. Friend has done to promote them? I look forward to reading the report, which I think is due out tomorrow. Open Doors makes a major contribution to that work and the Government’s thinking to try to support Christians and other religious communities in the middle east and north Africa.
Given all these crimes against Christians in the middle east, will the Government ensure that we do everything we can to make sure that this is recognised as genocide in the international courts?
I have said in this House that I personally believe that acts of genocide have taken place, but it is not my view that counts; it is whether we can legally prove that. As we have debated here before, it is important that we collect the evidence. I am sure that the House will be delighted to know—it has been confirmed already— that the Foreign Secretary joined other countries, including Iraq, at the United Nations General Assembly to launch the work to be done to collect the evidence to make sure that we can hold those who have conducted these horrific activities to account.
I could not be more grateful to the Minister.
I have come back this morning from the United States, where I have been discussing these matters with the incoming Administration. It was clear that there is a wide measure of agreement between us over the challenges we face. I assure the House that our embassy in Washington and the Prime Minister’s office—No. 10—and officials at all levels are engaging with the incoming team to make sure that we work in lock step to build on those areas of agreement.
In addition to talks with the incoming US Administration, what talks, specifically with regard to security and trade, did my right hon. Friend have with congressional leaders?
I have to say to the House that there was a huge fund of goodwill for the United Kingdom on Capitol Hill, and a very large measure of understanding that now is the time to do a free trade deal. They want to do it, and they want to do it fast. That understanding was most vivid and most urgent on the part of the incoming Administration.
I call Mr Virendra Sharma. Has the feller now manifested himself? No, sadly not. Never mind. He is not here, but Rebecca Pow is.
My priorities for 2017 are to renew our efforts to address the crisis in the middle east; to work towards securing the best deal for Britain in the negotiations with our European partners that will be begun by the triggering of article 50; and to build an even stronger working relationship with the US Administration. As I have said, I have just returned from furthering that ambition in the US. As this is the last FCO questions before the end of the Obama Administration, let me repeat formally my thanks to John Kerry for his tireless dedication.
Illegal trading in wildlife is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime, and it has a hugely destabilising effect on habitats and on many communities. On that note, will the Secretary of State tell me what his Department is doing to help to combat the poaching and illegal ivory trading in Africa?
This Government have made it clear that combating the illegal wildlife trade is one of our priorities. We have a dedicated illegal wildlife trade team in London, working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As my hon. Friend will know, the Secretary of State recently came back from a highly successful conference in Hanoi on the ivory trade. We are supporting—[Interruption.] With our funds, we are supporting—[Interruption.] Let me tell the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who mocks the elephants, that the number of elephants is diminishing by 8% every year. Thanks to the efforts of this Government, that issue is being raised up the international agenda again. We are spending considerable sums of money to support those who are combating the poachers.
All questions and answers from now on need to be extremely brief, irrespective of how distinguished those who put the questions are or judge themselves to be. I call Mr Alex Salmond.
When the right hon. Gentleman was a columnist, he was supportive of some aspects of President Putin’s policies. When he became Foreign Secretary, he became vehemently hostile to Russian policy. After his visit to New York, we are told he is pursuing a twin-track policy, which means that we will be supportive and hostile at the same time. At what time during his visit to Trump Tower did he decide that duplicity was the best policy?
I really must ask the right hon. Gentleman to go back and look at what I said previously. I have never been supportive of the policies of President Putin in Syria. Quite frankly, I do think it is important to understand that Russia is doing many bad things—if we look at what they have done on cyber-warfare and what they are doing in the western Balkans, there is no doubt that they are up to no good—but it is also important for us to recognise, and I think he will find that this is exactly what I said a few years ago, that there may be areas where we can work together, and that is what we should do.
My hon. and learned Friend asks a very fundamental question, because in a sense there is a cold war feel to the relationship between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, yet the doctrinal difference is actually almost insignificant. Both agree on the absolute centrality of the Prophet Muhammad, but the big issue is about the succession—whether the successor was Ali, the cousin and son-in-law, or Abu Bakr, the father-in-law. She is absolutely right that if the two sides can be reconciled, prosperity and security will improve, and I hope Britain can have a role to play. [Interruption.]
As I have just been advised by our most esteemed procedural expert in the House, we do not need a lecture in each of these cases. We need a pithy question and a pithy reply.
On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary met Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, a man whose website is synonymous with anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, the hero worship of Vladimir Putin and the promotion of extremist far-right movements across the world. May I ask the Foreign Secretary how he and Mr Bannon got on?
I do not wish to embarrass any member of the incoming Administration by describing the friendliness or otherwise of our relations. What I can say is that the conversations were genuinely extremely productive. There is a wide measure of agreement between the UK and the incoming Administration about the way forward, and we intend to work to build on those areas of agreement.
I am grateful for that question because it is important for the House to keep in mind the importance of the sanctions. The support for sanctions against Russia—for instance, over Ukraine—is not as strong as it should be in other parts of the European Union, and the UK is in the lead in keeping the pressure on.
The short answer is that my enthusiasm is nothing compared with the enthusiasm of our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. We will get a good deal, but it has to be a good deal for the UK as well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We did not learn the lessons, or the lessons were not learnt, in 2013 when there was a failure to listen to the moderate Sunni voices. That is what allowed Daesh to develop. Extremism is flourishing across north-east Africa and, indeed, the middle east, and will do so unless we engage with those moderates to ensure that they are brought to the table. That is why planning in places such as Mosul and Aleppo needs to be done at once, before the guns fall silent.
I am sure the House will forgive me if I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we do not discuss intelligence matters or their operational nature.
Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Palestinian authorities did not issue a prompt condemnation of the murder of Israeli soldiers over the weekend? Does he believe that the Palestinian Authority’s glorification of violence, refusal to recognise Israel and refusal to meet face to face is one of the major obstacles to a two-state solution?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point because it is absolutely true. Yes, resolution 2334 has been characterised as a settlements resolution. As I have explained to the House, it also contains some valuable language about terrorism. But there can be no lasting solution for that part of the world unless there is better leadership of the Palestinians and unless they renounce terror.
Not in so many words, but I have had the opportunity to congratulate President-elect Barrow. I believe absolutely that the previous President, who has been there since 1994, should recognise the will of the Gambian people and step down.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary what agreement there will be on policy towards Russia between the British Government and the new US Administration, given the new Administration’s indebtedness to President Putin through the leaking and hacking of emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman?
I make no comment on the electoral efficacy of the hacking of the DNC emails, except to say that it is pretty clear that it did come from the Russians. The point that we have made to the incoming Administration, and indeed on Capitol Hill, is just this: as I said earlier, we do think that the Russian state—the Putin Kremlin—is up to all sorts of very dirty tricks, such as cyber-warfare, but it would be folly for us further to demonise Russia or to push Russia into a corner, so a twin-track strategy of engagement and vigilance is what is required.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the middle east process. Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry failed in their efforts to get a bilateral agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Is it not now time to go to the international sphere, in the sense of the Arab initiative originally introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002?
The only way forward is for both sides to get to the negotiating table and recognise that a two-state solution is the way forward.
Does the Foreign Secretary share the concern on both sides of the House at President Erdogan’s latest power grab, following the retrograde steps he has already taken to Islamise a formerly secular Turkish society?
It is very important to recognise that the Turkish state—the Turkish Government—was the victim of a violent attempted coup in which hundreds of people died. It was entirely wrong of many Governments in the EU instantly to condemn Turkey for its response rather than to see that, again, there is a balance to be struck. Turkey is vital for our collective security; the last thing we need to do is to push it away and push it into a corner.
Last month, a UK Government spokesperson told Sky News that the Government are
“aware of reports of an alleged airstrike on a school”
“using UK-supplied weapons and are seeking further information regarding the incident.”
Can the Minister update us today on progress on that?
I know the hon. Lady follows these events very closely. I do not know the details of that particular Sky report—I have not seen it. I am very happy to meet her outside the Chamber to discuss it. I can give her a reply in due course, or I can give her a public reply in the now much-vaunted and much-publicised debate we are having on Yemen on Thursday.
Since 1953, the Foreign Office has supported Marshall scholarships to help young Americans to study in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend continue to support this increasingly important aspect of the special relationship?
The Government, of course, support the Marshall scholarship programme. It is another example of Britain’s soft power, and I am delighted to say that we have made additional funding available to enable 40 scholars to study at UK universities from September this year.
The Foreign Secretary and Ministers will be aware of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, economically and politically. What role can the British Government play over the next six months or so, which will be crucial to the people of Zimbabwe?
The hon. Lady knows the country very well indeed. Obviously, our relationship has been strained because of the current leadership. She speaks about six months, and who knows what will happen in those six months, but we are working closely with the neighbouring countries to provide the necessary support for the people, who are suffering more than ever before under the current President’s regime.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that improving trust and intelligence sharing with Egypt is vital to our security efforts in Libya? Given that we have heard no security concerns over the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, does he agree that resuming flights there would be a good place to start and would have important security dividends for UK citizens here?
It is, of course, true that the loss of UK tourist business to Egypt has been very severe, and we are working hard with our Egyptian counterparts to get the reassurances that we need to restore those flights, which we all want to happen.
Earlier this morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said that the Government only support UN Security Council resolutions when they know they can be enforced. So, if the Israelis continue with the settlement programme, what steps will the Foreign Secretary take to enforce resolution 2334?
The hon. Lady will know very well that we are working with our international counterparts to persuade both sides to get to the table, to persuade the Palestinians to drop their violence and recognise the existence of the state of Israel and show some leadership, and to persuade both sides to understand that a two-state solution is the only way forward. I believe that that is the best thing for the Government to do.
Many of my constituents are concerned that the recent UN vote marks a change in the British Government’s stance towards Israel. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that that is not the case, and that we remain steadfast allies of that beacon of liberalism and democracy in the middle east?
As is well known, the state of Israel is just about the only democracy in that part of the world. It is a free and liberal society, unlike many others in the region. I passionately support the state of Israel. It was very important that, in resolution 2334, the UK Government not only stuck by 30-year-old UK policy in respect of settlements, but underscored our horror of violence against the people of Israel.
Just as a matter of interest—perhaps others are not so interested— does the Foreign Secretary find that his counterparts are somewhat surprised to find a genuine British eccentric holding the position he holds?
I honestly cannot speak for the response of my counterparts. The hon. Gentleman can take this in whichever way he chooses, but all I can say is that there was a wide measure of agreement on both sides of the table on some of the problems that our societies face in America and UK, on the need for some fresh thinking, and on the huge potential of the UK and the US to work together to solve those problems.
I very much doubt that the proposition that the Foreign Secretary is an exotic individual would be subject to a Division of the House.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of my constituent Billy Irving, who is wrongly imprisoned in India. As we await yet another judgment, what are the Foreign Secretary’s plans to get Billy and his colleagues home whatever the outcome? Will the Foreign Secretary reassure us and them that that remains his priority, and that it will not be derailed by his Government’s Brexit bedlam?
Our heart goes out to Billy Irving’s family and all those involved. I raised this matter with the Minister of External Affairs and the Indian Foreign Secretary when I visited India in October. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also raised it with Prime Minister Modi. We are pressing for speedy due process to take place. As the hon. Lady knows, we await the outcome of the appeal process.
My right hon. Friend was an outstanding Mayor of London. During his time, he was the first to champion the City of London and a believer of the value of the single market. Will he assure us that, in his meetings with the incoming Trump Administration, he disabused Wilbur Ross, the incoming Commerce Secretary, of his view that Brexit is a God-given opportunity for London’s commercial rivals to take business from the City?
My right hon. Friend will find that the City of London has been through all sorts of vicissitudes that people prophesied would lead to its extinction. I remember people making exactly the same arguments about the creation of the single currency and about the economic crash in 2008, and the City of London has gone from strength to strength. Canary Wharf alone is now a bigger financial centre than the whole of Frankfurt. By the way, that opinion was shared completely by our friends and counterparts in Washington. I have no doubt that the commercial and financial dominance of the City of London in this hemisphere will continue.
Further to the question of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), my constituent Ray Tindall and the other men of the Chennai Six, who are in prison for a crime they did not commit, will be looking for a little bit more than thumb-twiddling and warm words. Does the Minister have any concrete proposals to get those innocent men home within the next six months?
As I have said, we take this matter incredibly seriously. We have raised it on a number of occasions and will continue to do so. We cannot seek to interfere in the legal process of another country, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing absolutely everything we can to urge a speedy process and to make sure the men get help in prison.
Finally, a cerebral and immensely patient Member of the House who is unfailingly courteous at all times, Jeremy Lefroy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. What support are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the welcome moves towards a settlement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
I had the pleasure of visiting the country last year. I was very concerned about the delay to the elections, of which my hon. Friend will be aware, and President Kabila not recognising that his time was up. I am pleased that political dialogue has now been developed between the Government and the Opposition, and that we are now on a programme to ensure elections happen in 2017. I will return to the country very soon to make sure that is enforced, and to offer our support and assistance to this important country.
I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. This Question Time session probably enjoys a greater demand than any other, but I am afraid supply is finite.
Two hours, the Minister chunters from a sedentary position. I certainly would not object to that. He is a member of the Executive. If the Government want to table such a proposition, I think there might be very substantial support for it. I try to expand the envelope, but there are limits: if we do not have a longer session people will have to be briefer in questions and answers.
We now come to the urgent question. I call John McDonnell.
I’d support the two hours, Mr Speaker.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement on the National Audit Office report, published today, on the Government’s management of the HMRC Estate.
HMRC’s transformation plans will allow it to become a more efficient and effective tax collector fit for the digital age. HMRC’s large estate is ageing and not delivering the best value for money for the taxpayer. The NAO has confirmed that savings of £80 million per year will be made by 2025.
The size of HMRC’s estate has been reducing since 2006, and the NAO report published today shows that HMRC has made some effective changes since 2010, while reducing staff numbers by a quarter and saving the taxpayer over £350 million pounds. However, HMRC wants to keep up the momentum to provide a better service at a reduced cost. As it announced in 2015, that means taking forward big reforms of how the estate works, which will see over 170 small offices consolidated into 13 larger regional offices, an approach which is used across government. This brings with it a whole range of advantages, from efficiently sharing resources and quality digital infrastructure to better support and career opportunities for the staff who can more effectively share expertise. For the public, what this really means is a better, more modern service run by fewer staff costing about £80 million a year less by the time the changes take effect.
The report out today suggests that the costs of bringing about this transformation are likely to be higher than was first forecast. Of course, certain aspects of the programme could not be definitively made at the start. There is a wide range of factors behind that, from rising property costs and changes to the programme, for example to help staff to adjust and to ensure a smooth transition for customers, so the programme costs are of course updated to reflect that. I therefore thank the NAO for its timely report.
The strategy to modernise the service that HMRC provides to taxpayers is the right approach and reflects the way taxpayers now interact with it. It is a plan to say goodbye to the days of the manual processing of tasks that can be done more easily with today’s technology. In short, we remain fully committed to taking forward the changes to the HMRC estate that will help us to bring a better tax service for the people of this country.
In reality, the report is damning of the Government’s plans to close 170 offices. We on the Opposition Benches have warned consistently that the Government’s proposals will have a detrimental impact on HMRC’s ability to provide advice and to tackle tax evasion and tax avoidance.
The NAO report confirms our fears. First, it called the original office closure plan unrealistic. The estimates of the costs of the move increased by 22%, which is £600 million extra. It forecasts a further 5,000 job losses and finds that the costs of redundancy and travel have tripled from £17 million to £54 million. It also says that HMRC cannot demonstrate how its services can be improved and has not even produced a clear programme business case for the planned closures.
As we predicted, this is an emerging disaster. Even the Government now accept that there is a tax gap of at least £36 billion, yet these plans will do nothing but hinder the effort to tackle tax evasion and avoidance. Some 73% of the staff surveyed said that the plans would undermine their ability to provide tax collection services, while 50% said they would actually undermine their ability to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance. Will the Minister now call a halt to the planned office closures, end the job cuts at HMRC and come back with a realistic plan to resource HMRC fully in its vital tax collection role?
The shadow Chancellor is right that HMRC’s tax collection role is vital. At the heart of many of the changes made since the original estimates and planning for this part of the transformation are measures to better support staff and put more things in place to support their move. It is interesting that he makes no mention of the potential benefit to staff of the move. Of course, some will not be able to make the move, but the vast majority will live within an hour’s journey and will be supported, including through the one-to-one conversations which happen with staff ahead of any move.
The shadow Chancellor’s comments do not accurately represent what the NAO said. It has actually recognised that HMRC’s move to regional centres is central to its strategic aim to increase tax revenue, improve customer service and make cost savings. The move to regional centres has never been just about cost savings or buildings; it is partly about how people work in those buildings. Ultimately, we will have an opportunity to change how we work. In 1982, my first job after leaving school was in an old tax office. Some of those offices are over 100 years old and some have not changed since I was working in one as a school leaver. It is absolutely right that we commit to making sure that staff can work in a modern environment.
All staff will be offered the chance to move, and for those who cannot, there will be one-to-one, bespoke support, and some of them will go to other Departments, so some of the comments we have heard are absolute nonsense. [Interruption.] There is a lot of chuntering from the Opposition Front-Bench team, but they are not listening to the facts and they have not read what the NAO actually said. This is a major programme, and it is right that the overall costs be periodically reviewed, but HMRC is not looking to make any significant changes to its overall strategy. We want its staff to work closer together in regional centres and specialist sites in a modern, flexible and high-quality working space.
Lastly, on tackling tax evasion and the tax gap, no Government have done more than this one. It is absolute nonsense to say that HMRC’s capacity to tackle those two issues is diminished; far from it—the UK’s tax gap is one of the smallest in the world and at its lowest ever level. In the summer Budget, we gave HMRC an extra £800 million to tackle tax evasion, and it has done that extremely well, such that once again we have reached record levels of compliance with regards to money from anti-tax evasion measures. I therefore rebut entirely the shadow Chancellor’s points in that regard.
Will my hon. Friend take it from me that in my experience dealing with constituents and corporations in my constituency who have made inquiries to HMRC, its response times and how it handles cases have improved immensely over the past few years, and that in respect of its seeking to deal with tax evasion and avoidance, there is absolutely no doubt that it has raised its game considerably?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, and I am glad that he has put on the record his appreciation for staff. He is absolutely right. In the past six months, call waiting times have averaged less than five minutes and customer service has improved to the best levels in years. This is something that HMRC management keep under constant review. It is absolutely right that we seek to provide the best service possible, but we cannot do that in un-modernised offices. For example, we must recognise that investing in the most up-to-date digital infrastructure is unrealistic across an estate of more than 150 offices. We need to bring people together in an environment that is fit for the future both for staff and customers.
The NAO has actually said that
“HMRC’s original plan has proved unrealistic”,
“suitable property will not be available…within the time frame set out”,
“HMRC now estimates it may lose up to 5,000 staff”,
which will require recruitment while it simultaneously carries out redundancies, and that the plans were
“over-optimistic…and carried too high a risk of disruption”.
These are very similar warnings to those expressed in respect of the outturn failings in 2009 of the strategic transfer of the estate to the private sector—STEPS—programme. Given how clear and stark the warnings are, would it not make more sense to pause this, rip it up and start again?
No, that is not right; I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. The factors driving the programme—the reasons we want to transform HMRC into the most modern and digital tax authority in the world—all still stand. We have always been open about the fact that this is an ambitious transformation, and as with any major programme, a number of which are running at the same time, it is right that it be looked at regularly. Of course HMRC will respond in detail to the NAO report, but the principle driving the plan stands good, for all the reasons I have talked about—it is better for customers, better for staff and better for the taxpayer.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the STEPS programme, but the NAO report noted how much better HMRC had been managing it. There were problems with the programme, which was initiated under the last Labour Government, but the report compliments HMRC on the way it is managing it and got some of the private finance initiative costs under control, and so on. It is right that we constantly re-evaluate programmes of this importance, but I do not agree with the thrust of his question. It is also worth noting that while Scotland accounts for 8% of the UK’s population, 12% of the HMRC workforce will remain there, so Scotland remains a very important part of the HMRC estate.
It is good to hear the Minister make the point that the telephone answering is improving. On the Public Accounts Committee, we have been looking at this on an ongoing basis, and we have probably had more information on it from MPs across the House than on any other issue. We support the programme, but with the digital world moving forward will the Minister set out how we will make sure that the staff on the end of the phone have the right qualifications to support businesses and individuals who need information?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Given her membership of the PAC, it is important and nice to have them on the record. Much work has gone into improving customer service levels. At the moment, they are very good and improving and remain a key focus. She made a point about supporting staff with training and so on. That will be much easier in regional centres. For example, at the moment we have a large number of offices, and owing to the nature of the tasks being undertaken and the number of people working in them, it is not possible to provide easy and effective training programmes or to plan career progression in the way it is when a large number of people are concentrated together. As is reflected across both Government and the private sector, we can do a lot more for people when we can concentrate a different range of skills so that people have a chance to plot a career within the same office. That goes to the heart of how we intend to improve the service to customers.
The trouble with all this talk of regional centres is that this is exactly what has happened in every other Department. In constituencies such as mine and across the whole of the south Wales valleys, it feels as if the Government have just said, “No, we’re not interested. Everything’s going to Cardiff. Forget about it.” May I urge the Minister to think again? The Treasury and the whole of Government have a social responsibility, particularly to areas such as Rhondda and the valleys, to ensure they have a local presence.
I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the motivation. As I said, there is a balance to be struck between the service to customers, how we support staff and how we serve the wider taxpayer interest. Yes, across Government there has been a move towards more modern and—in some cases, perhaps—more centralised services. There is a balance to be struck, but there is a robust programme of support in place for staff who cannot move, and to help them extra money has been put into the transitional costs associated with transport, for example. HMRC is working with other Government Departments to make sure that where we can, we take advantage of the high skills people have, to move them to other Departments where their skills can be used.
The Minister noted that there were some compliments in the NAO report on how HMRC has moved to a more realistic plan for this project, and is now managing the existing estate better than before. Will she set out how HMRC will build on this progress to make sure that the skills are enhanced as this complicated project goes forward?
Of course. My hon. Friend is right to say that. As I have said, HMRC will respond in detail to the NAO report, and I will be pleased to discuss that with him. One of the NAO’s recommendations is precisely what he has drawn our attention to—that there should be an iterative process of learning from every part of the move, ensuring for example that experience from the first regional centre to be opened is reviewed and lessons learned from it. This is a long programme of change; it is not an overnight transformation. It is absolutely right to review it at every stage so that we learn as we go along.
You are proposing to close a very modern office in Workington. The NAO report says that the average distance between offices that are being closed and the regional offices is 18 miles, with most within 50 miles. However, Workington has been paired with Liverpool, which are 142 miles apart according to Google maps—a journey of three hours. To me, the situation is completely unacceptable. The workers in Workington cannot transfer down to Liverpool, and I cannot see how they can be reskilled to work in equivalent jobs in Workington. I would love to know your suggestions on that. As I say, this is just unacceptable.
I have no plans to close that office. To my very great life impoverishment, I have to admit that I am not aware of having been to Workington to date, and I certainly would not take it upon myself to presume to close something that I have not even visited.
I think we all recognise that you are busy enough, Mr Speaker, without taking charge of HMRC’s regional transformation programme as well.
The hon. Lady has written to me about this matter, and I have said that I am happy to meet her to discuss it, perhaps allowing more time for discussion. She has cited the average figure that appears in the NAO report, but we of course accept that the move is going to be much less easy for some people, perhaps even impossible. We will support those people. With a view to providing suitable jobs in other Government Departments, the HMRC HR department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions. A lot of work is being done to support staff into other jobs, but we accept that not everyone will be able to move. I have written to the hon. Lady once on her specific points about Workington, but I will write to her again about what is happening in her area.
HMRC is planning to have a regional centre in Leeds, but it has not identified a site, and any site proposed will be incredibly expensive, crowding out private sector investment in Leeds. Just a few miles up the road in the Bradford district, a site is readily available, and it would be much cheaper for the taxpayer than it would be in Leeds, and it would help the local economy in the Bradford district as well. I urge the Minister to use this NAO report to pause, look again at these proposals and make sure that a regional centre in Yorkshire is not in Leeds, but in the Bradford district where many people in HMRC already work.
As my hon. Friend knows, I am familiar with all the localities that he mentioned. I know that Bradford was disappointed not to be the site chosen for the regional centre, but it is equally true that with a railway station in Shipley, my hon. Friend’s constituents are merely 10 minutes from Leeds on the train. I hope that it will prove to be a realistic project for his constituents to move to Leeds if they want to. I shall reflect on what my hon. Friend said and will write to him if I can provide further detail. HMRC has provided detailed responses, explaining the criteria used to select locations and thus explaining why Leeds was chosen over Bradford. I know that there has already been a good deal of correspondence on this issue.
The Minister will be aware that some HMRC offices have already closed in Northern Ireland, not only causing consternation to the staff who have had to be redirected to Belfast, but preventing accessibility for local businesses and ordinary people who are trying to deal with their tax affairs. In view of the NAO report, will the Minister please pause any further closures, as they simply cause chaos and upheaval?
I am not sure that I recognise the description of chaos and upheaval, given what I have said about improved average customer service times at the moment. There are good standards now, which does not align with what the hon. Lady said. I recognise that changes of this scale can be extremely difficult for the people affected by them, but I would like to pick up one point about how people interact with HMRC. We live in a different world from the one that obtained when the estates were last looked at on this sort of scale. The vast majority of taxpayers, both individuals and businesses, interact with HMRC digitally or on the phone. We have to adjust to the way the world is now rather than what it was like some decades ago.
I want my constituents to get the best possible service from HMRC, particularly when they have a problem and things go wrong. Given that HMRC has about 58,000 employees, will my hon. Friend at least consider the feasibility of HMRC allocating at least one named employee for every constituency, so that each MP has someone permanently in place to contact within HMRC?
We have had the experience of working through recent challenges in respect of the Concentrix contract and the fallout from it. I have looked personally at how HMRC interacts with Members of Parliament. I have not looked at the specific idea that my hon. Friend mentions, but I shall reflect on what he said. I am looking to ensure that, as colleagues found while resolving issues, the resources allocated to MPs were effective in helping them to get results quickly in some of the most difficult cases. I shall reflect further on my hon. Friend’s points because I want to make sure that HMRC serves colleagues of all parties as effectively as possible.
This modernisation and improvement programme in Northern Ireland has led to the closure of offices in towns that already have high unemployment, to frustration among people who have difficult cases and to a loss of expertise, especially in border areas where criminal evasion of tax is widespread. How does that fit in with the Government’s commitment to spread economic growth, to provide better service to customers and to reduce tax evasion?
It is worth noting on the broader point that employment in our countries is at an all-time high. We would always want to retain expertise within HMRC, but there will always be people leaving any large organisation and people being recruited and trained up simultaneously. I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said earlier: it will be much easier to support people who want to join the organisation to become highly skilled and professional and to plot a career in HMRC, so that they can have long-term, fulfilling careers in a variety of different areas, under the new modernised structures.
The Minister has said a number of times that there will be a better service for customers in these regional centres, but I note that the NAO report says that HMRC has not demonstrated that. Can she reassure me on how she has reached the conclusion that the service will be better, more efficient and more effective for customers?
I did note that point, but I am not sure that I agree with how the hon. Lady has expressed what I said. Let me provide one example. Many HMRC local offices are in very old buildings. As I said, some are over 100 years old and many are from the 1950s. Then there is the latest digital infrastructure, and many more taxpayers are interacting with HMRC digitally, through more than 7 million personal tax accounts. As anybody knows, it is difficult to bring an old office up to modern standards with the right digital infrastructure. If we want to make sure that staff can make the best use of modern computer systems and put them at the service of customers who increasingly interact digitally, it is much better to do so in newer buildings that have been bought for the purpose and where we have planned that sort of arrangement from the start.
The Minister speaks of saving money and of modern offices. The HMRC offices at the Pyramids business park in my constituency are high-tech and high-end, with highly skilled staff, and there is plenty of further space. It would save the Government £70 million to keep that estate and develop it. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the details and perhaps consider retaining the hub in West Lothian, rather than moving it to a city centre where rents will be more expensive?
I have had a number of conversations with, in particular, some of the hon. Lady’s colleagues who are based in Scotland, and I am, of course, always happy to meet any parliamentary colleague to discuss anything. No change in the plan for that regional centre is envisaged, but some of the challenges relating to West Lothian have been brought to my attention.
Sheffield staff are already commuting considerable distances to their HMRC office because of previous office closures. Does the Minister not agree that HMRC can ill afford to lose 5,000 experienced staff at this time?
Given that HMRC has struggled to find suitable property in the suggested locations, may I ask the Minister to reassess the proposed locations on grounds of cost, ability to retain experienced staff and impact on customer service? Will she reassess them on the basis of evidence, rather than simply deciding which location in each region is easiest for Whitehall civil servants to get to?
I am pretty certain that that was not the rationale for the choice of locations. Very careful discussions took place. I will, of course, read the report and reflect on it, as will we all, and, as I have said, HMRC intends to respond in detail, but a great deal of thought went into choosing the regional centres. I acknowledge that some people will not be able to move because the distances will be too far to travel, and we certainly want to retain experienced staff. Those who will not be able to move will have a number of different levels of experience, but if we can retain their skills and ensure that they are at the service of the taxpayer through other Departments, we will obviously try to do so.
HMRC Porthmadog is earmarked for closure, and in all likelihood the Welsh language unit will be centralised in Cardiff, four hours away. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how these services can best be provided in a region where 71% of the population can speak Welsh and where Welsh is the working language of a county administration?
We have considered that issue, and we intend to work on it with other Departments. As I have said, I am always happy to have a conversation with colleagues—[Interruption]—not in Welsh! I will write to the hon. Lady, because the Welsh language has been raised with me before, and I know that it has been thought about in some detail.
It is not very often that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and I find ourselves on the same page, but on this occasion we certainly are, because he made an excellent point in defending Bradford. In closing offices in that city, HMRC would be turning its back on a skilled and diverse workforce, access to leading universities and one of the best MBA programmes in the United Kingdom, all of which would help it to achieve its aim. Will the Minister therefore reconsider and take a more sensible approach?
I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that, as a Bradford girl, I would never do anything to harm Bradford. Equally, however, as a Bradford girl, I make the extremely short commute between Bradford and Leeds many times a year. I do not think we would wish to lose any experienced staff or expertise from the Bradford office, but the commute from Bradford to Leeds is possibly one of the shortest that any transferring HMRC staff would have to make.
Obviously, there will be an economic impact on many towns and cities that will lose their largest employer, but has an equality impact assessment been made in respect of staff, particularly those with disabilities, who have been asked to move 100 miles away?
Does the Minister not believe that the loss of local expertise will apply not only to tax evasion but to non-compliance with the national minimum wage, which, according to statistics, is on the increase in this country?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we announced more investment in tackling non-compliance with the national minimum wage in the autumn statement. In fact, activity in that regard has been stepped up considerably, as I said when answering a parliamentary question this week. He may wish to refer to Hansard for the statistics. As for his wider point about losing expertise, of course we do not want to do that. We want to do as much as we can to help people to move, because it takes a long time for them to reach their highest level of skill, and we want to retain them when they are at the peak of their professionalism. I will write to him about the equality impact assessment.
Will the Minister think again about the location of the Wales tax centre? Will she consider siting it not in Cardiff but in the Swansea Bay city region, where property prices and other costs are lower, urban deprivation is much lower in European Union terms and skills are abundant because we have two universities? That was the logic of siting the headquarters of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. As the biggest urban footprint in Wales, we need all the support we can get, and it is very costly in Cardiff.
The hon. Gentleman has neatly illustrated the challenge involved in deciding on locations as part of such a programme. He has made the case for Swansea, but other Members have made the case for their areas. It is always necessary to assess against a set of objective criteria, because every area will rightly have its advocates in Parliament.
Is the Minister aware that it will be feared throughout the United Kingdom, but particularly in Northern Ireland, that a policy that the Minister has presented as regionalisation will actually become centralisation and that a very small number of offices with a large number of employees will not adequately service the needs of the community?
Of course I am aware of that, but at the heart of HMRC’s wider transformation programme, which will enable it to become the best digital tax authority in the world, is a desire to do more for customers: to collect more tax, to serve people better and to bear down constantly on customer waiting times. Indeed, all HMRC’s programmes—not just the estates transformation programme—are designed to achieve that end.
Does the Minister accept that the closures will have a devastating impact on some communities, that £150 million less will be available to tackle tax avoidance as a result of HMRC’s failure to plan the move properly and that HMRC is even less effective at saving money than at collecting it from slippery global corporations?
I think that, for the most part, what the right hon. Gentleman has said is just a political points-score. The facts simply do not bear it out. Since 2010, HMRC has secured more than £130 billion in additional compliance revenues, and in 2014-15, as I said earlier, the United Kingdom’s tax gap fell to its lowest-ever level of 6.5%.
In Wales, the facts are that the Government are creating one national centre in Cardiff, the most expensive site in the country; that the office in Wrexham is not small, given that it employs 350 people; and that the alternative site proposed by HMRC is in Liverpool, but that has not yet been identified. This is a shambolic policy. It is ill-conceived, and it is being badly implemented. The Minister should listen to my colleagues from Wales—she has heard from many of them today—and reconsider the policy, because it is very bad indeed.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms but cannot agree with the thrust of his points. HMRC will respond in detail to this report. This is a programme over a period of time and we will learn from each move. I do not recognise the description the hon. Gentleman just gave, but I do understand the point made, especially about some of the larger offices, and I realise that until the site in Liverpool is identified things are a bit more unsettling for his constituents who work in the Wrexham office than they might otherwise be.
Cumbernauld tax office already ticks all the boxes in terms of what HMRC apparently seeks in a regional centre: it is the right size and has experienced staff and an excellent location. So what on earth is the point of closing it, disrupting staff and damaging communities?
I have had a number of conversations specifically about the Cumbernauld site, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail, but there are a lot of different factors that go into choosing where to centre, some of which I touched on in my response to the urgent question. Inevitably, I cannot touch on them all, but much of this will come out in our response to the NAO report.
I think that the Minister would be outraged if people living in villages, towns and small cities all suddenly stopped paying tax, yet suddenly our civil service is being centralised in a few cities. Please will she reconsider these points? This is totally outrageous for people in north Wales.
I am not entirely sure I recognise the point being made. Most of our taxpayers, whether businesses or individuals, now interact with HMRC on the phone or digitally. The number of people who make personal visits, and expect to be able to make a personal visit to a local office, is dramatically lower than a generation or two ago. It is right that we pursue this modernisation programme, but it is also right, as the NAO has reminded us in this timely report, that we review the programme at every stage to make sure we are getting everything right and we learn from each iteration.
I am sorry, but I have to disagree with the Minister on customer service, having seen my wife wait for half an hour for someone at HMRC to answer the phone over Christmas and given that a previous NAO report has shown that three in 10 people give up before being answered, as the average waiting time is 47 minutes before somebody picks up the phone. As the Minister will know, this was only resolved when HMRC recruited an additional 2,500 members of staff to deal with this crisis at the end of 2015. Is she confident, even though an NAO reports says that for every pound saved by this change £4 will go on telephone bills, that it will not cause a decline in customer service?
The focus on customer service is vital. At the heart of the wider transformation programme, not just the estate transformation programme, is the desire both to make sure HMRC is the most effective tax collector that it can be and to deal with customer service. So that is central to all the questions I ask of HMRC and it asks of itself.
On the specific point, I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s wife waited for that long. I am concerned about the number of people who wait so long. Although they are a small proportion of the customers who ring HMRC, because of the large numbers who do so, it is still quite a lot of people, and it is an issue I have specifically been discussing with senior HMRC customer service managers, with a view to addressing it further.
Given that the Department for Work and Pensions is also conducting an estate review and is threatening to close eight job centres in Glasgow, what discussions is the Minister having with ministerial colleagues about the cumulative impact of the Government’s shrinking of their estate? What impact is that going to have? How many HMRC employees are going to find themselves without a job and without a local job centre to go to?
The last question is difficult to answer because ultimately individuals will decide what is right for them at the time when the facts of a possible move are known. A great deal of support is being put in place to help them either make the choice about moving or move to other jobs. I have had the chance to speak not just to managers managing this programme, but people affected by it on the frontline, when some of them attended an event in London a few months ago. The HMRC human resources department is working closely with the DWP because there are some opportunities for people to move between Departments. However, on the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s local office, I am afraid it is not easy to give an answer until more is known about what the actual move would be and the numbers affected.
The vast majority of staff in the HMRC office in Enniskillen in my constituency will be closer to two hours’ journey time from the proposed new location than one hour. Does the Minister not see merit in the NAO report suggesting she should step back from the proposals?
As I have said, it is the nature of responding to an urgent question that one has not had a chance to look at the whole report and reflect on it, but HMRC will of course respond to it. Its chief executive is coming to the Public Accounts Committee fairly imminently and I imagine this is likely to be raised by the Committee. Of course we will look at this report—it is important, and we will look at what it says—but the central reasons that drive these plans still stand: modernising our estate, providing a service to the customer that reflects modern life and making sure the working environment for staff and the career progression open to them are the best they can be.
Northern Ireland: Political Developments
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland.
As the House will be aware, yesterday Martin McGuinness submitted his resignation as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. This also means that the First Minister, Arlene Foster, also ceases to hold office, although she is able to carry out some limited functions. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2007, the position is clear: should the offices of First and Deputy First Minister not be filled within seven days from Mr McGuinness’s resignation, it falls to me as Secretary of State to set a date for an Assembly election. Although there is no fixed timetable in the legislation for me to do that, it needs to be within a reasonable period.
In his resignation letter, Mr McGuinness said:
“In the available period Sinn Féin will not nominate to the position of deputy First Minister.”
I am very clear that in the event of the offices not being filled, I have an obligation to follow the legislation. As things stand, therefore, an early Assembly election looks highly likely. I should add that the rules state that, once an election has been held, the Assembly must meet again within one week, with a further two-week period to form a new Executive. Should that not be achieved, as things currently stand I am obliged to call another election. So right hon. and hon. Members should be in no doubt: the situation we face in Northern Ireland today is grave and the Government treat it with the utmost seriousness.
It is worth reflecting on how we have reached this point. The immediate cause of the situation we now face is the fallout from the development and operation of the Northern Ireland renewable heat incentive scheme. Under the scheme launched by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012, which is equivalent to a scheme in Great Britain, businesses and other non-domestic users were offered a financial incentive to install renewable heat systems on their premises. The scheme was finally shut to new applicants in February last year, when it became clear that the lack of an upper limit on payments, unlike in the GB equivalent, meant that the scheme was open to serious abuse. In recent weeks there has been sustained media focus and widespread public concern about how this situation developed.
The renewable heat incentive scheme was, and remains, an entirely devolved matter in which the UK Government have no direct role. It is primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to take the necessary action to address the concerns that have been expressed about it. However, I believe that it is imperative that a comprehensive, transparent and impartial inquiry into the development and implementation of the scheme is established as quickly as possible. In addition, effective action needs to be taken by the Executive and the Assembly to control costs. The RHI scheme has been the catalyst for the situation we now face, but it has also exposed a number of deeper tensions in the relationship between the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. This has led to a breakdown in the trust and co-operation that are necessary for the power-sharing institutions to function effectively.
Over the coming hours and days I will continue to explore whether any basis exists for resolving these issues prior to my having to fulfil my statutory duty to call an election. I have been in regular contact with the leadership of the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, and also with the Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, an Independent Unionist. Yesterday evening I had a round of calls with the main Opposition parties at Stormont. I am also in close touch with the Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan. Immediately after this statement I will return to Northern Ireland, where I will continue to do whatever I can to find a way forward. The UK and the Irish Governments will continue to provide every possible support and assistance to the Executive parties. However, we have to be realistic. The clock is ticking, and an election is inevitable if there is no resolution, despite the widely held view that an election would deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions.
Over recent decades, Northern Ireland’s politicians have rightly earned plaudits from across the globe for their ability to overcome difference and to work together for the good of the whole community. That has required courage and risk on all sides. We are currently in the longest period of unbroken devolved government since the 1960s. This political stability has been hard gained, and it should not be lightly thrown away. In the 14 months since the “Fresh Start” agreement, significant advances have been made in areas such as addressing paramilitarism, supporting shared and integrated education and putting the Executive’s finances on a sustainable footing. This summer’s parading season passed off peacefully, and the long-running dispute in north Belfast has been resolved. We have also been working intensively to build the necessary consensus to bring forward the bodies to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, as set out in the Stormont House agreement.
I am in no doubt that what Northern Ireland needs at this time is strong stable devolved government, not a collapse of the institution. Northern Ireland deserves fair, accountable, stable and effective government. It needs to continue to implement the Belfast agreement and its successors. It also needs to strengthen the economy and to ensure that Northern Ireland responds to the challenges and opportunities presented by EU exit; it needs to build a stronger, shared society in which there is respect for everyone; and it needs to address the legacy of the past in a way that enables Northern Ireland to move forward. We must not put all that at risk without making every effort to resolve differences. We must continue to do all we can to continue building a brighter, more secure Northern Ireland that works for everyone. I therefore urge Northern Ireland’s political leaders to come together and to work together to find a way forward that will be in the best interests of Northern Ireland. I commend this statement to the House.
I wish we did not have to be here for this statement today, but we are. I thank the Secretary of State for giving me notice of his statement. I want to make it clear from the start that we in the Labour party will support him in his endeavours to maintain the political stability in Northern Ireland. Those of us with long memories can remember a time in which people across Northern Ireland did not know the peace that we can see today, and any damage to this peace on our watch should rightly be to our shame. The issues facing Northern Ireland are many. They include the questions of how we deal with Northern Ireland’s past and its legacy; how we help the many people living in poverty; and how we handle our impending exit from the European Union, bearing in mind that Northern Ireland has the UK’s only land border with the EU. That will be a huge issue in any Brexit negotiation, and we are going into this election period just weeks before the Government sign off on article 50.
Any divisions now will be most damaging for Northern Ireland, when we should all be focusing on coming together to combat the common problems facing us all. This impasse does not help victims or families, and it does not help the economy. For those reasons, all of us in this House must come together, put aside partisan concerns and try to support those in Northern Ireland in order to maintain an enduring and peaceful devolution settlement.
The issues surrounding the RHI scheme have reached an impasse after many weeks of developments and, as the Secretary of State said, we might now be moving towards an election. That election would see constituencies reduced from six to five seats, and as we deal with the many challenges facing Northern Ireland, we could see the loss of many diverse voices that could have benefited the Assembly, which has been together only since the beginning of last year. The election could even deliver a similar result to that seen in 2016, and we would then be back at square one with the underlying issue unresolved. That could result in an even more polarised position than the one we face now.
If we have an election, what will it be fought on? Will it be fought on who can deliver the best outcome for the Northern Ireland economy and for its schools and hospitals? Will it look forward to progress or look backwards to division? With so much at stake, not least the institutions themselves, surely it is time for moderation. Lines in the sand are not what are needed. From the feedback that we are getting from people on the ground in Northern Ireland, I do not believe that the population there want an election, and certainly not so soon after the last one. Is that really what people want?
This is not just about us; it is about the world. The world is watching this. There is a huge amount of good will towards Northern Ireland and huge admiration for the success we have seen after decades of despair. People look to the Assembly for a lead, and that is a huge responsibility for the Assembly and for us in this House. People do not want us to fail. They want us all to rise to the hard challenges and work through them. They do not want us just to walk away when things get tough. We know from sad experience that the worst thing that we can do in Northern Ireland is to leave a vacuum. Six weeks of polarised election campaigning will not move the RHI issue forward one inch, but it could push back the real agenda that matters to the people of Northern Ireland on a day-to-day basis. For these reasons, we call on the Secretary of State today to convene a roundtable in Northern Ireland to discuss ways to end this impasse and to help the discussions. I am glad to say that he has engaged with his counterparts in the Irish Government and with politicians in Northern Ireland. Let us all keep at it. Let us not give in to despair.
On the RHI scheme, can the Secretary of State tell us what assessment he has made of the effect the projected overspend will have on the Northern Ireland budget? I thank him again for coming to the House today, and I reiterate that we in the Labour party will do all we can to ensure that the devolved institutions remain, not just for six weeks or six months but for the many years to follow.
I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and for his comments. He underlines the significance of the issues and highlights the importance of having a strong, working, functioning Executive that can take Northern Ireland forward. There is much to be positive about when we look at the jobs that are being created and the incredible businesses that have been established. I always get a really positive sense of that spirit and the belief in what Northern Ireland can and will be. It has a bright future to look forward to.
Clearly we need the parties to come together and to work together, as I have said. The hon. Gentleman underlined that message in his comments. My intent, over this short period, is to continue to engage with the parties and determine what support the UK Government can provide in finding a solution and whether there is a way of pulling back from the current situation if things do not change. I commit to doing everything I can in my role to support that activity.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the costs to the Northern Ireland budget. I know that the Executive have made an estimate of around £490 million over a 20-year period if no mitigation takes place. One of the key issues is to determine what mitigation could be put in place. We need to support any proposals to mitigate the situation in the best interests of taxpayers in Northern Ireland. Certainly we stand ready to work with the Executive to play a role and to assist if necessary, but obviously we must focus, as time is short before I have to consider my responsibility to call an election. Again, that is why we need to work together.
Order. Unsurprisingly, a very significant number of colleagues are seeking to catch my eye. I would like to accommodate most, if not all, of them. My prospects of doing so will be greatly enhanced if colleagues who are customarily addicted to long or multifaceted questions are today able to content themselves with minimal preamble and a simple, pithy inquiry, which I know will enjoy a pithy response from the Secretary of State.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Given that new elections would probably return the parties more or less in the same numbers as they have now, does he agree that repeated callings of elections will not really address the fundamental issue? Do we not therefore need to look closely at how the institutions are actually constructed and formulated so that we can move away from this constant threat of those institutions collapsing or being collapsed?
I welcome the comments of the Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on the need to focus on the issues at hand and on the extent to which an election will change things. Between now and next week, our immediate focus and attention has to be on seeking to establish whether there is a way forward between the parties and on encouraging that. Obviously, various points and questions have been raised, but my responsibility at this time is to seek some form of resolution, to see whether a resolution is possible and to take stock as circumstances develop.
As the Secretary of State alluded to in his statement, this has been coming down the line for a couple of months. Although it is deeply regrettable to see the Assembly stumble, it may need a serious jolt to get it going again. People will have differing opinions about the circumstances of Mr McGuinness’s resignation, but it leaves the Secretary of State with limited room to manoeuvre and leaves Northern Ireland stuck on pause. Can he clarify what steps he is taking to ensures that public confidence remains in the future of the institutions in Northern Ireland?
Can the Secretary of State also assure us that he is taking steps to ensure that democracy remains at the centre of the debate in Northern Ireland? As it seems clear that the relationship in the Executive has broken down and, as he said in his statement, the clock is ticking, and unfortunately it appears unlikely that the parties will get back around the table, is he prepared to face that fact, act quickly and let the people of Northern Ireland get on with choosing who they want to sit in Stormont?
Furthermore, the Secretary of State’s opportunities to affect the direction of Brexit negotiations appear as limited as those of the Scottish Secretary, given that neither is regularly invited into the room. Now that there is no effective Administration at Stormont who can speak up for Northern Ireland in the Joint Ministerial Committee, and remembering that Northern Ireland voted to remain, can he tell us what he is doing to ensure that the interests of the people of Northern Ireland are being looked after when Brexit negotiations are considered?
Finally, will the Secretary of State tell us of his discussion with the leader of the Ulster Unionist party regarding the possibility of suspending the Stormont Assembly until an inquiry into the RHI is concluded? Is he seriously considering that course of action?
One of the primary roles of the UK Government is to provide political stability, and we take those responsibilities very seriously. As I have already indicated to the House, if the time period elapses and the First and Deputy First Ministers are not in place, I have a duty and obligation to move in an appropriate way to call an election. As I have indicated to the House, that is my intent. We will take that approach. The hon. Lady highlights the issue of confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions, and those institutions are why it is incumbent on me to use this period to work with the different parties to see how confidence can be injected. Finding a resolution still remains the best outcome, if such a resolution can be found in the days ahead. That is where my focus will be.
The hon. Lady also highlights the issue of Brexit and speaking up for Northern Ireland. I assure her that that is precisely what I have done and will continue to do. I have regular meetings across Northern Ireland, and I continued to do so even earlier this week, to ensure that that voice is heard. Obviously, having a strong Executive in place and remaining in place is important, and therefore the Executive’s ability to make points to the UK Government underlines the need for us to find a way forward at this time. That will ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard through that mechanism, as well as through the strong voice that I will continue to give.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, although an election looks highly likely, it should be possible to come up with a rigorous, transparent and comprehensive way to investigate the overspend of the RHI that does not have to involve the break-up of the coalition, an early election or the First Minister standing down?
I certainly believe there should be opportunities to find a way forward. I intend to use the days ahead precisely to see whether we can find an agreement. There is a sense of establishing some form of inquiry—I think there are indications from all the parties on ways in which that could happen—and of giving a sense of accountability and confidence in what happens next. I will certainly be using my influence to see what can be done to achieve that.
Does the Secretary of State, and indeed the whole House, accept that we share the deep regret about the highly irresponsible decision of Sinn Féin singlehandedly to cause the collapse of the present Executive and precipitate what he has rightly called a threat to the continuity of the devolved institutions? It is clear from what Sinn Féin have said in their resignation letter that it is not about RHI, because had this continued we would have had an investigation and proposals to mitigate costs. It has happened because, according to them, they are not getting their own way on a whole series of demands, including on rewriting the past and putting more soldiers and security forces in the dock, despite our having just agreed a programme for government in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State and the whole House need to be assured that we want a full investigation into RHI and have proposals to mitigate costs. This must continue and it must not be blocked by Sinn Féin’s actions, which are the ironic outcome of what they are planning to do. Overall, he can be assured that we in the Democratic Unionist party will continue to work with him and other parties to ensure a stable Northern Ireland, moving forward, based on good government. We want to see the institutions continue, and we will do everything in our power to make this process work. We deeply regret that Sinn Féin has decided to walk away.
I welcome any indication of the parties working together, and we need to take this opportunity to establish what arrangements can be put in place. I will therefore continue my discussions with all the political parties in the days ahead. The right hon. Gentleman highlights the issues that are at stake, including the need for continued strong government within Northern Ireland so that those issues can be taken forward. That is certainly what I want to see, and I think it is what the whole House would like to see. We must establish whether there is a way forward to be able to achieve that end.
Many hard-working people across Northern Ireland who just want to get on with their lives will be exasperated by recent events and will welcome the Secretary of State’s measured tone, and indeed the comments of the shadow Secretary of State. In his discussions, will the Secretary of State remind all parties of the huge effort and immensely difficult compromises that brought about the current settlement? Will he stress that the enormously valued long-term benefits must not be jeopardised for short-term political motives?
Again, I thank my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) for all their work over many years to provide stability and security. Hard effort has gone into achieving the gains that we see today, and we need to approach the days ahead with that focus to see what resolution can be found.
If there were to be an election, how does the Secretary of State expect a Government to be formed afterwards? Can he confirm that it is the Government’s intention that under no circumstances will emergency legislation be introduced in this House to introduce or reintroduce direct rule?
It is unhelpful to talk about either the suspension of devolution or direct rule—that is entirely premature—as the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s point and the way in which he made it suggests. If we are not able to reach a resolution in these next seven days, the next stage is for an election to be called. As I have indicated, it is likely that that election will be divisive, difficult and tough, and therefore the ability to reach a resolution at the end of it may be very challenging. That is why we need to use the time we have now to address a number of the points raised.
The Secretary of State’s statement touched on the possibility of an impartial inquiry into the energy deal. Will he give a bit more information about that and the timescale involved? With possible elections looming, will such an inquiry happen quickly?
Ultimately, that will depend on the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland reaching a resolution on it. As I have said, this is entirely within the devolved space, so it is right and proper that a solution should be created within that environment. Equally, this underlines the need for us to get on with it, where possible, to give that sense of assurance, to respond to the concerns that have been raised and to show where accountability may or may not rest, depending on the evidence that emerges.
Dr T.K. Whitaker was one of the constant voices for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, between north and south, and between Ireland and Britain, over his outstanding lifetime in public service. Dr Whitaker died last night, four weeks after his 100th birthday. Will the Secretary of State join me in offering our sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Rostrevor, County Down-born Dr T.K Whitaker, who was a major driver in the creation of modern Ireland? I am reminded of the tribute of Marc Antony to Julius Caesar that he did
“bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus”.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and his reference to the view that a comprehensive inquiry is needed urgently and that there are deep tensions there in the Government? Does he accept that although RHI may have been the last straw, the major factor in the current crisis was the UK vote for Brexit, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland, which has led to considerable political confusion and damage to the Northern Ireland economy? That, in turn, has played a significant part in compounding political difficulties.
I admire the hon. Gentleman enormously, but I hope he will not take it amiss if I say that he really is an incorrigible fellow; I thought that his question had concluded, but I had heard only the first third at that point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the news of the sad passing of T.K. Whitaker. At this time, it is worth reflecting on those who have contributed so much to the advancement of political stability and strength in the economy, which is why I pass on my condolences to all who will mourn his passing and join the hon. Gentleman in that way.
I differ from the hon. Gentleman in not sharing his analysis about Brexit, as there are opportunities for Northern Ireland in terms of what it can be and will be following the UK’s departure from the European Union. I am in no doubt about the special circumstances and factors that are very relevant in this, which is why I will continue to advocate strongly in Northern Ireland’s best interests to get the best possible outcome from these negotiations.
I was going to ask you to grant an urgent question today, Mr Speaker, on the investigations into and prosecutions of Operation Banner veterans, but I withdrew it because of the events of last night. Will the Secretary of State inform the House as to what measures will be taken as a result of this situation to stop this very one-sided judicial process?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. I am absolutely clear as to the huge contribution that our armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary made in seeing the gains within Northern Ireland over recent years. He makes a point about some of the ways in which the system operates at the moment. There is a need for greater proportionality and balance within the system, which is precisely what the Stormont House agreement and the Stormont House bodies will provide. Notwithstanding current events, I remain committed to taking that forward, leading to a public phase in relation to that work. I judge that to be the right next step.
Of course there has to be an independent, transparent investigation into the failings of RHI, but is this not a symptom of a wider problem: a breakdown of mutual trust and respect between the majority parties in Northern Ireland? Leaders do not have to be friends, but given the nature of the constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland there has to be mutual respect and trust. Is this situation not purely a symptom of a breakdown of that? Do we not need to see leaders who are committed to putting personal differences aside in the interests of the institutions?
The hon. Gentleman may have noted that I said in my statement that, obviously, the focus has been on RHI, but other issues have come through from this. Indeed, the letter that Mr McGuinness published yesterday highlighted a number of those themes. That is why I make the point at this time about parties coming together and working together in the best interests of Northern Ireland, given so much opportunity that resides there. There needs to be that focus on the big issues at hand and the best interests of Northern Ireland.
If there are constructive talks in the next few days, will the Secretary of State be willing to consider extending the seven-day period before an election has to be called?
As I have indicated, the law is clear about the seven-day period and I must act within a reasonable period following that. Obviously, if the time period elapses, I will need to consider the position carefully, but I am under that statutory duty and I will follow through on it.
This is not the first time that the institutions have been brought to the brink, and each time leadership is required to bring them back. Principally, that leadership has to come from the parties in Northern Ireland, but there is a leadership role for the Government and the Secretary of State. He has the power under the Inquiries Act 2005 to constitute a public inquiry into the handling of RHI, so will he do so? As he finds his way through this, will he undertake to speak to all parties in Northern Ireland, not just to the DUP and Sinn Féin?
On the last point, I say that I had a round of calls yesterday evening to the main opposition parties in Northern Ireland, and I will continue to maintain that contact with parties at Stormont. On right hon. Gentleman’s point about RHI and the nature of an inquiry, I remain of the view that the best solution is that a way forward should be found within Northern Ireland, taking his point about issues of leadership and showing that the devolved institutions are able to deal with the challenges that exist. That is where my focus will be in the days ahead.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) ably expressed the dismay at the grotesquely partisan and inequitable decision to instruct the Police Service of Northern Ireland to start pursuing retired British service personnel, while amnestied former terrorists freely walk the streets. Will the Government introduce legislation urgently to offer them at least the same protection as the amnestied terrorists undeservedly enjoy?
There are no amnesties. We have been clear on that in relation to the “on-the-runs” scheme, and Lady Justice Hallett’s report concluded in 2014 that these things never amounted to an immunity from prosecution. But my right hon. Friend makes a broader point about the need for a proportionate and balanced approach to legacy to ensure that all aspects are investigated properly, rather than by looking at one side rather than the other. That is precisely the approach that can be taken forward through the Stormont House agreement.
We will have a debate later in Westminster Hall on this very subject. May I say to the Secretary of State that if we are going to have more talks, let us deal with this issue once and for all? It is unacceptable that veterans of the armed forces who served the Crown are waiting on the knock at the door, while the terrorists walk free.
I know the interest that the right hon. Gentleman has taken in this issue of legacy over many, many years. I agree that it is totally unfair that the alleged misdeeds of soldiers and former police officers should be investigated, while perpetrators of terrorist atrocities are ignored and their victims forgotten. It is precisely that part that was reflected in the proportionate, balanced, fair and equitable stance taken in relation to the Stormont House agreement; this is why we have been continuing discussions on that very issue and why I am determined that we will move to a public phase so that we can take that forward.
Had the historical investigations unit not been structured as it was, the Stormont House agreement would have failed and, in all likelihood, so would the Executive in 2014. Now that the Executive have apparently failed, does the Secretary of State share my sadness that the unit was set up as it was and had to investigate chronologically, meaning that servicemen were bound to be the subject of most of its investigations as terrorists sadly do not keep any records, and they certainly do not respond to letters from the Ministry of Defence inviting them to unburden themselves?
The historical investigations unit has not yet been established and the chronological approach that he highlights—that proportionate approach—is not in place. The need for reform and change was reflected in the Stormont House agreement, which is precisely why it is necessary to take this matter forward. Notwithstanding recent events, there is still the opportunity for us to move forward with the parties to ensure that we get the political stability required for these issues to be taken forward, precisely for the cross-community interests that reside around this issue.
Does the Secretary of State not recognise that it is the hubris of the outgoing First Minister that has brought about the humiliation for our institutions of his now having to contemplate the options he has discussed today? Does he also note that Sinn Féin is saying it has called time on the “DUP status quo”, which seems to be how it is now describing the “Fresh Start” agreement? Would not a future real fresh start involve a return to a key precept of the Good Friday agreement: that the First and Deputy First Minister should be jointly elected by the Assembly? They might then both act as though they were accountable to the Assembly that appointed them, which would have avoided these difficulties.
We need to focus on using the time available over the coming days to see what resolution can be found and how people can work together in the best interests of Northern Ireland, because so many issues are at stake. Part of that is about how we move forward and get an inquiry in place so that questions can be answered and so that appropriate accountability, based on the information that comes from that inquiry, is allowed to happen. That is where the focus needs to be.
Like so many Members in the House, I have grave concerns about what seems to be a disproportionate and politically motivated investigation of those who believed that they were just doing their job during Operation Banner. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of those concerns, but he should know that, as an MP representing many serving members of the British Army, I know that this issue is having a measurable effect on current recruitment for our armed forces. Does he agree that this period of uncertainty provides us with an opportunity to set the record straight about what is and is not within the scope of the inquiry?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and for the way in which she makes it. I certainly am struck by the strength of feeling, which is why I underline the points I have made about how we need to see a change in the system. The attention of the state is focused in such a way that there are cases in which people have been murdered as a consequence of terrorist activity but are not being pursued. There are mechanisms that provide for that, and I am intent on taking that forward. Notwithstanding the current issues, that remains a priority.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive remain in post and can continue to govern the Northern Ireland Assembly, as now? Will he therefore exercise maximum discretion to ensure that the objectives of the Stormont House agreement—to secure devolved administration and stop people like me running Northern Ireland as direct rule Ministers—are met?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s viewpoint; he has direct experience from the time he served as a Minister in Northern Ireland. He is right that the relevant Northern Ireland Ministers remain in place in the Executive. Yes, we find ourselves in the current situation, but stability can be maintained through this period. The actions of Ministers in the Executive will clearly be limited, but none the less that stability remains, and we need to continue to work with the Executive at this time to find the solution.
I served twice in Northern Ireland during my time in the Army, so I know a little of the challenge faced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in meeting the expectations of all sides of the community. However, I must echo colleagues who have discouraged him from allowing investigations of British troops. No matter how well designed the investigatory process is, such investigations break the covenant with those who are serving and have served in our armed forces. I encourage my right hon. Friend to block the investigations straightway.
I am not able to intervene; my hon. Friend will understand the rule-of-law issues, the related prosecutorial issues and the other aspects that sit around all this. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the balance of effort and the need to ensure that there are proper investigations that follow the evidence rather than anything else. Reform is needed. The situation as it is at the moment is wrong and has to change, and that is what I am committed to achieving.
I remind the Secretary of State that a previous Prime Minister intervened by writing letters, which got a lot of people off the hook. In the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive—probably for a period of months—will he confirm that he will assume all responsibilities for and powers over how the Brexit negotiations apply to Northern Ireland, and that he will not allow Northern Ireland to be prejudiced in any way by the petulance of those who have walked away from the table?
As I have already indicated, I am very clear about my role and responsibilities in relation to preparations for the triggering of article 50. I have worked over many months to engage with all aspects of society in Northern Ireland, and I continue to do so. I will continue to articulate firmly and clearly, in Whitehall and elsewhere, the best interests of Northern Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations. That process is strengthened by having a functioning, capable Executive who can support that, and work with the UK Government to ensure that we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland from the negotiations.
The Secretary of State will have received correspondence from me regarding my concerns about the investigation of personnel involved in Operation Banner. On the RHI, he said in the House today, “The scheme was finally shut down to new applicants in February last year, when it became clear that the lack of an upper limit on payments, unlike in the GB equivalent, meant the scheme was open to serious abuse.” That is not a clear indication of when his predecessor was first made aware of the abuse. When was that?
The point is that this was a devolved decision. It sits in the devolved space, so the UK Government have not had that sort of direct role, which was why I made the point that I did. The hon. Gentleman’s question is perhaps directed more at some of the points that have been made about an ongoing inquiry and the need to get answers about the decisions that have been made around the RHI scheme. It is that focus that needs to be given.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that over the past 24 hours the real picture has been emerging. This is about a political wish list from Sinn Féin. The whole issue of a conflict of interest for the First Minister is a red herring. When it comes to the legacy issue, will members of Sinn Féin stand aside and resign when we are investigating things from their past?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Stormont House agreement provides an important framework, agreed by all the parties, for how best to respond to issues from the past. My focus remains on seeking to give effect to that in accordance with the terms of the Stormont House agreement. I will continue to encourage parties to work together so that we can establish the political consensus required to achieve that, because of all the really important reasons that have been identified in the House today.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the list of issues that the Deputy First Minister included in his resignation letter yesterday. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that he and Her Majesty’s Government will not be weak in any negotiations with Sinn Féin and will not allow the rewriting of history?
I will certainly not be party to any rewriting of history—I have said that on several occasions in relation to the issues of the past. We need to focus on the time at hand and find a way forward from the very difficult situation we are now presented with so that we can see Northern Ireland moving forward. We need to use this time to bring people together, rather than looking at things that separate and divide. We must use these days to focus on how trust and confidence can be re-established, and work with the parties to do that.
Fundamental to the political institutions in Northern Ireland were the principles of power sharing, partnership and respect for political difference. In the past weeks, we have seen the disappearance and the withering away of the principle of power sharing, foremost by the Democratic Unionist party. Will the Secretary of State ensure in his discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland that those principles are adhered to and that everybody comes back to the principle of power sharing?
The important part of the political settlement is the fact that it works for all communities across Northern Ireland. That is very much at the heart of the agreements that have been reached and, indeed, of the work that needs to continue. That is why I make the point about the need to look at those things that bind people together and how we use this time at hand, rather than taking the risk of what may be a divisive election that seeks to create more difference, which makes that job harder.
The Secretary of State mentioned legacy issues in his statement, so will he give the House some practical details on how he will proceed on that in the hiatus? Will he also answer the point made by the shadow Secretary of State about a roundtable meeting, as that is something to which we all look forward?
On the last point, the most effective thing for me to do is to engage with the relevant political parties and establish the appropriate way in which we can facilitate further discussions to establish whether a way forward can be achieved without the need to call an election. As I have said, I stand absolutely by my commitments under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as to what may be required if we do not fill the positions. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about legacy, I have underlined that I want to establish the necessary political consensus to move forward. The next step is a more public phase of that—I am talking about enabling all the public in Northern Ireland to have their say about the proposals. That is the next step I wish to take.
Does the Secretary of State recall that, just two years ago, Sinn Féin plunged the institutions into crisis over the implementation of welfare reform and cost the Northern Ireland Executive £174 million—not in a projected or an estimated way, but in an actual way? None the less, in a bizarre irony, the decision to resign and to walk out of the Northern Ireland Executive means that there will be no Assembly to pass the mitigation measures that were due from the Stormont House Agreement. Therefore, Sinn Féin will be delivering the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland in six weeks’ time.
I am not sure that I detected a question in that stream of consciousness from the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I hear him now chuntering from a sedentary position, “Does he agree?”
I am in no doubt about the tensions that exist at the moment but, in relation to welfare, I do look back to those days when there were differences. There were very strongly held views, yet a way forward was established. At this time, I call on the parties to reflect on that experience, to work together and to use this time now to find a solution.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s comment that we want to build a stronger shared society in which there is respect for everyone? We all want to see that but, in line with what the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), said, we need to have a completely new look at this. We need to get back to the Belfast agreement so that we do not go round and round in circles, but we must remember that Einstein said that
“insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
I know that the hon. Gentleman has put down some thoughts and I read his article at the weekend. The primary focus now is to see how we can use this short time ahead to work and build together to determine whether we can get through this current difficulty and ensure that we can look to a bright, positive and prosperous Northern Ireland. Ultimately, that is what we are about. That is what is at stake, and it is why I will be doing all that I can to establish whether a way forward can found and a solution created.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to clarify a question that I asked in Foreign Office questions, and to ask your advice on a very serious matter. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), appeared to be confused about what I was referring to in my question. I was in fact referring to his statement on 21 July 2016 confirming that four errors had been made in answer to parliamentary questions and in two statements on the issue of whether the UK Government had assessed alleged violations of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. That issue is very pertinent to debates that are going on in the House this week.
A number of Members and I are concerned that the Government have been attempting to prevent scrutiny on this issue and on what they knew about Saudi Arabia’s activities. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) was told in an answer to an urgent question in September that Ministers had acted immediately on recognising that they had given misleading information to the House. However, a freedom of information request released just before Christmas reveals otherwise. It is important to make you aware, Mr Speaker, that that information was released only after the Information Commissioner intervened and ordered the Government to release the information, viewing that they were in breach of the Freedom of Information Act. This is the only occasion when they have been forced to do that in the past year. The information revealed that not only did the Minister and indeed the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), know that there had been errors in information as early as 28 June 2016, but that they took nearly a month to provide that information to Parliament. They only provided it in a written statement on 21 July 2016. The information makes it clear that they were worried about the views of Parliament and the courts. I believe that this potentially constitutes a breach of the ministerial code and the courtesies of this House, which say that information should be provided in a timely fashion when errors have been made in answers. I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, on how I might pursue the matter and find out whether a breach of the ministerial code has taken place.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for his point of order and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. I must start by saying that the content of Ministers’ answers is the exclusive responsibility of those Ministers. If a Minister comes subsequently to realise that he or she has erred in saying something incorrect or even in giving an inadvertently misleading impression by failing to include in an answer information that should have been divulged, it is the responsibility of that Minister to correct the record.
The hon. Gentleman asks how he can best proceed in this matter. My instinct is that he should, if he feels that there has been a potential breach of the ministerial code, write directly to the Prime Minister, for it is for the Prime Minister who, under our existing constitutional arrangements, decides whether to refer an alleged and claimed breach to the independent adviser on ministerial interests. That therefore is the course that I recommend to him. It may avail him. If it does not, and the matter in his mind and that of others remains unresolved, and he feels that the House is in possession of wrong information that has not been corrected, he can always return to the matter by a variety of means. We will leave it there for now.
Mutual Guarantee Societies
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 provision for the creation of mutual guarantee societies, for their membership by small and medium-sized businesses for the purpose of lending to and by such business and for their operation; and for connected purposes.
I am a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament. I am proud that I am introducing this Bill at the start of the Co-operative party’s centenary year. My thanks also go to Co-operatives UK and Philip Ross for their work in pressing the case for this legislative change.
For 100 years, the Co-operative party has been putting forward the case for more co-operation in our country. Correcting the legislative anomaly of the UK not benefiting from mutual guarantee societies not only is another step towards expanding co-operation but, importantly, would ensure that we increase the level of small and medium-sized enterprise bank lending. Put simply, my Bill seeks to harness the positive power of co-operation in order to increase SME lending in this country. SMEs are vital to the UK economy, and they are major drivers of employment and wealth for the country. Ensuring that they have access to the right type of finance at the right time is essential to make sure that they maximise their growth potential and develop new job opportunities.
An economy that allows for SME investment and a financial system that is prepared to lend to SMEs are essential. House of Commons research shows that SME lending is, for the first time since the global economic crisis, starting to become net positive, but a look at the broader Bank of England “Credit Conditions Survey” for 2016 makes less positive reading. It shows that the availability of credit remains static at best; indeed, the proportion of loan applications from small businesses that were approved showed a decline in quarter 2 and quarter 3 of 2016. The survey also shows that that decline is predicted to continue. That trend must be reversed, and the creation of mutual guarantee societies can be part of the solution.
My Bill would allow for the creation of mutual guarantee societies, which are private guarantee institutions created by beneficiary SMEs. While there are different forms of mutual guarantee society across Europe, they typically share a co-operative or mutual status. That means that the mutual guarantee societies’ capital is provided directly by the SMEs that apply for a loan guarantee in the form of co-operative or mutual shares. Each member has an equal voting right and participates in electing the general assembly and board of directors of the mutual guarantee society. By working together, SMEs can then negotiate a better deal from banks. For the banks, the underpinning of the mutual guarantee provides partial security on otherwise unsecured enterprise lending. The risk is lower, so the price of money is lower. The deal flow is greater and underpinned by peer review from SME members, so access to capital is easier. A guarantee provided by a mutual guarantee society on behalf of the SME to the bank replaces collateral, enabling the bank to grant the loan. The guarantee is a financial commitment by the society to repay a certain percentage of the loan if the SME member cannot honour its payments.
In many ways, this Bill is a no-brainer. Mutual guarantee societies provide access to finance, achieve better credit conditions, provide assessments of companies’ intangible and qualitative elements, serve as a bridge between SMEs and financial entities, and can provide better advice and supervision in financial management. The creation of such societies in the UK would also be good for the banks because, among other aspects, they reduce banks’ overall risk, provide qualitative information for the banks, provide more detailed risk assessment at no cost, and allow them to work with supervised and reliable financial intermediaries. The OECD concluded in 2013 that mutual guarantee schemes
“represent a key policy tool to address the SME financing gap, while limiting the burden on public finances.”
The UK is almost unique in not making use of mutual guarantee societies. In Europe, it is estimated that around 2 million guarantees have been made for a value of €70 billion to more than 2 million customers. This represents about 8% of all SMEs in the European Union benefiting from the activity of mutual guarantee societies. The UK has no mutual guarantee market for SMEs to improve their access to finance because of inappropriate regulatory barriers. The provision of mutual guarantees by SMEs is interpreted as requiring the full regulatory burden of being an approved insurer under the “surety” category, with, as a result, far higher capital requirements and regulatory burdens than in any other EU country. Other countries have been able to specify mutual guarantee societies when transposing EU directives so that they are regulated in a distinct and appropriate way. As the UK has no such arrangement, we have, in essence, regulatory gold-plating that blocks the entry of new models of mutual finance of this form.
Following work with the co-operative sector in 2012, the Financial Conduct Authority clarified that the best fit for any mutual guarantee society in terms of regulated activities under current legislation is suretyship. However, this imposes significantly greater capital requirements than is the case in countries that have a bespoke scheme for mutual guarantee societies, and it is not a particularly good fit anyway. My Bill would change that. It provides a definition of a mutual guarantee society and adds mutual guarantees to the list of regulated activities set out in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Regulated Activities) Order 2001.
Despite the problems and barriers within the existing regulatory system, there is one UK-based member of the European Association of Mutual Guarantee Societies—the British Business Bank. This institution, which was created to drive SME lending, might not be the type of mutual that I believe would be created following the legislative change proposed in the Bill, but it neatly demonstrates the point that mutual guarantee societies must be part of the answer to the question of how we increase SME lending.
I hope that we are pushing at an open door. I note that in written answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris), Treasury Ministers have stated that officials plan to meet the FCA to discuss the possible development of mutual guarantee societies. I believe that this Bill would create a welcome mutual addition to our financial services sector and allow the UK to benefit from SME lending in the same way that other countries have done for many years.
Question put and agreed to.
That Christina Rees, Mr Gavin Shuker, Anna Turley, Lucy Powell, Stephen Doughty, Mr Adrian Bailey, Seema Malhotra, Mr Gareth Thomas, John Woodcock, Jonathan Edwards and Christian Matheson present the Bill.
Christina Rees accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 February, and to be printed (Bill 119).
Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: analysis of use of separate financial centres
“After section 15 of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1999 (limit on government assistance), insert—
“15A Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: analysis of use of separate financial centres
(1) The Secretary of State may only lay a draft of regulations under section 15(4) before the House of Commons if the Secretary of State has previously laid before Parliament an analysis on the use of separate financial centres.
(2) An analysis under subsection (1) shall consider and report upon—
(a) the countries in which CDC invests which do not have a sufficiently robust regulatory environment for its financial institutions to be used;
(b) the prospects for countries identified in accordance with paragraph (a) to cease to be in that category;
(c) the separate financial centres used for investments intended for countries identified in paragraph (a);
(d) the criteria used for determining the use of the financial centres identified in paragraph (c), and
(e) the Secretary of State’s assessment of the extent to which the financial centres identified in paragraph (c) comply with the standards of transparency and accountability in tax matters with which the United Kingdom complies.””—(Kate Osamor.)
This new clause would require any proposal to increase the limit by secondary legislation to be accompanied by an analysis of the CDC’s use of separate financial centres where countries do not have sufficiently robust regulatory environments, the transparency and accountability of those financial centres and the progress made in precluding the need for the use of separate financial centres.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: report and business case—
“After section 15 of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1999 (limit on government assistance), insert—
“15A Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: business case and strategic plan
(1) The Secretary of State may only lay a draft of regulations under section 15(4) before the House of Commons if the Secretary of State has also laid before the House of Commons the documents specified in subsections (2) and (3).
(2) The document specified in this subsection is a business case for the proposed use of the new investment enabled by the proposed increase in the limit in force which includes information on—
(a) the expected market demand,
(b) the proposed sectors,
(c) the proposed locations, and
(d) the prospective development returns.
(3) The document specified in this subsection is a strategic plan for the development of the activities of the CDC in consequence of the proposed increase in the limit in force.””
This new clause would require any draft regulations to increase the limit on government assistance under section 15(4) to be preceded by the laying before the House of Commons of a detailed business case for the proposed additional investment and a strategic plan in relation to the additional investment.
New clause 3—Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: poverty reduction purposes for spending outside LDCs—
“After section 15 of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1999 (limit on government assistance), insert—
“15A Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: poverty reduction purposes for spending outside LDCs
(1) The Secretary of State may only lay a draft of regulations under section 15(4) before the House of Commons if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the condition in subsection (2) or the condition in subsection (3) is met.
(2) The condition in this subsection is that any new investment enabled by the proposed increase in the limit in force is in a country which is classified as one of the least developed countries.
(3) The condition in this subsection is that the Secretary of State is satisfied that any new investment enabled by the proposed increase in the limit in force will have a significant impact on the reduction in poverty (within the meaning given in section 1(1) of the International Development Act 2002) in the country or countries concerned.
(4) In determining the classification of a country for the purposes of subsection (2), the Secretary of State shall use the latest analytical classification of the world’s economies prepared by the World Bank.””
This new clause would require any draft regulations to increase the limit on government assistance under section 15(4) to be for additional investment which is either in least developed countries or which makes a significant impact on poverty reduction in another country.
New clause 4—Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: independent assessment of aid impact—
“15A Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: independent assessment of aid impact
(1) The Secretary of State may only lay a draft of regulations under section 15(4) before the House of Commons if the Secretary of State is satisfied that arrangements are in place for the independent assessment of the aid impact of new CDC investment which meet the conditions in this section.
(2) The first condition is that a framework agreement has been reached between CDC and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact for the Commission to carry out such an assessment on an annual basis.
(3) The second condition is that each annual assessment will be able to assess projects with a monetary value equivalent to at least 5 per cent of the total value of current investments in the year in question by the CDC.
(4) The third condition is that the Secretary of State is satisfied that the Independent Commission for Aid Impact has the additional resources required to carry out such annual assessments without impairing its capacity to undertake its other work.””
This new clause would require any proposal to increase the limit by secondary legislation to be contingent on an agreement being reached for an annual independent assessment of aid impact to be carried out by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact covering at least 5% of CDC’s investment portfolio at the time.
New clause 6—Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: review of poverty reduction impact and contribution to Sustainable Development Goals—
“15A Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: poverty reduction
(1) The Secretary of State may only lay a draft of regulations under section 15(4) before the House of Commons if he has also laid before the House of Commons a review in accordance with subsection (2).
(2) A review under this subsection must provide the Secretary of State’s assessment of the extent to which the increase in the limit on the Crown’s assistance to the Corporation is likely to contribute to—
(a) a reduction in poverty, and
(b) achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
(3) In this section—
“reduction in poverty” shall have the same meaning as in section 1(1) of the International Development Act 2002; and
“the Sustainable Development Goals” means the Goals adopted at the United Nations on 25 September 2015.””
This new clause would require any draft regulations to increase the limit on government assistance under section 15(4) to be preceded by a review, also to be laid before the House of Commons, of the extent to which the increase in the limit will contribute to a reduction in poverty, the aim of development assistance, and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
New clause 7—Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: prohibition on investment in certain sectors—
“15A Condition for exercise of power to increase limit: prohibition on investment in certain sectors
(1) The Secretary of State may only lay a draft of regulations under section 15(4) before the House of Commons if he is satisfied that the condition in subsection (2) is met.
(2) That condition is that any new investment enabled by the proposed increase in the current limit at the time is not in any of the following sectors—
(a) education providers that charge the end user,
(b) healthcare providers that charge the end user,
(c) the real estate sector,
(d) mineral extraction,
(e) the palm oil sector,
(f) the fossil fuel sector.
(3) In this section—
“the current limit at the time” means—
(a) prior to the making of any regulations under section 15(4), £6,000 million,
(b) thereafter, the limit set in regulations made under section 15(4) then in force.””
This new clause would prohibit any new investment arising from any increase in the limit on government assistance under re