House of Commons
Wednesday 18 January 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
As this is the Scottish questions immediately preceding Burns night on Wednesday 25 January, may I wish all those organising Burns suppers or other events in Scotland, across the UK, including here in this House of Commons, and around the world the very best? Robert Burns’ legacy is as relevant today as ever.
The UK Government are committed to a safe and secure transfer of the remaining welfare powers. The majority of welfare powers commenced in 2016, and the transfer of the remaining powers will be overseen by the joint ministerial working group on welfare, which will meet again next month.
My hon. Friend is right about that; the power for the Scottish Parliament to create new benefits in devolved areas came into force in the autumn, and it now has the power to shape that welfare system as it chooses. Some modest measures have already been announced, but it is time that we hear more about the proposals for a new welfare system. A consultation has been held and I look forward to hearing the Scottish Government’s response to it.
The fact that the UK Government plan to close half of Glasgow’s jobcentres without even knowing the number of affected people is a dereliction of duty. Will the Secretary of State commit to having a word with his Cabinet colleagues and getting those plans dropped?
I do understand the concerns that have been raised about jobcentre closures in Glasgow. I have spoken directly with my colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It is the Government’s determination to ensure that there will be no change to the level of service offered to the people of Glasgow. As the hon. Lady and other Glasgow Members will know, there is a public consultation for people who have to travel more than 3 miles or for more than 20 minutes, and it is open until 31 January. I encourage all those affected, and all hon. Members with constituencies affected, to take part in it.
That group has played an important part in establishing the links between the DWP and the Scottish Government. I have been in regular recent contact with Angela Constance, the relevant Minister in the Scottish Government, about their latest proposals on universal credit. Inevitably, the complexity of this area means that as the transfer takes place new issues arise that need to be dealt with. The joint ministerial working group is the ideal place to do that.
I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family of Canon Kenyon Wright, who, sadly, passed away last week. He was a principled man whose legacy should serve as a reminder to all of us that when we work together it is possible to deliver the impossible.
This Tory Government are currently moving disabled people from the disability living allowance to personal independence payments, and it is estimated that the people of Scotland will lose out on £190 million a year as a result. If that was not bad enough, the Government did this a year ago but they withdrew the timetable and have not issued a new one. So can the Secretary of State please inform the House, and indeed the people of Scotland, when they can expect to lose out on this £190 million a year?
First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman back? He was missed at our last Scottish questions, although the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) entertained the House—I think I can say that. I knew Canon Kenyon Wright and he was indeed a very principled man, with strong personal conviction. He played a very important part in the constitutional convention that led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. As we have seen in the media, he is widely mourned.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) will know that disability benefits are to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and the funding of those benefits was dealt with in the negotiations for the fiscal framework. It is now for the Scottish Government to come forward with their proposals for disability benefits in Scotland.
My hon. Friend makes a very relevant point. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) referred to personal independence payments, to which, I know, the Scottish Government are opposed, but I have no idea what they intend to replace them with, or on what timetable.
May I begin by joining colleagues in paying tribute to Canon Kenyon Wright? He not only played a significant role in helping to deliver devolution to Scotland but, of course, in 2014 supported a yes vote for Scottish independence.
The UK Government are planning to close half the jobcentres in Glasgow without even knowing the number of people who will be affected by such a radical change. Was the Secretary of State consulted in advance of the closures, and when did he show enough interest to find out which specific locations would face closure?
I have taken a very close interest in this issue and worked closely on it with my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Scottish Government. The Government and I have never suggested that the procedures followed during the process have been perfect, but we have put forward a public consultation for people who are affected and will have to travel more than 3 miles or for more than 20 minutes. I encourage everyone involved to take part in the consultation.
The devolution of powers hangs very much together with the hard Brexit plans of the current Government. The Secretary of State has said that his role is
“to ensure Scotland gets the best possible deal and that deal involves clearly being part of the single market.”
Does he still believe that, or has he changed his mind after being told what he should say by his Tory bosses in London?
I do not recognise the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday as a hard Brexit plan. I do not think that the 500,000 Scottish National party voters who voted for Brexit will take kindly to being referred to as right-wing Tory Brexiteers. They were independently minded people in Scotland who voted for what they thought was the right thing for Scotland. It is absolutely clear, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, that we want to have access to the single market, and that is what the quote from me that the right hon. Gentleman just read out made clear. On the other hand, membership of the single market is a quite different thing, as Mike Russell and, privately, the Scottish Government accept.
I regularly meet Cabinet colleagues to discuss a wide range of matters. I recently met the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to discuss a number of issues relating to the Scottish agriculture sector, and will continue to do so.
Last year, the farming Minister told us that there would be an £18 billion Brexit dividend. He said that farmers would continue to get
“as much support—or perhaps even more”
after Brexit. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be unacceptable if funding to Scottish agriculture was cut after 2020?
There is no suggestion that funding to Scottish agriculture will be cut, but there is the opportunity to move forward from the constraints of the common agricultural policy, which farmers throughout Scotland have often complained about. We need to seize this opportunity to reshape the support for farming to make it more effective, but to continue to sustain those areas of Scottish farming that need sustaining.
My right hon. Friend is aware that my family are extensive farmers in the Scottish borders. Does he not agree that Brexit presents the United Kingdom with a magnificent opportunity to fashion an agriculture policy that is required not by French farmers, but by British farmers, and will he assure the House that hill farmers in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom will be given proper consideration?
I can absolutely give that undertaking. I hope that, in conjunction with the Scottish Government, we can move forward to shape a new basis of support for Scottish agriculture, especially for those who farm in less-favoured areas. There have been multiple complaints about the operation of the common agricultural policy and its need to take into account farming practices across the continent. We now have the opportunity to have our own support mechanism and we need to work to shape it.
Almost two thirds of the UK’s agriculture exports are to the EU. After what we heard from the Prime Minister yesterday, there is an increasing possibility that we could revert to World Trade Organisation trade rules on exit from the EU. Does the Secretary of State agree with the NFU Scotland, which says that the potential for 20% tariffs as a result of WTO trade rules will be increasingly damaging for the profitability of Scottish agriculture?
The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that her objective is to achieve the best possible access to the single market, with the minimum of barriers and tariffs. That will be to the benefit of Scottish agriculture. Scottish farmers see the opportunity that leaving the EU provides them, and I am sure that they will seize it and that we will be able to provide the environment in which they will succeed.
The Scottish Government will take on their first major new tax power from the Scotland Act 2016 in April, enabling them to set rates and thresholds of income tax. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury attended a Joint Exchequer Committee with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance in November. They discussed ongoing work, and there are regular ongoing discussions.
The Prime Minister says that she wants income tax rates on hard-working British people to be as low as possible. Should Nicola Sturgeon be sufficiently brave or bonkers to increase the rate of taxation on hard-working Scottish people, what economic impact would that have on Scotland?
Again we have heard erroneous claims that Scotland is somehow the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom. In actual fact, the average cost of a band D council tax property in Scotland is lower than in England. Will the Minister now welcome the Scottish Government’s approach to council tax policy in Scotland?
I may not like the Scottish Government’s plans to make Scotland a higher-tax nation, but that is up to them. What they will have to do is explain to the people of Scotland why they are having to pay more tax than their friends and families who have the same jobs south of the border.
In a week when the chairman of the British Medical Association in Scotland has warned that the NHS in Scotland is “at breaking point”, is the Minister as surprised as I am that the so-called progressive SNP Government in Holyrood consistently refuse to use the powers afforded them to protect the NHS in Scotland?
Migrants from outside and within the UK make a significant contribution to Scotland—to its economy, of course, but also to its society and wellbeing. The Government will always welcome the brightest and the best who have come here to work.
We know that about 180,000 EU nationals make a hugely valuable contribution to the Scottish economy and that Governments such as Canada’s and Australia’s successfully apply different immigration rules to different parts of their countries. Going beyond warm words, will the Secretary of State listen carefully to proposals for a different arrangement for Scotland, allowing EU citizens freedom to continue to come and live and work there, benefiting us all?
I will always look at evidence-based proposals; that is our commitment, for example, in relation to the Scottish Government’s paper produced just before Christmas. However, it was clear within the settlement agreed under the Smith commission that immigration would remain a reserved power.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems that Scotland will face under the SNP Government is the flight of individuals from high taxes, who will have to be replaced with further immigrants, as well as the fact that businesses will fly down to London rather than be in Scotland?
I find it surprising that the Scottish Government always seem to fail to acknowledge that they have very significant powers to attract people to Scotland. At the moment, about 4% of migrants who come to the United Kingdom go to Scotland. Clearly, more needs to be done to encourage people to come to Scotland, and the Scottish Government need to address that. Making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK is not, in my view, the way to do it.
I associate myself and my party with the expressions of condolence about the late Canon Kenyon Wright—a truly lovely man, for whom it was once my privilege to act as election agent, albeit unsuccessfully.
Will the Secretary of State explain to the Home Secretary the importance of non-EU nationals in making up the crews of many fishing boats, especially in the white fish sector, that operate out of Scottish ports?
The UK Government have spearheaded these deals, which will be transformative for the cities of Scotland. The city regions are engines of economic growth, so they will drive forward Scotland’s economy, which means more jobs and a secure future. That is why I am so pleased that the Government have now committed to a city deal for every one of Scotland’s seven city regions.
The borderlands initiative is an innovative proposal that seeks to bring together Dumfries and Galloway Council, Scottish Borders Council, Carlisle City Council and other councils in the north of England to recognise the significant economic area that crosses the border. I am delighted to give my support to that proposal.
As well as city deals, the Secretary of State will be aware that the Ayrshire growth deal has been submitted to the Scottish Government. In yesterday’s Treasury questions, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrongly said that it is for the Scottish Government to advance that deal. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Treasury colleagues about supporting the Ayrshire growth deal?
May I first welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), has secured an Adjournment debate tomorrow that will focus specifically on the Ayrshire regional growth deal? I have met the councils and I want that deal to receive support from the UK Government in the way that is most appropriate to make it happen.
Exiting the EU
Mr Speaker, I noted that in congratulating Andy Murray, you did not display the usual exuberance that you have demonstrated in support of him and the rest of the British team at Davis cup matches.
The UK Government have taken a number of measures to support Scotland’s economy, including by committing to city deals for each of Scotland’s cities, as I just said, and providing an additional £800 million for the Scottish Government’s capital budget through to 2021. Leaving the EU opens up real opportunities for Scotland and we must always remember that the UK market is worth more than four times as much to Scotland as the EU single market.
Adam Smith gave us the theory of modern capitalist economics and William Gladstone put it into practice. Would not those two fine Scotsmen be delighted by the opportunity that Brexit offers to ditch the socialist protectionism of the Scottish Government, and to implement the free trade and free markets that made the country such a powerhouse in the 19th century?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a robust case for the benefits of leaving the European Union. Perhaps to his list of posthumous figures from Scottish history I could add David Hume, whose essay “Of the Balance of Trade” predates “The Wealth of Nations” and provides an effective rebuttal to the so-called jealous fear of free trade among merchants at the time.
A hard Brexit outside the single market threatens to cost Scotland 80,000 jobs over a decade and to cost people an average of £2,000 in wages. What action will the Secretary of State personally take to keep Scotland in the single market, even if the rest of the UK leaves?
It is absolutely clear that Scotland cannot be a member of the single market if it is not a member of the EU, and the United Kingdom will not be a member of the EU. The Scottish Government accept that proposition. What is important is access to the single market and, as the Prime Minister set out yesterday, we aim to achieve the best possible access to that market.
My hon. Friend may be aware that today, in relation to labour market statistics, unemployment is up in Scotland, employment is down, and economic activity is also down. I am in no doubt that the uncertainty caused by the constant reference to an independence referendum is having an impact on the Scottish economy.
An important part of the Scottish economy is the rural economy, particularly crofting. Yesterday I asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what exactly, after her careful thinking and planning, would happen to crofting after 2020. The Secretary of State for Scotland set out earlier that he thought that there would be no cuts to funding. Is it the case that we will we see no cuts at all to agricultural support in Scotland post-2020? Will he confirm what he alluded to earlier?
The hon. Gentleman has already heard me answer that question. I have set out that leaving the common agricultural policy is an opportunity. The common agricultural policy has not suited Scotland, particularly those farming in less favoured areas. We now have an opportunity to do something different—we should seize it.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Thousands of babies who are born each year are damaged for life by alcohol consumed in pregnancy. Patients affected by alcohol put immense pressure on the national health service, and alcohol is a primary factor in domestic violence and attacks on women. Does the Prime Minister recognise the seriousness of the country’s alcohol problems—the damage to lives and the billions in costs to the public purse—and will she instruct her Government now to address these problems effectively and as a matter of urgency?
I can certainly say to the hon. Gentleman that I recognise the problems that alcohol causes. He particularly referenced not just problems for pregnant women, but the part that alcohol often plays in domestic violence and abuse. That was why, when I was Home Secretary, we produced an alcohol strategy and worked on the issue of alcohol. The Government continue to recognise the importance of this issue and to work on it.
My hon. Friend makes two important points. First, I am very pleased to join him in paying tribute to the dedication and hard work of all those who work in our national health service. Secondly, he is right to point out that if somebody misses an appointment, that is a cost to the NHS. There are a number of ways in which this is being dealt with. Some hospitals send out text messages that not only remind people of their appointment, but tell them how much it costs if they miss it.
Yesterday the Prime Minister snubbed Parliament and snubbed the Brexit Committee’s recommendation to bring forward a White Paper, while at the same time describing the referendum as
“a vote to restore…our parliamentary democracy”.
This is about our jobs, living standards and future prosperity; why will it not be scrutinised by this House?
What I did yesterday was to set out a plan for a global Britain. I set out a plan that will put the divisions of last year behind us, and that shows a vision for a stronger, fairer, more united, more outward-looking, prosperous, tolerant, independent and truly global Britain. It was a vision that will shape a stronger future and build a better Britain.
Restoring parliamentary democracy while sidelining Parliament—it is not so much the Iron Lady as the Irony Lady.
Yesterday the Prime Minister finally provided some detail. May I urge her to stop her threats of a bargain basement Brexit—a low-pay tax haven on the shores of Europe? It would not necessarily damage the EU, but it would certainly damage this country, businesses, jobs and public services. She demeans herself, her office and our country’s standing by making such threats.
What I set out yesterday was a plan for a global Britain, bringing prosperity to this country and jobs to people, and spreading economic growth across the country. Yesterday we learned a little more of the right hon. Gentleman’s thinking on this issue. He said:
“She has said, ‘leave the single market,’ but at the same time says she wants to have access to the single market. I’m not quite sure how that’s going to go down in Europe. I think we have to have a deal that ensures we have access to the market.”
I’ve got a plan; he doesn’t have a clue.
The Prime Minister was the one who made the threat about slashing corporation tax. If we reduce corporation tax to the lowest common denominator, this country loses £120 billion in revenue. How, then, do we fund public services?
Last year the Prime Minister said that leaving the single market could make trade deals “considerably harder” and that
“while we could certainly negotiate our own trade agreements, there would be no guarantee that they would be on terms as good as those we enjoy now”,
but yesterday she offered us only vague guarantees. Does she now disagree with herself?
The right hon. Gentleman might also have noticed that when I spoke in the remain campaign, I said that if we voted to leave the European Union, the sky would not fall in. Look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the European Union.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the future of the economy. I want us to be an outward-looking nation trading around the world, and bringing prosperity and jobs into the United Kingdom. The one thing that would be bad for the economy is the answers that the right hon. Gentleman has. He wants a cap on wages, no control on immigration and to borrow an extra £500 billion. That would not lead to prosperity; it would lead to no jobs, no wages and no skills.
The Chancellor said after the referendum that to lose single market access would be “catastrophic”. A few days later, the Health Secretary said:
“The first part of the plan must be clarity that we will remain in the single market”.
The Prime Minister said something about “frictionless” access to the single market and a bespoke customs union deal. Could she give us a little bit of certainty and clarity about this? Has she ruled out paying any kind of fee to achieve access to what she describes as a “frictionless” market?
Access to the single market was exactly what I was talking about yesterday in my speech. One of the key objectives is that we negotiate a free trade agreement with the European Union that gives us the widest possible access for trading with, and operating within, the European Union.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about frictionless access. Actually, this was a separate point about frictionless borders in relation to the customs issue—a very important issue for us regarding the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Taoiseach and I, and all parties, are absolutely on a single page about this. We want to ensure that we have the best possible arrangement that does not lead to the borders of the past for Northern Ireland.
The question was: will we have to pay for access to the market or not? The Prime Minister has not given an answer to that.
Yesterday the Prime Minister set out a wish list on immigration, referring to skills shortages and high-skill migration. Does she now disagree with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who told an employers’ conference, “Don’t worry. You can still have cheap EU labour after we leave the European Union”?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about access. Yes, the whole point is that we will negotiate a free trade agreement with the European Union that is about the best possible access for British business to operate in European Union member states and for European businesses to operate here in the United Kingdom. It is about sitting down and negotiating the best possible deal for the United Kingdom. That is what I am committed to, and it is what the Government are going to deliver.
My question was about how much we are going to have to pay to have access to the market—still no answer.
Yesterday the Prime Minister talked about the pressure put on public services by migration. May I just remind her—the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) referred to this earlier—that at the moment there are 55,000 EU citizens working in our national health service, helping to treat all the people of this country? There are 80,000 care workers helping our—mainly elderly—people and there are 5,000 teachers educating our children. The real pressure on public services comes from a Government who slashed billions from the social care budget, who are cutting the schools budget, and who are closing A&E departments, walk-in centres and Sure Start centres. Instead of threatening to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven, let us welcome those who contribute to our public services and fund those public services properly so that we have the fully functioning NHS that we all need and deserve.
I made it clear yesterday that we value those who have come to the United Kingdom and contribute to our economy and society. There will still be people coming to the United Kingdom from the European Union when we leave the EU. The crucial issue is that it is this Government who will be making decisions about our immigration system for people from the European Union. Yet again, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is indeed a difference between us—it is very simple. When I look at the issue of Brexit—or, indeed, at any other issue, such as the national health service or social care—I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It is called leadership; he should try it sometime.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Lincoln City on their victory last night. I think it was a fitting tribute to Graham Taylor that they won that match.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have indeed highlighted the issue of particularly white working-class boys, who are the group in society least likely to go to university. We are committed to making sure that every child gets the opportunity to fulfil their potential. That is about ensuring that apprenticeships are as accessible as possible. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the proportion of apprenticeships started by males has increased this year to almost 50%, and also that universities expect to spend more than £800 million this year on improving access and success for disadvantaged students. We want everybody to achieve their potential, whatever their background and whatever their gender.
Shortly after the Prime Minister confirmed that she wants to take the UK out of the single European market, the Scottish Parliament voted by a large cross-party majority to remain in the single European market, just as a large majority of people in Scotland voted to remain in the European Union. The Prime Minister said that Scotland is an equal partner in the United Kingdom. Does she still believe this is true or is she just stringing the people of Scotland along?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to my speech yesterday, in which I reiterated my commitment to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure their voice is heard and their interests are taken into account as we proceed along the path of negotiating our exit from the European Union. I specifically referenced the Scotland plan. I understand that the Welsh Government will be producing a plan for Wales for us to look at, too. The Scotland plan will, I believe, be considered tomorrow by the Joint Ministerial Committee on European negotiations. We will be looking at it seriously and working with the Scottish Government on the proposals they bring forward.
Scotland’s leading economic forecaster says that real wages will fall—[Interruption.] We have Tories jeering and cheering when the forecast for people’s income is that it is likely to drop by £2,000 and that 80,000 people may lose their jobs in Scotland as a result of the Prime Minister’s hard Tory Brexit plan. Does the Prime Minister believe that this is a price worth paying for her “Little Britain” Brexit?
I repeat what I said earlier: we will work to ensure we get the best possible deal in terms of access to the single market, and continue to co-operate in partnership with the remaining 27 member states of the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman once again talks about the possibility of a negative impact on Scotland if Scotland were not part of the single market. His party is dedicated to taking Scotland out of the single market by taking it out of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I am pleased to say that the Government have already taken some action on executive pay: giving shareholders the power to veto pay policies, forcing companies to disclose the pay of their board directors and introducing tough transparency measures for banks. I want to build on that, which is why we published a Green Paper on how to strengthen shareholders’ influence over executive pay and introduced greater transparency. I look forward to receiving representations from my hon. Friend on this issue.
The hon. Lady might recognise that the great repeal Bill will deal with a number of complex issues. At its heart will be the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972. As we look at the Bill and at negotiating our way out of the European Union, we will need to look at the whole issue of reserved matters and devolved matters, but there are many aspects—[Interruption.]
Order. Members of the Scottish National party, led by the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on the Front Bench, who is supposed to be a statesmanlike figure, should demonstrate some calm and reserve while they are being answered by the Prime Minister.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on her delivery yesterday of an historic, definitive, pragmatic, outward-looking speech that saw the pound rise to its highest level in two years and the FTSE up today? Does she agree that the strong and prosperous UK she has planned would be a nightmare for the Leader of the Opposition and the EU ruling class?
I agree with my hon. Friend. A strong and prosperous Britain is exactly what we want to build as we leave the EU. It is only a pity that the Labour party seems uninterested in doing that, but wants to do the exact opposite and bring this economy down.
That is not quite an answer to whether she will visit the Rhondda. I hope she will; I am happy to accommodate her—I can do bacon and eggs. More importantly, I could take her to see the best brass band in the world, the Cory band, or, for that matter, I could take her to the local food bank, based in the closed-down Conservative club. Since 2010, the Government have closed the local courts, tax office, Department for Work and Pensions office and driving centre, and now they intend to close all the tax offices in Wales and centralise them in Cardiff. We in the valleys feel ignored by the Government. May I beg her to change direction and start putting Government offices in the small towns, villages and valleys of this country?
The last time I looked, Cardiff was actually in Wales—the hon. Gentleman says we are taking offices out of Wales and putting them in Cardiff. The whole point of what Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is doing is to move from outdated offices to large, modern regional centres, which will make it possible to modernise its ways of working, make tax collection more efficient and actually improve its customer service.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s speech setting out a plan for global Britain. It clearly shows that those on the Government Benches are listening to the British people. Will she commend this approach to the council leaders now considering the Greater Manchester spatial framework consultation responses, as they need to listen to the people, give us better infrastructure and protect our green spaces?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for raising this issue. I understand that the consultation on the spatial framework closed earlier this week and that there has been huge interest among local people. I echo his comment that it is absolutely right that local leaders should take into account all the representations made.
The hon. Gentleman draws attention to the fact that geography of course has an impact on these matters. He talks about living in the coldest and windiest places, and obviously one interesting issue in Scotland is the opportunity for renewables there. I can tell him, however, that we are looking at making sure that energy markets in the UK are indeed working properly.
I am pleased that the Prime Minister has said that she will take the necessary action on air quality to deal with the 40,000 premature deaths it causes across our country every year. I know she believes in her Government leading by example, so will she make sure that all diesel cars are removed from the Government Car Service as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that improving air quality is a priority for the Government. We are determined to cut harmful emissions and have committed money since 2011 to supporting the take-up of low-emission vehicles. The Government Car Service is working to remove diesel vehicles from its fleet. It has so far replaced a quarter of its vehicles with petrol hybrid cars, and of course its work continues to remove those diesel vehicles.
I absolutely recognise the important issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. It is precisely as we move out of the European Union that the United Kingdom will be more outward looking. We will look globally. We want to ensure that we continue to play our part in the United Nations and that the UN is able to do the job that everybody wants it to do. NATO has obviously been the most important bulwark when it comes to maintaining safety and security across the European continent. That is why we are continuing to support NATO. British troops are in Estonia, and British forces are in Poland and Romania, which shows our continuing commitment to NATO. The thrust of my speech yesterday was that we want a strong strategic partnership with the European Union. We want access to the single market through a free trade agreement, but we also want to continue to work with the EU on justice and security matters. Now is not a time to co-operate less; it is a time to co-operate more.
I am delighted at the third-round FA cup replay, in which Sutton United won 3-1 against Wimbledon. However, the pressing issue—what would make us really happy—is being able to get to work on a day-to-day basis. Does the Prime Minister share my cautious optimism that a return to talks by ASLEF and Southern can provide a long-lasting solution for hard-pressed commuters?
As a former Wimbledon councillor, I am not sure that I quite share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend for the defeat of AFC Wimbledon. On the point about the train strikes, yes, I do; and I hope that those sitting around the table are going to ensure that an agreement will be reached to enable passengers to be able to get on with their lives and their jobs, and not suffer the misery that was brought about by the strike in the first place.
I might remind the hon. Lady that she and I sat on a council together where we tried to keep Wimbledon actually playing in Wimbledon, or at least in the borough of Merton rather than moving elsewhere.
On the point about GP services, GPs are part of the solution for the NHS in the future. That is why we have seen more GPs coming into the NHS and 5,000 more are being trained and will be in place by 2020. We want to ensure that GPs are open and providing services at times when the patients want to access them.
It was quite clear from the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday that she seeks to build a Brexit consensus and to bring our country back together. I thank her for that. To that end, and indeed to strengthen the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand, before article 50 is triggered, will she please at least consider publishing all those 12 objectives in a White Paper so that we can debate them here in this place on behalf of all our constituents?
I absolutely understand my right hon. Friend’s point about Parliament’s desire to be able to debate the objectives that I set out very clearly in my plan yesterday. One of the objectives and principles I set was about certainty and clarity. It continues to be the Government’s intention that we will provide clarity whenever it is possible, and we will ensure that, at appropriate times, both the public and Parliament are kept informed and are able properly to consider and scrutinise these issues.
There is pressure on social care. I have accepted and recognised that in the House. The Government have recognised it, and have provided additional funding through the Better Care Fund and the social care precept. This year Liverpool raised £2.8 million from the precept, and it will receive more than £48 million on top of that from the improved Better Care Fund by 2019-20. However, this is not just a question of money; it is a question of ensuring that we have a sustainable social care system for the future, and that is what the Government are working on.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for what she said yesterday, and not least for her constructive tone and constructive approach to the European Union and its future? That was in marked contrast to what we have heard from others over the years, from many different quarters in the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that constructive tone will remain, as the best base for securing an agreement between us and the EU that is in our mutual interest? Will she also confirm that the default position of “no deal” will remain a default position, and that the Government will not be persuaded to make it their preferred option?
Absolutely. We want to get that good deal and we expect to be able to get that good deal, and, as my right hon. Friend says, it is through good will and a positive approach on both sides of the negotiations that we will achieve it.
I am very clear about the fact that the United Kingdom wants to see a continuing, strong European Union of 27 member states. We want a strong strategic partnership with that European Union, and, of course, we want to continue to work bilaterally with individual member states. I made that point to a number of European leaders yesterday when I spoke to them after my speech. I said that we wanted to approach this in a positive and optimistic fashion, because I believe that a deal that is good for the UK will be a deal that is good for the European Union.
I recognise that many people received a poor service from Concentrix. This is not the first time that that has been highlighted in the Chamber. It was not acceptable, and I apologise for the worry and distress that was caused to people. We have been very clear about the service operated by Concentrix. HMRC will learn the lessons from that contract, and it remains committed to providing a high-quality service. It will not use a private sector supplier to undertake tax credit error and fraud checks again.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) mentioned the speech that the Prime Minister made yesterday. In that speech, she confirmed her commitment to parliamentary democracy, and I assume that she therefore accepts the long-standing convention that the Executive—the Government—are continuously accountable to the House for the policies that they are pursuing. Will she clarify whether she intends to make any further statements of policy intentions to the House, and whether she expects the House to have an opportunity to vote its approval for those policies earlier than two years from now, when the whole negotiation has been completed?
My right hon. and learned Friend has raised a matter that has also been raised not only by our right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), but by others as well. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union spent two hours answering questions in the House, and there will be a further debate on matters relating to exiting the European Union later today. There have been a number of such debates already, dealing with issues that are part of the objectives that we have set.
We shall have to consider the result of the decision of the Supreme Court, which may, if it goes against the Government, require legislation. There will be an opportunity in the great repeal Bill to consider a number of issues relating to exiting the EU, but as for voting on the actual deal that we have, we cannot do so until we know what it is. That is why I said yesterday that Parliament would have a vote when we knew what the deal was.
I made the very simple point yesterday that this negotiation is not just about the United Kingdom; there will be others in the European Union who will be looking to ensure that the deal we get is good for the UK and good for the EU. But I have to say to the hon. Lady that if she in any sense thinks that continued membership of the common fisheries policy is what we should be looking for, that is certainly not the case, and it is certainly one of the things people voted against.
The people of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent are again being confronted with the possible loss of emergency services in Stafford or Burton, when our acute hospitals are constantly under intense pressure. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, our hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and other local MPs that closing A&Es is no way to deal with increased real—not imagined—need?
The important issue is the level of service that is available to people in any particular local area. That is why the sustainability and transformation plans that are being considered and have been published are being taken into account and being considered at a local level, so that local clinicians and local people will be able to agree what is best in their particular area.
Just looking at the figures on what has happened in health in the hon. Gentleman’s area, I see that there are more doctors in his NHS foundation trust and significantly more nurses, but the—[Interruption.] I know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about and I am about to comment on it, but the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who is shouting from a sedentary position, might have recognised that he started off talking about the NHS, which is what I am also commenting on. [Interruption.]
Order. I am not going to allow an exchange across the Dispatch Box or across the House at this point. The Prime Minister was asked a question [Interruption.] Order. I require no help from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), which is of zilch value. The Prime Minister will answer, and she will be heard with courtesy, including by the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) asked me about pressures on the national health service. We are seeing more doctors and nurses in his Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and health funding in the hon. Gentleman’s area will be £3 billion this year, and that will be rising with a further £450 million by 2020-21.
As I have said in this House before, we are putting extra money into social care. We are giving local authorities the opportunity to raise more money and spend it on social care. But this is not just about more money; it is about ensuring best practice is spread throughout the country and it is about a long-term solution to sustainable social care for the future, an issue that has been ducked by Governments, including a Labour Government for 13 years.
On Friday the east coast of England faced the threat of a tidal surge that endangered tens of thousands of homes and thousands of lives. A simple change in the weather meant that flooding was averted, but will the Prime Minister join me in praising the response of the emergency services in planning ahead, involving the Army, the Coastguard, the fire and ambulance services and the police, to make sure that the best possible plans were made? Will she further join me in making sure that the public know that in future these warnings should always be taken seriously?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I am happy to join him in commending the action of all those in the emergency services, in our armed forces and in local authorities who worked so hard to ensure that this problem was dealt with. As he said, a change in the weather took place, but it is crucial that when these warnings are given, people recognise that they are given for the very good reason that there is concern about the danger that could take place. The efforts that were put in protected tens of thousands of properties, and I am pleased to see that we have learned from the work done on previous flooding incidents. The work between the emergency services, local services and the armed forces was much better co-ordinated than has perhaps been the case in the past, so we have been able to learn from the flooding in the past.
One of the objectives I set out in my speech yesterday was something I have said before about the guaranteeing of rights for EU citizens living here in the UK, but I also want to see the rights of UK citizens living in the 27 member states being guaranteed. I remain open, and I encourage others across Europe to agree with me that this is an issue we should look at as early as possible in order to give people the confidence and reassurance that the hon. Lady is looking for .
In supporting my right hon. Friend’s endeavours in facing the difficult challenges in social care and the national health service, may I invite her to endorse the concept and continuance of community hospitals in our market towns across the country? Those hospitals, including the Westminster Memorial hospital in Shaftesbury in my constituency, provide a vital piece of the jigsaw in our national health service.
I am sure that the Westminster Memorial hospital in Shaftesbury is providing good services for local people. The structure of local services is of course a matter for discussion at local level, and it is crucial that local clinicians and others agree that we have a safe and secure service for people and that they are provided with the NHS services that they need at the most appropriate level. I fully accept my hon. Friend’s point that we often think only about the major district general hospitals and acute hospitals when actually the NHS is made up of many different parts. We need to ensure that patients are being treated at the most appropriate level for their needs.
What we will be doing is negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union to get the best possible access for trade with the EU, but we also want to be able to negotiate trade agreements with other countries around the world. A number of countries have already expressed interest in doing that with us. We want to do that to open up new export markets being delivered for businesses here in the United Kingdom, including the sort of trade in Wales that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. On the question of customs with the European Union, we want an arrangement that will involve the most frictionless borders possible.
Human Rights: Burma
Mr Speaker, I know that you care deeply about the situation in Burma and have done much to foster democratic values in that country and to promote relations between the UK and Burma. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for raising this matter. He knows Burma well and has close family connections there.
We have of course been deeply worried by the flare-up of violence in Rakhine state since an attack on police posts on 9 October by unknown assailants—presumed to be Rohingya militants. While we condemn the attack and recognise the right of security forces to carry out security operations to root out the perpetrators, we remain deeply concerned by the conduct of the army in its response. Although restrictions on media, diplomatic and humanitarian access make the facts difficult to ascertain, we have been worried by numerous reports alleging widespread human rights violations in the security response.
British Ministers have directly lobbied Burmese Ministers in response to the escalating violence. The Commonwealth Affairs Minister, my noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St Johns, raised the issue with the Burmese Defence Minister when she visited Burma in November last year. Specifically, she called for the full and immediate resumption of aid and for an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses. I repeated those calls to the Construction Minister when he visited the UK, also in November. The Burmese Government have now committed to investigating the 9 October attacks, restoring human rights access and investigating allegations of human rights abuses. In practice, however, much aid is still blocked by local authorities reporting to the military, particularly in the areas where security operations are ongoing. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.
We are also worried by the recent escalation of conflict in Kachin and Shan states, which has also led to allegations of civilian casualties, the widespread displacement of civilians and human rights abuses. We have raised our concerns about the violence in north-east Burma directly with Burmese Ministers. As I said, we continue to monitor the situation closely. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will visit Burma soon and will reiterate our concerns about such issues.
I thank the Minister for that response. The first question I asked in this House was about the situation faced by the Rohingya community in Rakhine state. It is incredibly frustrating to return to the subject nearly two years later, following several worrying reports from Rakhine, northern Shan and Kachin, the last two of which have reportedly involved airstrikes and heavy artillery.
Since that first question, Aung San Suu Kyi has won a remarkable election victory. Although she has a difficult task in keeping the Government together while the military still has such a huge influence, does the Minister agree that friends such as the UK should continue to raise humanitarian issues while so many suffer due to their faith?
Tomorrow, Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, an inter-governmental body of 58 member states, will meet in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Will the Minister join me and more than 40 Myanmar-based civil society organisations in calling today for a truly independent international investigation into that situation, whereby state-sponsored attacks on Rohingya Muslim civilians have escalated in recent months? It is difficult to get accurate information about what is really happening in Rakhine, so in order to get to the truth and beyond the false reports, will the Minister call for full access for independent observers and journalists to villages and displacement camps in Rakhine state?
I have also been informed that Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, who has been on a 12-day monitoring mission to the country, has been denied access by the Government to conflict-affected areas of Shan state. Does the Minister agree that Ms Lee should be allowed to do her job and bring such issues into the open? Finally, when the Foreign Secretary visits Burma this weekend, will he raise the situation in Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan, and will he also raise the matter with Burmese MPs and the Speaker of the House of Representatives when the Burmese delegation visits the UK next week? Will he also raise the matter with the Government of Bangladesh to see what more can be done on a humanitarian level for displaced Rohingyas on the border between Burma and Bangladesh?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and of course, we are deeply concerned about what is happening in Rakhine state. Yes, it is difficult to get access to verify the facts but, like him, we are extremely concerned about the human rights violations that have been reported and, of course, about the security response.
My hon. Friend raised a number of questions. He asked about UK support for an international commission —I assume a UN-type commission. A UN-led commission of inquiry can be established in one of three ways: by the Secretary-General, by the Security Council or by the Human Rights Council. Establishing an inquiry in that way would require broad international support, which we assess does not exist in the current international environment.
My hon. Friend also asked about the visit of Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur, which I very much welcome. I am aware that she is currently in Burma, and for many years we have supported the annual resolution of the Human Rights Council that mandates her role. We hope that the authorities in Burma will give her full and unimpeded access so that she can conduct a thorough assessment, including of Rakhine. Like my hon. Friend, I look forward to reading her report.
My hon. Friend talked about the overall peace process and particularly about the aid that we are providing. I can confirm that we are providing aid not just in Rakhine but to the refugees in Bangladesh. In our meetings I have urged the Bangladeshi Government not to return refugees to a situation in which they would face harm.
Finally, my hon. Friend made a plea in relation to the Foreign Secretary’s visit. I assure him that the Foreign Secretary will strongly put the case on humanitarian issues from a UK perspective. As far as I am aware, he intends to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the chief of the military.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing it.
For all of us who have campaigned for years for democracy and an end to repression in Myanmar, including many in this House, it is all the more troubling to see evidence that, for all the progress that has been made, the suppression of the majority in Myanmar has been replaced, in far too many cases, with the persecution of minorities. In particular, as the hon. Gentleman said, it was shocking to hear of the recent disappearance of two Kachin Christian leaders, who have apparently been kidnapped in northern Shan state. It is incumbent on the Government, and indeed on the international community as a whole, to press the Myanmar authorities urgently to provide information on their whereabouts and to secure their immediate freedom.
We are also deeply concerned about the continuing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, and particularly about the recent reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that a raft of human rights violations have taken place in recent months, including cases of torture, rape and sexual assault, summary executions and the destruction of mosques and homes.
Upholding human rights should be the driving force of our foreign policy, and we therefore call on the Government to use Britain’s influence to stand up for the rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled and to raise concerns with the authorities in Myanmar as a matter of urgency, including on the persecution and poverty that many people are suffering and on the need for full humanitarian access to all affected areas.
I hope the Minister can tell us today about the representations he has made to his counterparts in Myanmar, particularly on access for the UN-appointed rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, and on how he is planning to ensure that the rights of Myanmar’s people are protected.
Having previously discussed the situation with the hon. Lady, I know that she cares very deeply about the humanitarian issues in Burma. There is consensus on these issues on both sides of the House.
The hon. Lady raises the issue of the Kachin pastors. Many Christians live in areas where there is active conflict, notably in Kachin, and we are of course deeply concerned about the disappearance of the two pastors, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng. There is deep concern about their welfare. As she notes, they disappeared on Christmas eve, allegedly after taking journalists to see a recently bombed church. Like her, we urge the Government of Burma to investigate their case immediately and release them.
The hon. Lady asks about the UK Government’s lobbying. I note that the Foreign Secretary will be in Burma soon. He will, of course, make strong representations on behalf of the UK Government. Apart from the representations that I and other Foreign Office Ministers have made, our ambassador has visited north Rakhine in recent months and has lobbied five separate Burmese Ministers on the issue and urged restraint in the security response.
Finally, the hon. Lady talked about humanitarian aid. As she will know, the UK Government are doing an enormous amount to provide aid to this troubled area. We have certainly been the biggest bilateral humanitarian donor in Rakhine, and since 2012 we have provided more than £23 million in humanitarian assistance, including supporting work on sanitation and nutrition for more than 126,000 people.
When the Foreign Secretary travels to Burma, he will no doubt wish to discuss with Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders the role of the Tatmadaw, whether it is worth our while to continue running courses for them, the efficacy of those courses and whether the Tatmadaw is continuing to block aid from going into some areas. I urge the Minister to in turn urge the Foreign Secretary to travel to Sittwe in Rakhine to see the situation on the ground for himself, talk to the Rohingya and come back to this House to update us on whether there is now real evidence that outside forces are stirring up the Rohingya in that part of Burma.
My right hon. Friend is an expert, having been a Minister with responsibility for this part of the world when he was at the Foreign Office. I have already set out the key individuals whom the Foreign Secretary plans to meet, and we all look forward to his response when he returns to the House.
My right hon. Friend talks about the training we may be doing with the military in Burma, and I make it clear that any training we undertake has nothing to do with combat training; it is to do with humanitarian work and English language training. Our assessment is that building those links is a worthwhile thing to be doing.
On the Tatmadaw, my right hon. Friend knows full well that Aung San Suu Kyi has a position in the Government but that the army has a role to play. Clearly it is the army that is acting in the areas where there are humanitarian issues.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this important urgent question. The Minister has expressed concern about the disappearance of the two ethnic Kachin Baptist leaders who were apparently forcibly disappeared over Christmas, and he has also called for unfettered access for the United Nations special rapporteur. Can he confirm that both those matters have already been specifically raised with the Burmese ambassador in London, and that the Foreign Secretary will raise both specific matters in his talks in Burma next week?
The Minister rather sidestepped the question on action through the UN by saying that the Government’s opinion is that there is not sufficient consensus at the present time to take forward such action. Can he go further? When the special rapporteur returns and reports to the UN, will he undertake on behalf of the Government to use every possible effort to build consensus on an urgent and independent United Nations commission as a result of the special rapporteur’s visit? Will the Government commit to trying to build that consensus, as opposed to merely remarking that it does not exist?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the UK Government’s representations to the Burmese Government. As I noted, we have made representations at both ministerial and ambassadorial level. He talks about the representations that the Foreign Secretary will make. I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary is aware of what is said in this House, as I am sure he already is. He cares very deeply about Burma, and the fact that he is going out there very soon should give the right hon. Gentleman a great deal of comfort.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the UN, and I stated the position on that: we support the UN special rapporteur. He will know that we have also been supportive of the Human Rights Council, but this is about building multilateral support for actions, and that is where we seek to work together with other partners.
Years ago, during the time of the Labour Government, I organised a debate in Westminster Hall about the persecution of the Karen people, which has been a long-standing serious situation. Those people gave us unstinting loyalty during the second world war, and they have been repaid with persecution ever since. What further steps can the Government take on that persecution, to ensure that the human rights of the Karen are protected?
Collectively in this House, we all care deeply about human rights, wherever they may be being affected. If my hon. Friend would like to write to me, I would be happy to take up that specific issue, but I make the general point that human rights absolutely matter to this House, to the Government and to the British people, and will continue to be at the forefront of everything the Foreign Office does.
Undoubtedly there is reason for concern at the military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority. I understand that Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that she welcomes the international community’s support and efforts in seeking peace and stability, and in building better relations with communities. I hope the Foreign Secretary will focus on that during his visit. The UN special rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, is on her fifth information-gathering visit, so does the Foreign Secretary intend to speak to her?
On whether the Foreign Secretary will be speaking to the special rapporteur, I will make sure he is aware of the right hon. Lady’s request. On our ongoing dialogue, she will know that the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which is led by Kofi Annan, was put in place last year and is due to produce a report in August. I have had a number of conversations with Kofi Annan about the work that is ongoing, so I hope she will appreciate that that is a clear example of what the British Government are doing to engage with the international community and others in Burma.
Given the scale of abuse by the Tatmadaw and a particularly uncharacteristically militant form of Buddhism, does the Minister accept that the unwelcome radicalisation of the Rohingya is only a question of time, that that time is short and that this needs to be treated with the appropriate sense of urgency?
We of course bring a sense of urgency to all the work that we try to do, particularly on human rights, but this process has, sadly, been ongoing for some time. It is about continuing to work together with international partners, non-governmental organisations and others in Burma, and continuing to make those representations. As I said, the Foreign Secretary hopes to meet the chief of the army when he is in Burma, and I hope we will have an opportunity to make our points clearly to the Tatmadaw then.
I welcome the Minister’s indication about the Foreign Secretary’s visit. Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear when he is in Burma that the interest of this House extends to seeing not only a continued transition in rule, but a real transformation in rights? The best way for that to begin is through a credible investigation at an international level, with reliable adherence to any robust recommendations that that investigation brings.
May I impress upon the Government the need to give attention to the unfolding tragedy in Kachin, with reports last week of 4,000 internally displaced people fleeing for their lives, particularly women and children, who have been moved on before and who need to get unfettered access to humanitarian aid? May I also draw attention again to the situation of the two Baptist pastors? Ministers surely must do all they can, with the UN special rapporteur there, to get the information that the family members need and not to accept the apparent approved response, with the absence being described as “enforced disappearance”, which is contrary to all international human rights.
My hon. Friend is a great champion of human rights, particularly those of minorities around the world. He puts his point about the pastors eloquently, and we will continue to make representations. On specific aid, I mentioned that the UK has provided £18 million in essential humanitarian and healthcare assistance, which of course has been in Kachin and the north Shan state, over the past four years.
On discussions with other Governments, our ambassador of course has discussions locally in Burma with counterparts. On the support we are giving, I talked about some of the numbers on the amount of money we are spending and what it is being spent on. We seek to work with NGOs and others on the ground to make sure that funds are getting through to where they are needed in these troubled areas.
I am sure the Minister will agree that the progress in seeing improved human rights has been painfully slow in Burma since the elections, which we had hoped would bring far more, given the flawed constitutional position that still exists. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s visit. Will the Minister update the House on what engagement we are having with regional partners to try to build the type of international consensus we need for further action through the UN?
As I have said on a number of occasions, we discuss these matters with a range of actors, including international partners. Right now, Kofi Annan’s independent commission is leading work in this area. We will continue to have a dialogue with Mr Annan and we look forward to his report.
I join the Minister in paying tribute to your interest in and work on behalf of the Burmese people over many years, Mr Speaker. We all welcome Burma moving out from the long dark years of military dictatorship, but we also hoped it would put behind it communal and religious conflict, too. Will the Minister therefore make it very clear to the Burmese authorities that their welcome re-entry into the international community will not be helped if they fail to protect minorities, particularly the Rohingya community?
The right hon. Gentleman of course makes a number of important points. On the work that is going on and what has happened since the election, he will be aware that the new Burmese Government released 300 political prisoners, began the abolition of draconian laws, initiated the peace process that I talked about and established the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by Kofi Annan. We have to give a huge amount of credit to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the work she has done in leading Burma to this stage. I agree with him that we need to keep pressing on humanitarian issues and to make sure that the rights of minorities are respected. However, as he will know, the military remain heavily involved in Burmese politics and they wrote the 2008 constitution, which grants them 25% of seats in Parliament, unelected.
On having an independent UN investigation into this matter, the Minister said initially that there needs to be a consensus. Then he said he would work together with others for a consensus. Can he go a step further than the answer he gave to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and say that rather than working with others, the UK will lead the way in building that consensus, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council?
May I give a specific example of the UN work we are doing and supporting? Several UN mechanisms are already in place, including, as I said earlier, the Human Rights Council resolution, which we support. It mandates the role of the UN special rapporteur on Burma, who is currently visiting the country, and we look forward to her report. As I have said already, we call for full and unimpeded access for her so that she can carry out her work.
Given the range of access issues that UN staff and missions have had in recent times, what discussions has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had with its counterparts in the Security Council to ensure that UN staff are given full and proper access to areas of concern, wherever in the world they may be?
We discuss issues of access to humanitarian rights with counterparts in the UN, as well as on a more bilateral basis. I assure the hon. Lady that we keep these issues at the forefront of our work, and will continue to make representations of the type she is pressing for.
Parliament was rightly moved by the house arrest of a single exceptional lady, but as it has not been mentioned during this urgent question, may I mention the situation of the Rohingya people? Hundreds are being attacked and many are being murdered. Their villages are being systematically burned or destroyed. Many are being sold into slavery with the complicity of Burmese authorities—the very authorities that treat the Rohingya as a non-people. My hon. Friend the Minister has avoided the challenges of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who said that it is not sufficient for the Government to co-operate; they need to lead UN support if the reports are true. So, for the third time, will the Minister say whether, if the reports are true and the Foreign Secretary comes back from Burma validating all that has been said, the Government will take up leadership at the UN to ensure that there is broad support and a resolution to follow?
I pray forgiveness if I have given the impression that I am dodging the questions, because that has not been my intention at all. The point I have been making is that we have to work together with partners to achieve an outcome. That is what we seek to do in this particular case, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do that.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and I have been approached by constituents who want to provide help directly to Rohingya communities that need it, in both Burma and Bangladesh. The Minister has talked about access for NGOs; what routes are currently open for the delivery of help where it is needed, and what advice can he give to those who want to help people who are currently suffering such extreme problems?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. The area we are discussing is very troubled, and the humanitarian help that is getting through has been quite limited in some parts. If he would like to meet outside of the House to discuss the specifics and who his constituents are, I would be very happy to see whether we can take the matter forward.
In response to a written question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the Foreign Office revealed that it had spent £300,000 and more on training the Burmese army. Would that money not be better spent on exposing and verifying human rights violations?
This question has come up before, but I can again confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the Ministry of Defence does not provide combat training. The UK is providing educational training to the Burmese military in the form of programmes delivered by the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom on the role of the military in a democracy, with leadership and England language training. We really do continue to believe that that is a useful thing to do to engage the next generation of the Burmese army.
Like other Members, I have been contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned about the treatment of the Rohingya community, which is often described as the world’s most persecuted religious minority. They struggle to understand why, after years of persecution, the brutality continues. The Minister talked about the importance of building consensus in the United Nations; will he elaborate on the barriers to consensus and what our diplomatic efforts with partners around the world can do to break them down?
Successive UK Governments have raised many long-standing humanitarian and other issues around the world, and we will of course continue to raise this one. I return to the point I made earlier: at the end of the day, this is also about engagement in Burma, particularly with the armed forces and armed services, and the Foreign Secretary hopes to meet the army chief. We can provide humanitarian support and support to the elected Government, and we can continue to have conversations, both in Burma and through our multilateral partners, to ensure that we keep this matter at the forefront, not only internationally but in Burma.
I commend you, Mr Speaker, for your interest in this subject and for bringing it to the forefront of our minds each and every day inside and outside the House.
The Minister will be aware that in the past few months the Burmese Government have introduced four new laws on race and religion. Those laws were made to protect but, unfortunately, instead of protecting they have built insurmountable hurdles for conversions and mixed marriages. Does the Minister agree that the disappearance of the two pastors is just the latest indication of the daily horrors faced in Burma? What representations have been made on behalf of Christians who fear uttering the very name of Jesus himself?
A few weeks ago in the House, I responded to a debate on human rights in which the hon. Gentleman made some powerful interventions. I know that he cares very deeply about minorities, and particularly the Christian community. As I have said, we continue to make the case, not only to the Burmese Government but internationally, that these matters are vital and that we must ensure there is no persecution of Christians or any other type of minority in that country. We will keep doing that. It is important that we have debates such as this in the House, because it shows the international community that the whole House cares very deeply about this matter.
The Burmese Government’s commission to investigate the violation of Rohingya human rights found insufficient evidence of such violations, which I find shocking given the fact that they continue to be one of the most persecuted communities. What direct conversations has the Minister had with the Burmese Government to challenge the accuracy of that ridiculous report?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government have also noted the interim report that has been produced by the investigation commission, which, as he intimated, indicates that no human rights abuses have taken place. That of course goes against the weight of testimony from a range of human rights sources; frankly, it is not credible. We call on the commission to demonstrate over the coming weeks the commitment made by the Burmese Government to an impartial investigation. We will of course wait to see what the final report says, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it needs to be credible for anyone to take it seriously.
First, I will not be in the Chamber tomorrow, Mr Speaker—I know you will miss me—but I know it will be your birthday, so may I take the opportunity to wish you an early happy birthday?
Minister, since the Burmese security forces started their campaign in October, it has been established that around 65,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the country. According to reports, the minority group has been subject to arson, rape and murder at the hands of the military. Such allegations are incredibly serious, so I ask the Minister—I believe for the fourth time—whether he will continue to call for the establishment of an independent investigation into the claims?
I mean that most sincerely.
In response to the hon. Lady, I hope I have made it clear today that the UK is pursuing a huge number of avenues to get humanitarian aid in and make the case for minorities. We are making it clear that we care deeply about these matters, and we will keep doing that. Going back to the approach from a UN perspective, the UN is already engaged in several areas, and we will continue that work and to make the case, because we want to ensure that there is resolution in this very troubled area.
I raised the issue of the Rohingya in Bangladesh with representatives of the Bangladesh Government before Christmas. The important point that I made was that they should not be looking to return people who are seeking refuge back into danger. On the aid that we are providing, the UK is the largest provider of food aid to the 34,000 Rohingya refugees already living in official camps in Bangladesh. Since 2014, the UK has provided nearly £8 million to address the humanitarian suffering of Rohingya refugees and the vulnerable Bangladeshi communities that host them.
I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the urgent question. I was meant to be in Burma this week with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. When we were briefed the other day, we were told that the visit had been delayed till May. The foundation indicated that, in addition to the two main parties, there are 92 other parties. Will the Minister consider how someone like me who has experienced the difficulties in Northern Ireland can help some of those parties to work together and to learn to respect the military so that we find a way forward? Such advice would be a great help for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
I am very happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman after this debate about the work that he is doing with the Westminster Foundation. On the discussions that we are having, it is Aung San Suu Kyi who is effectively leading the Government, and we have contact with her. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will meet her very soon on his visit to Burma. We continue to engage with all the actors, particularly through our ambassador. As I have said during this debate, the key thing is engagement with the military. At the end of the day, it is the military that is leading some of the issues over which we have some concerns, and it is vital that we continue to engage with it.
Promotion of Israeli-Palestinian Peace (United Kingdom Participation)
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 require the Secretary of State to promote the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace to support coexistence projects and civil society programmes; and for connected purposes.
As the House knows, recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a UN Security Council resolution; a major speech by the US Secretary of State John Kerry; and a further peace conference in Paris last weekend.
The barriers to a two-state solution are well known. As a strong friend of Israel, I admit freely, but with great regret, that these include the expansion of settlements on the west bank. Settlement building is wrong. It threatens the viability of a future Palestinian state—the case for which is unarguable. It does immense damage to Israel’s standing in the world, and, over time, it will put at risk that which is most precious about Israel’s character: its Jewish and democratic character.
However, as Secretary of State Kerry stated clearly, this is not to say
“that the settlements are the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict.”
There is also the incitement tolerated, and, in many cases, perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority. I am talking about the payment of “salaries” to those convicted of terrorist offences, and the naming of schools, streets and sports tournaments after so-called martyrs, thereby glorifying their violence. Then there is the greatest barrier of all: the rejectionist, anti-Semitic ideology of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, which denies Israel’s very right to exist, and the terrorism that inevitably flows from it.
My Bill today is not intended to downplay the importance of those barriers, although it will help to address some of the pernicious consequences arising from them. Instead, my Bill recognises that, as the example of Northern Ireland taught us, any peace process needs a political dimension, an economic dimension and a civil society dimension. Coexistence projects that bring together Israelis and Palestinians to advance the cause of mutual understanding, reconciliation and trust represent that civil society dimension. The world has paid it too little attention, investing only around £37 million a year in people-to-people projects for Israel and Palestine—that is less than £4 for each Israeli and Palestinian person each year.
Britain exemplifies this problem. From spending a pitiful £150,000 on coexistence projects in 2015-16, the Government, despite repeated warm words to the contrary, appear to have cut this funding altogether in the current financial year. I am pleased that the Secretary of State for International Development seems keen to right that wrong.
The absence of strong constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine is one of the results. Polling by the Israeli Democracy Institute and the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research last summer underlined the scale of the problem. Although 59% of Israelis and 51% of Palestinians still support a two-state solution, these already slim majorities are fragile, threatened by fear and distrust between the two peoples. Thus 89% of Palestinians believe Israeli Jews are untrustworthy; a feeling that is reciprocated by 68% of the latter. At the same time, 65% of Israeli Jews fear Palestinians and 45% of Palestinians fear Israeli Jews.
We should not place our hopes in the optimism of the young. After all, this is the generation that has no memory of the optimism engendered by the Oslo accords, but whose formative years have instead been marked by suicide bombings, the second intifada and perpetual conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Even if the peace process were in better health, these would hardly be the most solid foundations on which to build a lasting peace. However, we should recall that the seeds for the Good Friday agreement were sown at a similarly inauspicious moment during the height of the troubles, when the International Fund for Ireland was created. Over the past 30 years, it has invested £714 million in grassroots coexistence work in Northern Ireland. In all, more than 5,800 projects have been supported since it was established to promote economic and social advance and to encourage contact, dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and Unionists throughout Ireland. That investment has helped to provide the popular support that has helped to sustain the Good Friday agreement over nearly two decades.
With that example in mind, my Bill requires the Government to promote the establishment of the proposed international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. This has been designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of more than 90 organisations building people-to-people co-operation and coexistence. The fund aims to leverage and increase public and private contributions worldwide, funding civil society projects and joint economic development that promote coexistence, peace and reconciliation. It is envisaged that the $200 million-per-year fund—four times the current level of international support for people-to-people work in Israel and Palestine—would receive contributions of approximately 25% each from the US, Europe, the rest of the international community including the Arab world, and the private sector. The fund is not, I should emphasise, intended to receive support that otherwise would be provided directly to either the Palestinian Authority or to Israel.
We know that the coexistence projects in Israel and Palestine work. After two decades, there is now a significant body of evidence, based on academic and governmental evaluations, indicating the impact that coexistence projects can have. That impact, moreover, has been achieved in the face of considerable challenges. According to the United States Agency for International Development, those participating in people-to-people programmes report higher levels of trust, higher levels of co-operation, more “conflict resolution values”, and less aggression and loneliness. Evaluation of individual programmes underlines that impact.
Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow—MEET—is a truly inspiring project that brings together young Israelis and Palestinians to learn about technology and entrepreneurship. It found a 60% increase in the number of students who value working with someone from the “other side” after just one year on the programme. The Parents Circle Families Forum, an organisation of more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost a family member in the conflict, found that 70% of all participants had increased trust and empathy and that 84% were motivated to participate in peacebuilding activities in their communities.
I would ask, too, whether the Department for International Development can point to anything in its current funding that has moved the conflict closer to resolution. If coexistence work is to be held to a standard that demands that it demonstrate how it helps solve the conflict, surely other strategies that have not by themselves moved the ball forward should be held to the same standard.
Support for a renewed effort to promote coexistence work is strong and growing. It crosses international boundaries and political parties. The Quartet’s most recent report recommended a focus on civil society work for the first time since its founding. The Vatican, Jewish organisations and politicians on both left and right in Israel have all raised their voices in support. On Capitol Hill, two US Congressmen—Jeff Fortenberry and Joe Crowley—have worked across party lines, introducing a Bill in support of the international fund in the best traditions of US global leadership.
In this House, 56 of my Labour colleagues signed an open letter to the Secretary of State for International Development last month endorsing the fund, and I am delighted today to have the support of Members from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. I am particularly pleased that the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, is listed as one of the supporters of the Bill.
The late Shimon Peres, one of Israel’s founding fathers and most indefatigable peacemakers, once said:
“The way to make peace is not through governments. It is through people.”
He knew that, even in the most challenging of times, we must never give up on the search for peace. By supporting my Bill, the House can underline its support for that search.
Question put and agreed to.
That Joan Ryan, Ian Austin, Mrs Louise Ellman, Stephen Kinnock, Catherine McKinnell, Stephen Twigg, Chris Davies, Sir Eric Pickles, Will Quince, Paul Scully, Craig Tracey and Mr Alistair Carmichael present the Bill.
Joan Ryan accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 24 March and to be printed (Bill 126).
Leaving the EU: Security, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice
[Relevant documents: Third Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Chapter 29—Establishing a roadmap for a Security Union, HC 71-ii; Eighth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Chapter 19—Cross-border law enforcement cooperation—UK participation in Prüm, HC 71-vi; Eighth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Chapter 20—Preventing radicalisation and violent extremism, HC 71-vi; Twenty-fifth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Chapter 11—Enhancing security in a world on mobility, HC 71-xxiii; Eighteenth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Chapter 14—Establishing a Security Union: first progress report, HC 71-xvi; Twenty-first Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Europol; opt-in Debate, HC 71-xix; Third Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Chapter 27—Information systems to enhance EU border management and security, HC 71-ii; Seventh Report from the House of Lords European Union Committee, Brexit: future UK-EU security and police cooperation, HL Paper 77; oral evidence taken before the Home Affairs Committee on 6 December 2016 on EU policing and security issues, HC 806; oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 10 January on the implications of Brexit for the justice system, HC 750.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered exiting the EU and security, law enforcement and criminal justice.
I am pleased to introduce today’s debate on security, law enforcement and criminal justice—one of a number of debates that we will be having about our exit from the European Union. It is important that Members have the opportunity to discuss and debate leaving the EU. The Prime Minister underlined the importance of Parliament’s involvement in exit negotiations in her speech yesterday. This afternoon, Members have a chance to debate an area of our relationship with the EU that is crucial, not only to our negotiations but to the continued safety of both Europe and ourselves—citizens across Europe and the United Kingdom.
This debate will focus on how we work with the EU on security, law enforcement and criminal justice now and how we will work with our EU partners in the future. Co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism was one of the Government’s core negotiating objectives. The UK is leaving the EU, but as we have been clear, we are not leaving Europe. We are committed to strong co-operation on security, law enforcement and criminal justice now and when we leave. We will work with our European partners to find solutions that promote security across Europe and beyond.
The decision of the British people to leave the European Union does not alter the duty that we and all member states share collectively to keep our citizens safe and to protect our democratic way of life and the rule of law. In the face of the common threats that we face from terrorism, cyber-attacks and hostile foreign actors, maintaining strong EU-UK security co-operation is vital to our collective success in keeping citizens safe. It is difficult to see how it would be in anyone’s interests for exit negotiations to result in a reduction in the effectiveness of security, law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation.
I disagree with nothing that the Minister has said so far. We are leaders in Europe as far as co-operation on security and justice is concerned. Does the Minister agree that one of the most important aspects of the issue is information sharing? Access to ECRIS, the European criminal records information system, should be one of the key elements of our negotiations. We need to be able to reach the criminal records of those who have committed offences in the rest of Europe and to share information about those who commit offences in our country.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s agreement with my position so far. He makes an important point. I will come specifically to the issue of data sharing. As we all understand, we live in a world of global work; people are working across borders, particularly when it comes to criminality. We need to be well equipped to deal with that.
Criminality and terrorism are increasingly transnational. International organised crime groups exploit vulnerabilities such as inadequate law enforcement and criminal justice structures. Threats that we now face, such as cybercrime, which is moving ever more quickly, or online child sexual exploitation, are by definition international in a technologically interconnected world. The UK National Crime Agency’s most recent public estimate suggests that more than 6,000 organised crime groups are seeking to operate in the United Kingdom.
Will the Minister give me some reassurance on the issue of the European arrest warrant? Before the last election, during a debate in this House, the current Prime Minister, then Home Secretary, fought hard to get the warrant through the House in the face of some opposition from some Members. Will the Minister say whether we will secure the powers of the warrant post Brexit?
As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are at the start of negotiations. I cannot predict where we will end up. However, I will come specifically to the European arrest warrant and its implications for us in a few moments.
Criminal networks are driving migrant smuggling; Europol estimates that more than 90% of migrants travelling to the EU used facilitators—provided, in most cases, by criminal groups with an estimated turnover of €3 billion to €6 billion in 2015 alone. We are at the beginning of a complex process to agree a new relationship with the EU. This is new territory for both sides, and it is way too early to say exactly what that relationship will look like. I am sure there will be many and varied views expressed from around the Chamber today and in the months ahead, but I am also confident that nobody will argue against the importance of fighting cross-border crime and of defending security across Europe.
To reinforce that point, will the Minister concede that what we are talking about is a system of European criminal justice co-operation? Much of this is about practical co-operation and information sharing and does not largely touch on the substantive criminal law of the states. Sometimes it extends beyond member states of the European Union. Does not that reinforce the importance of the point about practicality?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a really important point, and he is absolutely right. Some members of and countries involved with organisations such as Europol are not part of the European Union, highlighting that they see the importance of ensuring that we share information efficiently and proactively to fight crime. It is absolutely right that we work to protect that ability. Whatever shape our future relationship with the EU takes, I hope that we can all agree that it should not compromise the safety of people in the UK or, indeed, the rest of Europe.
The Minister will be aware that one consequence of leaving the European Union, as the Prime Minister has indicated, is that we withdraw from, as she puts it,
“the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”.
But many of these justice co-operation functions ultimately come under the jurisdiction of the European Court. I find it difficult to understand what arrangement the Government envisage to address that issue—perhaps they wish to have a separate tribunal system set up to apply the rules—because, even for states outside the EU, the ECJ’s rulings on these key areas of security co-operation are very important.
I appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend’s point. One piece of work we will do during the negotiations is to ensure that we get something bespoke for the United Kingdom. One temptation is to look at what other countries have done. As I mentioned earlier, there are countries who work with Europol—the United States is a good example—that are not members of the EU and have found ways to make it work. We can look at those examples, but we actually need to develop a bespoke solution for the United Kingdom.
I just want to make a bit more progress.
The Prime Minister set out in her speech yesterday the Government’s negotiation objectives for Brexit, explaining that this Government plan to make Britain “stronger” and “fairer”, restoring “national self-determination” while becoming
“more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.”
We have a long record of playing a leading role, within Europe and globally, to support and drive co-operation to help to protect citizens and defend democratic values, and we have been leading proponents of the development of a number of the law enforcement and criminal justice measures that are now in place across the European Union. The Prime Minister reiterated yesterday that although June’s referendum was a vote to leave the EU, it was not a vote to leave Europe. We want to continue to be reliable partners, willing allies and close friends with the European countries.
On a practical level, there has been no immediate change to how we work with the EU following the referendum, as the recent decision just before Christmas to seek to opt into the new legislation framework for Europol, the EU policing agency, demonstrates. The UK will remain a member of the EU with all the rights and obligations that membership entails until we leave. The way in which we work with the EU, of course, will have to change once we leave and we must now plan for what our new relationship will look like. The views that hon. Members express here today will be helpful in that regard, including, no doubt, that of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne).
I just want to follow up on the incredibly important question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). We are the proud authors of human rights in Europe. It is a tradition that dates back to Magna Carta. Will the Minister confirm that when the Government bring forward their proposals on a British Bill of Rights, nothing in the draft for discussion will propose that we leave the European convention on human rights or the European Court of Human Rights?
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to give a running commentary and to prejudge the outcome of the negotiations and work in the couple of years ahead, but I will resist. However, I will say that while we remain a member of the EU we recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the measures that we have opted into. It is too early to speculate on exactly what our relationship with the European Court of Justice will be after we leave the EU. That work will be done as we go forward.
I have already spoken to several counterparts in Europe, as have the Home Secretary and many of my colleagues across Government. In my conversations with colleagues across Europe, I have been encouraged by their view that it is essential to find a way for our shared work on security to continue, but we do have questions about how that should happen in practice and we need to work through answering them. This will be complex and subject to negotiation. We are committed to finding a way forward that works for the UK and the European Union. The Home Office is working with Departments—such as that of the Minister of State, Department for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who will be closing the debate—across Whitehall to analyse the full range of options for future co-operation.
We are liaising closely with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations as it is crucial to ensure that we find a way forward that works for all of the UK. We are drawing on the invaluable frontline experience of operational partners such as the National Crime Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service, and I am grateful for the ongoing contributions of all those organisations. The work is being drawn together with the support of our colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union and will form part of our wider exit negotiation strategy.
I will make a bit of progress before I give way again.
Our current model of EU co-operation centres on a number of legal agreements or tools. Broadly speaking, the tools provide the frameworks for practical co-operation arrangements and information-sharing mechanisms, as hon. and right hon. Members have mentioned, as well as establishing minimum operating standards to support cross-border judicial and law enforcement co-operation. They include measures such as the European arrest warrant, Europol, the European criminal record information system, prisoner transfer agreeme