House of Commons
Tuesday 21 February 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 28 February (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE
The Secretary of State was asked—
US Administration: UK Foreign Policy
I met Rex Tillerson in Bonn last Thursday and Friday. We had some very good conversations, and I am sure we will have many more meetings in the weeks and months ahead to entrench and deepen a relationship that has been part of the foundation of global peace and prosperity for the past 70 years.
The right hon. Gentleman will know very well that the Government did not support the travel measures that were introduced by the Executive order. They were not something we would commend to this House and it was not the kind of policy we would like to see enacted in this country, and we made that very clear to our friends in America. It was by engaging constructively with the White House and others that we were able to secure the important clarification that the Executive order would make absolutely no difference to any British passport holder, irrespective of their country of birth.
I am pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary’s reports of the discussions he had with the Secretary of State, but will he tell us a bit more about how he plans to manage the important tripartite relationship between the UK, the EU and the US, post-Brexit?
The hon. Lady asks a good question. Obviously, on some things we will differ from our American friends—we have just had an example of that—but on some areas we will perhaps wish to stiffen the spines of our European friends. I can think of issues such as sanctions over Ukraine, on which some EU members are not in quite the same space as we are. As would be expected, the policy of the United Kingdom would be to stick up for UK interests and values and—if I can use a bit of jargon—to triangulate dynamically between the two.
On standing up for British interests, Mr Trump’s track record suggests that any deals he agrees to are likely to be to our disadvantage. What will the Foreign Secretary do to ensure that British businesses benefit from any deals with the United States, not just American ones?
If I may say so, it is important to be clear-eyed about American power and success in negotiating trade agreements and to recognise that we will have to be on our mettle to get a good deal for this country. Nevertheless, I have absolutely no doubt that we will be able to do such a deal. It is a great shame that in 44 years of EU membership we have not been able to secure a free trade deal with the United States. That is now on the table.
In his discussions with the American Secretary of State, did the Foreign Secretary discuss the best opportunity for a state visit by President Trump? Did he put forward my suggestion that the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers in 2020 would be a much better occasion for a state visit than one in the course of the next few months, which is likely to be a rallying point for every discontent in the United Kingdom?
I thank my hon. Friend for his interesting suggestion; I am afraid to say that it is not one I had time to make to our American counterparts. Let us see how the matter of the state visit evolves. The invitation has been issued and accepted, and I am sure it will be a great success.
Next time he meets the Secretary of State, will my right hon. Friend tell him that if the current discussions between the US Department of Defence and the State Department lead to their recommending to President Trump that they put American ground troops in northern Syria to combat ISIS, the British Government will not be following them?
I have to tell my right hon. Friend that I am not aware of any such proposal. Nor do I think, having listened quite attentively to the language being used by the White House and the State Department, that we are going to see the imminent contribution of ground troops in that theatre. Nevertheless, the advent of the Trump Administration does offer the possibility of new thinking on Syria and the hope of a new way forward.
Last week, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and I went to Jordan as guests of Oxfam, and we met a number of Syrian refugees, notably Khalid who lives in the Zaatari refugee camp. He was due to start a new life in America literally within the next few weeks. It is difficult to put into words his sense of despair that all his hopes and dreams for a new life have been shattered by President Trump’s decision to ban all refugees from going to America. When my right hon. Friend next gets the opportunity, will he please not hesitate to tell President Trump that this ban on refugees brings great shame on his country and that he should lift it immediately?
My right hon. Friend will know full well that we have already expressed our disagreement with the travel ban and the policy on refugees. I think she was in the House when I explained the Government’s view on that policy. By contrast, this country can be extremely proud of the fact that it not only supports that particular camp in Jordan—indeed, we have recently agreed another £30 million to support that individual operation—but is the second biggest contributor to the humanitarian effort in the region, with £3.2 billion already pledged.
But has policy triangulation not meant that the British Foreign Secretary is trying to anticipate what American policy will be and then to mimic it? Interpreting what American policy will be or who will be implementing it must be very difficult just now, so will he at least wait to see what the policy is before, for example, changing policies such as the two-state solution in the middle east?
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the policy on the two-state solution in the middle east remains unchanged not only for Her Majesty’s Government, but, so too, to the best of my knowledge, for the United States’ Government, to judge by the recent press conference. For the guidance of the House, let me just say that it is my general impression that the policy of the United States is migrating ever more towards a position of congruence with our policy rather than the reverse.
Was it the Foreign Secretary’s idea to offer a state visit to President Trump after seven days in office? Given that the Foreign Secretary once famously declared that he would not go to New York in case he was mistaken for Mr Trump, is there any chance that President Trump will not come to London on a state visit in case he is mistaken for the Foreign Secretary?
I am embarrassed to say that I was mistaken for Mr Trump in—I think—Newcastle, which rather took me aback. It also happened in New York, which was a very humbling experience for me. I cannot say who was the exact progenitor of the excellent idea to accord an invitation to the President to come on a state visit, but the invitation has been issued. It is a wholly appropriate thing for the British Government to do, and it will be a great success.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when there is fresh fighting in Ukraine and when Russia continues to carry out large-scale exercises close to the borders of the Baltic state, some of them with nuclear capable equipment, there has never been a time in recent years when our relationship with America and keeping NATO together have been so important for Europe as a whole?
My hon. Friend is completely right, which is why it was so important that our Prime Minister, on her very successful recent visit to the White House, secured from Donald Trump the 100% commitment to our NATO alliance, which has been the guarantor of peace in our times.
We know that Trump’s Muslim ban adopts Daesh’s narrative, which is that it is the west against Islam. In fact, the Home Secretary said that it would bolster terrorists at home and abroad. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence about the increased threat to UK national security as a result of Trump’s immoral and racist policies?
We remain constantly vigilant against the terror threat as a result of all international policies, but, as I have said before, the seven countries in question were previously singled out by the Obama Administration for particularly tough visa restrictions. The hon. Lady will be aware that this Government have already signalled their disapproval of the ban to which Opposition Members are rightly objecting.
Rex Tillerson was absolutely clear that he regards the relationship with the United Kingdom as one of pivotal importance for his country. Indeed, NATO is of pivotal importance for the safety not just of European countries, but of the United States. He was also clear, of course, that the UK will be at the front of the queue for a new trade deal.
President Trump boasts of running a finely tuned machine, but the truth is that American policy is under review when it comes to all the world’s major crises—from Ukraine to Syria, and Afghanistan to North Korea. I hear from the Secretary of State that there is new thinking, but we have yet to see anything coherent coming out of America. The finely tuned machine has not so much stalled as not yet got going. The resulting vacuum is being filled by the Russians, with peace talks on Syria and Afghanistan taking place without US or UK involvement. Is the Secretary of State happy to keep waiting for President Trump’s cue or is he capable of thinking for himself? Will we see a British initiative in any of these countries; and, if so, where is he going to start and what is the plan?
The finely tuned machine that is the Labour party is a fine one to offer any kind of political advice to the American Administration. As the right hon. Lady knows very well, the UK has, in fact, been in the lead in trying to find a solution in Yemen, and in trying to maintain the commitment to AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia. She should recognise, in all fairness, that the current area of diplomacy being considered by the United States in respect of Syria is a course that the UK has principally advocated—one in which the Russians and the Iranians are separated in their interests, and we move towards a political solution and a transition away from the barbarism of the Assad regime.
I have to say that if that’s a plan, I’m a monkey’s uncle. The fact is that the Government have been frozen out of negotiations on some of the most pressing issues we face. Take Afghanistan, where there have been 450 British fatalities over 15 years. The American army general on the ground, John Nicholson, describes the fighting as having reached a stalemate that may take several thousand more troops to break. In the meantime, Russian-led peace negotiations are going on in the absence of America, the United Kingdom and, in fact, every other NATO member, so I ask the Secretary of State again: when will we start seeing some leadership from this Government?
If the right hon. Lady is referring to Russian-led peace talks in Afghanistan, I think she is in error. Perhaps she is talking about the Astana talks on Syria. It is strongly our view and the view of all Syria-supporting countries that those negotiations should resume as soon as possible in Geneva.
The right hon. Lady talks about the UK’s contribution to Afghanistan, and I think that she and the whole House can be very proud of the sacrifice made by those 456 British troops who lost their lives over the past 15 years. Hundreds of thousands of women in Afghanistan are now being educated as a result of the sacrifice made by British troops and the investment in that country by the British people. There are people who are now getting food, water and sanitation, which they would not otherwise have received.
The Foreign Secretary and I took part in the Geneva conference on the Cyprus settlement on 12 January. We welcome the Cypriot leaders’ commitment to resuming political level talks next month. We are keen to maintain momentum and stand ready to bring negotiations to a successful conclusion.
It is up to the two sides to decide what future security arrangements they want for a united Cyprus that will enable both communities to feel secure. As a guarantor power, the UK is playing a supportive role and is open to any arrangement that is acceptable to the two communities.
I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that Northern Ireland has had a partnership Government who have moved forward, bringing communities together. What has been done to offer advice from Northern Ireland to bring forward a political process that works, especially in relation to gas and oil exploitation, which could benefit all of Cyprus?
I think the example of Northern Ireland is an example to the whole world, and it has been of benefit in the likes of Nepal and Colombia. The issue of Cyprus is slightly different, but I hope that the lessons from Northern Ireland can be taken into account and that they can help inform the progress we would like to see in Cyprus.
Does the Minister agree with the view of the all-party parliamentary group, which visited Cyprus last week, that the best hope for a solution is the dedication and courage of both Cypriot leaders, freely negotiating, and a realisation in the communities that the status quo of a divided Cyprus is untenable? Does he agree that we need to ensure that Turkey gets that when it comes to security and guarantees?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I think we all applaud the good faith and dedication of the two leaders, who are working tirelessly towards a solution. There are other ingredients that are necessary, such as the co-operation of the two main countries next door, Greece and Turkey, and—this is very important—successful referendums in each community.
The last time negotiations in Cyprus seemed close to a deal, the effort collapsed when hackers broke into the UN’s computer systems and the documents were leaked to a pro-Russian Cypriot newspaper. The inflamed communal tensions that followed had a major role in scuppering the chance of a deal. What assurance can the Minister give that lessons have been learned from that experience and that proper safeguards are now in place to protect the negotiations from any undue influence from outside?
Global Britain Campaign
Global Britain is a programme to help to explain to the world, but also to the people of this country, what I think they do not often suspect, which is the full range of Britain’s military, cultural, commercial and diplomatic influence in the world. It is important to do that now, particularly as we make our Brexit—or Bre-entry into the world, as we should perhaps call it—to help people to understand that a more global Britain will be a more prosperous Britain.
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that over the next 10 years we will, for instance, be spending £178 billion on defence—we are one of the few countries in NATO to contribute 2% of our GDP to defence. As a result, there will be more funds available, for instance, to support companies in Yeovil, such as the helicopter company Leonardo MW, which, as far as I know, builds Wildcat submarine-hunting helicopters, among other vital bits of kit.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, in addition to defence spending, soft power—including the effective use of aid and increasing levels of trade and investment, which are helping businesses to find the most suitable partners—remains an essential part of the UK’s approach to boosting security in some of the more dangerous parts of the world?
I quite agree. Perhaps I can just give Members one stunning fact, which should seldom be off their lips when selling UK universities, for instance, to the world: of the Kings, Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers in the world today, one in seven was educated in this country, and London has more international students than any other city in the world.
Could we have a note of honesty in terms of an assessment of the nasty little hard Brexit campaign? Will the Foreign Secretary, instead of insulting the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as he did last week, take seriously the danger to this country of a hard Brexit? The people of this country did not sign a blank cheque, and they want a real vote on how good the deal is with Europe as we leave it.
I do not think that anybody could seriously say that the former Prime Minister has been insulted by any remarks I made last week. What I was trying to get over was my strong feeling that the debate was had last year and everybody understands that we are going forward with a new approach for this country— a global approach. It will be a clean Brexit and, I think, a highly successful Brexit, as the Prime Minister has said.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that the UK is one of the only countries in the world to contribute 0.7% of GNI to overseas development. We have a fantastic record not just in Sudan but across Africa. He is right to draw attention to the approaching famine in South Sudan. We have sent 400 troops to help deal with that emergency.
We remain deeply concerned about the UK consular cases in Iran and continue to raise them with the Iranian Government at every opportunity, including when I visited Tehran last month and when the Foreign Secretary met his counterpart, Javad Zarif, in the margins of the Munich security conference.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He is familiar with the case of Mr Foroughi, a 77-year-old father and grandfather to constituents of mine who has been detained in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for almost six years. Does my hon. Friend agree that at a time when Iran and the west’s relationships are under increasing scrutiny, the exercise of clemency in this case, and others like it, would demonstrate Iran’s commitment to constructive engagement with the international community?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I am grateful for the work that he has done in liaison with the family. I was able to meet Kamran Foroughi, the son, on 25 January. I spoke to Ambassador Baeidinejad about the case this morning and when I visited Tehran last month. I am pleased to see that Mr Foroughi is now going to receive the health test that he has been requesting, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a case for clemency there that I hope will be answered.
Is anyone in the British Government able to make direct contact with the Iranian revolutionary guard, because they are the people who are arresting and falsely imprisoning our nationals? Surely if we are speaking only to the puppets in Tehran, no one from Britain is going to be safe to visit that country.
I think we should be careful in the language we use. The Iranians, like those in many countries, do not recognise dual nationality, and therefore we have to conduct these matters with diplomacy. Our avenue with the Iranians, which was not there a couple of years ago, is through the Iranian Foreign Ministry and our interlocutors there. We have had communications from our Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, as I said, and now me, with our embassy opening as well.
EU: Science and Technology
The Prime Minister made clear on 17 January the high priority this Government place on their science relationship with Europe. The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), is in regular contact on this issue with his European counterparts, including the European commissioner.
The Government aim to secure the best possible outcome for UK science and research as we leave the European Union. The EU and the UK have publicly emphasised the importance of continuing to work together to produce high-quality research, so both at home and abroad we will remain at the forefront of science and research.
In paragraph 10.14 of their White Paper, the Government tell us that they
“would welcome agreement…with our European partners”
on science and technology issues, but they give no indication of how that agreement will be achieved—no timetable, no detail and absolutely no guarantees. Will the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place, rather than simply telling us that the Government have had discussions?
The Government are committed to strengthening our Commonwealth engagement, in continuing the theme of global Britain, and we look forward to hosting the Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting in March and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018.
We should not forget that the network of 52 states is very important to Great Britain. It has a combined population of 2.2 billion people, including 1 billion people under the age of 25. In the post-Brexit environment, we are looking for trade deals. When we travel across Africa, and indeed the Commonwealth in general, the first question that is asked is, “What are the opportunities for Britain, now that you are liberated from doing business through Brussels?” The ministerial meeting that is coming up is a great opportunity for us to embark on looking towards the trade deals that we need for the future.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the cross-party majority in the vote on the EU-Canada trade deal? What priority is the Minister giving to completing that deal and ensuring that similar arrangements are made with our Commonwealth Canadian friends and cousins post-Brexit?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are contained until article 50 has gone through, but Canada is another example—along with the United States, of which the Foreign Secretary made mention—of where we can push forward trade deals to the benefit of the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the Minister, who has responsibility for Africa, on visiting nine countries on the continent along with three other Ministers over the recess. May I encourage him not just to look at the existing Commonwealth and at bringing in old players such as Gambia, but to get Zimbabwe back and, off the back of Mozambique and Rwanda, perhaps to look at inviting the Ivory Coast?
My hon. Friend, with his experience, is absolutely right. The Foreign Secretary has been to Gambia, Ghana and Liberia, and I was in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Again, I stress the opportunities there. As we venture across Africa, there are huge opportunities for Great Britain to advance our trade deals post-Brexit.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. These are countries with which we have a history and a relationship. We are trusted, and through organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the British Council and our embassies, consulates and high commissions we can certainly do that work. We hope to embark on such projects with Bangladesh and other countries across the Commonwealth.
With the Commonwealth encompassing 52 members and a third of the world’s population, is it not vital that we set out our stall for Britain by saying that we want a free trade deal with Commonwealth countries, and that the Government put forward a plan for achieving that—not least in tomorrow’s Westminster Hall debate on this subject, which I have secured?
I am sure, after that advertisement, that Westminster Hall will be packed tomorrow. My hon. Friend is right: Commonwealth trade will surpass $1 trillion by 2020, and trade across the Commonwealth is estimated to be actually 20% cheaper because of common legal systems and language and, indeed, trust. Those are exactly the areas to which we need to aspire, given our leadership role in the Commonwealth.
But 90% of those who live in the Commonwealth live in countries where homosexuality is illegal. Tanzania has, only this week, announced that it intends to publish lists of people in the public domain who are meant to be homosexual. That is a massive danger to those individuals, and it poses further risks to others because Tanzania is trying to close down all the HIV/AIDS units and to blame homosexuality for HIV. Do we not need to enter all our negotiations with our Commonwealth colleagues with our eyes wide open and making it very clear that we will not put up with this kind of thing?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point. I will be visiting Tanzania soon, and I will certainly take that message with me. It is important to understand that, in the trade advances we are making across Africa, we do not miss the opportunity to raise delicate matters such as this, so that 21st-century standards can be met.
We maintain excellent relations with Japan. We have close defence co-operation, and the recent visit by RAF Typhoons was a very visible demonstration of that co-operation. Japanese businesses employ 140,000 people in the UK, which shows our strong economic ties.
Does my hon. Friend agree that North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, shows how important it is that we maintain strong military and security relationships with our friends in Japan and South Korea, as well as strong trade relationships?
The actions of North Korea are a direct violation of multiple Security Council resolutions and a threat to international peace and security, not least to our friends in Japan and South Korea. Last week, as the House will know, the North Korean ambassador was summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where we made clear the UK’s concerns. Japan is of course our closest security partner in Asia, but we also enjoy close co-operation with South Korea, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies.
Does the Minister agree that the innovative technology sector is very important for trade between Japan and the United Kingdom, in which we in Northern Ireland excel? Will he ensure that the sector is promoted very heavily in Japanese-United Kingdom relationships for the benefit of the Japanese workforce, but particularly of those who are developing the sector here?
As I have said, we of course enjoy very close trade relations with Japan. When I was in Japan last year, I met Japanese companies. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the biggest ever acquisition in the UK out of Asia was the acquisition of ARM Holdings by SoftBank for £24 billion.
Last week, the Scottish Government’s external affairs Minister visited Japan to boost foreign investment, but the hard Tory Brexit is causing a cloud of uncertainty. Given the pending EU-Japan free trade agreement, will the isolationist hard Brexit agenda leave the UK trailing behind?
Along with ministerial colleagues, I talk regularly to Japanese businesses to hear their views. May I just say that, since the date of the referendum, a huge amount of investment from Japan into the UK has been confirmed? I have referred to the ARM Holdings deal, but, as the hon. Lady will know, Nissan has reaffirmed the super-plant in Sunderland. If that is not a vote of confidence in the UK, I do not know what is.
Yes, indeed. I met Prime Minister Netanyahu and repeated the historic UK position, which is that we believe the settlements on the west bank are illegal and constitute a barrier to a peaceful settlement in the region.
We are aware of the preparations being made by Hamas in Gaza and we remain very concerned about the situation. It underscores the reality that while Israel is of course at fault for the expansion of settlements in the west bank—we have made that absolutely clear—on the other hand nobody should underestimate the very real security threat facing Israel. We are firmly on the side of the Israelis as they face that threat.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware that just two days ago dozens of stop-work orders, which are usually regarded as precursors to demolition orders, were distributed in the village of Khan al-Ahmar, including to a primary school that serves over 170 children from local Bedouin communities? He may or may not know that the school is being visited by a large number of hon. Members from this House, and that if demolitions take place there to make way for settlements the chances of a viable Palestinian state will disappear. Is he making representations on this matter, and what action will he take to ensure that Mr Netanyahu heeds those representations?
Does my right hon. Friend think that our opposition to settlements is somewhat diluted by treating all settlements equally? The Oslo accords and the late President Arafat recognised that there would be land swaps. Would it not be better, as the Prime Minister said, to concentrate on new settlements and leave the existing settlements for a final decision?
The Government’s policy is unchanged. We regard settlements as illegal insofar as they are in occupied Palestinian territories. Members will be absolutely clear that sooner or later—I hope sooner rather than later—there will be a deal and an understanding that involves land swaps. As my right hon. Friend rightly says, we will have to show some sense when it comes to doing that deal.
Alongside concerns about the rearmament of Hamas and the rebuilding of its network of cross-border terror tunnels, does my right hon. Friend share the growing alarm at the new activities of Daesh in the Sinai desert, which, together with the activities of Hamas, point to the prospect of further violence in the region and a new wave of terror attacks on innocent Israeli citizens?
My right hon. Friend is completely right. What he says underscores the need for a regional solution that brings together all the states surrounding Israel to do a deal that brings the Palestinians, finally, to the table, and brings concessions from the Israelis.
Is not the truth of the matter that the Israeli authorities have at no stage over the years ever wanted a viable independent Palestinian state? President Trump’s inane comments have strengthened the ultras in Israel. What encouragement can one give to the Palestinian people in view of the continuing destruction of their homes and the building of settlements by Israelis?
Every Israeli Prime Minister in the last 20 years has supported a two-state solution, and that is the right way forward. It is the policy of the UK Government and remains the policy of the US Government. The difficulty will be to get a deal that not only allows the creation of the Palestinian state that I think everybody wants to achieve, but protects the security of the state of Israel.
But last week President Trump said very clearly on televisions across the world that he could “live with either one” of a two-state or one-state solution. I am sure the Foreign Secretary agrees it is deeply disappointing that the President could casually disregard so many years of international consensus on a possible peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people. Did Mr Netanyahu give any hint at his recent meeting with the Prime Minister that he too was prepared to live with a one-state solution? If so, what was her response?
Let us be absolutely clear. As both the President and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and indeed the Palestinians, have said, there needs to be dialogue, but at the moment I do not think that the Palestinians are committing to dialogue in the way they could and should be. It takes two to negotiate. We have seen no progress over the last eight years. Let us not rule out the possibility of progress today.
Leaving the EU: Defence
We are strongly committed to European scrutiny and will remain so after we leave the EU. NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence, and we will continue to play our full part in supporting European security, particularly in eastern Europe.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to NATO, but does he not find it as depressing as I do that while other EU countries are completely obsessed with creating an EU defence identity, they are failing miserably to meet their NATO requirement of spending a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence? Is not the foot-dragging by Germany, the richest country in Europe, and its refusal to honour that commitment until 2024 particularly perverse?
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Will the Minister confirm that even when we leave the EU it will be open to us to democratically agree such sanctions with the rest of the EU where it is in our mutual interest?
That is not specifically a question about defence policy, as on the Order Paper, but none the less I can reassure the hon. Lady that the answer is yes. Some kind of parallel structure for implementing sanctions will be required and I am sure will be agreed.
Burma has made welcome progress towards democracy since embarking on reforms in 2011. It has lifted media censorship and released political prisoners, and held legitimate elections in 2015. The military remains powerful, however, and under the constitution is granted 25% of the seats in Parliament. Clearly, we want to see a transition to full democracy.
The National League for Democracy, in power at the moment, continues to lock up those of its own activists who have spoken against the excesses of Burma’s military and its treatment of ethnic minorities. Will the Minister make it clear to the Burmese Government that it cannot be recognised as genuinely democratic if it keeps putting its critics behind bars?
Human rights are vital, of course, and we always ask any Government to make sure that they are observed. More broadly, the issues right now are stopping the violations, securing humanitarian access and delivering accountability in parts of Burma where it is lacking, and those are precisely the points my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary pressed the Burmese Government and the military on when he visited Burma last month.
Burma’s Rohingya Muslims were banned from voting in last year’s elections, and have since been excluded from dialogue between the military and other ethnic minority groups. Endemic violence against the Rohingya has recently been described by UN officials as ethnic cleansing that may amount to crimes against humanity. Did the Foreign Secretary raise the plight of the Rohingya with Daw Suu and the generals on his recent trip to Burma?
By the next time I answer questions in the House, the Government will have invoked article 50. My priority for the rest of the year therefore will be to ensure the smoothest and cleanest possible departure from the EU consistent with maintaining close co-operation with our European friends. I shall also strive—the Opposition can never achieve this—to work alongside the new US Administration as we deal with common challenges posed by Russia and the crises in the middle east.
In July 2015, the highest court in Colombia decided that Her Majesty’s Government had discriminated against its embassy employee, Mr Darwin Ayrton Moreno-Hurtado, on the basis of his ethnic identity and religious convictions. The court ordered his immediate reinstatement, yet Her Majesty’s Government stubbornly continue to refuse to obey the court in Colombia. Does the UK Government not take seriously the judicial decisions of courts in Colombia, or do they not take seriously the need to cease ethnic and religious discrimination against their employees in Columbia?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows—I have written to him in detail—it is impossible to reinstate that person as the job no longer exists.
I am sure the whole House will welcome the recent positive political developments in the Gambia. The Gambian authorities are already investigating allegations that the former President Jammeh smuggled millions of dollars’ worth of assets out of the country before his departure last month. What steps are the Government taking to help track down any missing assets, including any that might have ended up in the UK, and to make sure that any proceeds of corruption are returned to the Gambia without delay?
We are doing everything we can to support the Gambia’s judicial system. The hon. Lady will know that the new President Barrow has indicated that he would like the UK to be the Gambia’s principal partner of choice in tackling corruption in that country and putting the Gambia back on an even keel. I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that when I recently went to the Gambia, there were crowds in the street dancing—[Interruption.] Not necessarily because they were pleased to see me—perhaps they were—but because they were delighted that the Gambia was being welcomed back into the Commonwealth. I can say that their joy was unconfined.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I hesitate to advise the British public what to watch on television, but I have to say that I think they will exercise their infinite sagacity and wisdom in not heeding the siren voices of those who try to overturn the democratic decision of this country’s people last year to embark on a course that I think will lead us not only to democratic emancipation, but to a new course of global prosperity.
We discuss a wide range of issues with the Indian authorities. As for the specific issue raised by the hon. Lady, earlier in the year the state Government of Jammu and Kashmir ordered the establishment of special investigating teams to look into deaths of civilians and the involvement of police personnel during the five-month-long unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir, and we will of course monitor their reports closely.
There were also crowds of people to welcome us when we arrived in Ghana a week or two ago. Although we could not quite work out whether the welcome was for us or for the Minister for Trade and Investment, it was thoroughly enjoyable nevertheless.
It seems to me that the greater the number of trading connections that we forge, particularly in west Africa, the stronger the foundation on which to build good international relations will be. Does my right hon. Friend agree that withdrawal from the European customs union will give us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost our diplomatic relations worldwide?
I thank my hon. Friend for his work as trade envoy to Ghana. Indeed, I thank all our trade envoys, who do a fantastic job around the world. It is thanks to the efforts of my colleague the Minister for Trade and Investment and others that we are seeing increased trade with countries such as Ghana, and I was very proud to see British firms operating there. I believe that the largest single private sector employer in Ghana is a firm run by a Brit. We should all be proud of the contribution that those firms are making.
The House gave a clear mandate, 6:1, to give the people the decision on whether to stay in the European Union. All sorts of threats and all sorts of blandishments were made to the people of this country to persuade them to vote to stay in. Those threats and those warnings have proved to be fallacious, and I think that all future such threats will be taken with a pinch of salt.
I fully accept that we need to give all the 3.2 million EU nationals in this country the maximum possible certainty, and that we should do it as fast as we possibly can. Unfortunately, however, I do not think it is reasonable to do it before giving certainty to UK nationals in other EU countries. We would like to get on with that as fast as possible, and it is up to our friends and colleagues abroad to join us.
I really must accuse the hon. Gentleman of failing to listen to the answer that I gave a few moments ago. I am not here to defend or explain what the American President said, but he made it very clear that there should be dialogue, and he also made it very clear that he thought that the illegal settlements should no longer continue. The solution is a deal between the two parties, and that is what everyone in the House believes and wants.
Today, once again, the ghastly prospect of famine stalks the world in four countries with which Britain has very close and long-standing historical connections: Yemen, north-east Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure, perhaps through the co-ordinating mechanism of the National Security Council, that every sinew of government is bent to address and combat this unconscionable situation?
Yes, I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance. The whole House can be very proud of the work being done by the Department for International Development, and the huge contribution this country makes through UK aid to all four of the regions he identifies. He has recently been to Yemen, and he will know that this is a very difficult and intractable problem, but it is the UK who is trying to knock heads together and get a deal.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any global Britain strategy should include the whole of the global British family, which means the British overseas territories and the Crown dependencies? What guarantees will the Government give that they will be included in any new arrangements post-Brexit?
I am certain I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. I know that one prime focus of his thoughts is Gibraltar, and I can assure him that the sovereignty position remains totally unchanged. Gibraltar is fully involved in the preparations for the process of leaving the European Union.
The UN high commissioner for human rights has issued a substantive report on the widespread human rights violations, and of course the UN special rapporteur also referred to violations in her recent press briefing. A full report is due in March. In the light of these two reports, the UK will consider, with international partners, the scope for further enhancing scrutiny of the military’s actions in Rakhine. I can confirm that I will be attending the Human Rights Council.
Brexit provides an opportunity to review the role of the FCO, which has been woefully under-resourced for far too long. Does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agree that there should be a moratorium on any asset disposals until such a review is complete, and that such a review should also examine how finally to bring other Departments with overseas representatives under the control of the respective heads of mission?
I am delighted for the support from my right hon. Friend in campaigning for proper funding for our diplomatic missions overseas. It is true that we have an absolutely unparalleled network around the world, and it is also true that the missions will be needed more than ever as we forge a new global future. That point will be heard loud and clear by the current occupant of the Treasury, who was, after all, the previous Foreign Secretary.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I will be visiting Riyadh this week and having discussions with President Hadi and, indeed, Adel al-Jubair. We are concerned that we need to move towards a political resolution, and we want the military component that has been taking place to end.
The Israeli Prime Minister has recently spoken about coming together with the Gulf Co-operation Council on security issues. Countries such as Jordan and Egypt have played a significant role in previous peace processes. Does the Foreign Secretary think that the GCC has a significant role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
My hon. Friend brings a wealth of knowledge to this subject. I do think that the GCC and the Arab countries more generally hold the key, and that a variant of what used to be called the Arab peace plan is indeed where we will end up. What it will take now is for both sides to see that, and to make progress.
The announcement by Toshiba last week regarding NuGen will mean that new foreign investment will be required for the Moorside nuclear development. Does this not place a new question mark over the UK’s decision to pull out of Euratom, which will create more instability for the industry?
We all look forward to the day when a sovereign Palestinian state exists alongside a safe and secure Israel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that can be achieved only through face-to-face negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis?
With Iran testing missiles, Russia plotting coups and North Korea murdering dissidents, does the Foreign Secretary agree that now is the time to renew western resolve and leadership, which has sometimes been lacking during the past eight years?
I completely agree. One of the interesting phenomena of the global reaction to the new US President is how much it is at variance with some of the commentary I have heard from the Opposition Benches this morning. When I go around the world, I find that many people in foreign ministries and other Governments are hopeful that they will see American leadership again where it has been lacking. They are particularly encouraged by the role of the United Kingdom in helping to transmit and improve American policy.
Last week I led a delegation to Kosovo, and I can tell my right hon. Friend that the President, the Prime Minister and others that we met there greatly appreciated his visit. May I invite him to reaffirm our continued support for Kosovo and to take part in any future initiatives to help it?
Yes, I certainly shall. I much enjoyed my time in Kosovo. All those on the Labour Benches who have sprung to the defence of their former Prime Minister today should know that he is memorialised, at least in Kosovo, in that no fewer than eight 16-year-olds there have been christened Tony Blair.
President Putin might be President Trump’s new best buddy, but he is certainly not ours. Will the Foreign Secretary give his full support to the Magnitsky amendments that we are going to debate in a few minutes, which would allow the assets of any Russians involved in the murder of Magnitsky to be seized in the UK?
I recently had a meeting in my constituency surgery with a delegation from Cameroon regarding the lack of democracy in that country. They described fear, brutality and a lack of education in English-speaking Cameroon. What role can the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the conflict, stability and security fund play in supporting democracy in that area?
First, I want to pay tribute to the diasporas based in the UK that provide us with an understanding of what is going on in their countries. I also pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing, and I absolutely agree with the concerns that she has raised about Cameroon. She is right to point to the conflict, stability and security fund as a way for us to provide funds to achieve that security, and we will be doing just that.
A few moments ago, the Secretary of State confirmed as Government policy something that this House resolved without a Division on 9 February—that there should be a halt to the planning and construction of residential settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Given that that is the case, why is the UK permitted to trade specifically with those illegal settlements?
It is the policy of the UK, and I think of many of our friends and partners, to continue to trade on the grounds that that is the best way to support the economy of the region. Many workers in the region come from populations within the occupied Palestinian territories, and their livelihoods depend on that industry. That policy is widely understood and supported, and we will continue with it.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for taking this point of order. Notwithstanding the underwhelming support for my vote of no confidence in you, have the Government or indeed the Backbench Business Committee contacted you in any way to allocate time for this unresolved matter to be debated and, indeed, voted on?
The short answer is no, and there is absolutely no reason why they should have done, a point which I can say from my own head and heart fortified in the knowledge that it is also the sound advice of the experienced Clerk of the House, who has been working in the service of the House for 40 years.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. While the Foreign Secretary is still in the Chamber, I want to ask for clarification. He said from the Dispatch Box during Question Time that the Trump travel ban order would not affect UK passport holders. Is he aware of the case of the teacher from Swansea who has been—[Interruption.] I am giving the Foreign Secretary the opportunity to clarify that he is aware of the matter and that it is in hand.
If the case that the hon. Lady is referring to is the one that I am thinking of, I have written to her about it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You quite rightly apologised to the Lord Speaker for unilaterally seeking to ban the President of the United States from speaking in Westminster Hall. When can we expect an apology in this Chamber?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I treated of that matter very fully both on the day in question, when I responded to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), and on the following day, when there were points of order. I cannot recall whether the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) was in his place at that time, but I responded to points of order and the matter was addressed fully, so we shall leave it there. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interest.
Government Services (Telecommunication Charges)
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 restrict charges for using telecommunications to contact certain government advice services; and for connected purposes.
The Bill that I am proposing would regulate the provision of telecommunications advice lines by all Government Departments so that call charges to citizens would be restricted or, for the most vulnerable, eliminated. It would ask Government Departments to conduct an assessment for each local authority area of the provision of public computer equipment capable of being used by Department for Work and Pensions claimants, for example, and to publish the results. If that assessment were to demonstrates that the total number of units of public computer equipment was less than one for every 20 claimants, all Secretaries of States would have to make provision for a dedicated telephone number that could be accessed at zero cost, including without having to use coins or cards at a public telephone. I also propose that if Departments were unable to take a call within a reasonable period, such as five minutes, the caller should be given a regularly updated estimate of the likely waiting time, with the offer of an immediate call-back facility. That is an essential courtesy.
MPs often encounter examples of unfairness and injustice when, through no fault of their own, people seem to be punished for finding themselves in need, and where rules and regulations actively harm, not help, the average citizen who is simply seeking what they are entitled to. A key part of the role of an elected Member is to help people to navigate their way through the system, but since being elected, I have been shocked by the in-built unfairness and the costs of claiming.
Take the Department for Work and Pensions. Although an initial inquiry to the DWP is free, follow-up inquiries about a claim, queries about benefits sanctions, or even reporting that a benefit has not been paid on time all come with call charges. Constituents have told me that those calls can be very expensive—as much as £9 or £16 a time—and that long waiting times to speak to an adviser bump up that cost even further.
Other examples of services that charge for access are the child maintenance helpline and the Home Office helpline for inquiries about spousal visas, which costs £1.37 a minute over and above network charges. There can be no justification for the Home Office imposing charges on anyone for a genuine inquiry service. Dealing with telephone inquiries must be treated as a valid overhead cost that is covered by the fees levied for the application process itself.
Telephone network charges vary and, again, they can be seen to discriminate against the least well-off. All providers include 03 numbers in their inclusive call packages, but calls to such numbers are often presented as if they are available only to those who are well off. That even applies to pay-as-you-go arrangements, which are more likely to be used by low-income households. They may be unaware of the bundles that enable calls to be made at no more than 7p a minute, rather than the range of 10p a minute to 55p a minute suggested on the Government website, as updated on 7 February.
I thank David Hickson of the fair telecoms campaign for providing me with information as I prepared this Bill. David tells me that the campaign fully supports the use of 0800 numbers, and the consequent bonanza for telephone companies, in cases when it is essential that nobody pays for a call. He is, however, concerned that greater use of 0800 numbers would do nothing to help constituents who get ripped off when calling friends, or their MP, on ordinary numbers. There is therefore a strong case for us all to push the point that it is essential to ensure that everybody chooses the most appropriate telephone call plan for their needs. Those of us who are well-off, smart consumers do that anyway, but there is a need for greater assistance and guidance to be given to all.
Last July, the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that all telephone calls to the DWP should be free via 0800 numbers. The Government’s response was that that would cost £7 million, which is not a lot in the context of the overall budget. The roll-out of universal credit threatens to extend call times and costs to claimants due to the nature of the new benefit, which will require frequent contact from claimants to update the DWP on their circumstances. A ministerial written answer last year revealed that the average length of a call to the universal credit helpline is seven minutes and 29 seconds, which is equivalent to £4.40 at one major phone operator’s rates. Universal credit is a replacement for jobseeker’s allowance, and the weekly equivalent is £73.34, so claimants will already have less to live on than they are allocated simply for calling a helpline.
The push over the edge into poverty should not be administered by the DWP and other Government Departments through charging for inquiry lines. When the safety net becomes a trap, it is time to ask what sort of Government boost telephone company profits on the backs of the poor.
Far from working to create a society that is fair for all, the Government have not responded positively so far to the campaign to remove telephone helpline charges, which can be up to 55p a minute. When I have queried the cost of calling, the ministerial response has inevitably mentioned the alternative of online access for inquiries and claims. That is fine for those who are digitally literate, who can afford broadband and who live in an area with good connectivity, but it is not so great otherwise and a further in-built barrier that stops people from accessing the support to which they are entitled. Although there has been some funding for public access terminals and digital learning, if all the people who seek advice on claims were to switch from phoning to the use of public internet access terminals, libraries and community centres would be unable to cope with the demand.
When I was researching this issue, I was particularly struck by a DWP spokesperson’s response to the telephone tax campaign last year, which was that online access is widely available through the network of jobcentres. I pause for a moment as we reflect on the proposed closure programme for the DWP estate. It should not be too difficult to conduct an audit, in conjunction with local authorities, to identify the availability of free online access terminals to our constituents, or the lack thereof. In fact, I am inclined to conduct one in my constituency of Glasgow South West and to compare that with the claimant count. I strongly suspect that that would reveal a mismatch.
The other stock ministerial response to questions about phone charges for inquirers is the use of a call-back, but it is rather difficult for an inquirer who is on hold if a call-back is not offered routinely. A call-back also requires the caller to self-identify as vulnerable. That in-built humiliation within the system is familiar to those of us who have watched “I, Daniel Blake”.
Ministers have promised a review of telephone charges, but I ask the Government to act on the recommendations of the 2016 Social Security Advisory Committee report “Telephony in DWP and HMRC: an update” as part of the review, introduce a more effective call-back system for vulnerable customers, and bring in an information system that advises customers of possible wait times. That should be adopted across all Government services as best practice. The need for reform is pressing with regard to benefit claims, but over-the-top charging for information, through a lack of recognition of the least well-off’s limited access to the range of phone packages available and a lack of digital inclusion, excludes and discriminates against far too many of our citizens.
As Mr David McAuley from the Trussell Trust put it:
“When incomes are extremely tight, we could see people being forced to choose between phoning to make a…claim and buying essential food supplies”.
Unless people have been in that position, or have a case load from a constituency like mine, it might be difficult for them to understand how disempowering or discriminatory the system can be, and that every penny spent on a phone call ramps up stress and anxiety for people who simply want access to information, support and the benefits to which they are entitled. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Chris Stephens, Mhairi Black, Jonathan Edwards, Neil Gray, Dr Philippa Whitford, Drew Hendry, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Ian Blackford, Mr Jim Cunningham, Grahame M. Morris and Mark Durkan present the Bill.
Chris Stephens accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 141).
Criminal Finances Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 7
Unlawful conduct: gross human rights abuses or violations
‘(1) Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (civil recovery of the proceeds etc of unlawful conduct) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 241 (meaning of “unlawful conduct”), after subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) Conduct which—
(a) occurs in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom,
(b) constitutes, or is connected with, the commission of a gross human rights abuse or violation (see section 241A), and
(c) if it occurred in a part of the United Kingdom, would be an offence triable under the criminal law of that part on indictment only or either on indictment or summarily,
is also unlawful conduct.”
(3) After that section insert—
“241A “Gross human rights abuse or violation”
(1) Conduct constitutes the commission of a gross human rights abuse or violation if each of the following three conditions is met.
(2) The first condition is that—
(a) the conduct constitutes the torture of a person who has sought—
(i) to expose illegal activity carried out by a public official or a person acting in an official capacity, or
(ii) to obtain, exercise, defend or promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, or
(b) the conduct otherwise involves the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of such a person.
(3) The second condition is that the conduct is carried out in consequence of that person having sought to do anything falling within subsection (2)(a)(i) or (ii).
(4) The third condition is that the conduct is carried out—
(a) by a public official, or a person acting in an official capacity, in the performance or purported performance of his or her official duties, or
(b) by a person not falling within paragraph (a) at the instigation or with the consent or acquiescence—
(i) of a public official, or
(ii) of a person acting in an official capacity,
who in instigating the conduct, or in consenting to or acquiescing in it, is acting in the performance or purported performance of his or her official duties.
(5) Conduct is connected with the commission of a gross human rights abuse or violation if it is conduct by a person that involves—
(a) acting as an agent for another in connection with activities relating to conduct constituting the commission of a gross human rights abuse or violation,
(b) directing, or sponsoring, such activities,
(c) profiting from such activities, or
(d) materially assisting such activities.
(6) Conduct that involves the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering on another person is conduct that constitutes torture for the purposes of subsection (2)(a).
(7) It is immaterial whether the pain or suffering is physical or mental and whether it is caused by an act or omission.
(8) The cases in which a person materially assists activities for the purposes of subsection (5)(d) include those where the person—
(a) provides goods or services in support of the carrying out of the activities, or
(b) otherwise provides any financial or technological support in connection with their carrying out.”
(4) The amendments made by this section—
(a) apply in relation to conduct, so far as that conduct constitutes or is connected with the torture of a person (see section 241A(2)(a) of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 as inserted by subsection (3) above), whether the conduct occurs before or after the coming into force of this section;
(b) apply in relation to property obtained through such conduct whether the property is obtained before or after the coming into force of this section;
(c) apply in relation to conduct, so far as that conduct involves or is connected with the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of a person (see section 241A(2)(b) of that Act as inserted by subsection (3) above), only if the conduct occurs after the coming into force of this section.
This is subject to subsection (5).
(5) Proceedings under Chapter 2 of Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 may not be brought in respect of property obtained through unlawful conduct of the kind mentioned in section 241(2A) of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (as inserted by subsection (2) above) after the end of the period of 20 years from the date on which the conduct constituting the commission of the gross human rights abuse or violation concerned occurs.
(6) Proceedings under that Chapter are brought in England and Wales or Northern Ireland when—
(a) a claim form is issued,
(b) an application is made for a property freezing order under section 245A of that Act, or
(c) an application is made for an interim receiving order under section 246 of that Act,
whichever is the earliest.
(7) Proceedings under that Chapter are brought in Scotland when—
(a) the proceedings are served,
(b) an application is made for a prohibitory property order under section 255A of that Act, or
(c) an application is made for an interim administration order under section 256 of that Act,
whichever is the earliest.” —(Mr Wallace.)
This new clause extends the meaning of “unlawful conduct” for the purposes of Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, so that it includes conduct in other countries that constitutes the gross human rights abuse or violation of a person who has sought to expose illegal activity of a public official or person acting in an official capacity, or to promote etc human rights. Part 5 confers civil recovery powers in relation to property that has been obtained through unlawful conduct.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 1—Civil recovery: gross abuse of human rights—
‘(1) Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (civil recovery of the proceeds etc. of unlawful conduct) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 241 (which defines unlawful conduct), after subsection (2), insert—
“(2A) Conduct which—
(a) occurs in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom and has been designated as conduct by a person connected to a gross human rights abuse in accordance with the provisions of section 241B, and
(b) if it occurred in a part of the United Kingdom, would be or would have been unlawful under the criminal law of that part at the relevant time,
is also unlawful conduct.”
(3) After section 241 (which defines unlawful conduct), insert—
“241A Conduct connected to a gross human rights abuse
(1) “Conduct connected to a gross human rights abuse” means—
(a) involvement by a Person (“A”) in torture or other serious breaches of human rights and fundamental freedoms against a Person (“B”) where B sought or seeks—
(i) to expose illegal activity carried out by foreign public officials, or
(ii) to obtain, exercise, defend or promote human rights and fundamental freedoms,
(b) activities by a Person (“C”) as an agent in a matter relating to an activity by A described in paragraph (a),
(c) activities by a Person (“D”) to profit from, materially assist, sponsor, or provide financial, material or technological support for, or goods and services in support of, an activity by A described in paragraph (a),
(d) commission by a Person (“E”), whether or not a foreign public official, of the illegal activity described in paragraph (a)(i).
(2) For the purposes of this section, it is immaterial where the conduct occurred.
(3) In this section “human rights and fundamental freedoms” means the “Convention rights” as defined in section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
241B Designation of conduct connected to a gross human rights abuse
‘(1) The High Court may make an order designating that the actions of the respondent constitute conduct connected to a gross human rights abuse and, if considered appropriate, that—
(a) a person is prohibited from dealing with property, funds or economic resources owned, held or controlled by the respondent if the person knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, that the person is dealing with such property, funds or economic resources,
(b) a person is prohibited from making property, funds or financial services available (directly or indirectly) to the respondent if the person knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect that the person is making the funds or financial services so available,
(c) a person is prohibited from making funds or financial services available to any person for the benefit of the respondent if the person knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, that the person is making the funds or financial services so available.
(2) An order under subsection (1) may only be made on application.
(3) An application for an order under subsection (1) may be made by—
(a) the Secretary of State,
(b) an individual, or
(c) an entity, including a non-governmental organisation.
(4) An application for an order under subsection (1) must be supported by a statement of information which addresses—
(a) the circumstances surrounding the respondent’s conduct connected to a gross human rights abuse, and
(b) the nature and extent of the respondent’s involvement.
(5) An application for an order under subsection (1) may be made without notice to the respondent to a judge in chambers.
(6) The Court must be satisfied that it is in the public interest to make an order under subsection (1).
(7) The Court shall reach a decision on an order under subsection (1) on the balance of probabilities.
241C Duration, extension, variation and discharge of an order
‘(1) The High Court shall specify the duration of an order under section 241B(1) which shall not exceed two years.
(2) In determining the duration of an order, the Court shall have regard to the likely duration of consequential proceedings under this Part.
(3) The Court may extend an order for a maximum period to two years at any time before it expires, if it is satisfied that the requirements of a designation order continue to be met.
(4) An extension application may be made without the need for a hearing if the court considers it appropriate.
(5) An application to extend, vary or discharge an order may be made to the court by—
(a) the Secretary of State,
(b) the applicant,
(c) the respondent, or
(d) any person affected by the order.
(6) An application to discharge a designation order must be made by the applicant as soon as reasonably practicable in circumstances where the requirements of an order are no longer satisfied.
241D Appeals, etc.
‘(1) The following persons may appeal to the Court of Appeal in respect of the High Court’s decision on matters falling to be decided under sections 241B and 241C—
(a) the applicant,
(b) the respondent, or
(c) any person affected by the order.
(2) On an appeal under subsection (1) the Court of Appeal may—
(a) confirm the decision, or
(b) make such orders as it believes appropriate.
(3) An appeal lies to the Supreme Court from a decision of the Court of Appeal on an appeal under this section.
(4) An appeal under this section lies at the instance of any person who was a party to the proceedings before the Court of Appeal.
(5) On an appeal under this section the Supreme Court may—
(a) confirm the decision of the Court of Appeal, or
(b) make such order as it believes is appropriate.
241E Standard to be applied
All matters to be determined by a court under sections 241B to 241D are to be decided on the balance of probabilities.
In the exercise of its discretion, a court may, on application, make a costs capping order in respect of proceedings under sections 241B to 241D.
241G Duties in respect of gross abuse of human rights
‘(1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to apply for an order under section 241B where the Secretary of State is satisfied that—
(a) the requirements for the making of an order are met; and
(b) it is in the public interest to make the application.
(2) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to maintain a public register of—
(a) individuals in respect of whom orders have been made under section 241B(1),
(b) the circumstances giving rise to the making of such orders, and
(c) any decisions of a court under sections 241C and 241D in relation to such orders.
(3) In any case where a relevant authority considers that evidence is available of property being held by a person in respect of whom an order has been made under section 241B which may represent property obtained through unlawful conduct, it shall be the duty of the relevant authority to seek to initiate proceedings for civil recovery under this Part.”
(4) In section 304 (which defines recoverable property), after subsection (1), insert—
“(1A) Property of a person who is the subject of a designation order under section 241B is presumed to have been obtained through unlawful conduct unless the contrary is shown by the respondent.””
This new clause extends the scope of unlawful conduct for the purposes of Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to cover to certain actions connected to a gross human rights abuse which has taken place abroad.
Government amendments 58 and 59.
Some time has passed since we last considered this Bill. There was, as hon. Members will recall, a great deal of cross-party consensus on it, both on Second Reading and in Committee, and I hope that we will be able to continue in that same spirit of constructive debate and healthy scrutiny today.
This first group of amendments concerns the extremely grave matter of gross human rights abuses or violations. The Government are committed to promoting and strengthening universal rights globally, and I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. In particular, these amendments have been prompted by the harrowing case of Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was not a serious criminal; he was a lawyer who tried to blow the whistle on large-scale tax fraud in Russia, and he believed that he would be protected by the law. Unfortunately, he died in state custody in 2009 after suffering both mistreatment and assault, and being denied medical attention. I share the strong feelings of many hon. Members about this case, and I want to reassure the House that the Government have expressed, both publicly and to the Russian Government, our serious concerns about Mr Magnitsky’s death. Of course, we must also remember that his case is only one of many atrocious human rights violations committed globally each year.
As I am sure that hon. Members will highlight, the US has legislated to prohibit the entry of certain named individuals to the US and to forbid them use of the US banking system. Less than two months ago, President Obama’s Administration extended the legislation so that it could be applied to those involved in human rights violations, wherever in the world they have taken place. That sends an important signal that perpetrators of gross human rights violations will face consequences. However, we have an entirely different legal system, which merits a different approach.
I pay tribute to those hon. Members who have raised this issue by tabling new clause 1—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), the right hon. Members for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), and the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). I am grateful to hon. Members for giving me advance notice of the amendment, and am pleased to have had the opportunity to discuss it with many of its signatories.
It has always been the Government’s position that for further legislation to be warranted on this issue, there would need to be a real case that existing powers were insufficient. I hope that hon. Members will agree that we should avoid doing anything that might have an impact on the effectiveness of our existing sanctions and civil recovery powers. The National Crime Agency has confirmed that it has considered all the material provided to it on the Magnitsky case. It concluded that the individuals whom we believe to be connected to the case do not reside in the UK, and it has identified no assets of value in the United Kingdom that are connected to the case, so the additional powers proposed in new clause 1 would have no obvious material effect on the individuals involved in this case.
The point about the Magnitsky Act in the US is that it pulls together the visa ban, the ban on using American banks and the inability to trade there; the advantage is that it is all pulled together. I appreciate that the scenario is different in this country, but will the Minister please explain how he intends to pull the links together in this country, using the different pieces of existing legislation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I will get to that later in my speech, but we have to recognise this difference between the United States and the UK: here, most of our sanctions regimes are under the European Union umbrella. Of course, there will be time to discuss those sanctions, and the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit arrangements, at a later date. When it comes to sanctions, we have slightly different dispersals of authority and power from the United States, which often can, and does, act entirely unilaterally in this area; we should point that out.
One problem with new clause 1 is that we think it would be non-compliant with our domestic human rights law, because it contains no derogations. It would freeze all the assets of a designated individual, so they would not have any funds for living expenses or medical treatment, or to pay for legal representation. The reversal of the burden of proof, so that it would be assumed that all assets owned by designated individuals were the proceeds of their unlawful conduct, would also be an unprecedented step. That is incongruous with the existing civil recovery regime and could be judged by the courts to be disproportionate.
However, we recognise the strength of feeling on this matter, and understand the deterrent effect that such an amendment would have on those who seek to profit from the gross abuse or violation of human rights overseas.
The Minister is clearly very well informed on this issue, and I know that he has had meetings on the subject. If assets connected to the case were identified in the UK—I know that there is a dispute with Bill Browder, who believes that there are such assets here—is the Minister confident that existing legislation or his new clause 7 would enable them to be frozen?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point. I have to respect the boundaries of our law enforcement agencies. As a Minister, I cannot direct them to take action; they have an operational freedom and independence that we value greatly in this country. They have said to me that should actionable evidence be presented to them, they would be free to follow that up and enforce the law. Speaking as the Minister, where actionable evidence of gross human rights abuses or other criminal offences is presented, of course we would like to see action taken. This is not about trying to shelter people who have been involved in those offences; it is about trying to make sure that the appropriate action is taken when the correct evidence is presented. I absolutely concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s point: it is important to understand that we need to act on the evidence. If there is evidence, we could take action, even without this legislation. I certainly urge our law enforcement agencies to take action to make sure that people are held to account for the atrocious murder in Russia of Mr Magnitsky.
We have tried to come some way towards meeting many of the concerns of hon. Members by tabling new clause 7 and the consequential amendments 58 and 59. They would widen the definition of “unlawful conduct” in part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to include torture or
“the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”
of those exposing corruption, or obtaining, exercising, defending or promoting human rights, including in cases where that conduct was not an offence in the jurisdiction in which it took place. That would allow any assets held in the UK that were deemed to be the proceeds of such activity to be recovered under the provisions in part 5.
The Government’s new clause 7 contains no duty on the Government to act at all; they can simply ignore the provisions. That is one of the key differences between new clause 7 and new clause 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab).
The hon. Gentleman talks about duty, but there are lots of criminal offences on the statute books on which the Government do not have a duty to act. We leave it to the interpretation and freedom of our law enforcement agencies to act. Are we to say that the duty in this case is greater than the duty on the police to act on burglary or on a whole range of other criminal offences? The fundamental issue is that the hon. Gentleman wants to put a duty on the Government for one specific type of criminal offence, which would, I am afraid, hinder the freedom of our law enforcement agencies to take the appropriate action when the evidence was presented to them.
But in the Government’s new clause, as opposed to new clause 1, there is no provision for third parties to bring a case to the courts to allow the seizure of assets, so, yet again, the Government are closing off the options for tackling money laundering in London and the UK.
I am afraid we are not. The National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are not full of people who do not want to do their job. They want to enforce the law: they want to go out and catch the criminals and stop money laundering. It is slightly insulting to imply that if we did not put a duty on them, they would not do it. They would do it. The problem with new clause 1 is that it would allow non-governmental organisations and individuals—it does not define whether those NGOs or individuals are foreign or from the UK—to go to the court, with limited liability, to force the Government to take action, without a high threshold at all.
For example, under new clause 1 a Cuban exile living in Florida who does not like the rapprochement with the Cuban Government could come to our courts to allege human rights abuse and make an application against the Cuban ambassador’s assets in this country, and actually confiscate or freeze those assets. It would not only preclude us from making peace or moving on with some countries, but would allow massive amounts of vexatious claims based on gimmick politics. That is why we have to respect the professionalism and independence of our law enforcement agencies and allow them to make the case based on the evidence presented to them.
That is simply not the case. For example, we already regularly have lots of vexatious applications from Russia for the extradition of Russians who are now resident in the United Kingdom, but the court decides. New clause 1 would not allow an individual to decide that somebody’s assets must be frozen; a court would decide.
First, the hon. Gentleman misses the point that courts do not like vexatious complaints. They do not like time-wasting applications with what would be in the case of new clause 1 limited liability for those people who want to use the court’s time to make a statement. Secondly, applications for deportation are often made by the state. The hon. Gentleman would open it up to individuals all over the world to come to our courts, without liability, to make the case for or to make a gesture out of freezing individuals’ assets, without any recourse to the state or even necessarily to evidence. That would open up a whole can of worms for countries around the world.
I shall give another example. We have sponsored and supported the peace deal in Colombia. Should the Colombian Government at some stage choose to send somebody with a background in the FARC to represent them or to be a cultural attaché in their embassy or something, and somebody in Colombia does not like that, under new clause 1 they could, as an individual, come to a court here and make a tokenistic application. The judiciary might throw it out, but there is capped liability, so the court’s time could be wasted writ large by lots of people making statements and blocking the courts.
We did consider that in consultation with the office of the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, but it was felt that there was not the appropriate need for that, so we progressed with new clause 7 as it is drafted. We should remember that we are putting on the statute book a new power to take action based on gross human rights abuse, torture and degrading treatment. We have not done that before and it is a major step. It is a major signal to countries around the world that if evidence is presented, we could interdict with their assets. That sends the powerful message that London and the United Kingdom are not bases for them to put their assets or ill-gotten gains from such behaviour.
Surely that is the substantive point. The concern would be that we would get not only vexatious complaints, but complaints designed for publicity, in the almost certain knowledge that such complaints would not be seen through by the courts and there would be virtually no cost to the people making the complaint. New clause 7 provides the opportunity to nab the guilty, and it says to people that bloodstained dictators have no place putting their money in this country.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that it sends a message, but it also respects the independence of our law enforcement agencies so that they can apply the law and take action when they are presented with evidence, which will ensure that the courts’ time is not wasted and that we get successful results when we deal with these individuals. It will also ensure that it is done in a way such that the Executive retains the initiative to carry out the process and prevent vexatious complaints. Judges will tell us that they do not want their courtrooms to become public relations arenas in which people can make vexatious applications; they want their courts to be able to decide on the basis of evidence. Under new clause 7, they will be able to do that, but we respect the operational independence of our law enforcement agencies.
All that explains why we tabled the new clause. As I have said, it would allow any assets held in the UK that were deemed to be the proceeds of the activities I outlined to be recovered under the provisions in part 5. Of course, any civil recovery would be subject to all the existing processes and legal safeguards in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. The court would need to be satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the property in question was the proceeds of crime, or was likely to be used to fund further criminal activity. Law enforcement agencies would, as ever, need to consider which of their powers to utilise on a case-by-case basis.
I hope Members will agree that the new clause would send a clear statement that the UK will not stand by and allow those who have committed gross abuses or violations around the world to launder their money here. I have been the Minister in charge of the Bill from the beginning, and when colleagues from either side of the House have tabled amendments, I have asked my officials, “Do they have a point?” I have asked my officials about the evidence set against Mr Magnitsky’s killers and to find out whether we have actually done the work we say we are doing. I make sure; I do not just take things at face value. It is important to say that I am confident that we have not taken action in this case because we have not yet had the evidence to do so or the assets have not been located in the right place. I have checked that out and verified it.
I have come to the House today with an attempt to put a compromise in statute—to put gross human rights abuse on record for the first time. I hope we can send the right message to the regimes, criminals and individuals around the world, while at the same time respecting the law enforcement agencies so that they can carry out their job unhindered by political interference, or by third-party groups or anyone else who might want to use publicity rather than actual evidence to further their cause. That is really important. I shall pause my comments there and wait to hear from other Members, and then respond at the end of the debate.
It is not fair for us to live in a world in which criminals are free to generate cash and spend it without fear of repercussion. Given what I have learned during the progress of the Bill, I think all Members on both sides of the House would agree with that sentiment. There simply must be a level playing field for the vast majority in society who chose to play by the rules.
Until now, provisions on financial crime have been focused on anti-money laundering regulations and proceeds of crime legislation, which have been specifically geared towards dealing with the proceeds of drug traffickers and bank robbers. In many senses, it has worked. It is not as easy to launder money in 2017 as it used to be, although, sadly, it is not impossible. It used to be the perception of criminals that if they could evade capture and not flash the cash, they could eventually spend their ill-gotten gains. In many cases, criminals looked forward to spending the gains when they were released.
Thankfully, the world has moved on, and this Bill is an attempt to move us another step ahead of the criminals, so that we as a society are fit to attack the finances of criminals in 2017 and beyond. We cannot buy into the rule of law unless we can agree to the evolution of regulations surrounding the financial industry that has happened over the years. Today, we face the threat of grand corruption, particularly in relation to politically exposed people, which is facilitated for the most part—perhaps unwittingly—by the City of London.
Last year, The Guardian revealed, through the Panama papers, how a powerful member of Gaddafi’s inner circle had built a multi-million pound portfolio of boutique hotels in Scotland and luxury homes in Mayfair, Marylebone and Hampstead in London. He was head of Libya’s infrastructure fund for a decade and has been accused by Government prosecutors in Tripoli of plundering money intended for schools, hospitals and infrastructure projects.
Scottish police have confirmed that they are investigating the matter. Libya has made a request for an asset freeze, but, as far as I understand it, the freeze has not been implemented. With the powers contained in the Bill, we could have dealt with such an injustice much more swiftly, so, in general terms, we welcome its provisions. However, as I intimated earlier in this process, our issue is not with what is in the Bill, but with what is not in the Bill. None the less, that list has narrowed as this process has continued.
The Bill does not satisfactorily address corporate economic crime—which we will discuss in the third group of new clauses, which includes proposals on Scottish limited partnerships, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) has done so much to campaign—and the real facilitator of criminal finances: the profit-seeking, responsibility-shedding and self-serving banking culture that we have in the UK and the wider western world. Until we challenge the attitude of the banks that house these moneys, we will never absolutely deal with the criminality. The Bill attempts to deal with the symptoms of the criminality—getting at the assets and seizing them—but it does not deal with the facilitators, the banks, which is a great shame.
New clauses 1 and 7 have been touched on by the Minister, and much of the talk has been about the scope for applicants to bring an application under these provisions. In general terms, those new clauses seek to extend the scope of unlawful conduct. That makes sense in that a public official—or someone acting with the consent or acquiescence of a public official—who is depositing funds in the UK should not be safe on account of that criminality having occurred abroad. I think that most people would agree with that sentiment; it is a sensible and logical step, and one that we support in principle.
The protection of human rights is a profoundly good thing. Violations of human rights should not be allowed to remain hidden behind international borders—they should be there for the world to see—and the consequences of such violations should be global consequences. With the adoption of either new clause 1 or new clause 7, the UK will no longer be a hiding place in that respect, and that is worth lauding.
What are the differences between the new clauses? As has been suggested, there is wider scope for more applicants to make applications under new clause 1. The Government say that that is not necessary, as the judiciary would vet those claims; it would be up to the court, not the applicant, to decide their merits. One other difference is that the ambit of new clause 1 is wider with regard to potential respondents, as it includes more people connected to criminality. Will the Minister touch on the scope of respondents as well as the scope of applicants and the differences between new clauses 1 and 7?
Furthermore, new clause 7 contains a provision, which is mirrored in amendments 58 and 59, to set the limitation period for actions under unlawful conduct to 20 years. In one sense, we welcome that, because without it the standard limitation periods of five and six years would apply. However, given that we are talking about gross violations of human rights—torture and the like—should a perpetrator ever be free from those crimes? Are we saying that, 20 years after someone has committed a gross violation of human rights, their money should be safe? Given that some of these abuses take years to come to light, are there unintended consequences that could let some of the criminals off the hook?
I have a number of other simple questions for the Minister. Under new clause 7, is a mere suspicion of the acts that constitute gross violation enough? It seems to me that a conviction in either jurisdiction would not be necessary, but would suspicion be enough, and how does he see that playing out? If he is not minded to accept new clause 1, will he explain specifically why new clause 7 is better for the applicant and the potential respondent? I would be grateful if he picked up on the point of limitation as well, but I have a lot more points to make on the next two groups.
I rise to speak to new clause 1, which is known as the Magnitsky amendment, and to touch on the Government’s new clause 7 in the process.
New clause 1 was tabled by me, the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and 50 hon. Members representing eight different political parties across the House. That is testimony to the cross-party nature of our ambition, which was kindled by the tragic murder, on the instructions of the Russian state, of the young Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. In November 2008, Magnitsky was arrested and detained. His crime was to identify the perpetrators of the biggest tax fraud in Russian history, which was committed by the Russian Government against the investment firm, Hermitage Capital, that employed Magnitsky and against the Russian taxpayer to the tune of a mind-boggling $230 million.
For his courage, Sergei Magnitsky was jailed and tortured for almost a year, and then ultimately murdered. The crime was perpetrated by some of the very officials whom Magnitsky had identified. Although those appalling crimes were documented by two Russian investigations, no one has ever been brought to justice in Russia. Perversely, it was Magnitsky who was convicted, posthumously, of fraud—a sickening snapshot of the corrupt and venal state of the Russian justice system today.
Large amounts of the stolen money were subsequently laundered out of Russia, and Hermitage Capital submitted to all the relevant UK authorities detailed evidence of $30 million that was sent to the UK between 2008 and 2012, including to firms run or owned by the Russian mafia. Despite receiving that evidence, the Metropolitan police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office, HMRC and the National Crime Agency have never opened a single investigation. Notwithstanding the Minister’s comments, this case also shines a light on the weaknesses of our own justice system, which is what we are here to address today. We should be clear in this House that, although Magnitsky has been the standard-bearing case for reform, it is by no means an isolated case. According to the Home Affairs Committee’s 2016 report on the proceeds of crime, an astonishing £100 billion is laundered through UK banks alone each year, and we know from the NCA that only around 0.2% of that figure is currently frozen.
No one wants Britain to be a competitive global hub that attracts investment and is open to international talent more than I do, but I also want us to be known the world over for our integrity, our commitment to the rule of law and our adherence to the most basic of moral principles. We therefore have to stop turning a blind eye to the blood money of butchers and despots that, frankly, flows all too freely through some UK businesses, banks and property. New clause 1 is designed to address the weaknesses in the current UK asset-freezing regime. I pay tribute to Jonathan Fisher QC, the expert in this field—one of the leading experts in public law and human rights law—who carefully helped us to craft the mechanism.
New clause 1 would enable the Secretary of State, an individual or a non-governmental organisation to convince the High Court to make an order to empower the UK authorities to freeze assets where it can be demonstrated, on the balance of probabilities, to a senior judge that those assets relate to an individual involved in, or profiting from, gross human rights abuses. The clause would put a duty on the Secretary of State to pursue such an order when there is sufficient evidence and when it is in the public interest to do so—there is a measure of flexibility—and would establish a public register of those who are subject to such orders, all against the backdrop of appropriate safeguards and due process in law.
The Government have responded with their own proposal, new clause 7. In fairness, it is only right and proper to pay tribute to the Security Minister and the Foreign Secretary for engaging so seriously with the issue and, ultimately, for being willing to act. New clause 7 would, indeed, mark a significant step forward, principally because it would provide specific statutory grounds for an asset-freezing order based on gross human rights abuses and would target individuals responsible for, or profiting from, such crimes against whistleblowers and defenders of human rights abroad.
My view is that new clause 7 is not as robust as new clause 1, mainly because it does not impose a duty on UK law enforcement agencies to act subject to the flexibility I described, and it omits the third-party application procedure and removes the public register. In each of those three cases, I understand and recognise the Minister’s reasons why that is the Government’s position—it is probably to be expected—and I do not want to let the best be the enemy of the good, but I retain at least a measure of underlying concern. My concern touches on something that is so often the case with criminal justice legislation: the extent to which the new power will be enforced in practice. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) touched on that, and the concern is probably shared across the House.
If I may be so bold, I would like to elicit some further reassurances from the Minister—which he may feel free to indicate during my speech or his winding-up speech—on the issue of enforcement. First, will he commit to the Government to collecting data on the exercise of the new clause, say, annually, so that the House and the public can properly scrutinise the extent to which it is being exercised in practice? I recognise and understand the Minister’s point that the success of the clause should not be judged only by how many times it is exercised but by its deterrent effect, but I still think that would be a valuable source of reassurance.
I thank the Minister for such an immediate, swift and decisive acceptance and provision of assurance. That would be extremely useful. There is only one other aspect on which it would be useful to have some reassurance. I understand that there is a wider ongoing review of UK-wide asset-freezing powers. I can well appreciate why the Government may be reticent about reinventing a bespoke procedural mechanism for one new power, given its relationship with other wider proposals that may be forthcoming, but I hope that the Minister will undertake to factor the proposals made in new clause 1 into the review process and to ensure that any future new proposals on enforcement include the most robust and rigorous mechanism available under UK law applying to new clause 7. If the Minister can give that assurance on top of the one he has just given, I am inclined to accept new clause 7 and to not press new clause 1, heartened by the Government’s commitment to strive to make the new power work as effectively as possible in practice.
For those of us who have campaigned for change, there remains the further issue of visa bans, but that is for another day. Today, the House has the opportunity to lay down some moral red lines in UK foreign policy and to take a lead in denying safe haven to the dirty money of those profiting from the most appalling of international crimes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will need a separate legislative vehicle to address the wider question of visa bans, but he makes his point and has been tenacious in powerfully campaigning for this. We will want to move on to that issue at the appropriate time. Today is really about the asset-freezing side of things. We have in this last analysis the opportunity to send a message of solidarity to those who are fighting for the liberty that we in this country hold so dear. We have the opportunity to nurture the flame of freedom on behalf of those brave souls, such as Sergei Magnitsky, who suffered the very worst crimes when standing up for the very highest principles.
As I rise to speak to this group of amendments, it looks as though new clause 1 might not be moved in favour of Government new clause 7. The Minister started by saying that the Bill has so far enjoyed a degree of cross-party consensus in its parliamentary passage, so I would like to say that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition will not stand in the way of new clause 7 and will not stand in the way of new clause 1 if it is moved.
I welcome new clauses targeting asset seizure for those guilty of human rights abuses outside Britain who seek to use the UK to conceal their wealth. New clause 1 has become known colloquially as the Magnitsky amendment, and we have heard some of the tragic details of that case. It would bolster the Bill’s aim to tackle the growing concern about money laundering, terrorist financing and corruption. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank estimate that the annual loss through money laundered globally is between 2% to 5% of global GDP—a staggering $800 billion to $2 trillion. We do not know the true figures because this is all hidden, white-collar crime.
It is estimated that serious and organised crime on our own doorstep costs the UK economy at least £24 billion annually. The amount of money laundered here every year is between £36 billion and £90 billion. That is a loss to our Exchequer, so it is only right that we tighten up the legislation with this Bill, and such an amendment would tighten them up further. Quite simply, those who have blood on their hands from the worst human rights abuses should not be able to funnel their dirty money through our country. In a recent article in The New York Times, the journalist Ben Judah uses quite colourful language to attest:
“Just because there aren’t bodies on the streets of London doesn’t mean London isn’t abetting those who pile them up elsewhere. The British establishment has long feigned ignorance of the business, but the London Laundromat is destroying the country’s reputation.”
Under new clause 1, the names of individuals who have been involved in or profited from human rights abuses would be published, and Ministers would be obliged to apply for a freezing order of up to two years if they are presented with compelling evidence of abuse and it is in the public interest to do so. That would make dictators and despots think twice about using the UK as a safe place to stash their dirty cash. By creating personal costs for the perpetrators of human rights abuses, we can protect whistleblowers around the world, which would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky.
Like Sergei Magnitsky, I practised as a corporate lawyer, and I have asked myself whether, in his situation in Russia, uncovering the largest tax fraud, I would have risked reporting it to the authorities. Would I then have refused to withdraw my statement, while being imprisoned, beaten and denied medical help—and, indeed, while being abused by the very perpetrators of the crime I had blown the whistle on? All this was happening with the backing and connivance of politicians, judges, tax authorities, prosecutors and police—all the people who are meant to be there to keep us, the honest citizens, safe. I would like to think that I would stand up for what is right, but I appreciate that it is easier for me to say that living here in the UK under the rule of law, rather than in the vicious, pernicious kleptocracy that modern Russia has become and that did for Sergei Magnitsky.
New clause 1, to which I have added my name, and Government new clause 7 deal with individuals who have directly or indirectly committed gross human rights abuses overseas against whistleblowers or defenders of human rights. Of course, these provisions do not stop with Magnitsky, or, indeed, Russia, and not all Russians are bad people, but Russia is as good an example as any to show how the new clauses, in different ways, address a glaring omission in our laws—an omission that has, for too long, allowed the perpetrators of vicious crimes against humanity to then happily base themselves and their ill-gotten gains in the UK as though nothing had happened, under the unwritten law that they do nothing illegal while in the UK.
While the new clauses deal with individuals’ actions, these people will almost invariably come from countries where the crimes of the person are mixed up with crimes of the state. Russia operates a repressive, nasty society where human rights are often ignored, where the media are suppressed and journalists are killed, where democratic opposition is ruthlessly suppressed and where even businessmen have a glass ceiling beyond which they are told who to pay and how to toe the line. Russia has an undiversified, oil-reliant, poor economy and a political system controlled by a dictator, who, like most dictators, looks to address his failures at home with wins through threats and wars abroad. Georgia and Ukraine are therefore partially occupied, and the west faces espionage, cyber-attacks and so on—and all this from a country with an economy smaller than that of Italy.
How do Putin and his gang get away with it? At least with communism there was belief, an ideology and a raison d’être, however misguided. Now, there is no belief in anything, except one thing: money. Modern Russia is a kleptocracy, with small numbers of very rich people making the decisions and bound together through their thieves’ honour. However, I have heard many experts say that if the thieves collectively thought that President Putin was not going to let them keep their money overseas, he would not last very long. That is one good reason to follow the black money through to the UK and to seize it. In other words, by not acting in the UK against the thieves and torturers, we are indirectly bolstering many of the worst regimes in the world.
The other point is that thieves rarely steal for the sake of it; they steal because they wish to enjoy the benefits of their ill-gotten gains. But where should they spend it, and how should they keep it safe until they do? That is the challenge. The best place, obviously, is somewhere like the UK, where the rule of law and property rights are sacrosanct. That is why, as the Home Affairs Committee pointed out, £100 billion of black money is being laundered in the UK every year. It is why Russian and other human rights abusers’ black money has been pouring into London property, Bond Street shops, country estates and prized British education.
I recently went on a parliamentary trip to Hong Kong and heard—I have to say, unofficially—that after the recent Beijing corruption crackdown, the takings of the Hong Kong couture and jewellery shops were reduced by up to 60%. As a result, Hong Kong commercial and residential property prices have also stopped rocketing.
Likewise, many criminals coming to London will be happy to pay top property prices if they feel their money is, say, 80% less likely to be confiscated in London than in their home countries, should they fall out of favour with the powers that be. Even with higher stamp duty and the annual company overseas tax—the annual residential property tax—the security of anonymously owning property in London in an offshore company can be worth paying the taxes for.
But the question is: do we want that kind of money here? In other words, we as a country have a decision to make: do we value the tax revenue and work coming via black money more than dealing with the human rights abuses and/or illegality it is connected with? I would suggest not. As we prepare to leave the EU, this issue will only become more relevant, as we necessarily attempt to negotiate free trade agreements and cosy up to all sorts of regimes around the world.
We need to set a marker, and new clause 1 provides the mechanics for action. Moreover, it makes a statement against the rotten values of torturers and other criminals who might see us as an easy drop-off point for their assets. That this new clause has been initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), and that the Home Secretary’s new clause 7 recognises that it raises an important issue—albeit one to be addressed in a more narrow way—is highly commendable, and I do want to put on record my congratulations to the Security Minister and his Department for listening to the case and coming forward with a meaningful compromise, but further questions arise.
Government new clause 7, of course, falls way short of the US Magnitsky Act, which has a specific list of undesirables attached. Furthermore, the Government clearly wish to keep for themselves the choice of whom to prosecute and asset-seize. I am minded to go along with that, given that many, if not most, seizures would have political implications, and I doubt such things should be left to non-governmental organisations, for instance, to prosecute. However, I would be happy with the proposed powers only if I were given comfort that the Government intend actually to use them once the Bill is passed.
On the question of a list, we are missing a trick here. One of the strongest aspec