House of Commons
Tuesday 28 March 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough Constituency of Manchester, Gorton, in the room of the right hon. Sir Gerald Bernard Kaufman, deceased.—(Mr Nicholas Brown.)
Oral Answers to Questions
FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE
The Secretary of State was asked—
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
In Zimbabwe, presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place in 2018, but time is running out to implement the necessary preparations to allow voter registration to be completed. We regularly raise our concerns and the importance of free and fair elections, and this was done most recently on 21 March with the deputy Foreign Minister.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his honour.
Are the Government aware that the opposition parties and human rights groups are all saying that the rigging of elections has now commenced in Zimbabwe? Rural chiefs are being forced to take ZANU-PF cards and food is being used as a weapon, and if we do not get the United Nations, the African Union and particularly the South African Development Community to do something about the electoral registration system, we will not have free and fair elections. Can Her Majesty’s Government do even more to impress on those agencies that something must be done to keep the flame of hope alive for the Zimbabwean people?
The hon. Lady, who has deep experience in the country, is absolutely right to point to the worries about the electoral registration process and the prospect of unfair elections taking place. She is aware that we do not have the access we would like. We are concerned about the misuse of biometric data even now and about registration kits going missing and then being used. We are working with our counterparts, including the United Nations, as well as multi-donor programmes, to improve access to justice and for the media so that, hopefully, the elections can take place in a fairer atmosphere.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that Chinese, Russian and Israeli money is flooding in, buying influence in anticipation of a post-Mugabe—probably ZANU-PF-led—environment. With that in mind, what are the Government doing to meet their manifesto pledge to uphold the rule of law in Zimbabwe, which could again become the centre of sub-Saharan Africa?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his actions last week.
There have been disturbing reports in which six women allege they were targeted for refusing to follow instructions to feign illiteracy, blindness and physical injury, which would have allowed someone else to assist them by marking their ballot. Will the Foreign Secretary urge the police officer in command of Mashonaland central province to investigate these disturbing reports?
The hon. Lady illustrates just one example of what is happening in the country as we lead up to these elections. That is why we and other nation states in the United Nations, and indeed in the African Union, are very concerned. We have limited access ourselves, so we need to place pressure on those countries that are working in the country, to make sure that free and fair elections can take place and that this sort of activity is not carried out.
May I, too, on behalf of those on the Conservative Benches, pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his actions last week?
Has my right hon. Friend made any representations to Zimbabwe’s SADC neighbours—South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia—to try to put pressure on the Zimbabwean Government to ensure free and fair elections?
Israeli Settlement Goods
The British deputy ambassador met Israel’s Europe director on 13 March to discuss the new immigration rules, and we continue to push for clarification from Israel on the impact on UK nationals. We have updated our travel advice for Israel.
UK citizens such as Hugh Lanning, the chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have already been refused entry because of this ban, which has been widely condemned, including within Israel itself. The advice on the Foreign Office’s website says that people should contact the Israeli embassy. Should not the Foreign Secretary be contacting the Israeli embassy to say that people should not be restricted from travel to Israel and Palestine simply because they wish to enforce international law due to the ban on goods from settlements?
We have of course offered to provide consular assistance to Mr Lanning. He did not in fact request our support, nor did he seem to need it. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Israel’s immigration policy is a matter for Israel. We firmly oppose boycotts—the boycott, divestment and sanctions approach—against Israel, as I am sure he does too, although clearly it is a two-way street.
Is there not a need to be even-handed? Many countries have banned people from entering and are indeed deporting people. Does not this underline how right the Government were to warn the UN Human Rights Council of its disproportionate bias against Israel?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in his verdict on the UN Human Rights Council. I thought it was absolutely preposterous that there should be a motion condemning Israel’s conduct in the Golan Heights when, after all, we have seen in that region of Syria the most appalling barbarity conducted by the Assad regime. I think that was the point the UK Government were rightly making.
The Foreign Secretary says that he is seeking clarification from the Government of Israel. What questions is he actually asking them? In particular, has he asked what kind of activity would lead to someone being denied entry, particularly given that the Foreign Office’s own website discourages financial and commercial dealings with settlements? Is he saying that someone who advocates that is likely to be denied entry to Israel? Has he asked that question?
We are of course seeking clarity about exactly how the law would be applied in practice, although, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the Israeli Government, like our Government, already have very wide discretion about how to apply their immigration laws.
A Foreign Office Minister has previously described the situation in Hebron as apartheid and settlement endorsement as a form of extremism. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Minister for Europe and the Americas, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), would fall foul of the new law if he attempted to travel there?
I do not believe that my right hon. Friend has said anything of the kind or called for any such boycott, and nor do I believe for a second that he would be interrupted if he chose to go to Israel. I must stress that the policy of the Government is unchanged. We remain opposed to illegal settlements and we believe that they are an obstacle to peace. I have said that many times already in this House, but I am happy to repeat it to the hon. Lady.
Has the Foreign Secretary had any indication that such a ban might be extended to those who advocate a ban on goods from the occupied Golan Heights? Does he agree that the UK Government’s refusal to support a resolution at the UNHRC condemning the occupation of the Golan Heights increases that likelihood?
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I have made very clear what I thought was the profound absurdity of denouncing Israeli conduct in that region at a time when we are seeing absolute barbarism conducted by the Assad regime against the people of Syria.
Bilateral Relations: Poland
British-Polish relations are strong and getting stronger. The inaugural intergovernmental consultations last November were a firm demonstration of our commitment. I was delighted to launch the first Belvedere civil society forum earlier this month in Warsaw with the Polish Foreign Minister and many others.
Given this Government’s proud record of tackling modern slavery, does my right hon. Friend welcome the UK, Poland and Lithuania modern slavery conference, held in Warsaw in March, as a signal of how we can work together to strengthen the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery?
The Prime Minister has rightly called this
“the great human rights issue of our time”.
The Home Office-funded conference to which my hon. Friend referred, and the workshop that went with it, was the culmination of an intense period of Government activity. As a result of the workshop, we have strengthened regional co-operation to tackle modern slavery in central and eastern Europe.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Belvedere forum is a sign of our high-level engagement with Poland and a signal that it is entirely possible to have constructive and cordial discussions with our European friends, even as Brexit is being discussed?
It was exactly that. I am pleased to say that more than 120 people attended, including leading representatives of UK-Polish businesses, along with representatives from universities and think tanks, Parliaments, media outlets, cultural institutions and, indeed, the Polish diaspora from the UK.
In the wake of Brexit, I have been left deeply concerned by the rise in hate crime and the subsequent insecurity felt by our Polish communities. I was very saddened to read a report in a local newspaper of a Polish-born mother in the north-east saying that when she speaks Polish to her daughter,
“I can’t guarantee I would feel safe.”
Will the Minister clarify what steps he is taking with his Polish counterparts to reassure Polish communities that hate crime is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in the UK?
Following an absolutely deplorable spike just after the referendum, I am pleased to say that the number of reported crimes has significantly declined. We have been working very closely with our Polish counterparts, reassuring them at every conceivable opportunity. Indeed, we did so very publicly at the Belvedere forum.
The Polish community constitutes the largest component of EU nationals in the UK and by far the largest percentage in Scotland. The Minister of State and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary have in previous incarnations been known for their cosmopolitan, pro-immigration attitudes. Can the Minister think of anything on the eve of Brexit that would better enhance the relationship going into negotiations than to unilaterally and immediately consolidate the position of the 3 million EU nationals in this country? Is not that something the Government should do now?
Does the Minister believe that Poland deserves congratulations, as a frontline state against an increasingly fractious Russia, on being one of only five NATO members to meet the minimum level of 2% expenditure of GDP? Does he think it would send a good signal to Russia if the Foreign Secretary were to throw his considerable weight behind perhaps a Polish candidate to be the next Secretary-General of NATO, rather than a member of the comfortable club of the usual suspects?
If I might say so, the manner in which my right hon. Friend expressed his views was characteristic of him. I am confident that, even though we are going to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom will remain a force for good in the defence and security of eastern Europe, and we will increase our engagement on all levels.
Has the Minister received the same representation as we have from the Polish and other European embassies on the difficulties that many EU nationals are having with the 85-page form that they have to complete in order to apply for permanent residency in the UK? Has he relayed those concerns to the Home Office? [Interruption.] The Secretary of State does not even know about it. In that case, will the Minister, the Secretary of State and perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Secretary of State, accept my challenge and try to fill in the form and see how they get on?
Yazidi Captives: Daesh
As the House will know, significant progress has been made in liberating the city of Mosul, which will be a symbolic landmark in defeating Daesh in Iraq. We are extremely concerned for all those held by Daesh, including members of the Yazidi community. Ultimately, the only way of protecting minorities is by defeating Daesh and establishing strong governance and lasting peace.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the short term, we are providing refugee assistance and resettlement schemes, including Gateway, Mandate and Children at Risk, as well as putting funds into United Nations programmes. For the long term, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his Iraqi and Belgian counterparts have launched a global campaign to bring Daesh to justice. The campaign is designed to support all victims, including Yazidis.
The hon. Gentleman will know that when Yazidi women are released, they have great difficulty accessing the medical services—particularly the psychiatric services—that they need. Plane-loads of Yazidi women have been flown to Germany for treatment. Can Britain now do its bit and undertake to do the same thing?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We have programmes that bring the vulnerable and those who have been affected to the UK, and we are also investing a huge amount of funding in programmes in-country. I will be more than delighted to write to her with more details of what we are doing.
The brutalisation of the Yazidi by Daesh has been a deliberate attempt to destroy the Yazidi people. Yazda, a Yazidi advocacy organisation, estimates that 35 Yazidi mass graves have been found. What support can my hon. Friend present to ensure that these crimes and graves are collated and evidenced?
As I have mentioned, the Foreign Secretary is leading on this, and it will take time. We need to be patient, because it is important that we conduct forensic examinations, preserve evidence and take testimonies, but we will bring to account those who have committed these atrocities.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the establishment of a psychological training centre for former Daesh sex slaves at the University of Dohuk in Iraq, which is the first of its kind in the region? Can he confirm what support the UK Government will be giving to that groundbreaking trauma unit?
The hon. Lady illustrates just one example of how Iraq needs to step forward and move on from the period in which minority ethnic groups and others were not represented in the country. If we are to make a success of the situation once Daesh is removed, it is important to have facilities such as this in place to support those who have been affected. Most importantly, there needs to be an inclusive Government to ensure that ethnic groups are not isolated or persecuted as they have been.
It has been almost a year since the House of Commons voted to express its desire for the atrocities against the Yazidi people to be described as genocide. At the time, the Government said that they would not rush to judgment but would allow the legal process to take its course. Could the Minister give us an update on the process of those legal proceedings and when the Government anticipate that the genocide against the Yazidis will be recognised as such?
I have said that I believe that war crimes have taken place. However, it is not my judgment that counts, but that of the International Criminal Court, and when this was put to the International Criminal Court in 2014 we were vetoed by Russia and China. It is important that we continue to make the case, and it is important that we hold the perpetrators to account.
I congratulate the Minister on his actions last week.
I have been lucky enough to visit northern Iraq and to meet Yazidis in some of the internally displaced persons camps. What resources and preparation are we putting in place to make sure that they and others can get back to their homes once we have defeated Daesh?
The hon. Gentleman raises two important points. On the work that is happening in northern Iraq, we have put forward an extra £40 million to provide assistance to the displaced people. We should make it clear that despite their urge to return to their original houses—their original dwellings in their original communities—that must be done in line with the Iraqi authorities, because we are concerned about IEDs that have been placed there causing all the more stress, harm and, indeed, death.
May I pay tribute to the Minister for his extraordinary courage last Wednesday? As PC Palmer’s family said this weekend to the Minister and to others who rushed to help:
“There was nothing more you could have done. You did your best and we are just grateful he was not alone.”
Yazidi women, including girls as young as nine, have been raped, kidnapped and sold into slavery by Daesh terrorists. If proper mechanisms are not established to investigate these crimes, crucial evidence and witnesses will be lost and the victims will never have their day in court. What are the Government doing to prevent that, and will the Minister tell us how he is ensuring that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes will be brought to justice as quickly as possible?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for her kind remarks. I make it clear that I was one of many who stepped forward on that dark day. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families and friends of the victims, including our own PC Keith Palmer.
The right hon. Lady raises an important point. We have not announced or trailed the exact details of the work we are doing to collect the evidence because there is a fear that there are those who would try to interrupt that process. Organisations are working quietly behind the scenes to collect the forensic evidence that they need, to preserve the evidence, as she said, and to collect testimonies. It will take time, but that is not broadcast in the way other things are for fear that people could try to disrupt it.
We are aware of reports that Hezbollah continues to amass an arsenal of weapons, which is in direct contravention of UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701. In addition to Hezbollah’s interference in Syria, there is also a risk of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah returning. If what happened in 2006 were repeated, it would not just devastate Lebanon but be hugely destabilising for the region.
I thank the Minister for his response. Earlier this month, Iran’s Defence Minister said that Hezbollah is now capable of producing rockets that can hit any part of Israel, and reports have emerged that Iran has established rocket factories under the control of Hezbollah. What steps is he taking to stop Iran’s unconstrained financing of terror?
The involvement of Iran through proxy influences across the region is of huge concern, not least in Lebanon, and we are looking at these reports very carefully indeed. I should also say that Hezbollah, which has a political involvement as part of the Government in Lebanon, needs to move forward and be more constructive. It is thanks to disruption by Hezbollah and its blocking decisions in the Lebanese Government that the country was without a president for two years.
But what urgent action can be taken to counter Iran’s malevolent involvement in destabilising the middle east? We have already heard reference to Hezbollah being armed by Iran, but Iran is also arming Hamas in Gaza with rockets aimed specifically at Israeli communities within Israel, across the border from Gaza. What action will be taken to stop this?
We are now engaging with Iran at a level that we have not done for over a decade, thanks to the nuclear agreement that has been made. That allows us to have more forthright and frank conversations, and we have made it very clear that if Iran wants to join the international community—we want stability in the middle east—it must desist from having an influence in the areas to which the hon. Lady referred.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s earlier answer, but does he accept that Israel’s decision in 2006 to bomb all parts of Lebanon, including those represented by people who had been fighting Hezbollah for more than a generation, catapulted Hezbollah from a sectional group of extremists right into the heart of the powerbase of the Government of Lebanon?
I visited the country right after those attacks had taken place and the devastation was indeed huge. It is in all our interests not to go down that road again. I pay tribute to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, which has done an amazing job in reducing tensions between the two countries.
One way to reduce the supply of weapons to Hezbollah is to stop them at source. What discussions has the Minister had with, for instance, Egypt on the tunnels and the access they provide for bringing weapons in? If they can be stopped there, we can stop them being used.
I had a series of excellent meetings last week at the White House, the State Department and elsewhere with Secretary of State Tillerson, Vice-President Pence and others. We discussed areas of common interest and shared objectives on Syria, Russia, NATO, global free trade and other questions.
There are 212,000 Americans living in the UK and 715,000 Brits living in America. Americans, when visiting the UK, spend more than visitors from any other nation. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this shows that the special relationship is very much alive?
This is a long-standing extraordinary relationship that goes from strength to strength. Hon. Members may know that last year exports to the United States rose by 20%. It is the absolute determination of the new US Administration to do a free trade deal that will take those trade figures even further forward.
Visiting the Cabinet War Rooms this morning with youngsters was a timely reminder that the US is one of our closest allies and that a strong relationship between the two countries remains vital. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it must be a key part of our new geopolitical role outside the EU?
I passionately agree with that. It is the function of the UK to be the intermediary between our European friends and partners and the United States, and to campaign for the things that matter deeply to us all: the transatlantic defence alliance that has kept the peace in our continent for the past 70 years, and, of course, global free trade, which is of huge value to all of us.
Will the Foreign Secretary take this opportunity to praise the democracy of the United States? Its independent judiciary has rejected President Trump’s plans to bring in bans on refugees, while at the same time Congress has seen sense and not approved his proposals to abolish Obamacare.
It is not for me to intrude into the domestic politics of the United States, except to say that I think many people around the world who criticise and attack the United States and who are viscerally anti-American in their attitudes will look at the balance of power represented by that decision and see that this is a mature democratic system in which we can confide our trust.
But what damage is done by fantastical and ridiculous outbursts like those levelled at GCHQ by President Trump? Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that our invaluable intelligence relationship with the United States is not compromised by the current incumbent of the White House?
The damage done by such remarks can be likened to that of a gnat against a rhinoceros or an elephant. They will not make any difference to a fundamental relationship that is, as I say, of great international importance. As for the assertion that there was some sort of collusion by GCHQ to bug the presidential candidate, I think that has been accurately described as absurd and ridiculous.
May I just bring the Foreign Secretary down to earth? The core element of the Anglo-American relationship is based on “Five Eyes” and intelligence. President Trump’s allegation, repeated from Fox News, was not like a gnat at a rhinoceros; it was deeply damaging, and I would be grateful if the Foreign Secretary told the House exactly what comments he made to the President or senior members of the White House to refute that.
I must respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend’s characterisation of the episode. I believe that it has done no lasting damage to our relationship, and certainly not to the special relationship or to intelligence sharing, which will of course carry on between our countries. As I say, that relationship is of huge value to the security of the west. As for the allegations themselves, let me repeat that they are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.
Let me welcome the Secretary of State back from his trip to Washington. More than ever, it is vital that Britain uses, in his words, our “extraordinary relationship” to ensure that America makes the right decisions on the world stage. The Secretary of State has consistently told us that we should be optimistic about the outcome. Indeed, two days ago, he told us: “They have an agenda very close to ours. The U.S. is back.” With that in mind, will he tell us specifically what impact he believes today’s presidential energy independence Executive order will have on the Paris climate change agreement? During his trip to Washington, what representations did he make about that Executive order?
The right hon. Lady will know that the UK Government have played a leading role in securing the Paris agreement on climate change. The United States remains a supporter of that. In the course of my conversations with the US Secretary of State on that issue, I received some encouragement—I do not want to exaggerate the outcome of the conversations—that, as in so many other dossiers, the US is moving from the position we saw during the campaign, when some remarks came across as being perhaps out of line with UK Government thinking, into a position that is much more closely aligned with our thinking, even on climate change.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I am not sure that he really understands that by lifting curbs on power plant emissions, today’s Executive order will make it practically impossible for the US to hit the targets that were agreed in Paris. The right hon. Gentleman says that he received some encouragement, but to be honest one wonders whether he raised the issue in Washington and was just ignored, or did not raise the issue at all. One thing is certainly clear—
It is unfair to call the Secretary of State a gnat against a rhino, and I would obviously never suggest such a thing. If the Secretary of State claims to have influence, he needs to start showing us some evidence of it. He needs to learn that the only way he will get listened to by Trump is if he is prepared to stand up and challenge him. I ask him to begin today by condemning the Executive order and telling the Trump Administration that we will not stand by in silence while they wreck the Paris climate change agreement.
With great respect, I must say that I think the right hon. Lady is again being far too pessimistic. We were told by the US presidential candidate that NATO was obsolete; we now hear that he is 100% behind NATO. We were told that the JCPOA, the joint comprehensive plan of action on Iran, was going to be junked; it is now pretty clear that America supports it. We were told that there was going to be a great love-in between the new US Administration and Russia; they are now very much more in line. As for climate change, I think the right hon. Lady is once again being too pessimistic. Let us wait and see. We have heard the mutterings of the right hon. Lady; let us see what the American Administration actually do. I think she will be pleasantly surprised, as she has been, if she were remotely intellectually honest, in all other respects.
The causes of the conflict in Ukraine lie very much with the Russians, who bear the overwhelming responsibility for the considerable loss of life there. I was pleased to be able to raise the matter with my Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, during a visit to Kiev a few weeks ago. What is crucial to progress in Ukraine is not just for the Russians to desist from supporting military activity in Donbass and pull out of Crimea, but for the Ukrainians themselves to make the reforms that will increase international confidence in Ukraine.
Is it not clear, though, that unless we do more to help our Ukrainian friends, Russia will continue with impunity to seek to destabilise Ukraine? Given that the western Ukrainian-owned businesses in Donbass have just been expropriated by so-called separatists, no doubt with the support of Russia, perhaps we should consider expropriating Russian assets in the United Kingdom, starting with football clubs.
Order. No, no. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was seeking to take part in an exchange about Ukraine, possibly in anticipation of our not reaching his question. We probably will reach his question, but I am afraid that, whether we do or not, he cannot talk about the travel ban purported to be applied by the United States in respect of an exchange about Ukraine. Does any other Member wish to take part, in an orderly way? Yes: Mr Chris Bryant.
It is clear that the Russians have behaved perniciously and disgracefully in Ukraine. As the Foreign Secretary has said, their behaviour has led to many deaths, many people have been detained incommunicado, and terrible human rights abuses are going on, as well as the expropriation of assets. The Foreign Secretary regularly boasts about how well we have done in ensuring that there are sanctions in the European Union, but how will we be able to do that when we are no longer a member of the European Union?
Sudan and South Sudan
Despite some improvements, the security situation in Sudan remains concerning, particularly in Darfur and the Two Areas. In South Sudan the security situation is much worse as fighting continues across the country and the humanitarian situation becomes increasingly desperate.
I am sure that the Minister will share my concern about the recent attack on aid workers in South Sudan, which left seven dead. What support does he think the United Kingdom Government can give the United Nations to allow aid agencies to deal with the emerging famine in parts of the country?
I had an opportunity to visit South Sudan at the end of last year. We are now deploying 400 British troops in one of our largest peacekeeping operations in the world. This is a complex conflict: not only is there conflict between the two major tribes, but numerous sub-conflicts are taking place throughout the country. It is important that we are able to support the work of the Church that is trying to reconcile local differences, which will then allow non-governmental organisations to get in and provide the necessary humanitarian aid.
May I add my sincere tribute to those given to the right hon. Gentleman for his actions last week?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of allegations that both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are currently using British passports to travel around Africa and elsewhere? Given that the terrible situation in South Sudan—both the famine and the security situation—is in significant part man-made, does he think that is appropriate, if it is true?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments.
I will certainly look into this question. Both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar have huge responsibility for what is actually a man-made conflict—let us not mince our words. South Sudan, a mineral-rich country, could be one of the richest in Africa, but it needs to reconcile its differences. It is the youngest country on the planet, yet its first few footsteps have been absolutely dire because of poor leadership, mostly by these two individuals.
My hon. Friend makes an important observation, but I would say that they are getting better at recognising that countries in Africa must honour their constitutions, and that leaders cannot simply hand over power to their son or daughter. The best example of that was in Gambia, where the neighbouring countries stepped forward to make sure that there was a peaceful transition to a new President.
I would like to press the Minister on the Amnesty International report that found strong evidence of the use of chemical weapons by Sudanese forces in Darfur, but which has been met, sadly, virtually by silence from his Government. Will the Minister explain which international partners he is working with, and how the Government will ensure that these deeply disturbing allegations are fully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice?
I am happy to look into this in more detail. Our understanding is that this came to the attention of the United Nations, and it has conducted investigations as well. But it is difficult to collect evidence, simply because we do not have full access to the country, as we would like. I will certainly redouble my efforts to see what more I can find out.
Despite some positive steps, the human rights situation in Belarus remains of serious concern. We continue to raise human rights issues with the Belarusian authorities and use every opportunity to call on Belarus to establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
Will my right hon. Friend join calls led by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee for the Belarusian President unconditionally to release all the many hundreds of people brutally arrested in Belarus over the last few days? Will he also consider asking the European Union to rethink its recent decision to lift the personal sanctions against the ruling Belarus elite?
Following the demonstrations on 25 March, the Foreign Office issued a statement on 26 March calling on the Belarusian authorities to respect and uphold the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and to release all the peaceful demonstrators still detained. Among those originally detained were two British nationals, but I am pleased to say that they have since been released.
Executive Orders: United States
We have been clear that the Government do not agree, as I have said previously to the House, with the recent changes to US immigration policy, and that that is not the approach the UK would take.
Therefore, will the Foreign Secretary agree with me and the secretary general of Amnesty International that the President’s Executive order implementing a travel ban on people from six countries and certain refugees is “unconstitutional, inhumane and illogical”?
Death Penalty: United Arab Emirates
The UK firmly opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. We have made that clear to all countries that still have it in place, including the United Arab Emirates.
Jennifer Dalquez is an overseas domestic worker working in the Emirates to provide for her two children in the Philippines. In a struggle with her employer, who was trying to rape her, she killed him, and she now faces either execution or a fine of 100 camels’ value, over $60,000, which she has no prospect of paying. What can the Minister do to ensure that this barbaric justice system comes into the 21st century and respects the human rights of people, especially overseas domestic workers?
I will certainly look into that consular case and get back to the right hon. Lady. Many countries in the Gulf and across the wider middle east are advancing their justice systems, but many of them have existed as independent centralised countries for less than 50 or 60 years. That is not an excuse for continuing to have outdated practices in the 21st century, but I will do my best to provide her with an update.
Bilateral Relations: India
The UK shares a long-standing and deep friendship with India, covering economic ties, defence and security, and people-to-people links. We want the strongest possible economic relationship with India post-Brexit. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited India in November—her first bilateral visit outside Europe.
I am grateful for that answer. Strong relations between our two nations should be welcomed, particularly given the potential trading opportunities, but “good relations” means talking about concerns as well as successes. What discussions has the Foreign Office had with the Indian Government on Kashmir and human rights?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We of course remain concerned about the reports of unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir. In fact, I raised the Kashmir issue with Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Akbar during his visit to London on 16 March, and I will continue to monitor developments in this area.
A range of events are coming up this year to celebrate the year of culture. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we were visited by Finance Minister Jaitley in February, showing the strength of our relationship. He visited Buckingham Palace, where Her Majesty the Queen hosted an event celebrating the year of culture.
I want to pay my own tribute to my ministerial colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and to all those innocents who lost their lives or were injured last week. Over the centuries, many people have tried to attack this Parliament, but none has shaken our faith in our values of freedom and democracy, which inform our policies.
My immediate priority is to play my part in ensuring that article 50 is invoked smoothly and leading the process of building a new relationship and partnership with our European friends. In the past two weeks, I have visited east Africa, the United States and Turkey. Following that, I aim to take forward our campaign against Daesh.
I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to our courageous right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood).
Following the vote in the US Senate yesterday, what assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of Montenegro’s accession to NATO?
I thank my right hon. Friend, because I believe, with maximum humility, that that is another example of how the United Kingdom’s influence is being felt in our conversations with our American friends and partners. There is strong support for NATO on Capitol Hill, and it is absolutely right that they should be moving forward with the integration of Montenegro into the north Atlantic alliance.
I am worried that the Foreign Secretary is now excluded from Cabinet decision making. When he told Robert Peston a week past Sunday that no deal from Brexit would be totally okay, his Cabinet colleague was simultaneously telling another station that it would be really bad for Britain and Europe. What estimates or forecasts, official or any, have led him to believe, and to say to Robert Peston, that no deal from Brexit would be “perfectly okay”?
The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Prime Minister is going into these negotiations in the spirit of optimism and positivity, from which he could learn a little. I have absolutely no doubt that there will be a great deal for this country, because a great deal for this country is ultimately in the interest of our friends and partners on the other side of the channel, who have a huge amount to gain.
We had a counter-Daesh coalition meeting last week, and the House will know that huge progress is being made. Daesh’s territory in Iraq has been reduced by about 60%, and its territory in Syria has been reduced by about 30%. The UK is at the forefront of that effort, in concert with our American allies and a coalition of 68 other countries.
According to the Basic Law of Hong Kong, the ultimate aim is for the city to select a Chief Executive by universal suffrage, yet two days ago a new Chief Executive was chosen by a committee comprising 0.03% of Hong Kong’s registered voters. As we prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover, how can the House be confident that the Chinese Government are committed to progress towards genuinely democratic elections in Hong Kong?
The new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, was elected by the Election Committee, and of course we respect the decision. However, we have consistently taken the view that the best way to secure the future of one country, two systems is through a transition to universal suffrage, which meets the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, within the parameters of the Basic Law.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is an opportunity for Iran to re-engage following the nuclear deal and to show that it is meeting 21st-century standards. I am pleased we have had the Airbus deal, which is an example of how we can work together commercially, but we also need to work together on governance and on recognising the boundaries of states.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is incredibly concerned for the welfare of his constituent, as we are for all the men. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have all raised the case in meetings with our counterparts. We are providing consular support, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and my office has written to the families to say that I stand ready to meet them ahead of the verdict that is due.
The theme of the UK’s presidency of the UN Security Council has been conflict prevention in Africa, with a focus on the Lake Chad basin, South Sudan and Somalia. The UK has also held an open debate on modern slavery. Throughout our presidency we have been action-oriented, transparent and consultative, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has chaired two Security Council meetings.
In light of the interim report and the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in Burma, which were published this month, will the Under-Secretary join me and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in working towards an international, independent investigation into what is happening in Rakhine state, especially against the Rohingya community?
Mr Speaker, I know that both you and my hon. Friend care deeply about Burma. The UK has helped to deliver a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that sets up a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of human rights abuses, and it will be composed of independent, international experts.
We continue to have important regard for the Council of Europe and we will continue to work closely with it. We consider it an important forum for the co-operation of the countries that attend such meetings.
UK firms have been granted 194 licences and made some £3.3 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the two years of war in Yemen, completely eclipsing the UK Government’s aid efforts. Can the Foreign Secretary really claim that the licensing regime is legally and morally legitimate? Will he put more efforts into peace than into war?
Following the walk-out this morning by members of the Brexit Select Committee, does the Foreign Secretary agree that, far from being gloomy, we should agree with Pascal Lamy and Wolfgang Schäuble that it would be more damaging to Europe than to the UK if a success were not made of Brexit?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the spirit he is bringing to this, which is very much the one the Prime Minister is going to adopt in the negotiations. I believe she will be absolutely vindicated, because I think our friends and partners on the other side of the channel understand exactly what he sets out. It will be an opportunity to get rid of some of the burdensome regulation that has accreted over the past 44 years, and I applaud the campaign that I know he supports and which has been outlined in the pages of this morning’s The Daily Telegraph.
Both the Prime Minister and I have raised this issue specifically with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we will continue to do so. We are opposed to such demolitions and, as I have said many times this morning, we continue to believe that continued illegal settlements are an obstruction to peace.
The Pakistani Government have announced their intention to annexe Gilgit-Baltistan, a sovereign part of India that Pakistan illegally occupies. What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Pakistani Government to say that this act is illegal and the UK Government will oppose it?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have very good relations with both India and Pakistan, but on issues of a bilateral nature it is for those two countries to reach a settlement; it is not for us to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator. Of course we encourage both sides to maintain good relations and we will continue to talk to them.
The backstory of terrorists is of course a subject of continual analysis, and in respect of the individual who struck last week that analysis has yet to be completed. It goes without saying that in our discussions with our Saudi counterparts we make very plain our view that the struggle against terror is a struggle we face jointly.
As I said to the House a few weeks ago, such analogies and comparisons trivialise that epoch and the tragedies of the 1930s. We have a very different situation today and we are working with our American friends and partners to produce the best outcomes for the security, stability and prosperity of the world.
Will the Foreign Secretary join me in thanking the Libyan House of Representatives for their condolences after Wednesday’s tragic and traumatic event? Does he agree that urgent and active engagement with the House of Representatives is vital for a stable Libya and the ending of the mass export of migrants to their death by militia?
The fundamental thing has to be a rapprochement between the two sides in Libya. We certainly believe that General Haftar has to be part of the solution, but he cannot be the whole solution. There must be a political and constitutional resolution to the crisis in Libya.
Everyone wants to see territory liberated from the murderers of the so-called Islamic State, but is the Foreign Secretary aware of the deep concern over the recent air strikes, which have caused the death of so many innocent civilians, including children? There was no attempt to save the children. Is he aware of how important it is to try to minimise civilian tragedies, and will he make representations accordingly?
I believe the hon. Gentleman is referring to air strikes by the Americans—he did not spell that out. Of course, there have been innumerable barbaric air strikes by the Assad regime, the Russians and others, as I am sure he would acknowledge. The United States has said that it is investigating and will produce a full report.
Northern Ireland: Political Developments
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on recent events in Northern Ireland.
Since the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March, I have been engaged in intensive talks with the political parties and the Irish Government, in line with the well established three-stranded approach. There has been one clear purpose: to re-establish an inclusive devolved Administration at Stormont, in accordance with the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors.
Progress has been made on a number of issues, including on a budget, a programme for government, and ways of improving transparency and accountability. We have seen further steps forward on agreeing a way to implement the Stormont House agreement legacy bodies to help to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the troubles. In addition, progress was made on how the parties might come together to represent Northern Ireland in our negotiations to leave the EU, which is so important in the context of article 50 being triggered tomorrow. That said, it is clear that significant gaps remain between the parties, particularly over issues surrounding culture and identity. Throughout the process, the Government have been active in making positive proposals to try to bridge those gaps and help the parties to move things forward.
In law, the period allowed to form an Executive is 14 days from the date of the first sitting of the Assembly after an election. That 14-day period expired at 4 pm yesterday with no agreement, and therefore no Executive. This is a source of deep disappointment and regret to me and many others, and I know that there is widespread dismay throughout the country. From all my extensive engagement across Northern Ireland with business, civil society and members of the public, I am in no doubt that inclusive devolved government is what the overwhelming majority of the people want to see, working for them, delivering on their priorities, and continuing the positive progress we have seen in Northern Ireland over recent years. They want to see devolved institutions up and running and serving the whole community. Yet following the passing of yesterday’s legal deadline, Northern Ireland has no devolved Administration. That also means that other elements of the Belfast agreement, including the north-south bodies, cannot operate properly. The consequences of all of this are potentially extremely serious, the most immediate of which is the fact that we are rapidly approaching the point at which Northern Ireland will not have an agreed budget.
From tomorrow, a civil servant, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, will exercise powers to allocate cash to Northern Ireland Departments. This is an interim measure designed to ensure that services are maintained until such time as a budget is agreed. We are keeping in close contact with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service on these matters, and I understand that the Department of Finance will be setting out more details later today.
Let me be very clear: this situation is not sustainable and, beyond a short period of time, it will impact on public services such as the health service, schools, voluntary groups and services for the most vulnerable in society. That is not what people voted for on 2 March. During the course of the past 24 hours, I have spoken to the leaders of the five main Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government. I am encouraged that there remains a strong willingness to continue engaging in dialogue with a view to resolving outstanding issues and forming an Executive, and that must absolutely remain the priority. However, the window of opportunity is short. It is essential, therefore, that the intensity of discussions is stepped up with renewed intent and focus. A positive outcome remains possible.
To that end, I will, over the coming days, continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government as appropriate, and I will need to keep the situation under close review. If those talks are successful, it would be my intention, quickly, to bring forward legislation after the Easter recess to allow an Executive to be formed, avoiding a second Assembly election for which I detect little public appetite.
I am also determined to take forward the legacy bodies in the Stormont House agreement in accordance with our manifesto commitments, and I will be involving a range of interested parties, including the Victims’ Commissioner. In the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the United Kingdom Government to provide for political stability and good governance. We do not want to see a return to direct rule. Our manifesto at the last election stated that
“local policies and services should be determined by locally elected politicians through locally accountable institutions.”
Should the talks not succeed in their objectives, the Government will have to consider all options. I therefore want to give the House notice that, following the Easter recess, as a minimum it would be my intention to bring forward legislation to set a regional rate to enable local councils to carry out their functions and to provide further assurance around the budget for Northern Ireland.
It is vital that devolved government—and all the institutions under the successive agreements—is returned to Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and the Government’s unrelenting focus is on achieving that objective. Northern Ireland needs strong devolved government to deliver for teachers, doctors and nurses, businesses, industry and the wider community and to ensure that it plays a full role in the affairs of our United Kingdom, while retaining its strong relationship with Ireland. It must continue the work of the past two decades to build a stronger, peaceful and prosperous future for all. That needs to be the focus of everyone as we approach the crucial next few days and weeks. I commend this statement to the House.
I would like to take this opportunity to send my condolences to the family of PC Keith Palmer, who gave his life in the protection of all who work in this building.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. Things have changed dramatically since he last gave a statement to this House and called an election. The result of that election reflects the real worry on the ground that the political institutions—not just at Stormont, but at Westminster and the Dáil—have not delivered in the way the public expect. We need a significant change in direction that includes both Governments as well as the parties on the ground. The Irish Government must have more direct engagement. They are not just interested observers, but the co-guarantors of an internationally endorsed agreement that brought to an end the sad episode in the story of these islands. We need direct and continuing intervention from representatives of the Irish Government.
This House must end the hands-off, “Let them get on with it”, “It’s all done and dusted” attitude that prevailed under the Cameron-led Governments. We need the Prime Minister to show greater leadership and encouragement in the process, and to show all in Northern Ireland that the Government want to make this work. The people of Northern Ireland have spoken, and they have said very clearly that there are no longer any minorities in the place that they call home. They want to be treated fairly and equitably. They demand that we—the political classes—get our act together now, and move forward on things pledged to them many years ago. Failure to do so is fraught with danger.
As the Secretary of State said, the budget has not been signed off, and that could soon start to have an impact on the day-to-day lives of businesses and the general public. It is not fair to expect the Northern Ireland Office to run Northern Ireland again. Brexit negotiations in Northern Ireland are the most sensitive of all parts of the United Kingdom. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s lead negotiator, has identified the implications for the peace process as one of the three main priorities for him entering these negotiations, but we do not even have properly elected spokespeople attending the talks under the Joint Ministerial Committee.
In the background to all this is the worry that any vacuum could be filled by those who prefer the bullet to the ballot box. We all have a stake in this process. We cannot turn our backs on the situation, as many advocated through the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. Our collective future is at stake, and nothing should get in the way. The parties on the ground need to take a long, hard look at themselves, and stop saying, “This is what we want”—no matter how legitimate they believe those demands to be—and start saying, “What can we give to move forwards?” It is not easy, but it is the only chance we have to resolve this.
I have not even mentioned the farce that was the final straw in Northern Ireland: the debacle of the renewable heat initiative. Will the Secretary of State look at whether the financial burden placed on the people of Northern Ireland by this failure is limited and reasonable? None of us envies him, or the job he faces. We all want this to succeed and we should use all avenues to reach that goal. To that end, I have some questions. Will the Secretary of State consider whether external support would help to reach an agreement? History tells us that this is sometimes necessary. I can assure him that recent talks with good friends of the peace process from the USA show that they remain ready to help at any time. Will he ensure that the Irish Government have hands-on involvement in the talks, and that the Prime Minister is fully engaged in the process? History has shown us the real difference that that can make. Will he ensure that, unlike so far, multilateral all-party talks are set up as soon as possible in the coming days?
I said earlier that no one wants this to fail, and that is especially true of my party. We have a great deal invested in this process and we do not want it to collapse. Hopefully, we can all use all our efforts to reach a deal as soon as possible. This process has to be built on partnership, genuine compromise and consensus if we are to build up faith and confidence not just in the institutions, but, much more importantly, across the whole the population of Northern Ireland. That cannot be done unless politicians on all sides are prepared to move from their entrenched positions.
This is not just abstract debate for me. For the 12 years from 1993, I had the great privilege to represent 30,000 public sector workers in Northern Ireland. Many had spent years cleaning up the fallout of the actions of failed politicians and terrorists: the ambulance personnel ignoring the risks to their lives to save the lives of others; the nurses dealing with the mutilated, traumatised and dying; the porters dealing, at the sharp end, with the follow-through from yet another sectarian shooting; the social workers dealing with the bereaved, those suffering from addiction and those who were simply lost; the housing officers trying desperately to find homes for those who were burned or bombed out simply because of their religion; and the community workers trying to convince young men and women facing a life on the dole that putting on a balaclava and picking up a gun was not the way forward. It is these people and their kids who we are letting down. Every time we say, “No”, “We can’t” or “We won’t”, we betray the trust they put in us that we had put all that behind us. These people did their duty. It is time for us all to do ours.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clear comments on what is at stake. Yes, this is about those very individuals he spoke to in the last part of his contribution—those in the health service and in education—and the progress in Northern Ireland that we have seen in such a positive and constructive way. We all have that shared determination and commitment to ensure that that progress continues, and that young people growing up in Northern Ireland can look to that future with a strong, positive intent of fulfilling their dreams, ambitions, aspirations and hopes. We can all agree on that message as we look to the days ahead.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions on the process, but I should tell him that there is no hands-off role for the Government in relation to Northern Ireland. We take our responsibilities very seriously in relation to political stability and governance, and, fundamentally, to that sense of devolved government serving the people of Northern Ireland. That is profoundly what we want to be restored at the earliest opportunity.
On the various different roles of people and organisations, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the Irish Government have been actively involved over the last days. I pay tribute to the work of Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, who has worked alongside me, consistent with the three-stranded approach that governs these discussions and the framework. He has played an extremely important part, and has underlined the Irish Government’s continued support for the restoration of the devolved Administration, and for the broader institutions set out in the Belfast agreement and its successors functioning effectively and properly—the devolved Government sit at the heart of seeing that structure fulfilling its intent.
The Prime Minister has been fully engaged in the process and remains so. She has had a number of conversations with the Taoiseach. I have kept her very closely informed and she has very much been there, understanding the need to see progress and supporting the process. She will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the issue of others providing support. The important thing to recognise is that, fundamentally, this is about the parties themselves coming together and devolved elements of agreement. Therefore, the scope for what outside partners can support and achieve is limited. It is important in that context to consider the issues, and how best we can find that way forward and that positive outcome.
Yes, we are considering the intensification and the strengthening of the process, working with the parties. I will continue to discuss that with the parties in the immediate hours and days ahead to ensure that we have the process in place to get the positive outcome that they have said they want—they want that return to devolved government, and they want an Executive performing for the people of Northern Ireland. We need to support and galvanise them in that work and give them all assistance to achieve that outcome. That is what the House would endorse, and that is the work that the Government intend to bring about.
I thank the Secretary of State for supplying an advance copy of his statement, and for engaging with me as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee regularly during the process.
When people turned out to vote in greater numbers, they expected politicians and not civil servants to run affairs in Northern Ireland. Given the way we are going, could those people be forgiven for becoming disillusioned with the whole process of devolution if we are not careful? Should we not therefore remind all the parties in Northern Ireland that power sharing means working with people they do not like, and accepting decisions that they would not automatically choose? If they do not do that, power sharing will not have a future.
My hon. Friend, in his characteristic way, has set out the challenges. I commend him and the Select Committee for their work in supporting our activity. I have appreciated the conversations I have had with him in recent days. Yes, there is a great deal at stake. It is about the parties recognising that need to reach out, which they have demonstrated in the past, and our providing that context and ability for them to do so, in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving us advance sight of his statement.
I pay tribute to Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley for the work they did in advancing devolution. That contribution was and remains important.
Given that the negotiating position seemed to be set in granite at the start of the process, it is perhaps little surprise that there has been little movement. It appears to have moved from stalemate through deadlock to impasse without ever giving any appearance of compromise. Given that the two major parties appear to have enough cold shoulder left over comfortably to see them through the small window of opportunity to which the Secretary of State referred, is it time to consider other options? There appears to be a presumption against having another election, but that would seem to be where the process is headed. What preparations is he making for that new election?
Considering that the election would come in the middle of the early Brexit negotiations, what measures is the Secretary of State discussing that will allow Northern Ireland’s politicians to play a proper part? Has he discussed with the Prime Minister the possibility of delaying the article 50 trigger? Given how Scotland has been treated over article 50, I would advise anyone against holding their breath on that.
In the longer term, is it time to revisit the principles of power sharing and look once again at whether the two largest parties should be able to hold the whole legislature in lockdown, as they are doing? Perhaps it is time to allow Stormont to set its own rules on forming the Executive.
Finally, what consideration is being given to curtailing salary spend on politicians in a legislature that is not sitting?
I will quickly run through some of the points the hon. Lady makes. There is no intent to trigger article 50 late—that remains absolutely on course—but her point about engaging people across Northern Ireland in the process is an important one. I have been talking to businesses and communities to ensure that that voice is recognised and understood. That will continue, but it will be much more powerful to have that Executive in place, articulating those views and making the case for Northern Ireland.
On the point the hon. Lady made at the outset of her question, I recognise the contribution of those who went before. In looking to the future, we need to reflect on the progress that has been made.
The hon. Lady spoke about an election. Options remain open, but there is no public appetite, and I do not discern any broader appetite, for another election, given that we had one just over three weeks ago. Therefore, the focus needs to be on getting agreement and that positive outcome, and getting devolved government back on its feet. That is the focus of work ahead.
None of us in this House should underestimate how incredibly difficult it is for Northern Ireland’s leaders to find common ground on issues such as legacy and identity, which have been the cause of tension and division for decades, but does the Secretary of State agree that, if they can find a way to bridge those last divisions, they will have the gratitude and support of the vast majority in Northern Ireland, who want devolution to work and play its part in moving Northern Ireland forward towards a brighter and better future?
I absolutely agree, and I recognise and commend my right hon. Friend for the contribution she has made in that process. Yes, there are issues of legacy and identity, which have been hugely challenging over so many years, but I strongly discern that the will and commitment are there to find the way forward. As she rightly said, that would have such an impact on generations to come.
Yesterday, the Democratic Unionist party was at Stormont, ready and willing, along with other parties, to set up the Executive. Neither during the election, previously nor now have we set preconditions or set down red lines. We made the Executive work until November, and we are determined to continue to try to make devolution work, because we need a budget and functioning devolution. When Sinn Féin walked away and collapsed the Executive in January, it left us without that budget and a functioning Executive at a very challenging time. It did the same yesterday. While we are determined to create the conditions for devolution and we want to make it work in partnership with Sinn Féin and others, we need a willing partner that will work realistically within the parameters of a Northern Ireland with devolved government, within the United Kingdom but within the institutions as agreed, and with Brexit a reality. Some of us fear that Sinn Féin has now decided that the time for devolution is over and that it is moving on to a different phase, where its main ambitions lie southwards.
I welcome the statement the right hon. Gentleman has just made of his party’s commitment to continue to engage and work to see devolved government get back on its feet, and that is an important point to underline as we look to the days ahead. Yes, there is a real challenge with the budget, and that is why I made the comments that I did in my statement. We need to continue the dialogue to give effect to what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I would certainly encourage him to maintain that focus and that progress. A positive outcome is absolutely attainable, and we all feel a duty to ensure that we reach that positive outcome and create an Executive that deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his measured and balanced statement and for the manner in which he has conducted the negotiations so far—we all know this is not easy. He is absolutely right to say that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, and the vast majority of Members of this House, want to see these institutions up and running and the Executive formed from the elected Members. Does he agree that one measure that could put pressure on the parties to come back to the talks and that might crystallise minds would be to make it clear that, should the elected Members not form the Executive after a lengthy period of negotiation, their salaries and expenses will not be paid from the public purse?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s contribution and his work. We will be keeping all options under consideration, but the focus has to be on looking to the positive—looking to the outcome that sees parties coming together and getting devolved government back on its feet at the earliest opportunity, because that is what people voted for.
I share the frustration at the lack of progress in forming an Administration, but, as my noble Friend Lord Alderdice has observed, the absence of an Administration should not be a barrier to having a functioning Assembly, which is more important now than ever. If the renewable heat incentive issue remains a barrier to progress, will the Secretary of State use his best offices to ensure that Judge Coghlin’s inquiry comes to the earliest possible conclusion and that we do not have to wait six months to see its outcome?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the RHI inquiry is now up and running and starting to take effect, and everyone wants to see the answers and conclusions from it at the earliest opportunity. It obviously crystallises a lot of the situation we find ourselves in at the moment, and it is important that it reports as soon as possible. Obviously, public inquiries set their own timeline, procedures and processes, but the right hon. Gentleman powerfully makes his point about the need to see the inquiry’s conclusions and to ensure we move things on and are demonstrably seen to do so.
Because of its bloody recent history, Northern Ireland has earned the absolute right to have a decent future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a solution to the current impasse is crucial to the economic and social, as well as the political, welfare of the children of Northern Ireland, most, if not all, of whom never knew the dark days of the last third of the 20th century?
Yes, I do agree on the positive outcome we should be looking for for young people growing up in Northern Ireland at the moment. That is what the Government should be delivering on—fulfilling those young people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. We have seen increases in employment and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and that is at the heart of what everyone would want to see continuing.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He says progress was made on how the parties might come together to represent Northern Ireland in negotiations to leave the EU. Does he accept that the impact on Northern Ireland of leaving the EU was a key issue in creating instability and in the election but a peripheral issue in the talks, and it must be addressed directly and urgently? Can he tell us exactly what progress was made in the talks, and where progress sits today? Will he immediately convene the first roundtable talks—my understanding is that there has not been a roundtable of all the parties—to establish a common approach and a strategy for Northern Ireland, as many of us see the country plunging over the cliff of sanity on the European issue?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment in relation to the European Union and the steps that lie ahead. Again, I underline my sense of continued engagement and focus in ensuring that the voice of Northern Ireland continues to be heard and helps to shape the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland as we look to our departure from the EU. The hon. Gentleman speaks about the process moving forward, and I can assure him of the focus on intensification and on seeing that we get a more inclusive approach to the talks ahead, because that will provide the strongest possible foundations in getting that positive outcome and getting the Executive back on their feet again.
With article 50 to be triggered in the next 24 hours, and the impact of that on Northern Ireland being quite significant, will the Secretary of State outline what representations have been made on behalf of Northern Ireland at the Joint Ministerial Council so that the people of Northern Ireland are not left behind in the Brexit negotiations?
My hon. Friend properly highlights the role the Executive have played to date, and I would again point to the joint letter signed by the then First and Deputy First Ministers about the priorities for Northern Ireland, which has helped to shape our response and thoughts on this issue. Yes, there are significant issues in respect of the border, and there are other issues, such as the single electricity market and agrifoods. There is a range of issues that the Executive have underlined, and those have been very much in our thoughts as we prepare for the days ahead.
How will the talks to come be different from the talks we have had so far? What fresh initiatives is the Secretary of State proposing, and will one of them be to get the Prime Minister to Belfast as soon as possible and to involve the Taoiseach as well?
I outlined the fact that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have been involved in this process. The two have mandated Charlie Flanagan and me to lead the work on their behalf. When we look at the issues that are relevant to the parties coming together in that devolved space, we see it is about how we support them to get a positive outcome. I have already spoken about the intensification and the inclusive nature of the talks, and that is precisely the approach I will be taking alongside the Irish Government and Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, to achieve that outcome. The Government have the absolute intent to do all we can to get devolved government back on its feet again, and we will do our utmost to achieve that which can be done.
Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to ignore the siren song we are hearing from the Opposition about dragging the Prime Minister to Northern Ireland? It would be perverse, would it not, to reward intransigence on the part of some political parties in Northern Ireland by having the Prime Minister pulled across to the Province on a tight leash?
It is important that we keep focused on the issues at hand, which are about the parties coming together and finding a resolution to the issues that sit very firmly within the devolved space, and the work that we can do as the UK Government to support them alongside, appropriately, the Irish Government too. That remains our absolute focus. I believe that a positive outcome can be achieved with good will and with good spirit, and that is the environment we are determined to secure.
It is good to hear the Secretary of State speaking of an inclusive devolved Government. However, since the St Andrews agreement we have had a bit for one side, a bit for the other, and it has been polarisation all the way through. We need to go back to the spirit of the Belfast agreement whereby people worked together to find the way forward on health and education. Will he look at a new way forward that gets all of us working together on a voluntary foundation—something different from doing the same thing again and again?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised on a number of occasions this point about the nature of the devolved settlement and the legal structures that are in place. There may well be the scope, in due time, to have that wider debate, but at the moment we are about the here and now—about getting the devolved Government back up on their feet again and seeing parties engaging in such a way that an Executive can be formed under the current structure. That needs to be where our focus lies.
In supporting and sharing the vision that my right hon. Friend so passionately advocates, may I bring him back to the previous question and suggest that if intransigence continues for long enough, there may come a point for some fresh thinking, and that local government in Northern Ireland, to which he briefly alluded at the end of his statement, might play a larger role?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the role of local government, which has continued to make progress and is fulfilling increasing responsibilities. I am sure that over time that should be encouraged further. However, it is now about getting the Executive in place to be able to support this work, and that is where all our efforts must lie in the short term.
Political engagement, power sharing and partnership government, working on an all-Ireland basis, are vital for the future of Northern Ireland in order to deal with the issues presented to us by Brexit. What steps are being taken to secure the presence of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach at such talks? What is the format and timescale for such talks, which will hopefully break the logjam and bring people together in a spirit of power-sharing government?
The hon. Lady is talking about Brexit and the EU. There have been discussions between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister in relation to those very issues, recognising that Brexit will have an impact across the island of Ireland. We can point to various different areas where we have shared commitments with the Irish Government in that regard. This is about getting the parties back around the table and looking at ways of bridging the gaps. We are determined to support that in every way we can to get a positive response.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of Northern Ireland deserve better from their political leaders? The institutions have teetered on the brink for years, and now they have collapsed. The formula to prevent that from happening was clear: it was for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Taoiseach and representatives of the United States Administration to work hand in glove with Northern Ireland’s politicians to prevent the collapse of these institutions. Why does the Secretary of State not understand that he alone does not have the necessary authority to resolve these issues?
I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. Again, I underline the issues that are at stake in relation to the parties and the devolved elements. I can assure him of the seriousness and significance that we attach to the position we now find ourselves in, with the whole issue of getting devolved government back on its feet and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland—all the things that so many have mentioned in this Chamber this afternoon about the future and what that means for real people and for public services. It is therefore with renewed intent that we approach the short period ahead in order to get the consensus and build the bridges that need to be built to get a positive outcome. That is the resolve that this Government have shown and will continue to show to deliver for Northern Ireland.
I am sure that we can look to a range of measures for elections. One of the issues is having greater transparency in political donations—something that has been at the forefront of some of the discussions that have taken place over the past three weeks. I earnestly want to see progress made in that regard.
As a party, we have found the Prime Minister to be very engaged in this progress. I do not know what others are complaining about. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment on legacy, but it is essential that he does not take a partial approach. We do not want to see money given over for legacy inquests and no progress made on the historical investigations unit. If that happens, we will withdraw our support for his proposals.
It is important that we deliver for all victims. That has been the consistent approach of this Government in wanting to see, yes, reform of legacy inquests, but also progress made on establishing the Stormont House institutions, because there are families, survivors and victims who are still living this, day in, day out, and we have a duty to them to have a comprehensive approach that provides a way forward for all of them. That earnestly remains my intent.
My right hon. Friend has already said several times that there is very little appetite on the doorstep for another election so soon after the last one. Will he therefore explain to the residents of Northern Ireland what other tools in his arsenal he may be considering to get agreement without the need to call a second election?
As I indicated in my statement, we are obviously focused on getting a positive outcome through a renewed talks process and legislating as necessary to enable an Executive to be put in place. As I have already said, I will keep all options under consideration, and therefore how we address some of the immediate short-term issues in relation to the budget and the regional rate is at the forefront of my mind.
As one of the last direct rule Ministers for Northern Ireland, may I remind the Secretary of State that managing five Departments from Westminster is not a good form of government? History shows that when the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach engage with matters of crisis—when they clear their diaries and spend four or five days engaged with those issues—crises are solved. Will he reflect on that as he determines not to have direct rule?
As I have already indicated, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are actively involved. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view of direct rule. We do not want to contemplate this, because I see it as a step backwards, not a step forward. That is why we must all redouble our efforts to get the positive outcome, get the agreement between the parties, and see an Executive formed.