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—
I call the Minister, the right hon. Tobias Ellwood. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
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?
My hon. Friend is right to point to our manifesto commitment. Given the fact that Mugabe is still in place, he will understand that there are limits to what I can say, but I can assure him that we are working on this very hard indeed.
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?
Yes, we have done so, and continue to do so. I will be visiting South Africa in the very near future, and this will be on the agenda. We are also working with the African Union to place pressure on Zimbabwe.
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.
What is our policy on goods and services produced in the settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories?
Our policy, as my hon. Friend will know, is that consumers should have the right to judge for themselves whether they wish to purchase them. That is a policy that this Government have pursued for many years.
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.
The main aim of the boycott movement is to delegitimise the state of Israel, so will the Government continue to strongly oppose it?
We certainly shall.
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?
I am confident that when the starting gun for Brexit is fired tomorrow, the issue mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman will be an essential part of the negotiations that will then follow.
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?
I have to say that I have not received such representations, but I look forward to raising the matter myself when I next see the Polish ambassador, as I do on regular occasions.
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.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. What support will be given to Yazidi women when they are released? Can he confirm that evidence will be taken from them so that we can accurately record the genocide of the Yazidi people?
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.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we need to work together on this with our partners across the middle east. We are engaging not just with Egypt, but with other countries too.
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—
I did raise it.
I am very glad to hear that the Secretary of State raised the issue, but it is such a shame that we have so little influence on the United States that today an Executive order is being signed—
It is a gnat against a rhino!
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.
We must hasten progress somewhat. Sir Gerald Howarth—briefly.
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.
I am grateful for that suggestion. This country already leads the way in imposing sanctions on the Russians for their actions in Ukraine, and we continue to insist on those.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me, and with the Secretary General of Amnesty International, that the United States President’s Executive order implementing a travel ban on people from six countries—
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?
The hon. Gentleman will know that there is to be a White Paper very soon, presaging a Bill on how we will continue to take part in sanctions jointly with our friends and partners across the channel.
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.
Sudan was recently appointed vice-chair of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, at a time when the organisation is considering investigating Sudan’s alleged use of such weapons. Does that not constitute a conflict of interests?
There are a number of concerns about Sudan, one of which is the use of chemical weapons. The United Nations has looked into the issue in detail, and to date there is no firm evidence that that is taking place, but we will continue to investigate.
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.
Why do African nations and African regional organisations prove to be so ineffective not only in stopping the fighting but in relieving the misery?
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”?
I think I have made my position on the travel ban clear: “divisive, discriminatory and wrong” was the formula we came up with, after exhaustive research of the thesaurus. I think that was agreed among all members, and we will settle on that.
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.
This year marks the UK-India year of culture, so will the Minister set out the Government’s plans to celebrate this important event?
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.
Will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary outline what his priorities have been during the UK’s 62nd presidency of the UN Security Council this month?
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.
I am sure that hon. Members who wish to travel to Israel will have absolutely no difficulties, but it remains up to the Israeli immigration authorities to decide whom they choose to admit.
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.
One forum where we foster our relationships with other European countries is the Council of Europe. As we leave the European Union, what role do Ministers see the Council of Europe playing? Can we deepen those relationships further?
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?
We have the strongest and most rigorous criteria— there must be a clear risk of a serious violation of international humanitarian law—of any country in the world. That remains the position.
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.
What would the Foreign Secretary say to President Putin about his treatment of demonstrators if he got the chance today?
I am pleased to inform the House that I raised the matter with my Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—indeed, I raised the case of the mistreatment of a 17-year-old British national.
Why does Saudi Arabia consistently feature in the backstory of terrorists, as in the case of the one who struck here last week? What representations do we make to that country about it?
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.
Further to Question 10, is it not a bitter tragedy that the US, which has been a beacon of democracy and tolerance for so long, has produced a President whose comments and stance echo those of the Blackshirts of 80 years ago?
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.
Order. In an attempt to accommodate the extensive interest in this subject, I appeal to colleagues to ask brief questions without long preamble, and to the Secretary of State to offer us characteristically pithy replies.
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.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the solution to this latest impasse is not more money from Westminster?
I would point to the fact that in the last Budget the Chancellor announced an extra £120 million for Northern Ireland’s priorities, and obviously we will want to see an Executive in place to be able to use that money effectively.
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.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that England, Wales and Scotland have limits on expenditure for political purposes but that there are little or none for Northern Ireland? Could these limits be extended to 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.
What processes have been put in place with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service to ensure that local public services have the funding that they need in the weeks ahead?
We have been working very closely with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, as he works with his own Departments to ensure that the appropriate resources are in place. As I indicated in my statement, the reserve statutory provisions will be used to ensure that Departments have the money to maintain public services, but that can only be in place for a relatively short period, and the need to have political direction in place to set the priorities remains urgent. That is why the work ahead is such a significant priority for all of us.
Sitting as an independent Member, I am a very interested participant in, and bystander to, these talks. From my experience of past negotiations, I think it could be really important, at this crucial stage, for the Government to try to change the dynamics of the talks. There is no point in heading into them with the same repeated arguments.
Will the Secretary of State give serious consideration to bringing back to Northern Ireland a senior American diplomat, who is well known to all the parties, so that she can chair the talks? Her name is Barbara Stephenson. I have not spoken to her about this—she is being volunteered without her knowledge—but it strikes me that she was the American consul in Belfast for a long time, and she is well known to the parties and highly regarded in Northern Ireland.
I have met Barbara Stephenson. The issues in question relate primarily to strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement structure. In previous discussions and talks, outside parties have never been directly engaged in those strand 1 issues. Although obviously we will maintain contact with all interested parties, that is where the focus lies and where the UK Government have primacy and priority. Of course we will engage in all sorts of different ways, but this is about how we build bridges between the parties. I look forward to discussing some of the issues with the hon. Lady, perhaps outside the House, where she may be able to share more of her thoughts.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lasting image of the funeral of Martin McGuinness was that of Arlene Foster in a Roman Catholic church, with a coffin draped in the flag of the Republic, paying tribute to the body of the leader of the IRA who had attempted to kill her father? Will my right hon. Friend urge all parties in Northern Ireland to show similar acts of bravery—personal bravery—to restart the peace process?
That event was a powerful way for so many people to demonstrate a sense of reaching out and the need for all of us to reflect on some of the bigger issues at stake in Northern Ireland. Equally, Sinn Féin has shown symbolism in different ways over the years, too. Looking at the bigger picture and to the future—the shared, inclusive future—of Northern Ireland is at the heart of the solution. I hope that that spirit will be maintained and strengthened in the days ahead, such that we are able to get a positive conclusion.
Opposition Members only ever want to support the Government in their efforts to bring a resolution to these matters. In that spirit I gently say to the Secretary of State that the perceived laissez-faire approach of the Prime Minister does him no favours. The Prime Minister was in Wales last week and in Scotland this week. She should go to Northern Ireland with the Taoiseach, convene these talks and find a resolution sooner rather than later.
I respect the way in which the hon. Gentleman made his point, but I do not accept his characterisation of a laissez-faire approach. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have been actively engaged in this and will continue to be so. As a Government we will do all we can to get the positive outcome that I know the hon. Gentleman earnestly wants to see, in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my view that if the solution needed were as simplistic as the Prime Minister getting on a plane, that would already have happened. Will he reassure me that what we will not allow is for one party, in particular Sinn Féin, to use elements of the UK security forces and historical inquiries as bargaining chips and hold them hostage in the negotiation process?
As a Government we have a primary responsibility in relation to national security, and that is a responsibility that I feel very keenly. We need to achieve a way forward for the investigations of the past. We have made comprehensive proposals that I want to see emerging into a broader public debate. That is my earnest intention and I believe it can be achieved in the weeks ahead.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that Sinn Féin’s refusal to accept his legitimate role in these negotiations has led to a protracted process; that its refusal to have roundtable meetings with all the parties has meant that only its agenda is being pursued; and that its demand that, when dealing with the past, the focus should be on the security forces, rather than on the murders for which it has been responsible in Northern Ireland, illustrates that it had no intention of reaching an agreement or coming to any compromise? It simply wishes to pursue its own agenda, to the cost of people in Northern Ireland, who are being denied devolution.
I am clear that we need a fair, balanced, proportionate and comprehensive approach to those issues of the past, and I think that the Stormont House agreement allows us to find the way to achieve that, as well as other reforms. I have spoken about that to the Victims’ Commissioner and others over many weeks, and we will continue to re-energise that process. What we need is that intensification of the talks, that sense of good will and a real intent to see devolved government back up on its feet again. All the parties have publicly stated their intent to seek that outcome, and we must do all that we can to create the environment where that can succeed and where we can get the inclusive, devolved Government that will serve the people of Northern Ireland and for which they voted.
We all want a bright future for Northern Ireland, and I wish all parties well in the continuing talks to achieve a fully functioning Executive. Can more be done to ensure that there is representation for Northern Ireland in the Brexit process, given the current circumstances?
The obvious answer is that we can achieve that by getting an Executive in place who can advocate for Northern Ireland and ensure that its voice is heard not only by the UK Government, but in Europe directly. I will continue to do my work by going out into communities, listening to business, to the community and to the voluntary sector, and doing my absolute utmost to ensure that, in my role and responsibilities, we get the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland in the Brexit talks ahead. I certainly believe that that is eminently achievable, and that is the work that I will continue to do.
I was a special adviser to the last Labour Government when direct rule was last introduced, and it took us four years to try to resolve that. The Secretary of State has said that he wants to intensify the talks, but he has failed to tell the House what he means by that. History shows that the engagement of the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister is the way to intensify those talks and bring about resolution. Will he explain why the Government are so resistant to taking that step?
The Government are focused on getting the best outcome from this, which is the return of devolved government. The hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully about issues and risks relating to direct rule, which is why I have already said that they are profoundly not what we want to see, but obviously we are keeping all options under review. There is a sense of the work that the parties themselves can do. The two Governments can play a part in that, which is what Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, and I have been doing. We will continue to play an intensive part, but as I said in my statement, we need to move to a new phase and see the work of the parties come together in a more inclusive way. I have been talking to the parties already as to how we achieve that, and we will see that progress in the days ahead.
Legacy has been mentioned, as has history, but will the Secretary of State confirm that he will stand firm on the attempts by republicans to rewrite the past and the history of Northern Ireland?
It is important that we get a fair, balanced, proportionate and equitable outcome from the systems that we put in place, and that we recognise what happened in the past. That is why we proposed the setting up of, for example, an oral history archive, for people to be able to give their testimony and share their experiences. It is through that comprehensive approach that I believe progress will be made and that Northern Ireland will look to its future rather than its past.
As someone who grew up on the Leitrim-Fermanagh border for large periods during the 1970s and ’80s, I worry that a generation is growing up who have forgotten what political violence and a hard border look like. Most change has come about when Prime Ministers have invested sufficient political capital in the process, but we have not seen any Prime Minister do that since Major and Blair. We need to get the Prime Minister over there as soon as possible to negotiate with all the parties.
I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis or the approach that he advocates. The Prime Minister has been, and will continue to be, actively engaged in the process. The UK and Irish Governments feel that they have a shared responsibility on the matter, and that informs our approach. We desire to see a devolved Government back up on their feet again, delivering for Northern Ireland, because that is what people want. It is our absolute intention to ensure that that is brought about.
Notwithstanding your stress on the constraints of brevity, Mr Speaker, I want to take this opportunity, as MP for Foyle, to pay proper tribute to the late Martin McGuinness, with whom and against whom I worked for well over three decades in all sorts of contexts and roles. As his predecessor as Deputy First Minister, as a former colleague in the Government and as a counterpart in the negotiations, I would say that he was someone who went from opposing the very concept of the institutions in which he went on to serve to demonstrating a remarkable capacity for outreach and acknowledgment using those shared offices. He proved not just his own better character, in the democratic context, but the transformative value of the institutions that we are talking about.
The Secretary of State has indicated that legislation may be introduced after the Easter recess. Is he deliberately precluding the possibility of such legislation rectifying the defects in how the First and Deputy First Ministers are appointed—that process no longer conforms to what was laid down in the Good Friday agreement— or, indeed, rectifying the problems with the petition of concern, which has never operated consistently with what was laid down in paragraphs 11 to 13 of the Good Friday Agreement?
Questions about governance have formed part of the talks that have taken place over recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman highlights the petition of concern, and other issues were also discussed. With the legislation, my focus is on serving the people of Northern Ireland, where public services are challenged as a consequence of the budgetary issues that they face. I intend to deal with that in the legislation that will have to be introduced after the Easter recess. Fundamentally, this is about ensuring that the parties achieve an agreement, and the legislation will give us the opportunity to effect any legislative changes that may flow from the requirements of that agreement. That is why we need to use the few short weeks ahead to get an agreement such that an Executive can be returned to Northern Ireland, to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State talks of a new phase, yet he appears very reluctant to consider a more direct and active role for the Prime Minister in moving things to a conclusion. Will he set out why there is such reluctance to involve the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach directly in the talks to try to bring things to a conclusion? Surely, their involvement would make agreement more likely.
Dealing with the current situation is a question of resolving the outstanding obstacles that have led to this impasse. Ultimately, the two parties need to come together to achieve the outcome that we all earnestly want to see, and I do not believe that the escalation that the hon. Lady suggests is the appropriate way to achieve that. We will continue to keep matters under review, but there are other ways in which we can provide intensification and encourage an inclusive approach. That is why I will continue to hold discussions with the parties and support them to bring that about.
I commend the Secretary of State for his strength of character and his leadership in the talks. Sinn Féin’s irresponsible actions have left Northern Ireland without an agreed budget, and staff of Departments and the Northern Ireland Assembly are in a precarious predicament when it comes to job security. There are also concerns in the community and voluntary sectors. If Sinn Féin continues to block the formation of the Executive, will the Secretary of State undertake to consult closely Members of this House who attend and participate in the Assembly about such decisions, and will he ensure that adequate funding is in place to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland?
I earnestly want to see a positive outcome from the current situation—the return of an inclusive devolved Executive, in which the principal parties deliver for Northern Ireland. I still believe that that outcome can be achieved but, as I indicated in my statement, the UK Government take their responsibility for governance and political stability hugely seriously. We will take all necessary actions, and we will continue to consult colleagues here and elsewhere about how that work is taken forward.
Attention has rightly been focused on the attacks in Westminster last Wednesday, but Members of the House will not forget the fact that police officers could have been murdered in Strabane; nor will they forget the attack and murder in Carrickfergus in recent weeks. What plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues, whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the different parties in Northern Ireland?
The UK Government have committed additional funding, over and above the core funding provided to the PSNI from the Executive, in respect of national security and combating terrorism. The hon. Gentleman underlines the real challenges and risks that officers from the PSNI have faced over recent weeks and years in doing their duty to serve the public and provide safety and security. Events here have brought into stark focus the risks, challenges and personal issues involved, and I commend the security service and all agencies that do their utmost—sometimes quietly and sometimes out of sight—to deliver safety and security for the public in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin selfishly brought down the Executive for Northern Ireland at the start of the year, and on Sunday it selfishly blocked the restoration of the Executive, but the consequences of and penalty for that decision rest on the shoulders of everyone in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in looking at all the options open to him, he will consider proceeding with a voluntary coalition of the willing in Northern Ireland?
I still earnestly believe that an agreement between the parties can be achieved, and we must approach the days ahead with the intention of securing that positive outcome. The important thing is to build bridges and enable the DUP and Sinn Féin to create an Executive, and the UK Government approach the days ahead with that earnest endeavour and intent.
As I indicated in my statement, I feel very keenly our responsibility to serve the people of Northern Ireland and to ensure that they have public services that deliver for them. That underlying intent is firmly in my mind and it is why I believe that legislation will be necessary after the Easter recess to secure that outcome for the people of Northern Ireland.
Personal Independence Payments: Regulations
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I now call Debbie Abrahams to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady has up to three minutes.
I seek leave to propose that the House debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, changes to personal independence payment regulations. As you are aware, Mr Speaker, on 23 February the Government issued new regulations to change the way in which disabled people or people with a chronic mental health condition would be assessed for eligibility for personal independence payments.
The Government’s own analysis estimates that the change will affect more than 160,000 people, the majority of whom have mental health conditions, who will not be able to access the full support that they would have been entitled to under the tribunals’ rulings—an effective cut of £3.7 billion. The regulations were laid before the House without any consultation with the Social Security Advisory Committee and, despite repeated efforts, without any debate in this Chamber.
In a letter to me dated 24 March 2017, the Secretary of State wrote that his Department became aware of the decision by the upper tribunal on 8 December, a whole two and a half months before the Government laid their emergency legislation before the House. The move to undermine and subvert independent tribunal judgments is unprecedented, and in my view marks very troubling behaviour by the Government on cases they lose that could weaken such social security tribunal judgments’ reach, influence and effectiveness in making independent decisions.
Since 8 December, the Social Security Advisory Committee and Parliament could have properly scrutinised any proposed changes. Instead, although the Leader of the House has belatedly committed to a debate at a date still to be determined, the Government have deliberately chosen not to have a debate before the 40-day praying against period comes to an end on 3 April. According to advice received from the Journal Office, if the regulations are not debated and voted on before 3 April, they will not automatically be revoked should the House vote against them. By delaying the debate, the Government are hoping that the objections to the regulations will be kicked into the long grass.
It is highly unusual for such a fundamental change to be introduced by a statutory instrument under the negative procedure in this way, bypassing debate and scrutiny in this House. This is a troubling subversion of democracy under this Government. Yesterday, the other place passed a regret motion, tabled by my noble Friend Baroness Sherlock, asking the Government to reconsider the regulations urgently. However, this elected House of Commons has not had the opportunity to do so, and I therefore believe that we owe it to those who will be affected, primarily people with mental health conditions, to hold this Government to account.
I have listened carefully to the application from the hon. Lady, and I am satisfied that the matter raised by her is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Does the hon. Lady have the leave of the House?
Application agreed to.
I am most grateful to hon. Members for their voluntary stand-up, but it is in fact superfluous. That is required only in the event of indications of opposition, but the position is extremely clear: the hon. Lady has obtained the leave of the House.
The debate will be held tomorrow, Wednesday 29 March, as the first item of public business. The debate will last for 90 minutes, and will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the hon. Lady’s application.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the enforcement of Child Arrangement Orders, including times within which enforcement action must take place; to establish a presumption in favour of shared parenting under Child Arrangement Orders; and to make provision for a commission to review and make recommendations on the operation of family justice; and for connected purposes.
David and Sally separated after 10 years of marriage in September 2014. They had two children, aged eight and five at the time. David was a good father, who did not want to stop being a dad just because his marriage had ended. However, nearly three years later, with more than £200,000 paid in legal fees, David is still fighting through the complex and bureaucratic family courts to see his children eight nights a month, instead of the six nights originally offered by Sally. Sadly, this is not a fictional story. It is one of the many sad cases of high-conflict divorces. Family breakdown is painful for all involved, and it is the state’s duty to support those going through this difficult experience. However, as in the case of David and Sally, not only have those two extra nights per month been financially and emotionally expensive for them, but on several occasions Sally has unlawfully stopped the children seeing David, breaking the court order and undermining the father-child relationship.
Child arrangement orders are made by the court to regulate the contact and residence of children on divorce. In the majority of divorces, the orders are complied with, but in many cases a defaulting parent—that may be the mother or the father—can generally act with impunity. The courts are slow to respond and reluctant to penalise, sending the damaging message that court orders are optional, not mandatory; that the relationship with the non-resident parent is meaningless, rather than crucial; and that the system is inherently inequitable, rather than robust. In the worst cases, a non-resident parent, usually the father, can be denied contact with their child for several years. If they do not have a spare £10,000 to spend on legal fees, they are essentially erased out of their child’s life, with no remedy whatsoever. How can this be humane for a child, and how can it be fair to the parent?
The welfare of the child is paramount—that is an abiding and unassailable principle of family law—and children are less likely to experience depression, teenage pregnancy and delinquency when relationships with both parents are safeguarded, while children without a father in their life often struggle to reach their full potential academically, socially and professionally, but the law does not reflect this because of the failure to crack down on intransigent parents, and because judges and social workers turn a blind eye to parental alienation.
Family courts make huge and life-changing decisions for parents and children, often on thresholds of proof that are far lower than those required to achieve enforcement, so it is no wonder that the criminal threshold for contempt is rarely met and that judges fail to assert their authority swiftly under the Children Act 1989, or subsequent legislation in 2006 and 2014, and attempts to bolster enforcement have not worked. Data from the Ministry of Justice reveal that a mere 1.2% of the 4,654 enforcement applications were successful in 2015. Although the letter of the law sets out discretionary penalties for breach, they are rarely applied in practice, and the rise in the number of unfounded allegations of domestic violence as a defence against enforcement is worrying.
A new approach is needed: a tougher three strikes approach is long overdue, under which residence should be transferred, if that is safe, and community service should actually, not theoretically, be imposed on parents who are in breach. The confiscation of driving licences or passports should seriously be considered by Parliament. Legislation that emphasises the importance of both parents in children’s lives, other than in cases of violence, is needed in England and Wales. Real enforcement is one way of doing this, and shared parenting is another.
A rebuttable presumption of shared parenting should be a key principle when determining the contact and residence of the children. To be clear, this would not be an explicit statement of an equal 50:50 time division, and it does not mean shared care. As Professor Patrick Parkinson, a former president of the International Society of Family Law has made clear, it should, as a minimum, mean the child has a right to a meaningful relationship with both parents as far as practicable, and as long as the safety of the child is not put at risk.
Such a principle is commonplace elsewhere around the world, and it operates without difficulty. It could assure the child of an opportunity for the maximum continuing physical and emotional contact with both parents, and encourage the parents to share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child, as the law states in Iowa. It could provide for frequent and continuing contact with both parents, as in California. It could go even further to
“encourage the love, affection, and contact between the children and the parents”,
as in Colorado. Any of these examples would be a more appropriate starting point for judges when setting child arrangement orders than the weaker form of
“parental involvement...direct or indirect”,
which has been on the statute book since 2014. Although that was an improvement on the previous position, parental involvement can amount to a birthday card or a Christmas card in the worst cases, and non-resident parents, mainly fathers, can be airbrushed out of the lives of their children by the current system. We cannot keep telling fathers that they have equal responsibilities, and then not give them equal opportunity to carry them out.
Shared parenting and robust enforcement form part of the package of reforms that is needed if we are to bring our family law into the 21st century. Our antiquated system reflects the norms of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than relationships of today, and many issues remain unresolved, leaving gaps for Parliament to fill. A commission, to last no more than one year, should be launched by the Government to inquire into the following issues and to report back with recommendations for reform.
First, as last week’s Court of Appeal case of Owens depressingly highlighted, England’s fault-based divorce law results in absurd outcomes. Despite being in a loveless marriage, the petitioner was unable to divorce her husband because of the archaic rules requiring her to prove fault on his part. The reality is that not all marriages end because of fault. We therefore have a law that promotes the farce of allocating blame, setting parties on a needless confrontational path that fuels animosity and costs. A commission should report on whether it is now time for no-fault divorce.
Secondly, financial remedies and maintenance are rooted in a bygone era where women were entirely financially dependent on their husbands. The reality today is that many women are able to support themselves, so divorce should not mean an automatic entitlement to lifetime support from an ex-husband. Scotland and North America limit payments, so why don’t we? Unless Baroness Deech’s Bill on this subject secures Royal Assent, a commission should make recommendations on how to strike a better balance so that England can shed its reputation as the divorce capital of the world.
Thirdly, cohabiting couples with children are the fastest-growing type of family in the UK. Between 1996 and 2016, the number of couples in this position increased from 1.5 million to 3.3 million, yet they have no rights in the event of a split. Inquiry into what basic protections are justified would be valuable.
Fourthly, the enforceability of prenuptial agreements should be set out by Parliament. If we are to support marriage, we need to accept that people are getting married later in life, with assets earned before and during their union. They should be protected, if the parties agree, not put at risk, and a commission should look into this.
Fifthly, reform of the opaque way in which the family courts operate in public law needs wholesale review. Far too many children are taken into care for wholly inadequate and poorly argued reasons, according to Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division. Only the glare of publicity will enable this to stop, so we need to remove the cloak of secrecy and to open up our family courts.
Lastly, most family disputes need not see the inside of a courtroom. Instead, we need better incentives to use mediation or solicitor negotiation, for example by virtue of a costs penalty for parties who draw out the process. Saving costs, time and heartache should be priorities.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am not married. It will not surprise you, therefore, when I say that I do not have the battle scars of having lived through a nasty divorce. My views are informed by my previous work as a barrister in the civil justice system for 10 years. Moreover, I speak today as an objective onlooker moved by stories of injustice, hopelessness and deep sorrow. Yes, divorce is traumatic, but it need not be a tragedy that befalls thousands of non-resident parents. I hope the Government will take the opportunity to begin the work of creating a family law system fit for the 21st century.
Question put and agreed to.
That Suella Fernandes, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Andrew Selous, Tim Loughton, Robert Neill, Frank Field, Caroline Ansell, Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Lucy Allan, Mr David Burrowes, Kate Hoey and Mr David Lammy present the Bill.
Suella Fernandes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed (Bill 162).
Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7))
That the following provisions shall apply to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 10 October 2016 (Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Programme)) and 13 December 2016 (Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Programme) (No.2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after their commencement at today’s Sitting.
(2) The Lords Amendments shall be considered in the following order: Nos. 22, 12, 10,11, 13 to 21, 85 to 90, 1 to 9 and 23 to 84.
(3) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(4) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Gavin Barwell.)
Question agreed to.
Neighbourhood Planning Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 4, 5, 23, 40, 44, 48 to 50 and 84. I also remind the House that certain motions relating to the Lords amendments will be certified as relating exclusively to England, or to England and Wales, as set out on the selection list. If the House divides on any certified motion, a double majority will be required for the motion to be passed.
After Clause 12
Change of use of drinking establishments
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 22.
With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendment 22.
Before I get into the detail of the amendments, I would like to put on record my thanks to my noble Friend and ministerial colleague Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who ably steered the Bill through the Lords. I would also like to thank one of my distinguished predecessors as Housing Minister, Lord Young of Cookham, who led on the compulsory purchase provisions, which we will touch on in the third of the three groups we are discussing this afternoon. Finally, I thank all peers who contributed positively to the debate in the other place. The Bill has benefited from their constructive challenge and scrutiny. For my part, I am pleased that the Bill received a warmer reception than the Housing and Planning Bill did a year ago.
I wish to turn to permitted development rights for the change of use or demolition of pubs, and to update the House on the steps we are taking in respect of the permitted development rights for the change of use from office to residential. First, I will speak to the Government amendment in respect of permitted development rights for the change of use or demolition of pubs. Let me start by assuring hon. Members that we have listened to both Houses and to the support that Members have expressed for valued community pubs. They will see that we have accepted the principle of the amendment introduced into the Bill in the other place. Our amendments in lieu therefore set out the detail of how we will take that principle forward.
The amendment commits us to update the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 to remove the permitted development rights for the change of use or demolition of drinking establishments, including pubs. In tabling the amendments in lieu, I reassure hon. Members that we have continued to engage through the passage of the Bill with interested Members and bodies, such as the Campaign for Real Ale and the British Beer and Pub Association. I can confirm that we will remove the permitted development rights to change to a restaurant or cafe, financial or professional service, or a shop. We will also remove the permitted development rights to change to an office for up to two years and to a school for a single academic year.
In making these changes, the Government are keen to avoid any potential unintended consequences. As such, we are clear that the best way to support pubs is to retain the A4 “drinking establishments” use class for pubs, wine bars and other types of bars. Doing so will allow pubs to innovate and intensify their use, for example by opening a pub garden or starting to provide live music, without facing a risk that this will be a change of use that requires a full planning application. Our intention in retaining the A4 use class is to allow pubs to develop within this use class without having to seek planning permission, thus avoiding unintended consequences, and unnecessary cost and bureaucracy.
CAMRA campaigners in my constituency have campaigned for the removal of permitted development rights for 10 years, so I welcome the Government’s new clause that will implement Labour’s amendment in the other place. However, the question of timing is crucial. If the time window before the regulations come in is too large, developers will simply bring forward their plans and pubs will continue to become car parks, retail or housing. Will the Minister make clear when the regulations will be implemented?
If the hon. Lady bears with me for a few minutes, I will make that crystal clear and, I hope, provide the reassurance she is looking for.
The changes in respect of permitted development rights for the change of use or demolition of pubs mean that in future a planning application will be required in all cases. This will also be the case for premises in mixed use, for example as a pub and a restaurant. This addresses the long-standing call that there should be local consideration and an opportunity for the community to comment on the future of their local pub. It is important that local planning authorities have relevant planning policies in place to support this decision taking. Once we have made the changes, the current provisions, which remove permitted development rights for the change of use or demolition of pubs that are listed as assets of community value, are no longer necessary and will fall away.
Will there be any provision or requirement with regard to the viability of the pub in that premise, so there will be some kind of case that those who wish to change could mount?
Clearly, those are arguments that could be made by an applicant in respect of a particular planning application, but the Government are not proposing to allow any permitted development rights in that regard. It would require the local authority to consider the planning application and to reach a decision. I am sure that in respect of what my right hon. Friend and others have said, those arguments will be considered when planning applications are being made.
Importantly, we have listened to the points made about the need for pubs to be able to expand their food offer in order to meet changing market need and support their continued viability—the issue that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) is concerned about. Therefore, at the same time as getting rid of the permitted development rights that allow for demolition or change of use, we will introduce a new permitted development right to allow drinking establishments to extend their food offering so as to become a mixed A4 pub and A3 restaurant. The Government believe that this will ensure that pubs have nothing to fear when it comes to requiring planning permission or enforcement against the change of use where a pub is extending its food offer. This will give them vital additional flexibility.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and to the Government for listening to the powerful case that was made by CAMRA and many other organisations. The new mixed A3/A4 class is an elegant solution to the issue raised in respect of the amendment in the other place. Will the Minister nevertheless clarify on the record that, in keeping with his proposals, the same removal of permitted development rights that is now going to operate in the A3 and A4 classes will also operate in the mixed use A3/A4 class, which has not been specifically clarified?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I think he will get exactly the clarification that he is looking for—but the simple answer is yes. I shall come on to it again later in my speech. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The Government’s intent is very much to honour the principle behind the Lords amendment, but we believe we have a better solution that will provide pubs with more flexibility and do a better job of ensuring their viability in the long term.
I congratulate the Minister on his flexible approach to the Bill. Given that he has previously agreed to visit my Bassetlaw constituency, will he offer a date very soon, so that I can consider whether to include a pub in his itinerary?
That has got to be one of the kindest invitations that I have received so far in my ministerial career. I have already given an undertaking and I very much look forward to visiting the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I am trying to combine it with an event in the Sheffield city region, looking at housing. The hon. Gentleman served on the Public Bill Committee and he is a passionate advocate of neighbourhood planning. I know that he has worked hard in own constituency to encourage neighbourhood planning. I am very much looking forward to meeting some of the community groups with him. Members of my private office are in the Box and will have heard that commitment. I hope that we can get the hon. Gentleman a date as soon as possible—with or without the benefit of a visit to a local pub.
At the same time as making these changes, we also want to protect local planning authorities from any compensation liability arising from the removal of national permitted development rights. We will do this by amending the compensation regulations to limit to 12 months the period of any potential liability on local planning authorities when the rights are removed.
Let me now take the opportunity to update hon. Members on the outcome of the debate in the other place in respect of the permitted development right for the change of use from office to residential. This was an issue debated at some length in Committee, and I know that there are differences of opinion in the House. Hon. Members will know that the permitted development right is making an important contribution to housing delivery, with over 12,800 homes delivered—thanks to this right—in the year ending March 2016. The Government have always recognised that in certain areas there have been concerns about the local impact of this right, so we have outlined an approach that provides flexibility for those areas that are meeting their housing requirements to have a greater say over where the permitted development right for the change of use from office to residential should apply.
For those areas that are delivering 100% or more of their housing requirement—the figure identified in their local plan—that can continue to do so after removal of the right, and that are able to demonstrate that it is necessary to remove the right to protect the amenity and wellbeing of their area, the Secretary of State will not seek to limit article 4 directions applying to that area. We intend to publish the first housing delivery test data in November. For those who are not familiar with it, this was one of the key reforms set out in the housing White Paper. We will now hold local authorities to account not just for producing a glossy plan, but for delivering the houses set out in the plan on an annual basis. This will indicate to local authorities in November whether this additional article 4 flexibility would apply to directions brought forward after that date. For those interested in further information about this change, it can be found in House of Lords Library in a letter from my ministerial colleague Lord Bourne, dated 18 March. We shall provide detailed guidance before November.
We are making a further change by bringing forward regulation to enable local planning authorities to charge planning application fees when permitted development rights have been removed by an article 4 direction. This recognises the resource commitments in those areas that have removed the permitted development right for sound policy reasons. The Government’s position remains that although the permitted development right makes an important contribution to delivering the homes that we desperately need, we have with these two small changes demonstrated a degree of flexibility to allow those local authorities that are delivering the homes that are needed in their area to apply an article 4 direction if they wish, and then to be able to charge planning application fees in the relevant areas.
St Albans has lost 157,000 square feet of office space recently, a lot of that because demand in St Albans is so high. Does the Minister share my concern that this may provide a perverse incentive not to deliver on housing? If the area does not mind losing office space—I am not saying that this is the case—it seems a quick and easy win to allow offices to shrivel on the vine. I am very concerned to ensure that that does not happen in St Albans.
I think my hon. Friend shares my concern that we need to ensure that St Albans gets an up-to-date local plan in place as quickly as possible to provide the housing that is so desperately needed in that part of the world. My hon. Friend has spoken to me about it several times, and I know that other Members who represent the local authority area share her concern. We need to avoid perverse incentives, and my reassurance to my hon. Friend is that the Government will be doing plenty of other things to make sure that local authorities deliver the housing that is required in their areas. Where people have legitimate concerns about the impact of permitted development rights on the level of office space in their area—my hon. Friend is clearly one of them—provided that the council is delivering the required housing, we want to allow some flexibility. I know that she will work closely with me to try to make sure that St Albans makes progress on that issue.
To conclude, and returning to planning for pubs, I hope that hon. Members will accept the assurances I have given today—indeed, that seems to be the case—and agree that we have reflected the will of Parliament. I have met the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) who is in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), who is not in her place but who has lobbied me extensively on this issue. Indeed, Members of both Houses have spoken with great passion about the need to allow for local consideration of the change of use or demolition of all pubs. Our amendments in lieu set out how we will ensure the successful delivery of these changes, and I can commit today to laying the secondary regulation by July—essentially as soon as we can after the Bill hopefully receives Royal Assent. On that basis, I hope that all hon. Members will support this amendment.
I am pleased to speak in support of Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendment 22. I think they will make a material difference to the fortunes of many of Britain’s 48,000 pubs; give certainty to investors in the pub trade; and, crucially, put communities back in control of decisions that have a real bearing on their community. I speak as chairman of the renamed all-party parliamentary pub group, and as a real pub enthusiast.
I would like to record my appreciation of many people and groups in securing this important victory, including Lord Kennedy who tabled the amendment in the House of Lords and was very successful in ensuring such overwhelming cross-party support that the Government were persuaded to adopt the amendment in lieu. I also thank the pub-supporting campaign groups such as CAMRA and the British Pub Confederation, and my fellow members of the all-party parliamentary group on pubs, who held a really informative round table last week on the many different approaches across the country to using the planning system to save pubs.
I would also like to acknowledge, as did the Minister, the important work done by my predecessor as chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who proposed the motion in Committee that was subsequently supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon).
I also think it right to acknowledge that the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) originated the process with an amendment to a different Bill. Although the case she made was unsuccessful, it has proved important in bringing about this change.
As I said a moment ago, I am grateful to the Government for broadly adopting a motion to which there had been some hostility. It takes courage to change one’s mind. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), came to the CAMRA reception and assured us that the Government were listening, and the Government’s actions on this occasion suggest that he was as good as his word. All due credit should be paid to him.
There is nothing quite like the first visit to any British pub. I know that I am not alone in feeling that little frisson of excitement when I step through the door of a pub for the first time—pushing open that creaking door, and wondering what will be waiting for me behind it. It is, one might say, an adult and real-life version of an Advent calendar: behind every door is a different surprise.
As one of those doors creaks open, we wonder how the pub will be laid out. Will we be able to get a table? Who will be in there, and how many people will be in there? What will be on the walls, and what will the bar look like? Each pub is different. Will the bar steward’s face be a picture of welcoming joy—or maybe not? Will there be a log fire in the winter? Will there be a garden in the summer? Will there be a dartboard, a pool table, a pub dog or cat? Will a loudmouth be propping up the bar, commenting on topics on which he has assumed a level of expertise from a programme that he once saw on television? Will someone be commenting on the performance of his Member of Parliament and asking, inevitably, whether that Member of Parliament will be claiming his pint back on expenses? That one never really grows old.
Finally, of course, there is the question of what the pub will be serving. There is so much more to visiting a pub than having a drink, and that is the magic of it. I know my own favourite beers, and I can pop into Morrisons just down the road and buy as much as I like, far more cheaply than I can in many pubs. However, the drinks are just a fraction of the experience; the magic comes from the entire ensemble. Just as there is a magic to visiting any pub for the first time, there is a joy in having a local where you really feel at home, and where the characters, the beers, the landlord or landlady and the décor seem almost as familiar as if you were indeed in your own home.
We live in different times, and—let us be candid—in difficult times for the pub trade. The days when a single publican, running a single pub for decades at a time, was a staple of every high street are long gone. The long-standing publican is now becoming a rarity, and our communities are the poorer for it. However, many of those communities still have long-standing connections and relationships with their local pubs. Whether they are regular attenders or occasional visitors, the pub is a part of their community—one that we all too often take for granted, and a feature that is only really missed when it is under threat or gone.
Let me assure the House that none of us is suggesting that unpopular or poorly run pubs have a right to exist. Communities that do not back their local pub cannot assume that it will always be there. When I bought my house back in 1998 the Terminus was my local, but after a string of landlords within just a few years, it is gone. The only reminders of it are a plaque on the wall that reminds us where it once stood and the local bowling green, which is still called the Terminus Bowling Club although the pub from which it took its name is long gone.
In a small town like Chesterfield, I have to walk a mile to reach what you would call my local, and that, I think, is a comment on the times in which we live. If we do not get out and support our pubs, it is no good complaining when they are gone. Similarly, the industry knows that it is living in an ever more competitive world. The competition for the leisure pound has never been fiercer. From satellite television and a bottle at home to an array of takeaways and restaurants to suit every palate, the alternatives to a pint in the local are multitudinous.
Pubs will continue to close on occasion, but I think that it really sticks in the craw of communities when popular and well-used pubs—or even pubs that play a central role in a community—which may well be under poor management at a particular time are lost for good without the community having any say. The tenant in a pub is not just a business owner but the guardian of something precious in that community, and the duty of the pub-owning business to ensure that the guardians it appoints have the wherewithal to protect the precious assets that they are responsible for running is very important.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words earlier. The main purpose of the amendment that we are all supporting today is to tackle the scourge of predatory purchasing, especially by supermarkets. The Co-op is the worst in that regard. Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is time for CAMRA to look again at its agreement with the Co-op, and to say, “This must stop, because it has not worked”—as, hopefully, the amendment will?
I certainly support the amendment, and I agree that it is necessary because previous measures were not working. I met representatives of the Co-op recently, and their approach was pretty constructive. They said that they would be making a planning application in every case.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman met those Co-op representatives recently. As he knows, last year the Save the Pub group was misled by the Co-op, which gave a clear assurance that it would not take pubcos’ view of viability as fact, but, as has been made clear by local CAMRA branches and the British Pub Confederation, it has continued to do so. The Co-op speaks with forked tongue, as the Save the Pub group has proved before, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stick with holding it to account.
We certainly will stick with holding it to account. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence that, since those reassurances were given, the Co-op is going down that road without seeking planning permission, I will definitely support him in what he has said.
In Chesterfield, we organised a huge public campaign which, although it does not relate specifically to the Co-op, is relevant to the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We campaigned to save the Crispin Inn in Ashgate Road when EI Group, previously known as Enterprise Inns, wanted to sell it to Tesco. The campaign was won and Tesco pulled out, only for a new developer to come along and demolish the pub, and then start consulting on what should happen on the land where it had stood. Eventually, housing was built there.
In my previous role as shadow pubs Minister, I met so many groups all over the country who were fighting so hard to save the pubs that they loved and on which communities depended. It was wrong that a developer could turn a pub into a supermarket without planning permission, but could not do it the other way round. It was wrong that a building that was potentially a precious community asset could be knocked down before the community was even able to have a say. The coalition Government did take steps to reinforce the right of communities to have a say, but, although well intentioned, their efforts were a bit like trying to catch a flood in a cup.
The great attribute of the amendment proposed by Lord Kennedy and subsequently adopted, with further amendments, by the Government is that it gives certainty to everyone involved in the industry. We must never forget that Britain’s pubs are a business, an industry with investors who need certainty. The danger of going too far down the localism route was that when a business was considering an investment decision, it was faced with potentially dozens of different legislative approaches and hurdles across its portfolio. That approach also left councils at the mercy of aggressive legislation, and they were expected to incur the legal expense of defending the measures that they had introduced to protect their pubs.
The “asset of community value” approach has given some communities a precious opportunity to fight for the pub that they love, but it did mean that often the only way to save a pub was to agree to become its owner. There is some value in that sort of community activism, but it should not be necessary to be willing to buy a pub in order to have a view on it.
Last week, the APPG heard from the community team that had successfully bought the Antwerp Arms in Tottenham, having used the ACV legislation to save their pub. We also heard from Wandsworth Council, which had placed a requirement for article 4 directions on about 220 of its locals. It deserves credit for its efforts, but the danger of using article 4 directions is that the landscape is different in each local authority. That led to some publicans having to obtain planning permission just to paint or decorate their pubs, which is a positive disincentive to improving or investing in the pub estate. The approach that is being advocated today will bring the certainty and clarity that everyone connected with the industry needs, and it will not prevent the owners of buildings from adopting the needs of their buildings to maximise new opportunities.
While we commend local authorities for taking the trouble to exercise the procedure that my hon. Friend has outlined, it was difficult for a number of authorities in other parts of the country that did not have the necessary capacity or the ability to meet the potential costs that would have enabled them to build up the case for doing so. This measure will be enormously helpful in ensuring that local authorities need not embark on that potentially expensive route.
I could not agree more; it meant that different authorities with different priorities brought forward measures at different times, and some of them never regarded this as a priority, even though they might have had sympathy with the intentions of the legislation. What this measure does is ensure that, rather than local authorities having in effect to use legislation for an entirely different purpose than intended and place blanket conditions on all their pubs, there is a simple and clear method whereby developers will know that, quite simply, if they want to make a change to the use of a pub, they will have to get planning permission.
We know that pubs will open and pubs will close, and this Bill will ensure that all the evidence is considered before such decisions are made. As I have said, it is sensible of the Government to create the new A3/A4 mixed use class, and I am glad they have made it clear that it is their intention that the mixed use class should enjoy the same protections as the A3 and A4 classes.
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to the question of what might happen until the Bill is passed. He has set out the Government’s wish to have secondary legislation in place by July, which is a sensible timescale. However, there is a worry that this is going to lead to a rush of businesses or developers buying pubs and levelling them before the regulations are in place, so everyone must take all the steps they can to prevent a rush of conversions or demolitions. I shall be interested to hear the Minister suggest steps that the Government or local authorities and communities may take to prevent that from coming to pass.
I am very pleased to have been able to take a few moments to reflect on the value of the 48,000 British pubs to our communities. When visitors come to the United Kingdom, one of the first things they want to do is have their first pint in a British pub. The British pub is a tremendously important asset to our country, and I will be very pleased to welcome the Government’s adoption of this amendment. I am pleased that this important step will be taken to help communities save and preserve the great British pub for many, many years to come.
It is a delight to speak at this point in the debate, because I want to say to the Minister that the whole point of the other place is to make us think again, and he has thought again and he has listened. This is a wonderful solution that will protect areas such as mine.
I have the most beautiful constituency, and it is rumoured that I have the most pubs per square mile, although other areas dispute that. St Albans is an historical pilgrimage city and a coaching town, and we have pubs on just about every corner—if you can’t find a pub in St Albans, you’re not trying.
We have many historical pubs that have found it incredibly difficult to make their living in today’s hard times. I went to see the Chancellor about the effect of business rates on pubs. I am hugely glad that he listened, because many of the pubs in my constituency are incredibly small—almost the size of people’s front rooms—as they came along in a different era, and many are listed as well, which adds another dimension to the problem of making them viable. The owner of The Boot pub spent five years working with the planning system to try to get various alterations to his kitchen, because the pub’s listing made it very difficult for him to get that work done. I therefore welcome enormously anything that can make our pubs more viable and give them a sounder footing for the future.
The headquarters of CAMRA is in Hatfield road in St Albans, and it has been wonderful in this matter. I pay tribute to CAMRA and all those who have worked with it to ensure that the Minister listened to the thoughts expressed in the Lords and the representations of Members of Parliament, and came up with a solution that is pragmatic and elegant, as I think the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) described it. It now builds on the intentions expressed in the Lords, which is hugely important.
May I point out to any Members who have not visited my constituency that we are having a big tourism week from 31 March? One of my jobs that day will be to visit Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, an immensely historical pub. It is one of the pubs that claims to be the oldest pub, and they all contribute to the tourism offering. Not knowing that this elegant solution was going to come through today—which I am pleased to welcome and support—I wanted to make sure I went along and gave all my support to my pubs, which contribute enormously to our tourism offering. One of the pubs in St Albans, the White Hart immediately opposite the entrance to the cathedral, featured on “Most Haunted Live!”; another part of our tourism offering is that we have a very good ghost run, as St Albans is so historical.
I encourage people to go and visit their pubs. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) said, they are so much more than a place to buy a particular beer; they offer a huge historical pattern, and if they were removed it would in some regards be the death of my constituency. I can honestly say that people come to my constituency and say they cannot get over what a marvellous impression the pubs give, and I pay tribute to the many operating in St Albans to the highest possible standards.
I also want to make a few comments on what the Minister said about the permitted development rights on office space. I am concerned that we are losing so much office space. In an area such as mine, where the average house price is £550,000, there is nothing more lucrative than turning pubs—which we are now protecting—and offices into housing, and there was a rush to do so under the permitted development rights. I acknowledge that there were lots of areas of the country where offices were lying idle and it was difficult to convert them, but I do not have that problem in St Albans. We have lost 150,000 square feet of office space already, with another 50,000 or 60,000 square feet of office space in the offing to go, and businesses are telling me that they cannot find alternative premises. When businesses’ leases are running out, they find that they cannot have certainty about renewing them, and there is a worry that offices will disappear.
We in St Albans do have a lot of work being done online, and I also have a lot of small businesses, but AECOM in Victoria street has 70,000 square feet of office space with the lease coming up for renewal, and if such companies cannot secure an article 4 direction because they in any way become rationed, that will be a worry to me. I understand why the Minister says a local authority needs to show that it has its housing allocation sorted before it can put on an article 4 direction, but, sadly, we in St Albans, with a 1994 district plan, have the worst of all possible worlds: I do not have my housing allocation sorted and I have offices disappearing. When I addressed the chamber of commerce about two months ago, business after business told me that they would have to consider their future position in St Albans if this hollowing out and selling off of the family silver, as it were, continued.
I therefore make a plea to the Minister. In areas such as St Albans, the most lucrative thing anyone can ever do is close a business and make it into a house or a block of flats. I do not want to have a city that is devoid of the vibrancy of businesses or office space. I have made representations to the Minister about this before, and I thank him for listening about the pubs, and I thank the Chancellor for giving an additional £300 million to help support pubs, but I do not want my constituency to fall in the gap between the new thought processes under the article 4 direction and the permitted development rights removal on offices.
I welcome the new drift from the Government towards supporting pubs. Too often they have been seen as not important parts of our heritage, but they are vital to places such as St Albans. I am delighted that the Government have been listening all around—well done to the Minister for that.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). She does indeed represent one of the great pub cities—I think it is a city, not a town. It is a wonderful area for pubs—I live in another one, in Otley in Yorkshire—and this is a wonderful piece of good news to have so near the beginning of English tourism week, when we will celebrate all that England has to offer, including our wonderful pubs. I believe I have visited every pub in the town centre of her constituency—she might like to test me later to see if that is indeed the case. I have certainly been to The Farriers Arms, where those wonderful pioneers set up CAMRA all those years ago. I have also had a pint with Roger Protz, a real hero, who has supported this campaign.
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman’s party has found my constituency incredibly attractive and that its members have visited many of my pubs. I am sure that that was just in support of the pubs and the beer, and I am pleased that they visited none the less.
I did not see the hon. Lady in any of the pubs when I visited, but I assure her that those visits were partly personal and partly due to the work of my all-party group. None of them were political or part of my work as an MP. However, it is great to have support from Government Members. Many Members on both sides of the House have campaigned and persuaded the Minister in this case.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his campaign—he has been trying to get this measure through for years—and the Minister on accepting the amendment. My only concern is that the new business rates system could affect pubs and must be looked into. We also cannot forget working men’s clubs.
I warmly thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is quite right. Rates have been mentioned, and while we have had some positive news, more needs to be done about some of the extraordinary and damaging rises. Indeed, we need another system of taxing pubs altogether.
I thank the Minister for allowing us to get there in the end. Finally, we have been listened to. He has shown what an excellent Minister and gentleman he is. I thank him for his approach. He has engaged consistently on this issue, as has his colleague the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—the community pubs Minister and a good Yorkshire MP. He genuinely listened to me and—I have to call her an hon. Lady, but I can also call her a friend—the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie). There is something about MPs with “North West” in their constituencies when it comes to this issue. Her campaigning has been dogged over many years and also deserves commendation.
While we are having this cross-party pubs love-in, I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who has been a staunch campaigner on this measure for many years. Back in January 2015, I made what I thought at the time was a distinctly career-limiting decision to table a similar amendment with him, and I want to put on the record my thanks for his work. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who has been an outstanding Minister. Many pints will be raised in his name and in the name of his colleague the community pubs Minister this weekend.
I thank the hon. Lady for her support and echo her comments. The Minister has genuinely listened and was interested in looking for solutions when the hon. Lady and I met him on 30 January. He offered that meeting and we were delighted to have it. He actually went to the trouble of inviting me into his office last Thursday to hand me a copy of the amendment and to say exactly what the Government were going to do. That is an example of how Ministers can work with MPs from across the House to achieve things, and I warmly thank him for that.
Following my tabling of a similar amendment on 7 December, I thank Lord Kennedy of Southwark for taking up the baton excellently, ably and enthusiastically, and for showing his support by taking it through the House of Lords, which presented us with this great opportunity. I thank Protect Pubs, which is now the pre-eminent organisation campaigning for better protection for this country’s pubs. It is a member of the British Pub Confederation, which I also congratulate. I must declare an interest as I am the chair of the British Pub Confederation, and I am delighted to continue to work with all publicans and pub representative organisations within the confederation. I also thank the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), because he introduced a private Member’s Bill with the same aim back in 2010. That is sometimes forgotten, but I told him that I would mention him and thank him in the Chamber today.
Although I tabled a similar amendment back in December, it was also tabled during the passage of the Localism Act 2011. My point then was that localism is phony if we continue to allow valued pubs to be demolished or turned into supermarkets or offices without the community having any say. That is all that we are changing today—no more, no less. We are not getting into pub protection in great detail. The amendment simply gives communities the right to have a say through a planning process, just as with anything else. It should have happened a long time ago—it is common sense—but I am delighted that it is happening now.
Echoing the comments of another pubs campaigner—the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey)—I thank the brave pro-pub councils that have brought forward article 4 directions and other pub-protection policies. They have shown that they can do certain things, but we needed this change from the Government. I also thank the Otley Pub Club from my constituency. Again, I have to declare an interest in that I am the club’s honorary president. When Ministers wrongly rejected this change back in 2015 by not accepting the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bristol North West, the club took Ministers at their word when they said, “If you value your local pubs and if you want protection against predatory purchasing by supermarkets, list them as assets of community value,” and listed all 19 pubs in the centre of Otley to show that that was the only way communities could protect them. Communities no longer have to list all their pubs simply to remove permitted development rights. If Otley Pub Club had not had the courage to go ahead and do that, and prove that Ministers were wrong in rejecting that amendment, we may not have been here discussing this today. Asset of community value status remains important, but it no longer needs to be used in all cases for all pubs simply to end permitted development rights.
I thank the wonderful CAMRA branches and members that have engaged in the campaign over many years. It was disappointing that CAMRA headquarters did not support the amendment in December. The reasons for doing so were rather strange—perhaps there had been a particularly good Christmas party—but we are delighted that the change has finally come through after many years of campaigning. It was slightly bizarre that CAMRA was still sending messages yesterday to its members, myself included, urging us to contact our MP about a vote when there was no vote. Several MPs have said to me, “Don’t worry. We’re going to vote with you,” but I have had to tell them not to. I even had one MP say that they were going to vote against me because of the email from CAMRA, so luckily there will be no vote. However, it is rather odd that CAMRA carried on lobbying after the event. I have mentioned the Co-op issue, but CAMRA really needs to look at the failed agreement with the Co-op, which has been an appalling predatory purchaser and destroyer of pubs up and down the country. CAMRA needs to disassociate itself from the Co-op in the interests of its members and of pubs.
I must put on the record and draw attention to a significant and brave decision by the Minister. When my amendment was considered in December, a false briefing was circulated by the representatives of the large pub companies. The reason they were lobbying so hard to stop communities having the simple right to have a say was that they wanted their large pubco members to continue to be able to sell pubs to supermarkets, who can demolish them without the community having a say. People have been losing viable pubs as a result. I raised that matter on the Floor of the House and wrote to the Minister, and that was when I realised the kind of Minister he was. Rather than the usual response from civil servants, he wrote back to me, and I want to quote from the letter because it was so nice and refreshing to have an acknowledgment from a Minister. It said:
“I recognise that in doing so I referenced briefing that was made available more generally by the British Beer and Pub Association in relation to existing permitted development rights for pubs. You are right to point out that their briefing contained inaccuracies, and therefore I am pleased to confirm for the record that it is the case that the removal of permitted development rights for the change of use or demolition of pubs, as a result of the nomination or listing as an Asset of Community Value, has no effect on a pub’s ability to make internal changes.”
It was great to have that confirmation, but it is a serious matter that a clearly interested party was sending false information to hon. Members, misleading them about something that was extremely simple.
The Government have clearly decided not to accept my original amendment of 7 December, nor Lord Kennedy’s of 28 February, but I understand their reasons for doing so and have made it clear to the Minister that he has my full support for the new amendment and that I am delighted with the outcome.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) raised the concern that the Government decided to include the mixed use category of A3/A4 because they did not want to stop publicans serving food. In actual fact, there is no need for the category because we know that food is served in many pubs in category A4 but not in others, and sometimes that changes from week to week. There is no need for the change, but the first concern that has been raised is whether the same permitted development rights will be in place for the mixed category. The Minister has made it clear that that will be the case, which is fairly clear in the Bill.
However, I flag up the genuine and very serious concern about article 4 directions because, to use the Minister’s words, there is an unintended consequence whereby many councils have decided to introduce important and impressive article 4 directions to bring in strong protections for pubs—stronger than will be offered by the amendment, as he knows—including stopping the predatory developers that the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) mentioned, but those protections apply only to A4. There is a real danger that it could create a loophole whereby unscrupulous owners or developers can seek a mixed use designation to get out of the strong pub protection that exists in some areas.
Now that is on the public record, and now it is understood in a way that perhaps it has not been by some organisations, I urge the Minister to consider introducing a statutory instrument, in addition to this amendment, to ensure that the new mixed use A4/A3 category, which is for pub restaurants that should clearly have the same protection, does not fall foul of another loophole by no longer being covered by existing pub protection policies. That should be easy to address with a statutory instrument, and then everyone will be happy with the amendment as a whole. In a sense, he has done something remarkable because, despite their opposition and misleading briefings, both the British Beer and Pub Association and one of its large pubco members, Punch Taverns, have said that they are perfectly happy with the amendment. He has done something significant but, now that it has been spotted, he needs to plug the potential loophole with a statutory instrument to ensure that it does not become a problem.
Finally, I thank the Minister and all hon. and right hon. Members who have taken part in this campaign over many years. I raised the issue as far back as 2008, and it was one of the key aims when we set up the all-party Save the Pub group. It has taken longer than expected and hoped for, but we have got there now, with the caveat of closing the loophole that has been identified.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that organising such an open, accessible and cross-party campaign that has allowed all of us to be involved, with him taking the lead throughout, is a good model for securing change in this place?
The hon. Gentleman is kind, and it is nice of him to say so. It has been a pleasure working with him, and with Members on both sides of the House, because that is how, as parliamentarians with an interest and a zeal for campaigning, we can change things. We can all do it in different ways, and I look forward to doing so in the future. The changes we have had, including on pub companies, show that we can succeed and that all-party groups and campaigning in this place, when done well, can be successful. I have been nearly 20,000 feet up a mountain with the hon. Gentleman, but I have never been to a pub in Bassetlaw with him, which we might have to put right. If he would like to do that, I would be delighted to join him.
There is a real threat from unscrupulous developers, owners, pub companies and supermarkets that seek to offload pubs, demolish them and get supermarkets in place before planning permission is needed, and I remind the House of the utter absurdity that communities currently have no right to object to the imposition of a supermarket and the loss of a viable pub, but have the right in the planning process to complain about the supermarket’s signage. The amendment is finally reversing that nonsense, but it will continue to happen until the amendment is enacted. Now that the Government have made clear their intent, which has the full support of both Houses—that is very unusual—and of all major parties, the Minister should seriously consider a moratorium on any demolitions or conversions. A moratorium would be extremely useful in stopping the continued loss of pubs.
Will the hon. Gentleman expand on his suggestion? Many of us share the concern, which I raised a moment ago, about a rush towards demolition. He proposes a moratorium, but is he proposing that the industry commits to such a thing or that the House passes something to bring it about?
I am asking the Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Secretary of State’s name is on the amendment, so I take this opportunity to thank him because he has clearly listened and accepted the proposal. As he knows, I also go to pubs in his constituency because I have family in Bromsgrove.
It is for the experts in the Department to consider the possibility of introducing a moratorium, because there is no possibility of it being done externally. This is not a matter simply for the industry. The Co-op is probably the worst pub killer of all the supermarket chains, others of which have been pretty bad. The supermarket chains are not part of the pub sector, and they see pubs as fodder for imposing their unwanted stores on communities. The supermarket chains will clearly not jump to do this, and nor will developers that are seeking to exploit high land values in London, St Albans and other parts of the country. From that point of view, it would be great if the Minister said that there should be a moratorium and, in the spirit of this change, called on people not to pursue such conversions now that they are deemed by Parliament to be wrong.
This is not the end of the matter. Ultimately, it has not been about securing great protection for pubs; that is one of the things that has been rather misunderstood and misrepresented, sometimes by both sides of the argument. It is simply about giving communities a say and about removing absurd permitted development rights that created a loophole that has been exploited by large pub-owning companies and large supermarkets for too long. There will still be predatory developers, and pub companies will still seek to undermine pubs to secure development or to go through the planning process for building a supermarket.
As I have said, the assets of community value scheme remains important, but it is now time to consider strengthening it. Giving communities a genuine right to buy, as communities in Scotland have, is long overdue and would represent genuine localism. I have had a conversation with the Minister, and it is now time to consider a separate category in the planning and tax system for community pubs, which are the ones that we really care about. They are the ones that have the community value, which many Members have mentioned, in a way that other licensed drinking establishments do not.
CAMRA has so far said that it does not want to engage in this, but it is now time to crack the nut of defining a genuine community pub that does the things we have talked about and that has value to the community. The British Pub Confederation and Protect Pubs certainly wish to do so. If we do that, in addition to creating the extra layer of genuine planning protection for those pubs, and only those pubs, against predatory development, and only when the pubs are viable, we can crack the nut of having a different system of taxation, and we will never again see the disastrous headlines for the Treasury such as of one pub in York facing a 600% increase in its rateable value. I was in that very small pub, the wonderful Slip Inn, a couple of weeks ago during the Liberal Democrat conference. As I did at the meeting with the hon. Member for Bristol North West, I offer to work with the Minister to find a way of doing that, which could offer the security we need for our hugely important, viable community pubs.
This wonderful news is the start of a conversation, and I thank the Minister and all those involved. This is a hugely significant day in pub campaigning. As this is English Tourism Week, I know that every Member here today, and many more who are not, will want to raise a glass to this win for pubs and to the Minister for listening to all the campaigners who have helped to make it happen. They will want to toast this victory and the importance of the great English and great British pub.
I, too, am happy to support the Minister on his amendments. Like other Members, I have been lobbied by constituents who think that they should have the right to intervene, with a proper planning process, in the unique case of a pub. It will be a great pleasure to write back to them to say that we have a listening Minister who has heard their representations and the strong lobbying by colleagues here who have been campaigning on this issue for a long time. However, when we make this legislative change, we must also remind people that it does not save every pub. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) made clear, those who are keenest to save their local pub need to make sure that enough people use it. The only ultimate guarantee that it can continue to serve is that people like and support it, or that they in a friendly way influence the owner or manager so that it provides the service and range that they wish and it will thereby attract sufficient community support. This is a welcome legislative change but we need to remind people that local government will be no more able to save a pub than national Government if there is not that strong body of support in the local community and an offer that people want.
The Minister is right to give the pubs the maximum flexibility to change what they do. If pubs are to serve the evolving communities of our country, they sometimes need to move on what they offer by way of the balance between food and drinks, the ambience and the surroundings, because people’s tastes and people change, community by community. I therefore welcome the extra flexibility he is giving.
The main point I wish to make relates to the wider issue of changes from offices to homes and other changes of use class. The Minister is right to say that he needs to preserve flexibility. Any Member visiting a high street or centre in their own or another community knows that an avalanche of change is taking place. The internet, digitisation, robotics and automation are making a huge difference to the way business is conducted and services are delivered. A lot of change to the shape of the high street and the adjacent streets, and some of the office areas, will be required to make sure that the property there is updated and flexible so that it can meet the requirements of these evolving businesses.
We need flexibility, as in some cases we will have too many shops or offices, and it would be much better if they were converted to housing, because there is considerable need in town and city centres, as well as elsewhere, for additional housing. If some of that could be at prices that young people can afford, that would be an excellent bonus, as we still face a huge problem, with a new generation of potential homeowners priced out of many parts of the country by the very high prices. We need to understand that many of the new businesses and the new service offers will be internet-based and will come from new service centres that do not have to be in the town centres, and that the kind of things that people do need physical property for in the town or city centre will be different from the more traditional uses to which we have been accustomed.
Does my right hon. Friend think that the transformation of shops and offices into homes can regenerate town centres?
Yes, it can, with the right mixture. Some offices may need to be transformed into homes and a broader retail offer, with a higher proportion of coffee shops, restaurants and so on, may need to be made. If more people are living in flats or smaller properties that they can afford in the town centre, they may well then make more use of the town in the evening, and the range of services and the life of the town is thus extended beyond the traditional shopping hours during the day. I am sure the Minister understands all that. I hope he will see how he can develop other ways to ensure that our planning system for commercial property is sufficiently flexible to allow residential use where that is the best answer and to ensure flexible use patterns in the commercial property that we have, as massive change will be needed.
The planning system of course has to protect the things that the community legitimately wants to protect, so we do not want non-conforming uses in certain areas and we certainly do not want bad or noisy neighbours, who may be regulated by planning or by other general laws on nuisance. Within that, we need maximum flexibility so that commercial owners and managers can adapt or change the use of their premises, or swap them for a more appropriate property for their use. If the planning system can facilitate that, it will greatly improve our flexibility as an economy, meaning that we can modernise more rapidly and move on to a more productive world, which is the main feature of the Chancellor’s policies for our economy.
First, may I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a shareholder of a small family business which for the past 40 years has included a single pub? Today, there has been a huge amount of agreement on the appropriateness of the Government’s amendments to Lords amendment 22, and I pay tribute to a lot of people who have been involved in that process. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who is also, in effect, the Member for CAMRA in this House. I know how seriously he takes his duties in that respect. He rightly highlighted English Tourism Week, but even more importantly this weekend we have the Gloucester beer festival. It runs from 31 March to 1 April, which, appropriately, some may say, happens to be my wedding anniversary, and takes place in the historic setting of Blackfriars, the world’s best-preserved Dominican priory. So I invite all Members to come to Gloucester this weekend, as there will be 100 beers, 30 ciders and perries, and an unbelievable atmosphere, in a great and noble old setting.
That deals with the preamble, so I come on to what I really want to say. I seek to strike a slightly different note, mild caution, and ask the Minister whether he has thought carefully about the possible unintended consequences of his amendment—I am sure he has. It would be a cruel irony if, in trying to protect pubs, this addition to the Bill triggered sales of pubs by small owners and increased the stranglehold on pubs of the large pubcos and very large brewers.
The Minister will know that there is a long history of unintended consequences in the brewing and pub sector. If we go back in time, we find that this House legislated against individual brewers owning more than 2,000 pubs, which inadvertently created large pubcos. The wheel has now almost come full circle, with Heineken proposing to buy back 2,000 pubs from a pubco. So there are times when, by trying to manage too finely what happens to our pubs, we end up with unintended consequences.
My concern, which I have also heard expressed by one or two small owners of pubs in my constituency, is that this sort of change could threaten the covenant with the banks that finance them. Lenders may lend more willingly on the understanding that in the unfortunate event of the pub failing there will always be value in the buildings for other uses, as that then underpins the security on which they lend to small owners. As in our pub, it is the small owners of pubs who tend to develop their own brewhouse and produce the real ale that CAMRA is all about. On the whole, the large pubcos and large brewers, who have their own entirely tied arrangements, are not going to produce the creative, small beers and the brewhouses which have regenerated this whole sector so effectively over the past 10 or 15 years.
Therefore, my question to the Minister is: has he thought carefully about the possible unintended consequences? Has he had any discussions with some of the individual owners of pubs or with their bankers and lenders? Will he reassure us that he believes that these changes are a compromise that do give enough flexibility to retain the support of those who lend to small owners of pubs and to provide that variety—what the hon. Member for Leeds North West was calling the “community pubs”? That is hard to define, but it is often when a pub is family-owned.
All of us present for this debate are huge fans of pubs —probably of beer, too—and want to see them continue. We want to know that the listing of assets of community value matters, and we certainly do not want to see large supermarkets preying on pubs at the cost of the community. In my community, there is currently an issue with the future of the former Ridge and Furrow pub, which is on a site owned by Morrisons, the supermarket, but tenanted to Trust Inns. There has been an effective stand-off between Morrisons and Trust Inns, meaning that the building has been abandoned for some years and is a very unsightly contribution to the Abbey ward community in Gloucester. Situations such as that one cannot be resolved entirely through legislation and need heads to be knocked together and people to come to pragmatic solutions.
Generally speaking, I absolutely support all the intentions of this House and the campaigns led by CAMRA to ensure that our community pubs thrive and that we have lots of pubs offering all sorts of different real ales. The individual family owners of pubs have a crucial role to play. I just hope that the amendment will not inadvertently threaten that part of the sector.
This is a topic very close to my heart, as it evidently is for Members from both sides of the Chamber. We know how important pubs are to the fabric of our communities. They are more than just a place that sells alcohol; they are a meeting place and a community heart. In many areas, they are the one bit of heritage of historical value in the local area in terms of architecture. In my own town, Oldham, where terraced streets were thrown up to house the millworkers, very little attention was paid to the architectural quality of the buildings. The architectural quality generally stands out in the local church and the local pub.
I am pleased that the Government are acknowledging the role that pubs play in the local community, not only in the way I just described but through their economic value. Pubs are worth £22 billion a year to the economy, and £13 billion is raised from them in taxes and duties which, of course, funds our vital public services. They support nearly 1 million jobs. Just in the time I have been on this planet, since 1980, 21,000 pubs have closed, and 21 pubs close every week. It is urgent that we get the changes we are discussing, and quickly, because we do not want developers to try to move fast and aggressively in the knowledge that change is coming, looking to demolish or change use in the meantime. While we are having this debate, three pubs will close—every day, three pubs close in this country—so there is a sense of urgency about ensuring that community rights are protected.
I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins). I give him credit for the work he has done on the all-party parliamentary pub group to expose the importance of local pubs in giving a community a voice. I must admit that I had a smile on my face listening to his romantic description of that first experience of walking through a pub door. Depending on the pub’s proprietor, we do not always get a welcome—sometimes we feel as though we have walked into somebody’s living room—but at their best pubs are open and welcoming and they make us feel like part of the family, even if we are perfect strangers. That is why it is so important that they are maintained. We live in a time when people are becoming more socially disconnected and when families spend very little time together, so places where people come together are important.
This Friday and Saturday, I am sure Members will have the time on their hands to come up to Oldham, where we will be celebrating the Oldham beer festival, at which more than 60 real ales and ciders, many from the north-west, will be on display for people to test. There will be a fantastic example of local British produce. That is one way the community comes together.
The debate has been very positive, but if I may be slightly critical—though this probably goes beyond the current Government—we have not seen a compelling vision of what the British pub will be for this country and how the Government will offer support to the pub industry across different policy areas.
The hon. Gentleman made an enormously important point about architecture and heritage. On the point that he has just made, I could not agree with him more. He has considerable expertise in local government, which he showed in a recent meeting on business rates, so we need him to contribute to this debate and it is great that he is doing so. Will he consider seriously the idea put forward by me, the British Pub Confederation and Protect Pubs, which is that we should find a way to identify genuine community pubs, separate from bars, so that we can give them extra planning protection? We need to be clear that these changes to the Bill will not give them that protection. We should also look for a better way to tax pubs appropriately with regard to their community function. I would love to work with the hon. Gentleman and everyone to try to do that.
That is an important point. In the debates on the Local Government Finance Bill and business rates revaluation, Labour was clear in pressing for the need to recognise properly the role and value of community pubs and how they are often affected by a range of taxation, whether that is duties, business rates or rises in national insurance contributions, or by the increase in the national living wage. All those will affect a pub’s viability. It is important that we have one review to look to protect pubs. In many places, quite often when a pub provides that essential community facility, it is the only facility left in the area. Perhaps the church, post office and butcher have closed, along with other facilities, so it may well be that the pub is the only place where the community can come together. Residents will be rightly fearful that the response so far does not go across the whole of Government and they will want to see a plan.
We heard an announcement about permitted development rights and the change from office use to residential. The Opposition have been forceful in our view that the extension of permitted development rights should be reversed. There have been some extremely inappropriate developments, often against local community interests and against what the local community says it wants for the area. Developers are often looking for short-term gain at the expense of a community’s long-term sustainability. Will the Minister look seriously at the genuine impact of the policy change? There is no doubt that it has increased the number of units brought to market, but I would question the quality of those units, not only in terms of their size—many of them are very small indeed—but in terms of the attention to detail, the finish and the quality of life for people who live in converted office accommodation. Developers will quite often squeeze as many units into a premises as possible, bypassing the planning regime that any residential development would have to follow. The loophole needs to be closed at some point.