House of Commons
Wednesday 15 November 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Republic of Ireland Border
Our clear intention is to avoid any physical infrastructure on the land border, and we welcome the European Commission’s commitment to that as an important step forward. The success of the land border comes from the fact that it is seamless and invisible, and we are resolute in ensuring that that remains the case.
We are resolutely committed to upholding all parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and to finding a solution that works for the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have had continued engagement with the Commission and have, in our judgment, made good progress in that regard. Various principles have been agreed that may well need to be incorporated in the final agreement.
To what extent does my right hon. Friend think that the European Commission has considered articles 8 and 21 of the Lisbon treaty, which require the European Union to develop a special relationship with its neighbours, and to preserve peace and prevent conflict? To what extent will that be achieved by driving a border between Northern Ireland and its biggest trading partner by far—the United Kingdom of Great Britain?
Obviously we respect the European Union’s desire to protect the legal order of the single market and the customs union, but that cannot come about at the expense of the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. As we have said, we recognise the need for solutions that are specific to the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and we all have a responsibility to be thoughtful and creative, but that cannot amount to the appearance of a new border within the United Kingdom.
Has the Northern Ireland Office produced an analysis of the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, or contributed to the rumoured “58 articles”—the sectoral analyses that we know have been produced? Will the Secretary of State commit himself to publishing all such material, as his colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union have already so nobly done?[Official Report, 12 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 2MC.]
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the sectoral work relating to 58 areas of activity, which deals with how trade is currently conducted with the EU and what the alternatives might be. I can say that Northern Ireland has contributed to the cross-Government work at an official level, and the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the commitments that DExEU has made in relation to the publication of that ongoing work.
Is it not the case that no one can decide what arrangements are needed on the Irish border—if, indeed, any will be needed—until such time as trade negotiations have been concluded, and is it not the case that the EU should get on with those negotiations now?
We firmly want to see progress on the second phase of the talks. I gave that message to Michel Barnier when I was in Brussels last week, and I also said that we believed significant progress had been made in relation to the first phase. We continue to focus on not only demonstrating our commitments in respect of those first three items, but getting on with the second phase, which is absolutely about the enduring relationship, and part of that is very much about solving the issues relating to Northern Ireland and Ireland, which we remain firmly committed to do.
I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has said about there being no creation of new borders between parts of the United Kingdom. As he pointed out, it would of course be economically catastrophic and politically disastrous for Northern Ireland to be separated in any way from its biggest market, and his stance on that will have our full support.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. The solutions that we are determined to find will create no barriers, north-south or east-west, in relation to the trading and constitutional issues that he rightly highlights: that remains our firm intent. I believe that some of the commitments that the Commission has already made underline our position, but clearly we need to secure firm agreement in that regard.
In the context of the issues of the hard border, the EU and the Brexit negotiations, the Secretary of State will know that today members of Sinn Féin—instead of coming to the House; instead of taking their place in the Assembly; instead of being in the Executive—are down in Dublin pleading with their political opponents for relevance, and asking for more Dublin influence in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. Will he take this opportunity to reiterate the clear position of the UK and Irish Governments on the Belfast agreement, namely that the strand 1 internal issues of Northern Ireland are a matter for the UK Government and this House alone?
The right hon. Gentleman firmly sets out the constitutional framework for Northern Ireland: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the principle of consent, and, very firmly, the three-stranded approach. To be clear, it is ultimately for the UK Government to provide certainty over the delivery of public services and those strand 1 issues in relation to Northern Ireland.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that regardless of the border that is set up, which we hope will be invisible, the security services and police services of the north and the south must work together in the closest possible way—that is part of Brexit as well?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend about the strength of co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana, and at all levels, in relation to fighting the threat from terrorism and organised crime. We must remain resolute against this severe continuing threat, and we are strengthened by that co-operation, which needs to deepen and flourish further in the years ahead.
I welcome those words from the Secretary of State. Of course, crimes of dishonesty as well as violence marked the troubles. What provisions is the Secretary of State making to secure any possible future hard border against smuggling and organised crime, and what assessment has he made of how many more Border Force officers will be needed to secure any hard border?
On the last point, we are firmly working on the basis that a hard border will not happen, and support for the common travel area and the principles that have been worked through jointly as part of negotiations underpin that. I would point to positive joint work between revenue and customs agencies in Northern Ireland and the Republic to confront organised crime and smuggling, and the way in which work with the National Crime Agency is being strengthened even further.
The Secretary of State knows perfectly well that his Cabinet colleague the Brexit Secretary is preparing for a no-deal Brexit. If we have no deal, that will inevitably mean a hard border for Northern Ireland, which would be a catastrophe for Northern Ireland. Just for once, will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set aside his diplomatic spiel and explain to the people of Northern Ireland how the Government will take back control of the Northern Ireland border if the UK crashes out of the EU?
It is right that we focus on getting that deal. We support the common travel area—it is equally supported by the Irish Government—and principles have already been agreed as part of the progress on the first phase of the negotiations. That is where our focus rightly remains, and I believe that doing that remains firmly achievable—it is where all our attention lies.
Foreign Direct Investment
The economy in Northern Ireland continues to grow, with 42,000 more people in work now than in 2010, and with inward investment playing an important part in that success. As we develop our new trade relationships and expand our global trade networks, we will continue to promote Northern Ireland as a place to invest and do business.
I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Will she confirm that the Government remain committed to devolving corporation tax powers to the Executive in order to help Northern Ireland to better compete with Ireland for investment and jobs, but if that is to happen, we need a fully functioning Executive with sustainable finances?
Will my hon. Friend confirm that Northern Ireland remains one of the most attractive parts of the UK in which to invest, and that the key to that continuing will be working with a restored Executive to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from our modern industrial strategy?
Again, this is precisely the point in front of us. Northern Ireland has already proved itself to be a top destination for inward investment. In the last year alone, it welcomed 22 new investors, who have brought in 34 new foreign direct investment projects and more than 1,600 new jobs, but to take that further, we need an Executive in place.
On devolution, the political parties collectively agreed in 2007 to throw their weight behind the important work of growing Northern Ireland’s economy, achieving particular success in foreign direct investment. In the absence of devolved Ministers due to Sinn Féin’s continued refusal to get back into government and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, will the Minister outline how she will assist Invest NI?
The hon. Lady draws us into some of the themes that we went over at some length on Monday night. This Government are prepared to do everything necessary to support the good governance of Northern Ireland, but our first priority is to see the Executive restored, so that they can play their part in the economic development that we all want for her city, for the rest of Northern Ireland, and for the good of the entire United Kingdom as we face the large task of exiting the EU.
Yes. I was in Newry last week, speaking to an audience of teenagers about the future that they want for Northern Ireland, which is extremely important. We need to look across the whole area and to be sure that we are working for all people of Northern Ireland, as we do for all people of the United Kingdom.
This Government are committed to building an economy that works for everyone. The Government’s industrial strategy is a vital part of the plan to drive growth across the country. It will offer opportunities that strengthen productivity, support innovation and create jobs in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, though, the requirement for strong growth is political stability, so I say again that we seek a restored Executive.
The UK Government have pledged to fund the EU’s PEACE IV and Interreg programmes up to 2020. Interreg already has strong third-party country participation, including with Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes in the Northern Periphery and Arctic programme. Will the UK seek third-country status after Brexit, or after 2020, given Northern Ireland’s strong involvement in Interreg, or are the Government working on a new programme to replace it after 2020?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am more than happy to write to him with the detail but, in brief, the Government will guarantee funding for structural and investment fund projects until the point when we leave the EU. We have spoken specifically about the European Territorial Co-operation fund, of which PEACE and Interreg are a part. We have put more detail in our position paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and it is important to endeavour to see those funds continue.
Does the Minister agree that too many people are concentrating on the potential threats that may emerge post-Brexit? What is she doing to try to promote businesses in Northern Ireland, which have a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of getting business in GB as well as the EU, strategically placed as they are in Northern Ireland?
There are a few things to say about the hon. Gentleman’s important point. First, we ought to pay tribute to the businesses in Northern Ireland that have created so many thousands of jobs. More than 10,000 new jobs have been created in the past year alone, which is important progress. Secondly, this Government will never be neutral on the subject of the Union, and people will see our support for the trade that needs to go between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Thirdly, our exit from the European Union provides an additional opportunity for firms in Northern Ireland to trade around the globe, which is something to be seized.
Yes, I certainly can. We are convinced of the need to go out and seek opportunities around the globe that will bring more jobs to Northern Ireland, and greater prosperity to both Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom, because we are stronger together.
The Government have a clear manifesto commitment to work towards a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals across Northern Ireland to boost investment and help to unlock Northern Ireland’s full potential. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and I have already had some early discussions with partners in the Belfast city region.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to developing city deals in Northern Ireland. Can he confirm that the city deals that have been developed by this Government have been a success across Great Britain and that Northern Ireland stands to benefit immensely from their development over there?
I can. The fact is that Northern Ireland has had no city deals, whereas England, Scotland and Wales have made 33 deals worth up to £4.9 billion. This is about the change that city deals bring and the other finance that city deals are able to unlock. That is why we strongly believe there is a firm place for city deals in Northern Ireland, and we are committed to advancing them.
Absolutely. We want the benefit of city deals to be felt across Northern Ireland. Although, yes, the Belfast city region has been advancing its own proposals, it is right that we look across Northern Ireland—to the north-west and to all parts of Northern Ireland—to see that the benefit and the transformative effect of city deals is firmly felt.
The Secretary of State should be encouraged that discussions continue apace at a local level in the Belfast city region, as well as with officials at a regional and national level. But with no Assembly sitting and a democratic participative deficit in this arrangement, how will he encourage the involvement of representatives of the Belfast region—and indeed of representatives in this House—so that the project comes to fruition?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I had discussions with hon. and right hon. Members, as well as with Belfast City Council, during the initial phase. We are looking carefully at how that work can move forward practically through officials and by other means. I am determined to see city deals taking effect, with their benefit being felt. This engagement will continue to ensure that that happens.
The fundamentals of the Northern Ireland economy remain strong, with growth last year at 1.6%. Economic activity is up, exports have risen, unemployment has fallen to levels not seen since before Labour’s recession of 2008, and 42,000 more people are in work compared with 2010.
Will the Minister confirm that the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland today is 4.7%—down from 7% under the Labour party—and that any return to the high-tax, out-of-control spending and record deficit of the Labour years would have a disastrous impact on Northern Ireland’s economy?
Order. There is excessive noise in the Chamber. We are discussing matters of very great importance to the people of Northern Ireland, and they should be treated with respect, as should the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who is about to ask her question.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Does the Minister agree that although the recent performance of the Northern Ireland economy is strong—thanks, in large part, to the policies of this Conservative Government—the sparkling gem of our country that is Northern Ireland still has the potential to do better? Does he agree that that would be boosted by the restoration of an Executive with local Ministers taking local decisions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She knows the region well and she will be aware that tourism numbers for the first six months of 2017 hit a record high, and that Belfast and the causeway coast is rated by Lonely Planet as the best region in the world to visit in the coming year. To continue that progress, we need to add political stability to the mix so that economic development can continue to be supported.
The Minister will know that some good results for the Northern Ireland economy have come out this morning. Does she agree that the Democratic Unionist party has negotiated a fantastic deal with the Tory party that will help to create jobs in Northern Ireland and strengthen the economy in the future?
The right hon. Gentleman raises important points that were debated at length in the Chamber on Monday night. The point is that we wish for political progress to be seen through the formation of an Executive, in which case accountability would be extremely clear. In the interim period, the House put in place measures on Monday to allow the Northern Ireland civil service to continue to spend as is required by the population of Northern Ireland, and it is under a duty to do so fairly and equally between communities.
Leaving the EU: Ireland Act 1949
Maintaining our strong, historic ties with Ireland is an important priority, including the rights of Irish citizens in the UK as provided for in domestic legislation, including the Ireland Act 1949. These reciprocal arrangements reflect the long-standing social and economic ties between the UK and Ireland.
Along with the 1949 Act, the Good Friday agreement has been a pillar of progress, and it has also meant that the political funding rules in Northern Ireland were different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom. At the weekend, an openDemocracy investigation revealed that the Constitutional Research Council, an organisation with close ties to the Scottish Conservative party, has been given a record fine after failing to disclose the origin of a £425,000 donation to the DUP. Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House as to why the Constitutional Research Council was given that fine in the first place?
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman in respect of the constitutional arrangements is that yes, of course we uphold the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and we are determined that that will be reflected in the final deal. I cannot offer him any greater insight in relation to the other matter he has brought to the House.
Child Tax Credits: Non-Consensual Sex Exemption
I know from previous questions that the hon. Lady has asked that she is concerned about particular circumstances that could apply to claimants in Northern Ireland. The Department for Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities have worked closely together to enable the exemption for non-consensual conception to be applied sensitively. As I said to the hon. Lady in July, the guidance states that women who apply for this exception do not have to tell a third party the name of the other biological parent, and neither is there a requirement on the third party to seek any further evidence beyond confirming that the exception should apply.
I have been pursuing this issue for more than two years now and that answer is simply not good enough. When I visited Belfast recently, the Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, doctors, nurses, midwives and social workers all expressed their serious concerns about the implications of this policy for women fleeing domestic violence, who could be prosecuted under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Will the Minister act now, speak into the Prime Minister’s ear and ask for this policy to be scrapped once and for all?
The Minister and indeed the Prime Minister need to reflect on that answer, because I have a letter here from Barra McCrory, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland, who said, in answer to my question on this very issue:
“It is, however, a potential offence to withhold information regarding an act of rape. The legislation does not distinguish between a victim and third parties to whom a disclosure is made; each is potentially liable to prosecution.”
How on earth can the Government countenance making women in Northern Ireland who are subject to rape imprisonable under the law? How can she accept that?
The fact is that we are not doing so. As I said to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), there is clear guidance on the form that makes the legal position very clear, and we have sensitively handled that as an exception for precisely those reasons.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that Members across the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip on their upcoming platinum wedding anniversary this coming Monday. They have devoted their lives to the service of our country and I know that the whole House will wish to offer them our very best wishes on this special occasion.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
My right hon. Friend’s stewardship of the economy and her predecessor’s excellent work in making sure that this economy grows have seen confidence in our country grow despite the troubles and tribulations that have been set before us. Our deficit has now come down, and our debts are oversubscribed. Will she take this opportunity to invest in our economy even more than she is already, and perhaps take the chance to build more homes?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about investing in infrastructure, particularly in housing. We are doing exactly that, which is why we have seen more than a quarter of a trillion pounds in infrastructure spending since 2010. We are putting in another £22 billion from central Government for economic infrastructure. We are seeing billions of pounds going on rail projects and the biggest road-building programme for a generation. That is this Government building a country fit for the future.
I join the Prime Minister in wishing Her Majesty and Prince Philip a very happy platinum wedding anniversary.
The thoughts of the whole House will be with the victims of the devastating earthquake that hit Iran and Iraq on Monday, leaving hundreds dead and thousands without shelter. I hope the Government are offering all necessary emergency help and support that can be used to save life.
I am sure that the House will join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the late Carl Sargeant, the Labour Assembly Member in Wales, who very tragically died last week.
Crime is up, violent crime is up and police numbers are down by 20,000. Will the Prime Minister urge her Chancellor—who I note is sitting absolutely next to her so it will be easy for her to make this demand on him—to provide the funding that our police need to make communities safe?
The right hon. Gentleman raised three points. On the earthquake that took place in Iraq and Iran, we are monitoring it closely. It was a devastating earthquake, and our thoughts are with all those who have been affected by it. We are looking at the situation and stand ready to provide assistance for urgent humanitarian needs if requested. The Government will do what is necessary and we will stand ready to help people.
I also join the right hon. Gentleman in offering condolences to the family and friends of Carl Sargeant, and I am sure that that goes for everybody across the House. He raised the issue of crime and policing. In fact, crime, which is traditionally measured by the independent crime survey, is down by well over a third since 2010. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] We have protected police budgets, and we are putting more money into counter-terrorism policing. What matters is what the police do and how they deliver, and, as I say, the crime survey shows that crime is down by nearly a third since 2010.
I have been following some tweets from some of the Prime Minister’s friends on the Front Bench. One says:
“Very disappointed and mystified at closure of Uxbridge Police Station.”
For the want of any doubt, that came from the Foreign Secretary, who is also—[Interruption.]
I am very pleased that you do, Mr Speaker, because the Foreign Secretary is so excited that he will not even hear the answer. The real reason that the police station is closing is the £2.3 billion cut to police budgets in the last Parliament. And it gets worse—they will be cut by another £700 million by 2020. Under this Government, there are now 11,000 fewer firefighters in England than there were in 2010, and deaths in fires increased by 20% last year. In the wake of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, the Prime Minister was very clear in saying that this could not be allowed to happen again and that money would be no object to fire safety. Will she therefore now back the campaign to provide local councils with £1 billion to retrofit sprinklers in all high-rise blocks?
On the first issue, the right hon. Gentleman might not have noticed, but the police and crime commissioner in London is the Mayor. Is he one of ours? No, he’s one of yours. The last time I looked, Sadiq Khan was a Labour Mayor of London, although perhaps the leader of the Labour party thinks that he is not Labour enough for him and his brand of Labour. Let us be very clear about funding for the Metropolitan police. There is more money and there are more officers for each Londoner than anywhere else in the country; that is the reality.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the issue of fire. We absolutely take seriously the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, which is why I set up the public inquiry and why the Communities Secretary has already set up the work that is taking place on the fire and building regulations to ensure that they are right. We continue to support Kensington and Chelsea Council in ensuring that we deliver for the victims of this awful tragedy.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about sprinklers. Of course, we want to ensure that homes are fit for those who live in them, and there is a responsibility on building owners in that regard. Some owners do retrofit sprinklers, but there are other safety measures that can be put in place. Perhaps he ought to look at what Labour councils have said on the matter. Haringey Council rejected calls to fit sprinklers, saying that what matters is introducing the “right safety measures”. Lewisham Council said that it needs to “weigh up” the issues, because fitting sprinklers can involve “cutting…through fire compartmentalisation”, which is another safety measure. Lambeth Council said that
“there were issues retrofitting sprinklers and questions about how effective they were”.
Even Islington Council said that it needs to look at “how effective” sprinklers would be.
After the Lakanal House fire, the coroner thought that fitting sprinklers would be the right thing to do. The chief fire officer thinks that it is the right thing to do. The local authorities that have asked central Government for support to retrofit sprinklers have all been refused by the Prime Minister’s Government. Surely, we need to think about the safety of the people living in socially rented high-rise blocks.
Yesterday, I was passed a letter from a lettings agency in Lincolnshire, where universal credit is about to be rolled out. The agency—and I have the letter here—is issuing all of its tenants with a pre-emptive notice of eviction, because universal credit has driven up arrears where it has been rolled out. The letter says:
“GAP Property cannot sustain arrears at the potential levels Universal Credit could create”.
Will the Prime Minister pause universal credit so it can be fixed, or does she think it is right to put thousands of families, through Christmas, in the trauma of knowing they are about to be evicted because they are in rent arrears because of universal credit?
There have been concerns raised—there have been concerns raised in this House previously—over the issue of people managing their budgets to pay rent, but we see that, after four months, the number of people on universal credit in arrears has fallen by a third. It is important that we do look at the issues on this particular case. The right hon. Gentleman might like to send the letter through. In an earlier Prime Minister’s questions, he raised a specific case of an individual who had written to him about her experience on universal credit—I think it was Georgina. As far as I am aware, he has so far not sent that letter to me, despite the fact that I asked for it.
I am very happy to give the Prime Minister a copy of this letter. I suspect this is not the only letting agency that is sending out that kind of letter.
The Prime Minister might be aware that food bank usage has increased by 30% in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. Three million families are losing an average of £2,500 a year through universal credit. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates more than 1 million will be in poverty due to cuts imposed by universal credit. If those are not reasons enough to pause the roll-out, I do not know what are.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Last week, the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, wrote:
“the budget for the NHS next year is well short of what is currently needed”.
The A&E waiting time target has not been met for two years. The 62-day cancer waiting time target has not been met since 2015. So, again, can the Prime Minister spend the next week ensuring that the Budget does give sufficient funding to our NHS to meet our people’s needs?
On the first issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised, can I remind him yet again that universal credit is ensuring we are seeing more people in work and able to keep what they earn?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about what Simon Stevens says about the national health service. Yes, let us look at what Simon Stevens says about the national health service:
“The quality of NHS care is demonstrably improving…Outcomes of care for most major conditions are dramatically better than three or five or ten years ago.”
“What’s been achieved in England over the past three years? More convenient access to primary care services…First steps to expand the primary care workforce…Highest cancer survival rates ever…Big expansion in cancer check-ups”
“public satisfaction with hospital inpatients…at its highest for more than two decades.”
That is the good news of our national health service.
Well, it is very strange that the chief executive of NHS Providers says:
“We are in the middle of the longest and deepest financial squeeze in…history.”
I have a pretty good idea that they know what they are talking about. Let me give the Prime Minister another statistic. The number of people waiting more than four hours in A&E has gone up by 557% since 2010. Two weeks ago, the opposition to us—the Tories over there—were very noisy when I mentioned—[Interruption.] You are the Government, we are the Opposition: you are in opposition to us. It is not complicated.
Two weeks ago, I raised the question of cuts in school budgets—teachers and parents telling MPs what the reality of it was about. The Prime Minister was in denial; every Tory MP was in denial. This week, 5,000 headteachers from 25 counties wrote to the Chancellor, saying:
“we are simply asking for the money that is being taken out of the system to be returned”.
Will the Prime Minister listen to headteachers and give a commitment that the Budget next week will return the money to school budgets so that our schools are properly funded?
Actually, I think this is a major moment: the right hon. Gentleman has got something right today. We are the Government and he is the Opposition. On the NHS, there are 1,800 more patients seen within the four-hour A&E standard every single day compared with 2010. He talks about school funding. We are putting more money into our school budget. We are seeing record levels of funding going into our schools. This Government are the first Government in decades who have actually gripped the issue of a fairer national funding formula, and we are putting that into practice. But you can only put record levels of money into your NHS and your schools with a strong economy, and what do we see as a result of policies that this Conservative Government have put in place? Income inequality: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. Unemployment: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. Workless households: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. Deficit: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. The right hon. Gentleman is planning a run on the pound; we are building a Britain fit for the future.
I would have thought that 5,000 head teachers had a pretty good idea about the funding problems of their schools and a pretty good idea of the effect of Government cuts to school budgets on their staff and on their students. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that school funding will have fallen by 5% in real terms by 2019 as a result of Government policies.
With public services in crisis from police to the fire service, from the NHS to children’s schools, while a super-rich few dodge their taxes—[Interruption.] Ah, yes. The Government sit on their hands as billions are lost to vital public services. The Conservatives cut taxes for the few and vital services for the many. It is not just that there is one rule for the super-rich—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman. Both sides of this House will be heard. The idea that when somebody is asking a question there should be a concerted attempt to shout that person down is totally undemocratic and completely unacceptable from whichever quarter it comes. I just ask colleagues to give some thought to how our behaviour is regarded by the people who put us here.
Quite simply, is not the truth that this is a Government who protect the super-rich, while the rest of us pick up the bill through cuts, austerity, poverty, homelessness, low wages and the slashing of local services all over the country? That is the reality of a Tory Government.
We have taken in £160 billion extra as a result of the action we have taken on tax avoidance and evasion. The tax gap is now at its lowest level ever. If the tax gap had stayed at the level it was under the Labour party, we would be losing the equivalent of the entire police budget for England and Wales. We in the Conservative party are building a Britain that is fit for the future, with the best Brexit deal, more high-paid jobs, better schools and the homes our country needs. Labour has backtracked on Brexit. It has gone back on its promise on student debt, and it would lose control of public finances. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he may have given Momentum to his party, put he brings stagnation to the country.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue for his constituents. I have been assured in this particular case that all the local health organisations remain fully committed to this project. They are confident that it will bring benefits to the local population in the long term. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s frustration at the delays that have taken place. I understand that he will be meeting representatives of NHS England and NHS Property Services later this month. Those two organisations are best placed to ensure that this project is progressed as quickly as possible, and I hope that some positive news will come out of that meeting.
As my hon. Friend has raised the issue of access to local health services, I would like to take this opportunity to say how important it is—[Interruption.] This is an important issue for people around this House and outside this House. I want to make sure that everybody who is entitled to a flu jab this year goes and gets one. I have had one, as a type 1 diabetic, and I hope that everyone in this House is encouraging their constituents who are entitled to those flu jabs to get them.
May I join the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party in congratulating the Queen and Prince Philip on the impending platinum anniversary of their wedding? I am sure the House would also want to join me in welcoming the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, who is in the Gallery today.
Does the Prime Minister agree with me that we should be incredibly proud of our emergency services, and that they do a heroic job, often putting themselves in danger to keep us all safe?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament to see our proceedings. As I have said previously in this Chamber, and as I am happy to confirm, our emergency services do an amazing job. I was very pleased at the Pride of Britain awards to present, posthumously, an award in the name of PC Keith Palmer who of course worked to keep this place safe. Other police officers, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats gave awards to other police officers who had also done what they and other emergency services do—they run towards danger when most of us would run away from it.
I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister. However, Scottish fire and police are the only forces in the United Kingdom to be charged VAT, depriving frontline services of £140 million since 2013. The SNP has raised this issue 30 times in this Chamber. Will the UK Government now give Scotland’s emergency services our £140 million back and scrap the VAT? This has been a long-standing SNP campaign, and we will not give up.
The Chief Secretary has made it clear that officials in Her Majesty’s Treasury will look at this issue, and they will report on it in due course. I am pleased to say that very constructive representations have been made by my Scottish colleagues on the Conservative Benches on this particular issue. Let us just be clear—because the right hon. Gentleman knows this—that before the Scottish Government made the decision to make Scotland’s police and fire services national rather than regional bodies, they were told that this would mean that they would become ineligible for VAT refunds, and they pressed ahead despite knowing that.
Like my hon. Friend, I have seen grandparents in my constituency, through my constituency surgery, who have been concerned about decisions that have been taken in relation to their grandchildren when they themselves were willing to provide a home and support for them, so he has raised a very important issue. There is of course already a duty on local authorities in legislation to ensure that, wherever possible, children are raised within their family, and the statutory guidance does make particular reference to grandparents, but adoption agencies must also consider the needs of the child first and foremost. Each case will be different, but I think the message he is giving—of grandchildren being able to be brought up in their family, wherever possible—is a good one.
I made the point earlier about the importance of universal credit. We have made changes in the implementation of it and we are listening to concerns that are being raised—we are making more advance payments available—but the hon. Gentleman might also like to recognise that, thanks to the unprecedented devolution of powers to Scotland that we have given, including over welfare, the Scottish Government have the ability to take a different path if they wish to, so there might be action in Holyrood.
My hon. Friend is right. We will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019. There is of course a lively debate going on in this place—that is right and proper, and that is important—and strong views are held on different sides of the argument about the European Union on both sides of this House. What we are doing as a Government is listening to the contributions that are being made and listening carefully to those who wish to improve the Bill, and I hope that we can all come together to deliver on the decision that the country took that we should leave the European Union.
The hon. Lady has been a passionate campaigner on this issue, and has very thoughtfully shared her own personal experience with this House. We recognise what an incredibly painful experience it is to lose a child, and I know that the whole House is in sympathy with those who do experience such a tragedy each year; sadly, thousands of families do.
We have put in place a piece of cross-Government work to look at the whole question of how we can improve support for bereaved parents in a variety of ways. That work is being led by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who has responsibility for youth justice. We are already supporting the private Member’s Bill on parental bereavement promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). We are making it easier for parents to apply for financial support, and we are also ensuring that support from across Government is brought together so that it is easily accessible for bereaved parents at what we know is a very difficult time.
We strongly believe that community transport operators provide vital services connecting people and communities and reducing isolation. A number of weeks ago I was very pleased to visit and take a ride on one of the Wokingham Borough community buses that services part of my constituency. The Department for Transport remains committed to supporting community transport operators and has no intention of ending the permit system. To support that, DFT has recently written to all local authorities in Great Britain to explain how they can comply with the regulations without negatively impacting on operators and passengers.
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I discussed the matter briefly with the First Minister of Scotland when I met her yesterday, and I am pleased to say that the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), spoke on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to the relevant Scottish Government Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, about the issue yesterday. BEIS, Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Government stand ready to work with the Scottish Government and others to try to ensure that the best result can be achieved.
This is an important issue and my hon. Friend is right. We do need more GPs, which is why we are increasing the number of places at medical schools by 1,500, the first 500 of which will be available next September. On her specific point about committing people who have been trained to work in the NHS, the Department of Health has been looking at ways in which we can maximise our investment in medical education and it has asked Health Education England to look at the precise point she has raised and to report back early next year.
The hon. Lady is right to say that I spoke on Monday about the issue of Russian interference in elections, which has taken place in a number of countries in Europe—[Interruption.] It is all very well for Labour Members to point at the Foreign Secretary. He made a specific point about what was happening in the United Kingdom, and if they cared to look at the speech I gave on Monday they will see that the examples I gave of Russian interference were not in the United Kingdom. The hon. Lady raises the issue of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is being established today.
I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in this issue and in ensuring we are giving support, security and safety for young people on the internet, which is, as he says, so necessary. We are considering a range of options on this issue. Last month, we published our internet safety strategy. We are consulting on a number of measures, such as a social media code of practice, a social media levy and transparency reporting, but we need to take action to protect internet users, especially young people. That includes considering a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, as we set out in our party manifesto.
I am sure the sympathies and thoughts of the whole House are with those injured and stabbed. We are concerned about criminal acts of this sort. As I said earlier in other answers, we have been protecting police budgets and we are now actually seeing a higher percentage of police officers on the frontline.
My hon. Friend also raises an absolutely appalling and horrific crime. I know that the thoughts of Members across the House are with the victim and her family. I can assure him that in this specific case the Home Office will be pursuing deportation action against the individual. I understand that he met my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and she will be writing to him with further details shortly. He makes a wider point about the continued work, partnership and co-operation we will have with the EU27 once we have left the European Union. I am very clear, as I was in my Florence speech, that we want to maintain that co-operation on security, criminal justice and law enforcement matters. That is important to us all.
As I have said in answer to a number of questions on universal credit, I believe the introduction of universal credit is very important in helping more people to get into work and in ensuring they can keep more of what they earn. Of course we are looking at the impact of implementation. As I have said, we have made a number of changes to the way it is being implemented, but universal credit is the right thing to do because it is enabling more people to get into the workplace and helping them when they are in the workplace.
With recent events in Zimbabwe and total electoral chaos in Kenya, will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating the hugely successful elections this week in Somaliland? With direct help from this country and our Government, the National Election Commission in that country has conducted a template election described by the international observer mission as peaceful, transparent, fair and totally uncontested. What is more, the winning candidate has announced that one of his first acts will be to legislate against female genital mutilation, as a direct consequence of work by a British campaigner, Nimco Ali, who deserves the House’s respect.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Government are pleased with the work we have done to support the Government in Somaliland to ensure that the elections could take place in the way he described, and we continue to provide support. I was pleased earlier this year to chair the Somalia conference here, and I am pleased to hear of the intention to deal with female genital mutilation, which is an important issue that has been raised by Members across the House. We want it dealt with not just in Somalia but here in the UK.
The hon. Lady will appreciate the importance of ensuring that only those entitled to these benefits receive them, but we continue to look at how we are implementing universal credit, and I am sure that if she cares to write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about her case, he will look at it.
Businesses on the Dover frontline are now preparing to leave the EU. Will the Government consider earmarking at least £1 billion in the upcoming Budget to ensure that we are ready on day one—deal or no deal—and prepared for every eventuality?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Obviously, in his constituency the issue of preparations for leaving the EU is very tightly felt—there is a great focus on it—and I appreciate why that is the case. We have already made funds available for the preparations and necessary work across Government in advance of Brexit, and of course we will look at what further work is necessary to ensure that we are ready. We hope to get a good deal, and are working to get one, but either way there will need to be changes, from a Government point of view, and we are ensuring that the resources are there to do that.
Yesterday, the Brexit Secretary gave a pledge in the City that freedom of movement would be preserved for bankers and other members of the financial services industry. Why can the same pledge not be given to other key economic sectors, such as manufacturing and agriculture?
In looking to the immigration rules to be introduced once we leave the EU, we are clear about the need to take into account the needs of our economy. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked the independent Migration Advisory Committee to look at this issue and make recommendations to the Government.
Given the recent events in Zimbabwe, what support can Her Majesty’s Government provide to Zimbabweans to help their country’s recovery, both economically and in terms of their democratic systems of government?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have all seen what has happened in Harare, and we are monitoring developments carefully. The situation is still fluid, and we would urge restraint on all sides, because we want to see—and would call for—an avoidance of violence. Of course, our primary concern is the safety of British nationals in Zimbabwe. It is an uncertain political situation, obviously, and we have heard reports of unusual military activity, so we recommend that British nationals in Harare remain safely at home until the situation becomes clearer. On his specific point, we are currently providing bilateral support to Zimbabwe of more than £80 million per year, partly to support economic reform and development, just as he says.
Next week will mark six months since the tragic attack at Manchester Arena. Will the Prime Minister join me in once again paying tribute to all those who responded so brilliantly in the aftermath? She will also be aware that the costs associated with this attack, now imposed on the city, are well in excess of £17 million—costs that the Government agreed to meet—yet as of today those moneys have yet to be reimbursed. Will she today give a clear and categoric commitment that those moneys will be reimbursed at the earliest opportunity?
Our thoughts continue to be with all those who were affected by the terrible attack that took place in Manchester. As well as meeting some of the victims immediately after the attack, I also met some of the victims and those involved a matter of weeks ago and talked to them about the long-lasting impact that this has on them.
The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. In relation to this funding issue, I can say to her that we will be responding in full by the end of next week, but I would expect that response to confirm that the majority of funds will be made available.
We have been very clear about our position in relation to the green belt, and indeed we confirmed that in the housing White Paper that we set out, where we were very clear about that too. We want more homes to be built in this country. It is important that we see more homes being built particularly in London, but there are many opportunities to do that that do not affect the green belt.
Let me tell the hon. Lady what we see this Government delivering. I spoke about some of these things earlier: deficit down, unemployment down, more record sums going to our health service and our schools, and a Government determined—with a clear plan, as set out in my Florence speech—to deliver the best Brexit deal for this country. She is a member of a party that cannot even decide what it wants from Brexit, let alone set a plan for it.
No serious negotiation would normally allow one side to try to dictate financial terms before the wider terms were known. In preparing to embrace the world when it comes to trade through World Trade Organisation rules, will the Prime Minister please ignore the siren voices and defeatist voices who got “Project Fear 1” wrong and our need to join the euro wrong?
What we want to do is negotiate a good, close partnership—a special partnership—with the remaining EU27 so that we can continue to see good trade, as far as possible tariff free and as frictionless as possible, between companies here in the United Kingdom and those in the EU27. We also want, as my hon. Friend indicates, trade deals around the rest of the world to ensure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities that those trade deals give, because that means more prosperity and more jobs here in the UK.
The Prime Minister and I represent Maidenhead and Slough so we are good neighbours, and I want first to place on record my immense gratitude to her, and indeed half her Cabinet, for having come to my aid recently to help increase our majority from 7,000 to 17,000. I could not have done it without them.
Constituents, businesses and unions in my constituency feel aggrieved that various Government-announced initiatives have seen little or no progress. The electrification of the train line between Slough and Windsor has now been deferred—
I am pleased to be able to say to the hon. Gentleman that we are putting significant sums of money into transport infrastructure and rail infrastructure. Crucially, we are electrifying the Great Western main line, which will be of benefit to Slough and Maidenhead.
Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the decision by the people of Australia to vote in favour of same-sex marriage? Does she share my hope that the Government of Australia will quickly legislate to introduce it, following the lead set by this House?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming that vote in Australia. I was proud, as I know he and other colleagues were, when we passed the legislation here in this House to enable same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom, and I hope that the Australian Government will indeed act on that vote very soon.
Order. Just before I call the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), may I just have it confirmed—as has just been intimated to me—that his point of order flows specifically out of exchanges at Northern Ireland questions? Otherwise, points of order come after urgent questions and statements, and we would not want to change that good practice, would we? Does his point of order relate to, flow out of and connect with Northern Ireland questions?
Thank you for granting this point of order, Mr Speaker, which relates to an incredibly important issue that was raised in Northern Ireland questions. When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) whether women in Northern Ireland who were appealing for exemption under the so-called rape clause that currently applies there might be liable to prosecution because of the way in which that measure intersects with the criminal law in Northern Ireland, I was astonished to hear the Minister say no. She gave a one-word answer saying clearly that such women would not be liable to prosecution, but I have a letter from the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland that directly contradicts that. What can you do, Mr Speaker, to get Ministers back to the House to correct what I believe to have been a misleading statement?
Pursue. The hon. Gentleman is well familiar with the mechanisms available to Members in this House. He has effectively, through the device of a point of order, repeated a point that he made—I think probably in some consternation—to the Minister during Northern Ireland questions. If he is dissatisfied with the answer because he thinks that there is a clear conflict, and he wishes to pursue the matter, he can do so either by written questions or, if he judges the matter to be pressing, by the other device to bring the matter to the attention of the House, with which he will be well familiar—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) is not hailing a taxi. I can see her perfectly well, and we will come to her. She need not worry. We are saving her up. If the hon. Gentleman so wishes, he can use that device.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This is perfectly clear on the form that the UK Government have provided to implement the rape clause in Northern Ireland. It is stated twice within the document:
“Please be aware that in Northern Ireland, if the third party knows or believes that a relevant offence (such as rape) has been committed, the third party will normally have a duty to inform the police of any information that is likely to secure, or to be of material assistance in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of someone for that offence.”
That is there on the form—
Order. If the hon. Lady was seeking to prove to me that she is capable of effective recital, she has no need to offer any such proof to the Chair. I simply say to those attending our proceedings that we must not abuse points of order. If I did not know the hon. Lady as well as I do, I would think that she was seeking to continue—and perhaps effectively to conclude, as she sees it—a debate that took place earlier. However, because I know her to be a person of noble intent and undiminished public spirit who would not conceive of the idea of breaching the conventions of the House, I have to assume that that is not her plan. These matters will have to be pursued elsewhere through other devices, and I can almost envisage the hon. Lady and the shadow Secretary of State consuming a hot beverage together and making their plans. It is perfectly open to them to do so, but they must not further detain the House today. If there are no further points of order, we finally come to the urgent question, for which the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has been so patiently waiting.
In the early hours of this morning, soldiers from the Zimbabwean army deployed in central Harare, taking control of state television, surrounding Government ministries and sealing off Robert Mugabe’s official and private residences. At 1.26 am local time, a military officer appeared on state television and declared that the army was taking what he called “targeted action” against “criminals” around Mugabe. Several Government Ministers, all of them political allies of Grace Mugabe, are reported to have been arrested. At 2.30 am, gunfire was heard in the northern suburb of Harare where Mugabe has a private mansion. Areas of the central business district have been sealed off by armoured personnel carriers.
Our embassy in Harare has been monitoring the situation carefully throughout the night, supported by staff in the Foreign Office. About 20,000 Britons live in Zimbabwe, and I can reassure the House that so far we have received no reports of any British nationals being injured. We have updated our travel advice to recommend that any Britons in Harare should remain in their homes or other accommodation until the situation becomes clearer. All our Zimbabwean and UK-based embassy staff and their families are accounted for.
I will say frankly to the House that we cannot tell how developments in Zimbabwe will play out in the days ahead. We do not know whether this marks the downfall of Mugabe or not, and we call for calm and restraint. The events of the last 24 hours are the latest escalation of months of brutal infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party, including the sacking of a vice-president and the purging of his followers, and the apparent positioning of Grace Mugabe as a contender to replace her 93-year-old husband.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken a deep interest in Zimbabwe over many years, and I pay particular tribute to the courage and persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—I will call her my hon. Friend—who has tirelessly exposed the crimes of the Mugabe regime and visited the country herself during some of its worst moments. The United Kingdom, under Governments of all parties, has followed the same unwavering principles in its approach to Zimbabwe. First and foremost, we will never forget the strong ties of history and friendship with that beautiful country, which has been accurately described as the jewel of Africa.
All that Britain has ever wanted for Zimbabweans is for them to be able to decide their own future in free and fair elections. Mugabe’s consuming ambition has always been to deny them that choice. The House will remember the brutal litany of his 37 years in office: the elections that he rigged and stole; the murder and torture of his opponents; and the illegal seizure of land, which led to the worst hyperinflation in recorded history—measured in billions of percentage points—and forced the abolition of the Zimbabwean dollar. All the while, his followers were looting and plundering that richly endowed country, so that Zimbabweans today are, per capita, poorer than they were in 1980. This has left many dependent on the healthcare, education and food aid provided by the Department for International Development.
Britain has always wanted the Zimbabwean people to be masters of their fate, and for any political change to be peaceful, lawful and constitutional. Authoritarian rule, whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, should have no place in Africa. There is only one rightful way for Zimbabwe to achieve a legitimate Government, and that is through free and fair elections held in accordance with the country’s constitution. Elections are due to be held in the first half of next year, and we will do all that we can, with our international partners, to ensure that they provide a genuine opportunity for all Zimbabweans to decide their future. That is what we urge on all parties. I shall be speaking to the deputy President of South Africa later today.
Every Member will follow the scenes in Harare with good will and sympathy for Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people, and I undertake to keep the House updated as events unfold.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his deep and passionate response to what is a very fluid situation. This is clearly a significant tipping point for the power balance in Zimbabwe, and although it is not a coup in the sense that the military want to run the country, it is a coup to ensure that former Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa takes over.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that changing from one ruthless leader to another ruthless leader will not help to create the conditions that can lead to genuinely free and fair elections in the coming year, and will not solve a dire economic situation in which thousands of people are destitute and food is scarce? Many people in Zimbabwe and the international community will welcome the removal of the Mugabes if that is the outcome, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the former vice-president is probably the one person in Zimbabwe who inspires even greater terror than Mugabe, and that he was responsible for the massacres of at least 20,000 people in Matabeleland shortly after Mugabe took power in 1980? Does he recognise that Mnangagwa, as head of Joint Operations Command, is widely viewed as having co-ordinated ZANU-PF’s campaign of torture, murder and repression in the lead-up to the rigged run-off in the 2008 election?
Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy on Zimbabwe will not change overnight, and that we will not jump in to welcome Mnangagwa should he take over right away? What more will the Government do to help ensure that free and fair elections take place and to give warm support to those who are struggling inside Zimbabwe to raise the flag of true freedom? Will the Foreign Secretary make representations to the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and South Africa to press ZANU-PF to allow genuinely free elections, and not just to accept another strongman dictator?
Finally, will the Foreign Secretary recognise the importance of listening to the voices of the huge Zimbabwean diaspora here in the United Kingdom, many of whom sought political asylum, but want nothing more than to see their once prosperous country flourishing and free?
I renew my tribute to the campaigning of the hon. Lady. She has been tireless over many, many years and has spoken passionately, accurately and perceptively about this subject, as she has again today.
It is too early to comment on the outcome of these events, or to be sure exactly how things will unfold. The situation is fluid, and I think it would be wrong for us at this stage to comment specifically on any personalities that may be involved, save perhaps to say that this is obviously not a particularly promising development in the political career of Robert Mugabe. The important point is that we—including, I think, everyone in the House—want the people of Zimbabwe to have a choice about their future through free and fair elections. That is the consensus that we are building up with our friends and partners, and I shall be having a discussion with the vice-president of South Africa to that effect later today.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Has he by any chance asked our own military command to engage with the chief of the general staff of the Zimbabwean armed forces, and encourage him to put troops back into barracks and allow a democratic process to take place?
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing it.
Events in Zimbabwe have moved incredibly quickly over the last 48 hours. As recently as Monday, here in the Chamber, I referred to the abuse of power by Grace Mugabe; two days later, that power appears at the moment to have been taken away, although the situation seems highly volatile.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that the 20,000 British nationals in Zimbabwe will be given all the assistance that they need during this dangerous period? I understand that in the past, at times of great tension, there have been Cobra plans for British nationals to be evacuated if necessary; I wonder whether thought will be given to such a process on this occasion.
I hope the Foreign Secretary agrees with me that three key points of principle apply to these events. First, a descent into violence and reprisals from any direction in the dispute must be avoided at all costs. Secondly, if all that this represents in the long term is the replacement of authoritarian rule by one faction by authoritarian rule by another, that hardly constitutes progress. Thirdly, we know that the only way forward is for the Zimbabwean people to choose their own Government and shape their own future through elections that are free, fair, peaceful and democratic. Whatever happens in the coming few days and weeks, let us keep that ultimate goal in mind.
In September last year, Dr Alex Vines of Chatham House published an excellent study of the scope for a peaceful transition beyond Mugabe. He warned that western Governments were too complacent about the status quo, and had failed to create a dialogue with different factional leaders and the kingmakers in the military. I shared Dr Vines’s concerns with my parliamentary colleagues at the time, and I am sure that the Foreign Secretary himself was equally concerned. May I ask him what the Foreign Office has done over the past year to establish a dialogue with Mr Mnangagwa—or whichever of the factional leaders who will, along with the military, now be in charge? We must all hope for a more constructive relationship with them than we had with Mr Mugabe, and we must urge them to take the correct path towards democracy and peace.
I agree very much with what the right hon. Lady has said, and I thought that her earlier remarks on the subject were very commonsensical. She asked about British nationals in Zimbabwe. As I said in my response to the urgent question, there are about 20,000 of them. The FCO crisis centre has been working overnight to ensure their welfare, and, to the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports so far of any injuries or suffering. I talked earlier to our head of mission in Harare, who said that, as far as he understood, UK nationals were staying where they were and avoiding trouble, and I think that that is exactly the right thing to do.
The right hon. Lady asked about our representation in Harare, and about UK engagement with the political process in Zimbabwe. All I can tell her is that most observers would say that we have a more powerful representation in Harare than in any other country. We have an excellent ambassador and an excellent high commissioner, and we engage at all levels in Zimbabwean politics. I think that this is one of those occasions on which the right hon. Lady and I are absolutely at one about what we want UK representation to achieve: to encourage the people of Zimbabwe on their path towards free and fair elections next year.
I can confirm to the Foreign Secretary that we do indeed have excellent diplomatic and aid staff in Harare.
If this does indeed presage a move towards easier times—and I do, of course, accept the caution issued by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge, along with me, that the British Government have unfinished business in Zimbabwe? Will he assure me that they will offer further assistance, if they can, to help that wonderful country and its remarkable people, both black and white, in their transition to—we hope—a better Government and a more prosperous state?
I thank my right hon. Friend, notably for his recent mission to Zimbabwe. I was very interested to hear of his meetings there. I know that he personally, in a way, incarnates the historic ties between our two countries. He knows whereof he speaks. Zimbabwe has fantastic potential. It is a country with a very well-educated population, and it has a great future if it can secure the right political system. That is all it takes. They have fantastic natural resources, and my right hon. Friend can be absolutely reassured that the UK Government—who, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said just now, contribute about £80 million or £90 million in DFID spending—will be continuing to invest in Zimbabwe and its future.
I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for raising this important issue.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law are the best way to guarantee secure and sustainable development? Does he also agree with me about the importance of the role that the NGO sector will have to play in the future of Zimbabwe—and also organisations such as the British Council, which does an outstanding job across the world? What support does he believe can be provided to them in the future? Finally, what discussions has he had with his counterparts in the region on today’s events?
The British Council will certainly be involved in the life of Zimbabwe and giving its people the opportunities to which they are entitled. In the last few hours I have been concentrating mainly on liaising with our embassy in Harare, but in the course of this afternoon I will be talking to the South Africans, who play a crucial role in the future of Zimbabwe, and who can be indispensable in making sure it has free and fair elections next year.
Although we have great fondness for the Minister for Africa, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary for deciding to come to the Dispatch Box to update the House on this important issue?
While it would be tempting to rush towards a Government of national coalition to provide stability, will the Foreign Secretary advise caution? We should see through the ZANU-PF conference planned for December. Elections have been planned for August, but there has already been talk about bringing them forward to February and March. It is important that those elections take place, that ZANU-PF goes through a proper process, and that they are multi-party elections, to make sure that there is the stability required to move forward.
My hon. Friend brings a wealth of experience to this subject, and he is absolutely right. The message I am trying to get over to the House this afternoon is that we should not jump the gun; we should not jump to conclusions about exactly how things are going to turn out in the course of the next few days, or even hours. My hon. Friend is extremely sensible to urge caution.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
My constituent Petronella Mahachi, originally from Zimbabwe, came to see me only on Friday, and has asked me to ask the Foreign Secretary about the forthcoming elections. What practical steps will the UK be taking to ensure that they are free and fair, especially in respect of the participation of international bodies that can guarantee the security and democracy of those elections?
Clearly, there is a great opportunity here for the international community to come together, perhaps under United Nations auspices, to ensure there are free and fair elections. We will be making sure the UK Government are in the lead, as we would expect, in ensuring that the people of Zimbabwe have that opportunity.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this could be the beginning of the end of one of the most flawed regimes the world has ever seen? Does he also agree that the key priority, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) has just pointed out, is having a pathway to free and fair elections? Also, what is going to be done to try to recover the many billions of dollars stolen by Mugabe and his cronies?
The first priority is free and fair elections, and then to get the Zimbabwean economy back on its feet so that the great natural potential of that country can be unleashed. That should, I am afraid, come before any attempt to take back huge sums from a country that is already in the throes of bankruptcy.
I thank the Secretary of State for his comments, and commend the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on her endeavours on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe in this House during the time that I have been a Member—and before then. Mugabe has expanded his bank accounts at the expense of the citizens of Zimbabwe. He has left a trail of bloody murder, broken hearts, empty bank accounts, stolen land, poverty and a denial of citizens’ democracy and liberty. What can be done to return the monies and the stolen lands to those they were taken from?
I agree passionately with what the hon. Gentleman says about the larceny and despoliation of farmers—white, black, everybody—in that country. I saw it myself, as I am sure many other hon. Members have: some 17 years or so ago, I went to a place called Mazowe, not far from Harare, and saw the ZANU-PF thugs terrify an elderly couple in their homestead and then relentlessly seize their land. I am afraid that couple are now no longer with us; they passed away, as, sadly, is the case with many other farmers in that country. There is no easy way to make restitution for their loss and suffering. The important thing is to concentrate on the future of Zimbabwe, which has incredible economic potential. Get it back on its feet and invest in the country; that is the best way forward for Zimbabwe.
The UK, in the year to March I believe, supplied £80 million or £90 million and has helped educate possibly 80,000 children and supplied sanitation for 1.4 million people. We are in the lead in trying to help the Zimbabweans and in alleviating the humanitarian crisis they face as a result of the economic mismanagement in that country. The caution my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) urges is absolutely right as it is too early to say whether there is an opportunity in this situation, but if there is, DFID and all the organs of UK foreign and overseas policy—of global Britain—will be there to serve.
This is clearly a developing and concerning situation in a country that is already beset by human rights abuses and economic turmoil as a result of Mugabe’s tyrannous reign, but Zimbabwe is approaching a crossroads, and it could continue down its disastrous path with new faces at the top. What steps does the Foreign Secretary think need to be taken for the pressure to transition to turn into an opportunity for Zimbabwe to embrace a positive democratic future?
The timetable has been well spelled out by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). We need to go forward now with the ZANU-PF conference and then the elections scheduled for next year. It is crucial that they should now go ahead and be free and fair. At this stage, it would not be right for us to speculate about personalities; what matters is that the people of Zimbabwe have a free and democratic choice.
I appreciate that events are very fast-moving, but will the British Government work closely with the African Union to try to get it to put pressure on Zimbabwe, both not to continue as an authoritarian state and to respect human rights, particularly of those from overseas, such as from Britain?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. The AU is an increasingly important and valuable interlocutor in Africa, and I have a good relationship with Mr Faki, president of the commission. I will be going to the AU summit in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire next week, and I have no doubt that Zimbabwe will be top of the AU agenda in Côte d’Ivoire.
Constituents have been in touch with me this morning regarding the worrying situation in Harare. What reassurances can the Foreign Secretary give that the Foreign Office will continue with its excellent start at communicating with residents in the UK who are terribly worried about what is happening in Zimbabwe?
I say to the 20,000 UK nationals in Zimbabwe and to the 200,000 Zimbabweans here in the UK that, as far as we know, no one is under any threat at the present time. The important advice that we continue to give to those in Zimbabwe is to stay in their homes wherever they are and not go out on to the street—do not get into any trouble. To the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports of any suffering or any violence against UK nationals in Zimbabwe.
I recall the 21 December 1979 Lancaster House conference and the British military and civilian involvement in setting up the regime in Zimbabwe. We actually established Mugabe in power. Will we consider using military and civilian assets to help any kind of election? Hopefully, this time, we will get it right.
I admire my hon. Friend’s spirit. I have no doubt that we could do such a thing if we needed to, but a better option would be to work with the Southern African Development Community and the African Union under a UN framework to ensure that we deliver free and fair elections. That is probably better at this stage.
There are reports that Grace Mugabe is out of the country—possibly in Namibia. Building on the important role that regional organisations such as SADC and the AU have to play and on the roles of the Foreign Office and DFID, what steps can the Foreign Secretary take to ensure that any possible instability in Zimbabwe does not spread to the wider region?
Most of us would see the outcomes for Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule as heartbreaking, and it is clear that future decisions about who governs the country must be taken by ballots, not bullets and military coups. What discussions will the Foreign Secretary have with the Secretary of State for International Development about building Zimbabwe into a democratic and prosperous country?
DFID will certainly want to support the transition, and I hope that it will be a transition to a free and democratic country. The people of Zimbabwe have suffered for too long, and it is fascinating to see quite how many Members want to ask questions on this subject, about which the British people really care. For many people, this is a moment of hope, but it is too early to be sure that that hope will be fulfilled, so we need to work hard now to ensure that there are free and democratic elections next year.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for taking this urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). For far too long, the British Government have been unwilling to speak out against the political events in Zimbabwe, and I hope that that will change in the coming months and years. The Foreign Secretary has already mentioned the British people with families in Zimbabwe, and I have a member of staff who is from Zimbabwe and his family are rightly worried about what the future holds. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that he will keep the House updated? There is no need to for him be dragged along here to tell us what is happening; just keep the House up to date and make sure that we play a proper role in ensuring a stable and democratic future for all the people of Zimbabwe.
The British military have long been a force for good in inculcating recognisable values, an ethos and the law of armed conflict in militaries throughout southern and east Africa, including Zimbabwe. What British military assets are currently engaged in security sector reform in Zimbabwe? What does the Foreign Secretary envisage for the future?
To the best of my knowledge, I do not think that we are engaged in that way in Zimbabwe for historical reasons that I am sure my hon. Friend will understand. If we can achieve the reform that we want and if Zimbabwe goes down the path that is now potentially open to it, that is not to say that the UK could not in the future be engaged in exactly that kind of assistance.
I am grateful to my colleague from the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe for securing this urgent question. I share the view that Zimbabwe cannot move from having a despot in charge to having a bampot in charge, and I hope that we can see early free and fair elections.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Home Secretary regarding Zimbabwean nationals who may be due for return to Zimbabwe? There is clearly a volatile environment in Zimbabwe at the moment, so it is important that he has that conversation with the Home Secretary.
Many people in the UK and, indeed, in this House will have friends and family either currently living in or with close links to Zimbabwe, and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) referred to the diaspora. Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that the UK, working with our international partners, will be at the forefront of seeking a democratic and prosperous future for Zimbabwe? We should seize this opportunity as one that does not come around too often; it is a chance for us to make a difference.
Absolutely. That is the key point. This is potentially a moment of hope, and many people in this country will be looking at it in that way. We must ensure that we do not jump the gun and that we are not premature, which is why I have been cautious with the House today. However, my hon. Friend can be absolutely certain that if our hopes are fulfilled, the UK will be at the forefront of helping to turn Zimbabwe around.
If there is to be a transition, I share the Foreign Secretary’s hope that it will be peaceful. Does he know whether the opposition parties have had any involvement in recent hours, or if there is capacity for the opposition parties to be involved in any transitional arrangements? Or is it too early to say?
The answer is simple. We can work with our friends and partners, with the African Union and with SADC to get their agreement, which I am sure will be readily forthcoming, that the best future for the prosperity of the people of Zimbabwe is to have free and fair elections. That is the way to unlock the wealth and prosperity of the country.
I am grateful for that question. I am fixed to talk to the vice-president of South Africa at the earliest possible opportunity, but I must regretfully inform the House that I have not had much time to talk to any others. As I said to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), the South Africans will be crucial in this.
I was an election observer in Zimbabwe in 2000, when Mugabe stole the election from the Movement for Democratic Change through persecution and brutality, and for my sins I have been banned from Zimbabwe.
Not only have the farms of black and white farmers been destroyed in Zimbabwe, but corporate governance across the piece has been destroyed. There will be a stage when we need to re-engage to rebuild that country, because Zimbabwe should be feeding most of Africa; it cannot even feed itself now. There will be a time to engage, but it probably is not yet. We have to be ready to get in there and put the situation right, because Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with lovely people, and it has been absolutely destroyed by a madman.