House of Commons
Tuesday 9 January 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Illegal Wildlife Trade
Tackling the illegal wildlife trade is a massive priority for this Government. To that end, we will host a high-level conference in London this October to drive further progress. I can assure the House that the Government raise the issue of illegal wildlife trade consistently at all levels with our friends and partners around the world.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. Can he say a little bit more about what actions he has taken globally to ensure that the appalling ivory trade is reduced, and whether he thinks that national bans play an important part in that?
I am grateful for that question, because the UK Government have been a leader for many years now in calling for an end to the illegal trade in ivory, which not only does so much damage to the elephant population but encourages criminality of all kinds across the African continent. I am proud to say that this Government are currently consulting, as my hon. Friend will know, on an all-out ivory ban. The results of that consultation will be announced shortly, and I hope to have good news for the House.
I commend my right hon. Friend for all his work in this area, but may I draw his attention to a shocking investigation in the Mail on Sunday, which highlighted the continuing illegal trade in tigers in Laos? Does he agree that those findings deserve urgent attention to ensure that this magnificent species can continue to enjoy a safe future?
I indeed commend the excellent journalism of that publication—at least in this respect—in highlighting what is taking place in respect of tiger farming in Laos, which is an abominable trade that all right-thinking people across the House would condemn. The UK Government not only call on the Government of Laos to stop this appalling trade, but stand ready to give any support and help that we can to the Laotians.
You, Mr Speaker, may be as interested as I am in the oceanic environment. I want to talk about whales, because 30,000 have been killed since the introduction of the international whaling ban, and nations such as Japan, Norway and Denmark take a very controversial view on participating in whaling. What can the Secretary of State’s Department do to make whaling history?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, an eponymous Member, on that important question on what we are doing to protect whales—although they are, of course, mammals rather than fish, as he knows. The UK has been in the lead over many decades in calling for an end to illegal whaling. We condone whaling only when it is clearly and demonstrably necessary for subsistence.
Reports from the UN and others have shown links between not just the illegal wildlife trade but the illegal timber trade and the financing of terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Is that on the Minister’s radar, and what will he be doing to ensure that the links between terrorism and those trades are broken?
The hon. Lady asks an excellent question, because, of course, the illegal wildlife trade is intimately connected not just with the illegal timber trade, but with drug running, gun trafficking and the trafficking in human beings, so if we tackle the illegal wildlife trade, we drive down those phenomena as well.
The illegal trade in ivory is estimated to be worth about $20 billion per annum, and yet the Government have so cut the Border Force that they are now looking at recruiting volunteers to fill the gap. What confidence can the House have that this illegal trade will be tackled if the Government are not prepared to put the resources into the Border Force?
I have every confidence in our Border Force and its ability to police the traffic of illegal items such as ivory. It should be evident, I hope, to everybody coming from another country with such an illegal item in their possession that they face the risk not only of prosecution, but of jail.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, rhino poaching in South Africa increased by 7,700% between 2007 and 2013. People in Broomhouse want to know what support the Secretary of State has offered his South African counterpart to help global campaigning to end this trade once and for all.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Minister for Africa has raised that very matter with the South African Government only recently.
Veterans Abroad: Military Covenant
I have not held full discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence on this subject. However, we feel deep respect for anybody who has served in the armed forces, and the Government have been pleased to put £770 million from the LIBOR fund into supporting veterans at home and abroad.
Of course, we very much welcome that. According to the campaigning charity, ZANE: Zimbabwe A National Emergency, there are 600 former British servicemen—those who have served the Crown—and widows of servicemen living in considerable pensioner poverty in Zimbabwe. Does the Minister agree that although the financial responsibility is that of the Government in Harare, the moral responsibility lies also with us? With that in mind, will he commit to meeting the Secretary of State for Defence to discuss those people, and will he press the new Zimbabwean President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to actually face up to his responsibilities to these people who are living in his country?
I will absolutely commit to meeting the Secretary of State for Defence on this subject. We have met my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and Lord Goodlad to discuss the matter. The prime responsibility for looking after veterans of the Zimbabwean army lies with the Government of Zimbabwe, so we will also raise the issue directly with President Mnangagwa.
This question relates to military personnel. We read in today’s Guardian that drone strikes have doubled and the number of civilians affected has doubled. What legal advice do military personnel involved in drone strikes receive?
Order. Although it was a most ingenious attempt, I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s point is not merely tangential, but irrelevant to the substance of the question. She can have another go later, if she feels so inclined.
We will be having a summit of the Commonwealth in April this year. As I am sure all Members know, that will provide a fantastic opportunity for us to showcase an institution that has stood the test of time. The Commonwealth brings together 52 countries —in fact, 52 of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is a most remarkable institution. The summit will of course be an opportunity to pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen for her long years of unrelenting service.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the summit taking place in April represents a major opportunity to revitalise the Commonwealth as an international trading alliance, and that India—with 55% of the Commonwealth’s 2.3 billion population and 26% of its internal trade—should play a major role in furthering that mission?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is therefore a very good thing that Prime Minister Modi will be coming. Of course, India will be playing a major role in the events.
Last time I looked, there were 54 members of the Commonwealth, but perhaps I am wrong. The fact of the matter is that many people I meet from Commonwealth countries are very worried about the diminished role of Britain worldwide as we leave the European Union. What does the Secretary of State say about that? Many fear that we will lose our place on the Security Council.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman—as I am sure he reassures anybody who makes that point—that our position on the Security Council is absolutely secure. In fact, the only thing that threatens our position on the Security Council, as my hon. Friends will know, is the unilateralist disarmament policy that used to be adopted by the Labour party and its leader. It is the retention and possession of an independent nuclear deterrent that guarantees our membership of the Security Council, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well.
On promotion of the Commonwealth, I call James Duddridge.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
To make the issue of 52 members versus 54 more orderly, could we perhaps increase the number to 54? Although the Foreign Secretary is right in saying that it is 52, I think that by the time that we get to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the Gambia will already be in, making it 53. Could we add Zimbabwe to the list, particularly if that is conditional on the President making progress?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great expert on these matters, particularly Zimbabwe and Gambia. The proper solution, as the House will know, is for those countries to apply. The Gambia, I am glad to say, is a long way down the track, and we hope to welcome it back. For Zimbabwe, the prize of Commonwealth membership is once again something for that people to aspire to. That is a wonderful thing.
Among the important issues of human rights, jobs, climate change, poverty, equality, security and so on that the summit will discuss, how much time does the Foreign Secretary expect the Commonwealth countries to devote to the colour of their passports?
Not much. One thing that will be absolutely crucial at our Commonwealth summit is, of course, 12 years of quality full-time education for every girl in the world. That is going to be an absolute core of the summit.
Before CHOGM, will the Foreign Secretary get a chronological list of the countries where UK pensioners overseas get inflation-level increases and how many of those are Commonwealth countries? Should we not hang our heads in shame that for half of pensioners overseas who are in Commonwealth countries, there has been no change? I ask him to do something about that.
I am happy to accede to my hon. Friend’s request.
An orderly inquiry from Catherine West.
I hope so, Mr Speaker. Will the issue of tax avoidance and tax evasion be raised in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting?
Almost certainly, yes.
EU Bilateral Relationships
As we create our new partnership with the EU, we must also build even stronger bilateral relationships with the 27 member states, and at the same time maintain strong and positive relations with the EU institutions. Considerable effort has been made to ensure that the Foreign Office, and the country, is well placed to do just that.
Last month the Foreign Secretary warned that the UK would become “a vassal state” if we could not diverge from EU tariffs and standards, but he also accepted that divergence would have “trading consequences” for the UK. Could he spell out what those consequences would be?
As we move on to phase 2 of the discussions and negotiations, all these matters will be in the frame. I am sure that we will be able to negotiate an agreement that is in the long-term interests of the UK.
The Minister has done enormous amounts in reasserting bilateralism across Europe this past year. Can he assure us that the resources that he requires to make sure that we are ready for post-EU membership will not denude the rest of the world, so that we do not rob Peter to pay Paul or build bilaterals at a cost to global Britain?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have created 50 new diplomatic positions in our embassies, but it is not a question of simply reducing the number of staff outside Europe by the same number. The money to fund these changes will come from changing the way we work and adjusting some our processes, and from some frontline staff savings in Asia, the Americas and Africa. We are also bidding for some extra money from the Treasury to help create over 100 additional new roles to support the process of leaving the EU.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) asked a clear question but did not get a clear answer, so let me try again. The Secretary of State said that there will be “trading consequences” for the UK if we diverge from the EU tariffs and rules—what are they?
It is perhaps slightly beyond my pay grade to say that I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago, but indeed I do. These are matters for the Department for Exiting the European Union and for the negotiations. They will be discussed in phase 2 of those negotiations, which is now beginning.
Perhaps the most important bilateral relationship the United Kingdom has with an EU member state is in the location of British immigration controls in France. Will the Minister ensure that post Brexit, we do all we can to maintain this very important relationship?
My hon. Friend has put his finger on a very important issue. Indeed, that is an essential part of our relations with France that needs to continue smoothly. I have little doubt that it will be discussed to some extent at the UK-France summit that will take place later this month.
May I take the opportunity to congratulate the Foreign Secretary on surviving yesterday’s Downing Street dither? It would appear that Toby Young is the only person to have lost his job.
The Foreign Affairs Committee was told that there were to be cuts to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as the Minister mentioned earlier. What impact does he believe that will have on his Department’s ambition for a global Britain?
I am confident that, with all the combined efforts across Whitehall—in many Departments, including the Department for International Trade—that will not dent our efforts to be champions of global Britain. Indeed, all Ministers in all Departments are making sure that global Britain is a reality.
I thank the Minister for his response. It is good to hear that he does not believe the cuts elsewhere in the world will have an impact. However, with an increasing number of people thinking that the Government are handling their negotiations with the EU badly, and given that such a view is shared in many capitals around the world, does he agree that the appointment of a no-deal Minister is the latest sign of a state hurtling towards retreat and isolation?
No, I do not. I have spent much of the past 18 months championing this country across Europe and elsewhere, throughout the 77 countries I represent, and I am proud to say that the British flag flies high and with great respect in all those countries.
We have consistently made clear our concern about Iran’s destabilising and disruptive activity in the region, about its ballistic missile programme —it remains sanctioned by both the EU and the UN— and of course about reported Iranian weapons supplies to the Houthis in Yemen, which would be a violation of UN Security Council resolution 2231. We have set out those concerns with great clarity at the Security Council.
Iran’s support for terrorist groups across the region, its culpability in the destruction of Syria and its threats to wipe the world’s only Jewish state off the map must obviously be condemned by all, but words are not enough. What action is Britain going to take to combat Iran’s destabilising activities and, as the Foreign Secretary mentioned, its ballistic missile programme?
We have—indeed, I have personally—made clear to the Iranian leadership at all levels the deep concern we have in this country about the very issues the right hon. Lady raises. In particular, of course, there is the supply—or the alleged supply—of weaponry to the Houthis, the ballistic missile programme and the breaches of Iran’s obligations under UN Security Council resolution 2231. We are raising those issues not just with the Iranians but with our international friends and partners, to put pressure on Iran to desist from those activities.
My constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still in prison in Iran after 20 months. Despite a lot of attention on her case before the festive period, her husband, Richard, still spent Christmas without his wife and his daughter. When I met the Foreign Secretary, he said he would leave no stone unturned to secure her release. What steps has he taken to fulfil that promise?
I thank the hon. Lady. She and I have discussed this case on several occasions. I think that perhaps the best thing I can tell the House is that work continues assiduously at all levels on all our consular cases in Iran. It is, I am afraid, not particularly helpful in securing the result that we both want to get into detailed commentary at this stage about how we are doing.
More than a year since we re-established diplomatic ties with the Iranian Government, Iran continues to develop its weapons programme, continues to fund regional terror groups and proxies, and continues to crack down on human rights campaigners. What positive fruit can we expect this year from our closer ties with the Iranian regime?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I would simply remind the House of the virtues of our approach, which is on the one hand to be extremely tough with the Iranians on what they are doing wrong—as I say, they remain a highly disruptive and destabilising force—but on the other hand to do what we can not just to confront them, but to engage with the forces of reform in Iran, which do exist, need encouragement and could be imperilled. That has to be the way forward, and it is one of the reasons why we believe—I know that this sentiment is shared by many in this House—that the joint comprehensive plan of action, the Iran nuclear deal, is valid, represents a considerable diplomatic achievement and should be safeguarded.
What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to combat the growing influence of Iran in both Syria and Lebanon, with weapons focused on Israel, a state that it wishes to annihilate?
The hon. Lady is right to detect the disruptive hand and the destabilising agency of Iran in the region and certainly in the supply of missiles to Hezbollah and weapons to the Houthis. What Iran is up to is well chronicled and, together with our friends and partners, we are working at the United Nations and elsewhere to bring maximum pressure on the Iranians to cease and desist from their activities.
May we erect a new doctrine—perhaps we could call it the Johnson doctrine—that we have learned the lessons of our military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria and never again will we attempt to use military force to remove unpleasant authoritarian regimes and replace them with disastrous totalitarian movements?
My hon. Friend makes—I am afraid—an excellent point. Of course we must push back on Iranian disruptive behaviour—it is entirely the right thing to do and this Government will continue to do it—but we must also be intellectually honest and recognise that collectively over the past 20 years or so western foreign policy has helped to create the conditions, alas, in which Iranian influence has been capable of expanding.
Let us be clear that no peaceful protest should ever be met with violence and no peaceful protesters should ever be locked up and charged with crimes, some of them capital crimes. Can the Foreign Secretary make it clear today that the Iranian regime’s actions over the past fortnight cannot and must not be used as an excuse by the White House to reintroduce sanctions following next week’s deadline and jeopardise the Iran nuclear deal?
I agree very much with the sentiments with which the hon. Gentleman began. It is vital that the people of Iran and the Government of Iran should understand that we in this country support the right to peaceful demonstration within the law. We communicated that message very clearly. It is also important that the JCPOA should continue and that that agreement, which prevents the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons in exchange for greater economic partnership with the rest of the world, remains useful and valid. We continue to urge our friends in the White House not to throw it away.
Does the Foreign Secretary see, as I do, some parallels and similarities between the situation in Iran now and the situation in the former Soviet Union in its declining years? Does he agree that a combination of deterrence, containment and constant pressure over human rights issues is the right one to achieve a similar outcome?
I do agree with my right hon. Friend. Our approach must be extremely circumspect, guarded and tough, but we should also be in the business of encouraging reformers and progressives in Iran who are capable of taking that country forward in a different direction, as Mikhail Gorbachev and others expressed the hopes of many people in their country, in a different way.
Human rights issues are raised directly by all Ministers in all interactions with counterparts. I myself have raised them nine times in the past four months. We also support civil society organisations on the ground and support human rights norms through multilateral and international organisations.
In Egypt, the treatment of the LGBT community continues to deteriorate, but I understand that lawmakers in the Egyptian Parliament are now considering a Bill to punish same-sex relationships with a maximum 10-year prison sentence. What representations have the Minister or the Foreign Secretary made to President Sisi about these alarming developments?
These are very alarming developments, and the transition from what was believed to be an Islamist Government to a nationalist Government appears to have coincided with a crackdown on such issues. The Foreign Secretary has raised the matter directly with President Sisi and we will continue to champion these issues and raise them in every interaction with the Egyptian Government.
We saw again this weekend the perils of the sea crossing from Libya to Europe. Migrants in Libya are also in danger. Amnesty says that 20,000 people are being held in detention centres, subject to torture, forced labour, extortion and unlawful killings. What are the Government doing to put pressure on the European and Libyan authorities to allow NGO rescue ships access to Libyan waters and ensure that people are not trapped in that country and refugees are able to exercise their right to asylum?
We are very focused on and aware of this issue. A lot of our focus at the moment is on the detention centres, and on ensuring that we work with the UN, with the EU and through DFID programmes on improving conditions in those detention centres.
From experience, I know that the Foreign Secretary welcomes Opposition holding the powerful to account, even if his minders have not always done so, but on two recent delegations I heard of dissenters facing difficulties. We hear of child detainees in Israel, and in Bangladesh opponents sometimes being “disappeared.” Is it not time to place a greater emphasis on human rights in our dealings with these two key allies—or do arms sales receipts outweigh our ability to be a critical friend?
Ministers are very aware of both the issues of child detainees in Israel and of Opposition politicians in Bangladesh. They are raised continually in our interactions with those Governments. We try to do it sensitively, both at a ministerial level and at a diplomatic level, and we believe we can make progress on both issues.
Is the issue of religious freedom raised at every possible opportunity, particularly in countries where people are persecuted for their faith—or lack of it?
Absolutely; religious freedom is critical, and particularly critical in a world in which religious and sectarian violence appears to be increasingly dominant. We must advocate religious freedom, and we do so also through Department for International Development support to civil society organisations.
We provide aid to many countries where appalling human rights abuses take place, whether the persecution of minorities or the construction of illegal settlements. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should make aid and direct support for Governments conditional, unless they use best endeavours to tackle such abuses?
That is a very important question. Our belief is that we need to do these things simultaneously. We need to use our political relationships actively, to drive human rights improvement and change, but at the same time we have an obligation to very vulnerable, marginalised people in those countries, and we need to continue to provide development assistance to them.
Since May, at least 21 Christians have been given long prison sentences in Iran for practising their faith. Did the Foreign Secretary raise the issue of human rights with his Iranian counterpart, particularly that of freedom of religion?
The Foreign Secretary certainly raised the question of human rights and freedom of religion with his Iranian counterparts on his visit.
Mr Speaker, happy new year. I welcome the Foreign Secretary back to his place and I hope that the Prime Minister today recognises how important it is that he continues to have the support of a talented Front-Bench team in ensuring that his work is done properly.
On boxing day, the Saudis launched two separate airstrikes in Yemen, killing a total of 68 civilians and at least eight children. The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator said that this showed that both the Saudis and the Houthis are committing indiscriminate attacks against civilians, showing a complete disregard for human life. My question is this: do the Foreign Secretary and the Minister agree with that judgment against both sides?
As the shadow Foreign Secretary is aware, we continue to press very strongly in all our meetings with the Saudis on these issues. We have made some progress on the port of Hodeidah, although it is too early to be complacent; it remains a very difficult situation, and we need to continue pushing. And happy new year to the right hon. Lady too.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but surely airstrikes by the Saudis, who are our allies, that are this indiscriminate are just as indefensible as attacks by the Houthis. He has mentioned the Houthis. More widely, how are we going to end the conflict? We have a proposal from the former Minister for the Middle East, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), currently a Defence Minister, who wrote in The Sunday Telegraph this weekend urging a more interventionist UK role. He wrote:
“We must be less risk-averse, haunted…by our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan”.
He specifically recommends that the port of Hodeidah
“is calling out to be stabilised by a third party”.
Does the Minister agree with his colleague’s proposal, and if so, who does he propose that third party should be?
At the moment, we do not believe that the key to reopening the port of Hodeidah will be a third party. We have made a lot of progress. In particular, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for International Development, who, in a recent visit to Djibouti, while working on the issue of Yemen, got undertakings on the port of Hodeidah. We will be watching this very closely over the next 30 days. We absolutely agree that the airstrikes must be investigated, and investigated objectively.
In seeking to speed up progress, I look with enormous confidence to Sir Desmond Swayne.
The Government are on track to meet their manifesto blue belt pledge. This will deliver marine protection across nearly 4 million sq km of the earth’s oceans and seas around our overseas territories by 2020. We are also working through the Commonwealth marine economies programme to enable small island Commonwealth states to conserve and use their maritime space sustainably.
How will it be enforced?
Very succinct, Mr Speaker! This is a wholly good news story. The BBC’s “Blue Planet” series has inspired millions of viewers, and we are putting that into practical effect. I can make it very clear to my right hon. Friend that we are working with our overseas territories to ensure that each of our marine protected areas is backed by robust legislation, effective monitoring and the very strong enforcement that he would wish to see.
When it comes to improving global ocean conservation, third world countries want to be effective but do not have the resources to do so. What resources are being made available to those third world countries to help them carry out their job as well?
I am not absolutely clear exactly what goes through the Department for International Development for this kind of purpose, but obviously there are international treaties and international treaty obligations. I hope that collectively the world can get together to ensure that the objectives we all share are properly put into effect.
Armed Conflicts: Heritage, Minorities and Human Rights
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the UK strives to protect cultural heritage and human rights, including religious freedom, whenever they are threatened by conflict, which sadly they so regularly are. As recently as September, the UK was instrumental in the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2379 calling for an investigative team to collect evidence of crimes committed by Daesh. More recently, in December, the UK ratified The Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict and acceded to its protocols.
We rightly focus much attention on the persecution of Christians in the middle east, but will the Minister assure us that he will raise with his counterparts in African nations such as Nigeria and Kenya the persecution of Christians in those countries, which is on an even larger scale?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I represent the FCO in Asia and the Pacific, but he is absolutely right that these issues are prevalent in places such as Nigeria and Kenya. In the part of the world where I represent the FCO, I do my best at every opportunity to represent the interests of Christians. I recently wrote a letter to all our high commissioners and ambassadors there asking for their own plans for ensuring that minorities from Nepal to India and elsewhere can be properly protected.
The crackdown by the Myanmar military continues to have dire consequences for the human rights of the Rohingya population, and Myanmar has now cut off all co-operation with the United Nations special rapporteur. While the strong stance taken by the General Assembly is a positive development, dissent from China, Russia and some other countries is preventing the adoption of a united international approach. What influence can the Minister use to convince China in particular of the need for diplomatic action to solve the crisis?
The hon. Lady has identified the hub of the matter, which is the fact that we cannot get a UN Security Council resolution through because it would be vetoed by China and Russia. However, she should rest assured that we are doing our level best to engage constantly in conversations with our Chinese and Russian counterparts in the Security Council. There was a presidential statement for the first time in 10 years just before Christmas, and I repeatedly raised the appalling treatment of the Rohingya with both the Burmese Defence Minister and the Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor in Nay Pyi Taw recently when I was attending the conference of the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There can be no question at the moment of a safe and dignified return for Rohingya from Bangladesh to Burma. When I was in Thailand last week, I spoke to the chairman of the new standing committee that will oversee the memorandum of understanding between the two countries in order to look at the whole issue of returns. We want people to be able to return. That is currently not possible, but we want to maintain pressure on both sides.
As the Minister has acknowledged, the terrible human rights abuses of the Rohingya refugees are continuing. He knows that the Myanmar Government have banned the special rapporteur and that the fact-finding mission is impossible. He has said previously that any return of refugees must be “safe, voluntary and dignified”. Does he think there is any action that the British Government can take to prevent the return of the refugees until those conditions are fulfilled?
Very little can be done without international co-operation. As the hon. Lady will know, Lord Darzi is part of the committee that is trying to oversee the situation, and the committee will have meetings in Nai Pyi Taw within the next week to consider what practical steps can be taken to try to ease the path. However, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) pointed out, these are massive international problems. We have tried to do as much as we can through the United Nations, but—
I think that all of us, with the benefit of hindsight, could rightly say that the sanctions were lifted too early, with the hope—and only the hope—of democracy there. As I have said, we would need to get a resolution through the United Nations, and it would almost certainly be vetoed. [Interruption.] Of course we are trying: in New York we are constantly having conversations with our Chinese and Russian counterparts about precisely these matters.
I am immensely grateful to colleagues. Ministers are not helped if Opposition Front Benchers chunter from a sedentary position on a protracted basis. We need to try to speed up.
We remain seriously concerned about the continuing demolition of Palestinian property by Israeli authorities, and our embassy in Tel Aviv raised our specific concerns about it with Israel in November last year. Israel’s treatment of vulnerable Palestinian minors held in military detention also remains a human rights priority for the UK. I raised our concerns with the Israeli authorities during my visit to Israel in August last year, and will continue to do so.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s party has just voted for the annexation of the west bank. The Israeli Attorney General has said that new laws must take into account the possibility of application to the occupied territories, and 46 Bedouin communities are still threatened with eviction. When will the UK’s approach change? When will it join other EU countries in calling for aid to compensate for the demolition of EU-funded structures and an end to trade with illegal settlements?
The whole issue of settlements brings into question the whole point of pursuing a two-state solution, because none of these issues will be dealt with unless we make progress on that. We are pressing for that of course, but in the meantime we continue to support those who are concerned about demolitions and settlements. We continue to make the case to Israel that these are barriers to peace, among other barriers to peace, but unless there is a conclusive settlement soon, these issues will get worse.
Does the Minister share my outrage at the continued detention of 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi in Israel, in violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention, and will he raise this issue, and our concerns about it, with the Israeli Government?
I know both the Tamimi family and Nabi Saleh, and it is a very unhappy incident all round. The truth is that the soldiers should not be there and the young woman should not have needed to do what she did. It is sad that two young people who ought to be friends are caught up in a situation in which, because of the failure to deal comprehensively with what is happening on the west bank and in Israel, we cannot come to a settlement. We have indeed made representations. It is important that Israel follows through the law, as it is entitled to do, but when we see the whole incident on video it tells us that this should not be happening and we should be working hard to get a settlement to this issue, so these young people do not have to continue to do what they are doing.
The biggest current obstacles to advancement of the middle east peace process include Hamas’s rearmament drive in Gaza and the long-standing issue of Palestinian incitement. What steps has the Minister taken, alongside his international counterparts, to assist the Palestinian leadership in becoming a viable partner for peace with Israel?
There are many obstacles on the way to peace, and certainly one of them remains incitement among some in the Palestinian community, but efforts being made for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas have to conclude with a process that has led to acceptance of Quartet principles, and we hope that that will provide one further step forward.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to resolve the issue of land borders is through the resumption of direct peace talks without preconditions?
Yes, and efforts are continually being made to move forward with the peace process. We await proposals being brought forward by the US envoys very soon, but sooner or later both the Palestinians and the Israelis have to sit down together, because only they can come to the answer they need.
Israel and Palestine: Two-State Solution
Our long-standing policy in support of a two-state solution is clear. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.
I am pleased my right hon. Friend agrees that a two-state solution is the best way forward for both parties, but the Israeli Justice Minister is recently on record as saying there is not, and never will be, a Palestine state. Will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing concern at the impact these comments have on the prospects for peace and outline how the UK can lead on engagement with those who hold this view?
Many statements are made on both sides about whether or not there will be a resolution to the issues between the Palestinians and Israelis, and the United Kingdom is not responsible for them. All the polling done in Israel and Palestine suggests people want a two-state solution. As I indicated before, we will continue to work for that and we hope those in the Palestinian areas and in Israel will also continue to work for the just peace they all deserve.
But surely the Minister must acknowledge that comments like those from the Israeli Government do not give the impression that they are serious about peace. Does he also agree that the calls by Hamas for acts of violence and rage against Israeli people in the wake of the relocation of the US embassy were wholly contemptible and should be thoroughly condemned by everyone in the House?
The danger and difficulty in making statements that are seen to be provocative can be seen in the responses of recent weeks. The United Kingdom is absolutely right to call on all sides not only to refrain from those provocations but to use the renewed interest now in the issues between Israel and the Palestinians as a pressure to push for peace, because that is the only thing that will deal with these issues.
India: Diplomatic Relations
Our relations with India remain excellent. The UK shares a long-standing and deep friendship with India covering economic and commercial ties, defence and security, and the living bridge of the people-to-people links, as I saw most recently on my visit to New Delhi and Chennai three months ago.
I thank the Minister for his answer. This April, Prime Minister Modi will be here once again. His last visit presented an opportunity for a joint address to both Houses of Parliament and an opportunity to interact with the Indian diaspora in this country. What plans are there for similar arrangements to enable us to use this opportunity once again?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend; there is no doubt that India will play a vital role in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in mid-April. We are obviously working closely with our Indian colleagues to develop a full agenda of areas of mutual interest, and I very much hope that we will be able to do something here in Parliament along the lines that my hon. Friend has suggested—although that is a matter for you, Mr Speaker—in the community in London and indeed beyond, where there is a significant number of members of the Indian diaspora.
Given that the Republic of India, a Commonwealth member, has now held my constituent from Dumbarton, Jagtar Singh Johal, in custody without charge for two months, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government’s approach to large Commonwealth states is nothing short of a Faustian pact in which we sacrifice our defence of due process to arbitrary detention on the altar of free-marketeerism?
I really do not think that that is the case at all. The hon. Gentleman has been a steadfast constituency MP on this particular matter. Members might not know that he and I have met in the House of Commons, and I very much respect the way in which he has worked hard on behalf of the Johal family. Mr Johal’s brother is also one of his constituents. I recognise that this is a difficult and distressing time for Mr Johal and his family. Consular staff have visited him on a number of occasions, most recently on 28 December, and I can confirm that there will be a further visit this Thursday, 11 January. I will continue to meet members of the family and the hon. Gentleman, having done so at the end of November, and we are keeping him informed at every stage.
My priorities for the new year include taking forward Britain’s response to the crisis in Yemen, where we support Saudi Arabia’s right to defend its security while insisting that millions receive the aid that they desperately need. In April, Commonwealth leaders will gather in London for one of the biggest summits that this country has ever hosted, demonstrating the unrivalled network of friendships of a global Britain. Later in the year, as I have said, we will co-host a summit on tackling the illegal wildlife trade.
Mr Speaker, I wish you and the Foreign Secretary a happy new year. Through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, along with other hon. Members, I recently met Ministers from Madagascar, including the President, who expressed a desire for Madagascar, which is currently the president of the African francophone nations, to become a member of the Commonwealth. As he noted, Commonwealth countries in Africa seem to be doing much better, politically and financially, than others. What measures is the Foreign Secretary taking to encourage Madagascar and other countries without British colonial links to establish close relations with the UK and the Commonwealth, especially after Brexit?
I am delighted to hear the news from Madagascar from my hon. Friend, and I certainly hope that it is correct that Madagascar will pursue that, although the procedures with the Commonwealth secretariat must of course be followed, as he would expect. I gather that several countries in Africa are now queueing up to join the Commonwealth.
President Trump’s biographer, Michael Wolff, has said that the President’s only interest in a state visit is the opportunity to “Trumpalize the Queen”. I have literally no idea what that means, but will the Secretary of State please save Her Majesty from that unpleasant-sounding ordeal and cancel this wretched visit?
I think Her Majesty the Queen is well capable of taking this or any American President in her stride, as she has done over six remarkable decades. She has seen them come and she has seen them go. If the hon. Lady seeks advice on whether to invite the President of the United States to visit this country—she will remember that we are very close allies—I invite her to ask the person next to her, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who said only last year:
“I think we have to welcome the American President to Britain. We have to work with him.”
Those are the words of the right hon. Lady.
As my hon. Friend rightly says, we do not normally comment on such matters, but in this particular case GCHQ made it clear last year that the allegations are “nonsense”, stating:
“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
The attacks over the Christmas period were deeply distressing. I spoke to some of the medical agencies involved in getting those with medical issues out of eastern Ghouta to seek treatment, and the overwhelming need is for proper humanitarian access to the area. However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Geneva process, which is being driven forward by Staffan de Mistura and reaches its next part later this month, must keep going to try to see an end to this conflict, which is the only thing that will relieve the suffering. The United Kingdom is right behind that process.
Following my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development’s visits to Djibouti and Riyadh in December, the Saudi authorities announced that the coalition would fully open the Hodeidah port for 30 days from 20 December. From then until now, more than nine ships have docked, delivering food, fuel and coal, and that process is continuing with more ships having been cleared. It is essential that the port remains open after that time, and we are working with others to try to ensure that that will be the case.
I fully understand what the hon. Lady says, and we have been working closely on this tragic consular issue. I am happy to offer her a further meeting and to pursue every possible step to go into the details in more depth.
I call Chris Green. The fella’s gone.
The Foreign Secretary recently commented on the immeasurable contribution of this country, and the RAF in particular, to combating extremism in the middle east. However, does he agree that our pausing reluctance to intervene in the first place diminished us and our standing in the region, leading to many more deaths, and that never again should Britain, with all we can offer, be reduced to standing on the sidelines while extremists and despots kill hundreds of thousands of people with impunity?
My hon. Friend speaks for many in this House who now regret what happened in 2013 and our failure to stand by our red lines, because many more deaths have occurred than would otherwise have happened.
Order. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman—he is a most perspicacious Member of the House—but questions are simply too long at topical questions; topical questions are supposed to be briefer. If we can have brief questions and brief answers, far more colleagues will get in.
The council will indeed be used by the United Kingdom to offer a statement in relation to Israel, and the issues raised by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) are covered in a number of different ways in our representations to Israel.
Violence in Iran has escalated. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the reports that 450 Iranians may have been arrested for taking to the streets against a regime that brutalises women and oppresses religious minorities?
As I said earlier, I have made it absolutely clear to the Iranian authorities that we believe in and support the right of the people of Iran to demonstrate peacefully in accordance with the law. I will continue to make that point to my Iranian counterparts later this week.
Most sensible commentators would say it is vital that this Government perform and act overseas as one HMG, and that is what we are doing.
The Iranian people quite rightly pride themselves on their educational attainment. How does banning the teaching of the English language in Iranian schools help future generations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course banning the teaching of English does nothing to help future generations of Iranians. On the contrary, it is likely to impoverish them, and it is something we deeply discourage.
I hope the hon. Lady will be assured that we are keeping abreast of the issue of genocide or any sort of referral to the International Criminal Court. It is obviously difficult because Burma is not currently a member of the ICC. We are working with other countries at the UN to ensure that the very real concerns she expresses are put into place.
Ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s first visit here as President next week, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reaffirm the importance of a continuing, deep and close relationship between the UK and France? Does he agree that the relationship must get stronger after Brexit, not weaker?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The relationship between Britain and France is of huge and historic importance, and it has been intensifying over recent years, particularly in the sphere of defence and security co-operation, following the Lancaster House agreement. I hope he will be pleased by some of the developments and announcements that we will be making on 18 January.
Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what discussions, if any, he has had with the Government of Mauritius following the overwhelming decision of the UN General Assembly last year to refer the question of decolonisation and self-determination of the Chagos islands?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we believe this case to be without merit and will continue to contest it.
Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues continue their very important support of the political process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018?
We certainly shall.
Why are the Government taking legal advice on suing the European Union for preparing to treat Britain as a third country from March 2019 when that is the express intention of UK Government policy?
As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents would want, we intend to get a superb new relationship, a new deep and special partnership, with our friends and partners in the EU. That is the objective of the negotiations now under way.
Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the United States remains our closest ally and that the special relationship rests on more than just leaders’ personalities—it rests on trade, close military alliances and a shared view of the world?
I could not have put it better myself, and I commend again to the House the shadow Foreign Secretary’s wise words that it was the right thing to do to invite the President of the United States to visit this country.
In response to Kim Jong-un, President Trump, who is apparently “really smart” and a “stable genius” to boot, tweeted:
“I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
What does President Trump have to say or tweet in order for any invitation to visit the UK, for any wedding or otherwise, to be withdrawn?
If I understood the hon. Gentleman’s question correctly, he wishes to rescind the invitation to the President of the United States. I do not believe that is sensible. The US is our closest, most important security and economic partner, and will continue to be so.
Given events in Iran, is it not time that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was a proscribed organisation, with its assets frozen worldwide?
I appreciate the sentiment that my hon. Friend expresses. The IRGC clearly does not represent the forces of progress in Iran to which I was alluding earlier. We keep its status for sanctions purposes under continuous review.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is a human outrage on a regular basis, and the tension between Pakistan and India is threatening world peace. Will the Foreign Secretary use the opportunity of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to bring our good friends Pakistan and India together and move a peace process forward?
I very much hope CHOGM will provide that sort of opportunity. Both India and Pakistan are long-standing friends of the UK. On the issue of Kashmir, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we do not intervene or interfere; it is for those two countries to determine.
The plight of the Rohingya people continues to shock, particularly as so many of them are unaccompanied children. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his counterpart in Bangladesh to ensure these vulnerable children are protected from traffickers?
I assure the hon. Lady that we have regular conversations; indeed, I am seeing the Bangladesh high commissioner to the UK in my office this afternoon, when this matter will be the first aspect on our agenda.
Will the Secretary of State place in the Commons Library details of the number of UK nationals who have been deported back to the UK on suspicion of terrorism in supporting Daesh in Iraq and Syria?
I am very happy to do that.
I am sorry we are so short of time, but I would not want the hon. Gentleman from Northern Ireland to feel excluded. His is the last go. I call Ian Paisley.
Thank you very much for your kindness, Mr Speaker. The Muslim Brotherhood is a well-financed organisation, and before Christmas the Foreign Secretary made a statement along the lines of, “I will scrutinise their visa applications into the United Kingdom.” What action has been taken as a result of that scrutiny?
In addition to looking harder at the visa applications, we are looking harder at the engagement of the Muslim Brotherhood and its associates in charities in this country. I would be happy, pursuant to the answer I gave just a moment ago, to supply further details to the hon. Gentleman of what we are doing in respect of Muslim Brotherhood visas.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
If it appertains to the exchanges, we will hear it. I think I heard the right hon. Lady erupt a moment ago—that would be a fair characterisation. If she wishes to erupt on her feet rather than from her seat, that would be good. The Foreign Secretary might think it courteous to stay—he is not obliged to do so, but he is a courteous chap.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Rather than erupting, is it in order for me to say to correct the record that I have never thought it was a good idea to invite the President of the United States to the United Kingdom? I thought the invitation was issued with undue haste. Once it has been issued on behalf of Her Majesty, it is very difficult to withdraw it.
The Foreign Secretary is beetling to the Box. If he wishes to stand up at the Box to offer us a product of his lucubrations, we will be happy to hear it.
I am not exactly sure what is in order here, but doubtless you will guide me, Mr Speaker. I must redirect the right hon. Lady and indeed the House to her words of 14 May 2017 on the “The Andrew Marr Show”, when she said:
“I think we have to welcome the American President to Britain. We have to work with him.”
I rest my case. [Interruption.]
Order. I think honour is served. The shadow Foreign Secretary has offered us her thoughts and the Foreign Secretary has, with some alacrity, beetled back to the Box in order to respond. I think we should, at least for today, leave it there.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the accusations of unfair pay at the British Broadcasting Corporation following the resignation of China editor, Carrie Gracie.
Like most Members, I strongly support the BBC, and, like most of the licence fee payers who fund it, I would go so far as to say that I love it. Perhaps now in this digital age more than ever, if the BBC did not exist, we would need to invent it. But, as a treasured national institution, the BBC must not only uphold, but be a beacon for, the British values of fairness that the nation holds dear. Those values include fair pay and equal pay for equal jobs.
By introducing reforms to the BBC charter, the Government, under the leadership of my two predecessors, have vastly improved BBC transparency and shone a light on gender and pay issues at the BBC. This new transparency includes the requirement for the BBC to publish annually the salary details of all BBC staff who are paid more than £150,000. The publication of such details for the first time in July last year resulted in much-needed public scrutiny of pay at the BBC.
The BBC’s overall gender pay gap stands at around 9%, but the figures also show that two thirds of those who earn more than £150,000 are men, and reveal a lack of staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds among the top earners. At the time of the publication of the salary details, some male presenters were understandably uncomfortable with the results. John Humphrys even acknowledged that he would not necessarily be able to explain his salary of £600,000.
This is not just a matter of levelling women’s pay up; it is a matter of pay equality. To work for the BBC is a public service and a great privilege, yet some men at the BBC are paid far more than other equivalent public servants. The BBC has begun to act, and I welcome that, but much more action is needed, especially when BBC foreign editors can earn more than Her Majesty’s ambassadors in the same jurisdiction.
With respect to the specific case of Carrie Gracie, I welcome the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s decision to look into the issues she has raised. The EHRC is the regulatory body responsible for the policing of equal pay and it is for the commission, not the Government, to investigate this matter and take further action, if necessary.
Of course, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent of the Government—and rightly so. The director-general has commendably committed to sorting out this issue by 2020, and we will hold him to that. I understand that the BBC’s report about on-air presenter salaries will be published in the next few weeks, but we expect the BBC to observe pay restraint and to deliver value for money for licence fee payers. We will watch closely. The BBC must act, because the brilliant women who work at all levels of the BBC deserve better.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, and your team a happy new year and all the best for 2018. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new role as Secretary of State. I am glad that he is on his feet so soon after his appointment.
The resignation of the BBC’s China editor, Carrie Gracie, over the gender pay gap at the BBC has shocked and saddened us all, and I welcomed what the Secretary of State said. He may be interested to know that I received a rather unfortunate comment from the BBC earlier, which said:
“On air colleagues who have been seen to campaign on the issue of BBC equal pay have to question whether or not they would be regarded as impartial by audiences when covering the story.”
Does the Secretary of State agree that instead of carping or attacking its own people, the BBC, as a publicly funded organisation that does not pay equally, should be getting its own house in order?
I pay tribute to Carrie Gracie, who will be a huge loss. She has shown great bravery and determination on this issue. Her letter makes for staggering and shocking reading. It says:
“Salary disclosures the BBC was forced to make six months ago revealed not only unacceptably high pay for top presenters and managers but also an indefensible pay gap between men and women doing equal work…In the past four years, the BBC has had four international editors—two men and two women. The Equality Act 2010 states that men and women doing equal work must receive equal pay. But last July I learned that in the previous financial year, the two men earned at least 50% more than the two women.”
How many talented women need to resign and be lost before the BBC and other media organisations take action? The Secretary of State has said that he will challenge them, but what tangible action will we see from him, his Government and the BBC? It is now 100 years since women got the vote. We have come a long way, but why does it feel like so many in the establishment are stuck in the past?
I share the hon. Lady’s outrage at what we have discovered, and I underline that we have discovered it only because of the transparency measures that were brought in by this House, led by my predecessors, during the royal charter process. She asks specifically about editorial guidelines. They are a matter for the BBC. It is understandable that it might say that people with a strong view should separate that view from their impartial delivery of news, but I would ask whether they observe that in every case, as well as cases about just the BBC.
I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee decided this morning to invite the director-general to come and account for the BBC’s actions on gender pay since the publication of salaries last summer. It is important to see what progress it has made as well as what more needs to be made. Does the Secretary of State agree that this case underlines why we were right to insist on full disclosure of top pay, and not just for executives, but for on-screen talent?
I strongly agree with the Chair of the Select Committee, and I welcome his Committee’s scrutiny of this. The BBC resisted the transparency measures, and we are starting to see why.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. May I start by offering my congratulations to the outgoing Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), on her new role? I also congratulate the new Secretary of State, who, unlike Carrie Gracie, has not turned down a £45,000 pay rise this week. He tweeted yesterday about how humble he was—something he has become well known for in recent years—but I know how important this promotion will be for his fragile self-esteem.
We still live in a society in which confident men who believe in their own self-worth tend to rise to the top, or stay in position despite failure after failure, while talented women are more easily undervalued or forced out—but enough about the Prime Minister’s reshuffle. Carrie Gracie’s resignation as the BBC’s China editor highlights the issue of unequal pay in the BBC, in broadcasting and in society more generally, and we all have a role to play in stamping that out. Lord Hall said last year that he is determined to close the gender pay gap at the BBC, but this story shows that there is still a very long way to go.
Carrie Gracie says in her public letter that she told her bosses when she took the job of China editor that she expected pay equality with her male peers and that she believed she had secured it. Does the Secretary of State believe that the corporation is, as Carrie says, in breach of equality legislation? How can employees of less transparent media companies know whether their employers are complying with equality law? The BBC is accountable to the public and we know more about the pay gap there than we do about the pay gap in other organisations. Is the Secretary of State confident that female staff in other broadcasters and media companies are paid as highly as their male colleagues? Will he call them in to encourage them to be as transparent as the BBC? What will he do to ensure that this story is used not just to criticise our national broadcaster, as other media organisations might wish, but to highlight pay inequality across the board? The people involved in this story are at the top of their profession and earn significant sums, but we need to be at least as concerned about pay equality and fair pay for BBC employees and contractors on the lowest pay, some of whom are on as little as £16,000 a year. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that low-paid workers are not forgotten? Will he ensure that those paid by independent production companies or through BBC Studios are not exempt from pay transparency? Does he agree, finally, that when it comes to unequal pay, we all have to say, “Time’s up.”?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; it is good to be shadowed once more by him. He is quite a shadow, and I am sure we will all enjoy his stand-up in the exchanges ahead.
There is a very strong degree of cross-party unanimity on this subject, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the measures that we have taken to introduce more transparency. As well as introducing transparency measures for the BBC, we introduced wider transparency measures on the gender pay gap for all large organisations. I think that that answers many of his questions about other organisations, but other public organisations have strong duties, and I will take his point about that very seriously. When it comes to investigating individual cases and policing the Equality Act 2010, that is a job for the EHRC. We welcome the fact that it is taking action in this case now, and it must take action wherever it sees that as appropriate.
This country has some of the best laws in the world to protect women who face these sorts of employment problems, but those laws need the Equality and Human Rights Commission to act, and to do so quickly. Why is it that, despite the overwhelming evidence that has been in the public domain for more than six months, the EHRC has failed to intervene on the BBC but has been placated by a BBC-funded internal review, which has clearly not tackled the problem? What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that the Equality and Human Rights Commission performs its statutory duties and uses it statutory enforcement powers to protect women facing these sorts of problems in not just the BBC, but many other organisations?
I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend—my predecessor—who has brought to the EHRC’s attention the importance of acting in this case. It has a statutory duty to act when it sees unequal pay, and I am glad that, as of this morning’s announcement, it is taking that forward.
May I add my congratulations and best wishes to the Secretary of State as he takes up his new position? Does he agree that, as a publicly funded institution, the BBC has to be both transparent and accountable and that the existence of this secret gender pay gap in the corporation shows that it has been anything but? Perhaps that would explain why the BBC management were so vehemently opposed to having to publish how much the BBC pays its top-earning presenters. I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking my predecessor, Mr John Nicolson, and the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport for their work in exposing this scandal. Does the Secretary of State believe that the BBC has acted unlawfully in this matter? Is he confident that the BBC should continue to police itself in such matters? Iceland now insists that all companies with more than 25 employees obtain Government certification of their equal pay policies or face heavy fines. Does he believe it is time that the UK followed suit?
Given the action that Conservative Members have taken to bring this transparency to the BBC, one would have thought that the Scottish National party might say that that was a good idea or welcome it. We strongly support the BBC, but we also believe that it is acting in its own self-interest by sorting out these sorts of issues, and we will make sure that it does.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment to what is one of the best jobs in government. I also wish his predecessor every success in what is one of the most challenging.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not good enough for the BBC to say that its performance in this area is better than that in many other sectors? Does he share my view that it is because the BBC is funded by public money that we are entitled to expect it not just to adhere to the requirements of the law, but to set a higher standard that others can then follow?
It is not just because the BBC is a public organisation and the people who work there are public servants that it has a higher obligation than private organisations; it is also because the nature of the BBC is to reflect on to the nation—and indeed the world—the values that we hold dear, and it must live up to those values.
What we should be doing today is thanking Carrie Gracie for the principled stand that she has taken. She has done this on behalf of not just women in the BBC or in broadcasting, but women throughout the country who suffer pay discrimination. As a broadcaster and a journalist, she is exceptional, but as a woman facing entrenched pay discrimination, I am afraid she is the norm.
When it comes to transparency and the requirement under the Equality Act 2010 to publish the pay gap, the Secretary of State rightly says that it is for the regulator, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to police and monitor the position to ensure that companies publish and set targets for closing the gap. To ensure that the Government can carry out the important task of remedying this discrimination, will he commit them to redressing the cuts of up to 70% that have fallen on the Equality and Human Rights Commission? This is a pivotal moment. We need the commission to be able to do its job, and it needs funds so that it is able to ensure that we right this wrong.
I pay tribute to the leadership that the right hon. and learned Lady has shown on this issue in government and since, because making sure that an equality of opportunity pervades our country is important, and that means gender equality, too. She has rightly been an outspoken voice in favour of gender pay equality and equality across the board. On the EHRC, this is about its actions. It has a duty to act, and now it is indeed acting, and that is a question of judgment as much as resources.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment?
The BBC has been run like an old boys’ club for far too long, not least with Lord Hall’s appointment of James Purnell to a very highly paid job without that even being advertising to anyone else. I am sure that there was a far better qualified woman who would have wanted it, although I do not believe anyone on the Opposition Benches complained about that at the time. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not that women at the BBC are paid too little, but that many men at the BBC are paid too much and it is those salaries that should be levelled down? Does the Secretary of State also agree with Carrie Gracie that in this regard the BBC has been acting illegally?
I will leave that last point to the EHRC. On my first day in this job, I did not expect to be lobbied in favour of women’s rights by my hon. Friend, but I am glad to see progress pervading even our own Back Benches, and he certainly has a point. This is not just about levelling up women’s pay and paying women more; it is about equal pay and appropriate levels of pay in an organisation that is funded by licence fee payers who want to have a television, whether they like it or not.
Like the Secretary of State and his predecessor, both of whom I congratulate, I love the BBC. I also stand with Carrie Gracie, as I think most people across the country will, on equal pay. She says in her letter that
“the BBC often settles cases out of court and demands non-disclosure agreements, a habit unworthy of an organisation committed to truth”.
That issue applies not just to the BBC, but to other broadcasters and companies right across the country. If we are trying to get transparency in equal pay, does the Secretary of State think it is a serious problem if so many employers pursue non-disclosure agreements when it comes to pay claims?
We should use whatever tools are at our disposal to ensure that we have the right level of transparency. We want to ensure that this work takes place across the board at the BBC and other places, and it is important that every case is looked at, rather than just individual cases. There might be individual circumstances in which an NDA is appropriate, but we need to be careful to ensure that a systemic problem is not hidden by the overuse of such agreements.
I am sorry to disagree with the Secretary of State in his first few hours in office, but I would not reinvent the BBC as it is now. It resisted all the way taking the threshold down to £150,000, so that we would actually know what was going on. The fact that it tried to solve the problem with Carrie Gracie with a bung of £45,000 says to me that there is an endemic problem: the BBC does not understand and it does not get it. Some of the men are overpaid. The fact that the BBC did not wish to address this issue until it was forced into it shows that we need a root-and-branch analysis of what is going wrong in the BBC.
I agree that a root-and-branch analysis is needed and must happen. There is of course much more to the BBC than just the high pay. There are the local stations and the local work, which receive far less scrutiny than many of these issues at the top. We must ensure that the solutions brought by transparency for top pay apply throughout the organisation, and apply to presenters and off-air staff right across the BBC, and not just at the top.
I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State. Does he share my deep disappointment in my former employer’s clumsy memo reminding staff of the need for impartiality on this matter at a time when it is facing criticism over the gender pay gap? Does not that call into question the corporation’s attitude to reporting to the Government on this issue, and indeed to the Equality Act itself?
The BBC appears to have demonstrated more enthusiasm for ensuring that those editorial guidelines are put in place on this matter than on many others.
My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that the problem is not principally that women are paid too little in organisations that are, in one way or another, funded by the public, but that men are paid far too much. What cognisance has he taken of organisations beyond the BBC, such as universities, that are quite egregious in this matter, and what does he think can be done to sort it out?
Over the past seven or eight years, we have brought in measures to ensure that people in the public sector are paid appropriately and that there is much more transparency. We implemented those measures in the civil service and in other areas of public life, so that there was not this problem of too high pay at the top, but some organisations have not implemented the same sorts of approaches, and now, where a body is funded by the taxpayer or licence fee payer, the problems of ignoring the need for that restraint are being brought into the light.