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.
I join others in welcoming the new Secretary of State. I appreciate that today is only his first or second day in office, but as he goes through his brief he will realise that, thanks to the agreement between the Secretary of State and the BBC, he has the power to give a direction to the BBC about equality of opportunity. Will he use that power to ensure that every member of staff at the BBC—male or female—is able to exercise freedom of expression at work, and protect their right to speak out as the best way to get transparency?
I certainly want to make sure that this issue is properly and rightly aired. In ensuring proper reporting, which is the question that the hon. Lady was asking, we must make sure that the BBC is objective about itself. That is a difficult thing to pull off, but it is very important that the BBC does it.
May I say to the new Secretary of State that some of us—perhaps across the House and perhaps some here on these Benches—do not share quite as strongly the love for the BBC that he, in his first couple of days in the job, has shown? At the end of the day, we are talking about the top end of pay, but I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that this must be going on across the pay bands in the BBC. The BBC is under a charter from this House; we could change that at any time we wished to make sure that it publishes and shows everything, so that there is equality across the pay bands for contractors as well as those at the top end.
There might have been a question there, but if there was it was very heavily disguised.
My hon. Friend is absolutely—
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a question about fair pay at all levels, and not just at the top.
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman’s status is a matter of legitimate importance to him, and I am sure that the Secretary of State will happily apologise for failing to recognise that he is a right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, he is a knight of the realm, and that is very important to us all, but particularly to the right hon. Gentleman. I think that we are now clear about that.
I am both right and honourable on this matter, which not everyone can say. The point about it being a problem at the BBC is writ large in the debate today. My inbox is full of emails from women having to sign non-disclosure agreements for all sorts of reasons, equal pay among them, so we must be careful that we do not bash the BBC unnecessarily. However, Evan Davis talked about this while presenting “Newsnight” last night, after going on Twitter and giving his very clear opinion, which was neither right nor honourable. Why has he not been silenced when women who have spoken up as part of the campaign group have been taken off the air? What will the Secretary of State do in his brand new shiny role to make sure that women are not being silenced on this issue at work? Will he send a message to all the women who have emailed me—the ordinary women of the UK—that in the first equal pay issue seen under the new legislation, we will not allow them to be silenced, and we will not send the message that, “If you speak up, you’re out.”?
We will not allow unequal pay to pervade the BBC or any other organisation. We have brought in rules and strengthened them across the economy and especially at the BBC. We are proud of the transparency that we have brought, and we will get to the bottom of the matter.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the events of the past few days show that the Government were absolutely right to insist on a pay transparency level of £150,000 a year, and not the £400,000 a year that the BBC wanted?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Without that decision and without the support to bring down the threshold to £150,000, there would still be silence on this issue, and now there is not, which is good.
This urgent question plus the gender pay gap figures released at the weekend show that gender assumptions across the UK are still pervasive—assumptions about what a woman is worth, what her potential is and what she can aspire to. What will the Minister do in his new role to tackle those assumptions?
Getting to the bottom of this problem in the BBC is not just important for the BBC itself and for all the brilliant women who work in the BBC and who are not paid as much as their male counterparts doing the same job. It is symbolic across the whole country and shows that we believe in the equality of opportunity and in people being paid fairly. Gender should not define how much an individual is paid.
Certainly, this debate shows why it was absolutely right to insist that the threshold for disclosure was £150,000. The whole point was to engender a debate about what it is right to pay people at the BBC—an organisation to which we are forced to contribute. Does the Secretary of State agree that the priority will be to ensure that pay is not only equal on a gender basis, but proportionate, given that some of the salaries that we have seen are almost impossible to defend?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on.
I warmly congratulate the Minister on assuming his new job, but I did not like the tone he adopted when he said that he was delighted that this issue was going to be “aired”. There is no point in airing it, because we have been airing it for decades now. The point is actually to bring about change. Perhaps Carrie Gracie should be made chair of the BBC; perhaps she should be given a role specifically to bring about change in the organisation. In the end though, are not some of the men, such as John Humphrys, going to have to say, “You know what? I am paid too much. I should take a 50% pay cut.”?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting suggestion. It is not true that this issue has been aired for decades. This information has been in the public domain only since last July, because of the actions that we took to insist on transparency, so while the broader issue may have been discussed, we have not had the details to hand in the public debate. That is very important, because it is only once something is measured that it can be managed.
Order. I hope I can be forgiven for making the point that if the Secretary of State was so keen for the issue to be aired in the Chamber, he could have volunteered to make an oral statement to the House. The reason why the issue is being aired in the Chamber today is that somebody—namely, the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell)—applied for an urgent question and I granted it. I massively welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s participation, but I think it is quite important that the public should know how this matter has come to be aired in the Chamber today.
In Britain in 2018, we have the unbelievably absurd situation where it remains a criminal offence not to pay a licence fee to an organisation that has institutionalised gender pay inequality. Will the Secretary of State invite Lord Hall to his office for an interview without coffee to explain urgently that the situation is unacceptable and needs to change well before 2020?
I certainly hope that the BBC can act before 2020. Lord Hall has, indeed, said that he wants to act before then, and I will be taking this matter up with him. On your point, Mr Speaker, of course I welcome the urgent question and I am grateful to you for granting it.
That is extremely gracious of the Secretary of State; I thank him.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), will the Secretary of State now very clearly join us in saying that it is not acceptable that women who speak out on these issues are now facing barriers at work and questions about whether they can carry out their duties and whether or not they will progress in their careers? A very clear message needs to come from this place that that is not acceptable.
I am sure that the BBC will have heard the strength of feeling in this House that the hon. Lady has just articulated.
Like the new Secretary of State, I love the BBC, but I welcome the approach he has taken to ensure that there is full transparency regarding how public money is spent. When spending public money, it is important to ensure both that there is gender equality and that the wages are justified. Will he be asking the BBC to justify why some stars are paid 25 times as much as we pay a transplant surgeon and 80 times what we pay a nurse?
My hon. Friend brings up reasonable comparisons. I compared the pay of foreign ambassadors with that of BBC editors. All these jobs are in public service, and when one is in the service of the public, restraint is necessary.
May I take the Secretary of State back to the role and capacity of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Not only has its funding just been cut, but it is running short of board members because a number of experienced candidates who have been on the board have been vetoed for reappointment as a result of Cabinet Office decisions. What is he doing to talk to his colleagues in the Cabinet Office to ensure that people such as Sarah Veale, former head of equalities at the TUC, are not vetoed for appointment, so we can have expertise such as hers on the board?
As I said before, it is a question of judgment. I think the EHRC made the right judgment in announcing this morning that it is going to investigate the matter.
I was a member of the Committee on the Digital Economy Act 2017—the legislation brought about this change—so I thank the Minister for steering it through, in the teeth of resistance from the BBC. As several people have already said though, this is not just about how much women are paid; it is about pay equality full stop. It is about ensuring that everyone throughout the BBC gets equal pay. Will the Minister now really endeavour to ensure that everyone throughout this public sector organisation—not just the high-profile figures in front of the camera—gets equality within the law?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Sometimes the Committee work of this House is overlooked, but my hon. Friend gives a good example of a measure that was properly scrutinised in Committee, put into the Digital Economy Bill and made law, thanks to the work in Committee of Members on both sides of the House, including my hon. Friend, to whom I pay tribute.
Carrie Gracie is indeed to be praised for her stand on gender pay equality and for her comments more generally on pay equality. In her interview last night on “Channel 4 News”, she stated that her actions were not a personal plea for more money; indeed, she said that there may need to be a pay cut for all at her grade at the BBC to combat the pay inequality, which has risen in many organisations, including the BBC, over the past few decades. Is it not time that, as well as ensuring 1:1 gender pay ratios, the Government moved to ensure the fairness of ratios between the top and the bottom in many organisations such as the BBC, banks and many other companies? Wage inequality in this country has become staggering in the past few decades.
I welcome calls for pay restraint in public bodies from all quarters, including from the hon. Gentleman.
I declare two interests as chair of the all-party parliamentary commercial radio group and the former proud owner of a BBC pass. I strongly welcome pay transparency as the BBC is a publicly funded body. We are now in a very disappointing place. Does the new Secretary of State recognise that, despite what the Government have done, it is astonishing that we would not have discovered this underlying disparity without the singular bravery of individual women?
Yes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has worked hard on this issue during her time in the House. I also pay tribute to Carrie Gracie for her bravery and her actions.
Why does the Secretary of State think that it will take Lord Hall until 2020 to sort this out? It is an injustice. Surely the Secretary of State should tell Lord Hall to sort it out now.
It is, of course, for the commission to tell Lord Hall that. We have to be careful to ensure that the relationship between the Government and the BBC is proper, because the BBC is a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. The action that the Chair of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has announced—calling Lord Hall and potentially others to give evidence—will ensure that they can be held properly and directly to account.
All credit to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the Government for exposing the problem we are talking about today. Pay ought to be linked to ability and experience, so it cannot be right that men in the BBC are so often paid more than women with the same ability and experience. Does the Secretary of State agree that the BBC must be held to account and soon, and that questions need to be asked about why the BBC has suppressed coverage of this story?
I think that there is plenty of coverage of the story. No doubt the House has aired the issue and will air it again, should we so choose. The Select Committee has done a good job and I look forward to its further work. I know that my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Committee, will do that work extremely well.
I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his new appointment; I wish him well. Indeed, I also wish his predecessor well in her new role of power behind the throne in Northern Ireland. Does it not trouble the Secretary of State that the BBC’s suggested solution to Carrie Gracie was to give her a bung in excess of twice as much as the national average wage of people across the whole United Kingdom? Surely that highlights a systemic problem at the heart of the BBC and how it tries to solve problems.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It matters because this is not just a case of putting women’s pay up; it is a matter of pay equality, of which pay restraint is an incredibly important part.
Does the Secretary of State share my disquiet, as an ex-BBC journalist, about any attempts in BBC policy to stop reporters reporting on this issue? Does he also share my concerns that a culture of unequal pay and ageism against women runs throughout the organisation right down to broadcast assistant level and does not just affect a few household names at the top?
It is incredibly important that the BBC recognises the level and strength of feeling in this House among people who have long championed the BBC, people who have long disagreed with the BBC, people who have been employed by the BBC and people who have never been employed by the BBC that the BBC must get to the bottom of this, root and branch.
When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) brought before this House the Equality Act 2010, which provides for gender pay audits on every organisation employing more than 250 people, the Tories voted against it. Will the Secretary of State now say whether he thinks that that was the right thing to do?
I am a very strong believer in equal pay and tackling discrimination, because I believe in the equality of opportunity—wherever someone comes from and whatever their gender, sexual orientation or race. Those are the values that will guide me in this role.
Should the BBC not sort out its act, is my right hon. Friend willing to take further steps?
The gender pay gap will never be tackled in big organisations like the BBC so long as women end up with disproportionate responsibility for childcare. Given that, does the Minister agree that the Government’s decision to reject a series of recent recommendations to close the gap, including three months’ paternity leave, means that the gap at the BBC and further afield will never close?
I am afraid that I dispute the premise of that question, because no Government have done more than this Government over the past seven years to bring in equal paternity and maternity leave, and more of it, so that men and women can be more equal in the workplace. I was one of the first to be able to take advantage of more, and equal, paternity leave when my wife had a child. It is incredibly important that we tackle these issues, and nobody has done more than we have.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right that the BBC must comply with gender equality legislation with regard to pay. More than that, given the large salaries paid to some of the top presenters, will he send a very strong message to the BBC that it should be redeploying some of that resource to BBC local radio, which does so much to provide local information and entertainment on a pittance?
Yes, I agree incredibly strongly with that. The local news, and local TV and radio, are a vital part of what the BBC does. As we devolve more and more power locally, they are more and more important. I am very glad that the BBC recently announced that it was not going ahead with the cuts it previously proposed to local radio. Those cuts were completely unnecessary because the BBC has a very generous licence fee settlement. I am glad that it is now going to strengthen, not weaken, that local provision.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new position and look forward to his first outing in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I want to put on record my praise and respect for Carrie Gracie for what she said yesterday: she is an outstanding woman. This is not about equal opportunity, as the Secretary of State has said many times that it is—it is about equal pay for work of equal value, right across the organisation. This has been known about for six months and the BBC has done nothing. It is illegal not to have equal pay. What are the Government going to do to bring pressure to bear on the BBC to act?
I agree that it is about equal pay for equal jobs, as I said right from the outset, and of course that underpins equal opportunity. On what we are going to do, the first thing we have done is brought in transparency. We are going to see what the BBC says in the next few weeks, when it will publish more on on-air presenters, and we do not rule anything out.
With some trepidation, I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC. The BBC promised to publish pay gap data and an independent audit on pay. This it has done, and the independent legal and accountancy firm doing the auditing found no systematic gender discrimination. The final review of presenters, editors and correspondents will be published shortly. Given that the BBC is required to deal in facts, does my right hon. Friend agree on the need to wait for that review before this House rushes to judgment?
Of course the BBC has to deal with this objectively, but some very serious allegations have been raised. The BBC has said that it is going to get to the bottom of it. It must get to the bottom of it, and we will hold it to that.
I, too, declare an interest as a member of the APPG on the BBC. As such, I, too, welcome the BBC’s commitment to publish gender pay gap data and its independent audit of pay for most of its staff. However, the problem is that the BBC is in breach of the Equal Pay Act 1970. Surely 47 years is enough time to get its house in order.
One might have thought so. Now, thanks to the transparency measures that we have brought in, we are going to make sure that that happens.
The BBC website reported yesterday that since 2011 so few equal pay cases have been formally recorded as having a successful or an unsuccessful outcome at tribunal that the Ministry of Justice has both figures at 0%. We know that these figures do not reflect the reality and that a large proportion of cases are either withdrawn or settled away from tribunal. Does the Secretary of State agree that this method of reporting prevents us from having a true understanding of the actual figures involved?
We have brought in stronger laws to ensure that there is transparency, not only at the BBC through the royal charter but statutorily for all large organisations. We have taken action in this area because it is very important to get to the bottom of it.
Gender pay discrimination is partly a symptom of a much wider problem of sexist attitudes that prevail in too many large organisations. May I remind the Secretary of State that it is less than 24 hours since a colleague of his at the Dispatch Box defended the appointment of Toby Young as universities regulator for England, and less than two hours since another colleague at the Dispatch Box defended the offer of a state visit to Donald Trump? While I would agree with a lot of the Secretary of State’s criticisms of the BBC, will he not accept that if the Government are going to throw stones at the BBC, they should get out of the glass house they are in and stop rewarding such blatant and horrific examples of sexist behaviour elsewhere?
As I say, tackling the sort of unequal pay that we have seen at the BBC is very important. That is why we brought in the measures that we did, which I took through Parliament as the Bill Minister and which we are very proud to have brought in.
Sky News did some research in the summer that showed that the vast bulk of the best-paid BBC journalists went to a private or selective school and that we can count on the fingers of one hand those who did not. Does the Secretary of State agree that while there is much merit in pursuing this case, we have to end the self-serving, self-selecting elite bias in the appointments to some of the best-paid public sector jobs in this country?
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. Making sure that we have equal opportunities is not only about the protected characteristics in the Equality Act; it is also about social background and making sure that people from all backgrounds get an equal chance.
I thank the Secretary of State for his responses so far. The BBC has been guilty of discrimination and a gender pay gap differential. The national average gap of 18.1% is wrong, but it is hard to understand the satisfaction that the BBC seems to have and the feeling that 9.3% is not too bad. Does the Secretary of State agree that whether the figure is 18.1% or 9.3%, the BBC needs to put in place action to ensure that all receive equality of pay immediately?
The BBC would do well to reflect on the discussions that we have had in this House this afternoon, where we have seen, unless I am mistaken, unanimity from every single Member in demonstrating the need for action that we, as a House, hold to. The defence that, as an organisation, it is better than others and better than the average is frankly not good enough, not just because everybody should be doing better, but because the BBC should be held to a higher standard as a treasured national institution and our national broadcaster.
Parole Board and Victim Support
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Parole Board’s decision to release John Worboys and the Government’s response to the issues raised by this case.
I should like to start by echoing the statement made by my predecessor at the weekend, and expressing my unreserved sympathy to all the victims. They will never erase the emotional trauma of John Worboys’ crimes, and the Parole Board’s decision to order his release must have brought back painful memories. These were horrific crimes, and I take the concerns raised, including by many colleagues in the House, very seriously.
John Worboys was convicted of 19 offences in 2009, and received an indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection with a minimum tariff of eight years in custody. Following the expiry of the tariff, he was eligible for review by the Parole Board, which was required to consider whether to release him. The board reviewed his case at a hearing on 8 November 2017, by which time he had served 10 years in custody, including a period on remand. A three-person panel considered a detailed dossier of evidence. Its subsequent decision to release him was communicated to my Department on 3 January.
There are two main concerns in respect of the contact with victims that I think it essential to address today: whether the correct procedures were followed in this case, and whether those procedures are right or improvements are needed. Turning first to whether procedures were followed in this case, all victims of the crimes for which John Worboys was convicted have a statutory right to receive information about parole hearings and decisions under the victim contact scheme. On the basis of the information I have received since arriving in the Department yesterday, it appears that, in relation to these victims, those who opted to remain in contact via the VCS were informed of the parole hearing. Of the victims currently in contact with the scheme, those who chose to be informed of the Parole Board decision by phone or email were contacted immediately on 3 January, although I have just become aware of the case of a victim who did not receive the email. Letters were also sent immediately to those who chose to be informed that way, but these of course took longer to arrive. Some victims entitled to this contact chose not to opt in, which is of course their right.
Any victims whose crimes were not prosecuted do not fall within the statutory remit of the VCS, so the arrangements are different. Discretionary contact can be considered, but in this instance, the National Probation Service has no record of any requests for discretionary contact.
While it appears that the correct procedures were followed, the fact that some victims learned of the decision from the media suggests that there is a need to review those procedures and examine whether lessons can be learned and improvements can be made. It is a priority for this Government that victims of rape and sexual assault have full confidence in the criminal justice system. Sentence lengths for these horrific crimes have increased by over 30% since 2010 and more victims are coming forward, but there is still more to do.
I should be absolutely clear that I think the Parole Board should remain an independent body, responsible for making decisions about the ongoing risk that individuals pose after serving their tariff. However, I agree with my predecessor’s assessment that there is a strong case to review the case for transparency in the process for parole decisions and how victims are appropriately engaged in that process, and to consider the case for changes in policy, practice or Parole Board rules or other guidance or procedures, including the victims code.
With that in mind, I can confirm that I have instructed my officials to establish a review to examine these questions, and I will share more information on this shortly. I think it is appropriate that the Department leads this work, but that it consults victims’ groups and others. I have spoken to the Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, and the chair of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, to discuss what changes we could make and how best to draw on their expertise and insight in this review. Finally, I note that the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), has signalled his intention to hold an evidence session, and my Department stands ready to provide the Committee with any information it may require.
I intend to prioritise this review, and it will conclude before Easter. I hope that this course of action reassures the House of the importance and priority I attach to the issue. As such, I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his post, and I thank him for advance sight of the statement.
Our criminal justice system must always have the interests of the victims of crime at its heart. It is all too clear that victims of the vile crimes committed by John Worboys feel that this process has failed to do so, and such failings risk undermining public trust in our wider justice system. Many women—both the victims and others more widely—will be very anxious indeed about Mr Worboys being freed. The current legal restrictions on the Parole Board mean that we do not know why this decision was taken.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today. With respect, however, we do not need to debate whether there is a case for greater transparency. The Worboys case has underlined once and for all that there is a need for greater transparency, and the chair of the Parole Board has already called for this. Will the new Secretary of State for Justice therefore guarantee that his review will be about how to achieve greater transparency, and not about whether this is needed?
The failures go much wider than the rules governing the Parole Board. In fact, this whole matter has been dogged by failures from the outset. In 2009, John Worboys was convicted of 19 offences against 12 women, but the police have also linked Worboys to about 100 other cases. The public are asking questions about the failings in the police’s handling of the case, about why there were no further prosecutions and about failures of the victim contact scheme to notify victims of the parole hearing properly. The Worboys case raises so many serious questions that anything less than an independent end-to-end review into the handling of the case—from first reporting to the police of an attack right through to the Parole Board hearing—would let down the victims and the wider public.
The previous Secretary of State did not take up my request to undertake such an inquiry, but the new Secretary of State can bring a fresh perspective to all of this. He has the opportunity to reassure the victims and the wider public by going further than his predecessor and agreeing to an independent end-to-end review. That would be the right thing to do, and if he does so, I will congratulate him. I therefore ask the Secretary of State: will he agree to this proposal today?
There are also questions about whether wider problems in the justice system, a sector now subjected to the greatest cuts of any Department, have had an impact on this specific case. The failure to allow women victims the opportunity to participate in the parole hearing through written and oral statements, or to notify them of the hearings properly, was a real breach of their rights. The National Probation Service manages the victim contact scheme, and I would say that the House is all too familiar with the deep problems caused to probation by the chaotic reforms undertaken by the Secretary of State’s Government.
Does the Secretary of State believe that the changes to probation services have left the victim contact scheme more effective or less effective? Will he spell out today what his Department is doing to ensure that the scheme is functioning as it should and that we do not see a repeat of the failings witnessed last week? At the very least, will he consider amending the scheme so that victims opt out, rather than opt in to the system? Likewise, what is the Government’s assessment of the effectiveness of the current sex offender treatment programmes in prison? Last year, the Ministry of Justice found that its core programme actually increased reoffending among sex offenders. Does he know whether John Worboys was on one of the core programmes that were subsequently withdrawn? Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to clarify what the current procedure is for prioritising which imprisonment for public protection cases are dealt with most pressingly? Are those on the shortest tariffs dealt with first?
Finally, I am pleased that the Government are now focusing on victims’ rights. However, in 2014, the High Court found that the Metropolitan police had breached the rights of victims of Worboys under the Human Rights Act 1998 by failing properly to investigate many of the crimes Worboys was linked to. That decision was later upheld by the Court of Appeal. I think that many will be surprised and disappointed that the Government—through the current Home Secretary and her predecessor, who is now the Prime Minister—backed taking Worboys’ victims to the Supreme Court last year. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to express regret for treating the victims in that way?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He makes the case for transparency, as did Nick Hardwick, and I completely see and, indeed, sympathise with the argument being made. This case does demonstrate the need for us to look at the issue of transparency again, and it is important that we do so in some detail. I say to the House that I start off on the basis that more transparency is needed, as this case has demonstrated.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about an end-to-end review. It is right that we focus on how we can make this system more transparent to provide reassurance to the public that it is working in the way that it should. That should be a priority, as should victim support. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the basis of the system should be not opting in but opting out. That is something that the review will be able to consider.
We must be sensitive to the fact that, whereas some victims of crime will be keen to be fully informed at every stage, others simply may not want to hear the name of that criminal again. Different people will have different views about how they want to be treated, and we need to find a system that accommodates both approaches.
I was also asked about prioritising cases. Clearly, there is a need to look at cases in which the tariff has been completed. They will be higher priority than cases in which the tariff still has some years to run. That is what happens in practice.
The hon. Gentleman raised the Supreme Court case. The matter is sub judice and I cannot comment further on it, but I reassure him and the House that we need a system that has the confidence of victims. That is what we all want to ensure.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his new post. It is nice to see that it is still possible for a lawyer to become Lord Chancellor.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his offer of co-operation with the Justice Committee investigation into this matter. I welcome his statement. Will he bear it in mind that Professor Hardwick has indicated a greater desire for openness in the system, and consider the suggestions that he made in his Butler Trust lecture last autumn? Will he start very swiftly with reviewing the provision in the parole board rules that prevents the board from giving reasons for its decision, even if it might want to do so? Giving the reasons might help to reassure both the public and victims.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that case. I met Professor Hardwick this morning and he is already participating in this debate. He has been making the case for greater transparency and, as I said in an earlier response, he makes a good case. There is a strong case for ensuring that the reasons for particular decisions are put in the public domain, where that provides reassurance.
I welcome the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State to his place, and I thank him for advance notice of the statement. I was pleased to hear him say that it is a priority for the Government that victims of rape and sexual assault have full confidence in the criminal justice system.
In Scotland, where these matters are devolved, we have put a huge amount of work into improving the prosecution of sex crimes, and Police Scotland works closely with the National Sex Crimes Unit—I was proud to be one of its first prosecutors nine years ago. In Scotland we have robust victim notification schemes. What has gone wrong with the notification scheme in this case is just one issue. There were also very serious failings from the outset in the way in which the police approached the investigation, and the House needs assurance that those serious police failings could never happen again. Can the Secretary of State give us that assurance?
It is concerning that, as Home Secretary, the Prime Minister intervened to support the police against victims who had successfully obtained findings in the lower courts that the police had been in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the way they investigated them. I appreciate that, as the Lord Chancellor has said, those cases are currently sub judice, but can he give an undertaking that when the judgment is issued he will make a statement to the House about why the Government took the side of the police against the victims?
Worboys is going to be free later this month unless further charges are brought. We are all aware that there were many more Worboys victims than those in respect of whom there has been a prosecution. The Guardian has reported that the police say there is no live investigation, but it has also reported that the victims would like to see proceedings brought. Can the Lord Chancellor confirm whether any of those cases are still live? Will there be any further charges?
Further charges are a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and I am very limited in what I can say about that. What I can say is that of course it is a priority for us that rape and other sexual offences are pursued. As I mentioned earlier, sentences for rape have increased in recent years by approximately 30% on average. We take these matters extremely seriously, and we continue to ensure that these horrendous crimes are pursued. It is not for me to make a statement about likely further prosecutions in this particular case. We are talking about a case that was prosecuted in 2009, and I know that there is an ongoing debate about whether more cases should have been brought at that point. It is important that we learn the lessons from this case and, not just looking at the particular facts of this case, ensure that we have a victim support system that works for victims across the board.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor on his new role and thank him for coming so swiftly to the House on this solemn matter. It is shocking and unacceptable that victims learned of Mr Worboys’ impending release from TV coverage. I welcome his assurance that that will be investigated and reform will be considered, but can he tell us the size of the problem? How many other victims have found themselves suffering in that completely unacceptable way?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks. The scale of the issue is likely to become clear in the course of the review. This is a high-profile case, but I will not pretend that it is unique. I have recently become aware that one of the victims did not receive an email when she had requested it—that email was sent, but it was not received. The procedures were followed, but the decision to release Worboys entered the public domain quickly, which meant that victims heard about it before they received the letters. We need to learn the lessons from that to ensure that it does not happen again.
I also welcome the Lord Chancellor to his post. He will note that some of the victims have still heard nothing from victim liaison officers and still do not know what the Parole Board terms are and whether this man may end up living near them. Given that Worboys had their addresses, will the Lord Chancellor urgently ensure that all the victims are contacted by victim liaison officers before this man is released? Given that some of them had no opportunity to put statements to the Parole Board, is he confident that due process has been followed in making this decision? Further to the Justice Committee’s point about greater transparency in Parole Board decisions, will the Lord Chancellor introduce changes to the statutory rules that would allow the board to make open the decision in this case, not just in future cases, so that people can see what the reasons were?
The right hon. Lady makes an important point. There is clearly the potential to change the rules for forthcoming cases, but she particularly asks whether such a change could apply to cases that occurred before the change in the rules. I do not want to make any guarantees to the House at this point, because there are clearly complex legal implications and one would want to look at them, but if I may take that as a representation of what she thinks should happen, I very much take that on board.
On notification of victims, as I said, there will be cases where people do not want to be informed; there will be cases where people will want to receive a great deal of detail. We need a system that is sensitive to what victims want. The right hon. Lady raises the point about where Worboys will be and whether victims could be close by. The conditions of the licence are for the Parole Board, but I suspect I speak for the House as a whole when I say that we would expect the Parole Board to be sensitive to the concerns that victims might have about their safety, and indeed to the trauma of perhaps finding themselves accidentally in the presence of someone who has committed such terrible crimes.
As the new Lord Chancellor, my good friend, knows—I welcome him to his post—I was the victims and the police Minister in the previous Administration. One reason for that was the justice side cannot really be taken away from the police and the Crown Prosecution side. In the files on his desk will be a draft Bill for a victims law, which has cross-party support, which I believe was in both Conservative and Labour manifestos, but one of the biggest issues is what is a victim. It is obvious to us what a victim is, but in law that is often very different; so where there has not been a prosecution, victims very often will not be informed in the same way as someone whose case has been before the courts. Why the Crown Prosecution Service did not prosecute as many cases as we all know about now must be investigated as part of the review, but we must put the victim first, and a victims law would be a very good way to start.
I thank my right hon.—and very good—Friend for his comments. He is right; I believe that I do have advice on that very matter in my inbox, and I will want to look very closely at it.. He is absolutely right to say that it is important that the position of victims is properly respected. One of the first people I spoke to on taking office was Baroness Newlove, who has done some excellent work on the issue.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. It is right that the Parole Board carry out its work to continue to review the backlog of prisoners serving IPP sentences. However, the public must have confidence that IPP prisoners are being released safely and responsibly. The decision to release John Worboys has undermined that confidence, and given that 3,000 IPP prisoners have been released since their sentences were abolished, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that public safety has not been and will not be compromised?
The hon. Lady raises a fair challenge. It is important that public confidence is maintained. It is also right, though, that the Parole Board, as an independent body, makes the decisions; I do not detect a consensus in the House that this matter should be returned to the discretion of politicians. However, the Parole Board clearly needs to be very mindful of public perception. It is, I know, very mindful of the risks that could be created on somebody being released. That is the test that the Parole Board must meet in making these decisions.
When a minimum tariff is imposed, can it be challenged on grounds of undue leniency; and given that the tariff is a minimum, why does the sole test applied by the Parole Board appear to be simply whether the criminal still poses a risk to others? What has happened to the concept that the punishment should fit the crime?
Of course, the IPP cases are essentially historic in the sense that those sentences no longer apply; but while approximately 3,000 IPP prisoners remain in jail, it is a question of testing whether there is a risk to the public once the tariff has been met, as my right hon. Friend sets out. Of course, a different system applies to those who do not fall within the IPP test.
I welcome the Lord Chancellor to his new job. He may be aware that on Friday, a cross-party group of 58 MPs wrote to his predecessor, to express our concerns not so much about transparency in decision making but about the right of victims to be heard by the Parole Board and for their information to influence decisions. His successor wrote back to us, stating that the victim support people had tried to make contact in October, for a hearing in November, with people with whom they had not had contact since 2009.
Will the Lord Chancellor, in his review, look explicitly, not at the transparency of how decisions were made, but at how victims’ voices were heard as part of that process? If he is not satisfied, as it seems that many of these victims were not told how they could have their say, will he use his powers to instigate a judicial review of the decision?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about victims’ voice being heard throughout the process. In the review, I want to focus on the areas that I have particularly set out, but it is important to look at the whole process of victim support and ensuring that the voice of victims is heard, so that it works for victims in the way that we all want it to work.
I think my constituents in Kettering would take the view that we are far too soft in this country on punishing sexual offenders. None of them serves their time in jail in full; too many are released far too early; and many go on to reoffend once they have been released. Will the Secretary of State publish in the Library details of the number of sexual offenders who have reoffended upon release, and how those who are responsible for their early release are held to account?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. As I mentioned, since 2010 the sentence for rape has gone up by 30%—something that I am sure he would support. On the figures that he asks for, if I may, I will take that question away and see what information can be provided to him.
My constituent, who was raped repeatedly in childhood, came to see me in considerable distress before Christmas because the first she knew that her perpetrator had been released was when he visited the pub next to her place of work. I have raised the matter with the Department, but the letter I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), blamed her for not giving the victim contact scheme her change of address. I would like the Secretary of State to commit to looking again at her case and to apologising to my constituent.
Obviously, I am not familiar with the case that the hon. Lady raises. As I said earlier, we need to look at communication with victims very closely. Clearly, to communicate, it is necessary for the authorities to have contact details. [Interruption.] We need to find a way to ensure that the relevant authorities have those contact details, so that we can provide the support that the victims want.
As a friend of one of the victims and a former criminal barrister, I take the view that the original sentence was the correct one in all the circumstances. Worboys, of course, was convicted on the basis that he was a dangerous predatory sex offender, and I have to be frank with my right hon. Friend, whom I warmly welcome to his position, that I and many others are struggling to believe that Worboys is no longer a danger. It is in the nature of this sort of offending that these men are often extremely cunning. We have to trust the Parole Board—I pay tribute to its work, and it must retain its independence—but if nothing else it must put a condition upon his release that he is not allowed back into Greater London. I know that that is not within the gift of the Secretary of State, but it is what the victims, who are very frightened of this man, need to hear.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks. I quite understand why she is concerned about whether Worboys continues to pose a risk to the public. The Parole Board made an assessment on the basis of the evidence—several hundred pages of information in front of it—and it was an experienced board, but I am also not in a position to make that assessment. As she says, it is important that we trust the Parole Board—the case for transparency is that it will provide some helpful reassurance. On access to London, she makes her point powerfully, but it is for the Parole Board to determine the conditions.
Order. I gently point out, in respect of this extremely serious matter, that the statement has now been running for over half an hour, but we have had only 10 Back-Bench questions. To be candid, we need shorter questions—not people’s observations, comments, tributes and commendations—and then brief replies from the Secretary of State.
There is a third aspect to this, which is post-release supervision. Given that Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, says that there is a fractured system, will the Secretary of State, as one of his first tasks, consider strengthening that post-release supervision system?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I would certainly hope and expect that in this case the conditions will be stringent and rigorously enforced.
May I briefly congratulate the Lord High Chancellor on achieving the greatest and most distinguished office in the land? May I question his assumption, however, that nobody wants power returned to politicians in this area? It seems to me that final decisions on whether somebody is a danger should rest with those who may be held to account, not with unaccountable bureaucrats. It is not a scientific decision; it is a matter of opinion, and I would trust his opinion more than that of an unaccountable bureaucracy.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and confidence in me. On this occasion, however, I fear that I am not entirely in agreement with him. I think that this needs to be a decision made by an independent body on the basis of the evidence in front of it, but it is also right that such independent bodies are conscious of the need to ensure that victims and the public more widely have confidence in the decision.
When I did the job of victim liaison, working with probation to keep victims informed, in the west midlands, where I worked, there were many people in probation working in that area. Since the privatisation of probation, in the west midlands, there is one victims officer—for an area with 3 million people. In this review, will the very welcome new Justice Secretary look at what was taken away and potentially why an email to a victim is not enough, when a relationship is what we used to have?
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks. I do not think that this particular issue is, in truth, about resources. In terms of the requests for information made by some of the victims and the forms in which that was to be provided, which were established in 2009, some of the victims also requested to be informed at a later date. I stress, however, that I want a system that works adequately for victims.
Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the courage of those women who gave evidence against John Worboys, one of whom is well known to us on the Conservative Benches? Does he agree that it is essential that his victims have full confidence that their safety is a priority in the decisions of the Parole Board, which does not appear to have been the case this time?
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the victims who came forward, very bravely, and in some cases waived anonymity to encourage others to come forward. It is important that their safety be paramount. It is important that the system has the confidence not just of the general public but of victims, and this case demonstrates that there is a need for changes to ensure that that can happen.
I also welcome the Lord Chancellor to his new position. The victims and survivors of sexual assault and rape continue to suffer the legacy of hurt and trauma for many decades and often a lifetime, which is why many people are appalled that this man will be walking the streets again after a mere nine years. I welcome what the Lord Chancellor has said about transparency, but will he give a commitment in his new role that he will do everything he can to ensure that these crimes are taken seriously by the police, prosecutors and the courts?