House of Commons
Wednesday 24 January 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Devolution of Powers
It would be remiss of me not to point out that tomorrow marks the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and I am sure that the whole House would like to join me in wishing well not only to those who are organising and participating in events around the world but to everybody who celebrates the life and legacy of Scotland’s great bard.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we are intensifying our discussions with the devolved Administrations on powers returning from the EU. I had a useful discussion with Mike Russell early in the new year, and I am confident that discussions will continue to be productive.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) said during the Committee stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill:
“I will not support a Bill that undermines devolution and does not respect the integrity of the Union.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2017; Vol. 632, c. 733.]
If that is the position of the Scottish Conservatives, why did they vote against the Labour amendment that would have safeguarded devolution?
It is quite easy, in opposition, to pursue stunts and gimmicks, and that is what the Labour amendment was. This Government have made it quite clear that we would agree an amendment to the Bill with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, and that is what we are doing.
Figures published today show that trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK is four times more important to Scotland than its trade with the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, as powers return from the EU to Scotland, we must ensure that we protect the UK internal market so that businesses in Scotland may continue to flourish?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I would point out that those figures were produced by the Scottish Government themselves. Trade within the UK is worth four times as much to Scotland as its trade with the EU. When “Scotland’s place in Europe” was published last week, it disappointed me that that fact was not recognised.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House what he thinks is wrong with the devolution powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and how he would like to see them fixed? Or is it that, in this week of Burns celebrations, he is just the great puddin’ o’ the chieftain race?
The hon. Gentleman always has an interesting take on events, but I am clear that we want to work with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, and with the Scottish Parliament, whose Finance and Constitution Committee has set out its views on clauses 10 and 11 of the Bill. I want to reach agreement with them, so that the Government will recommend a legislative consent motion.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Brexit presents an enormous opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to gain even further powers?
It represents not only that opportunity but an opportunity to use those powers. We never hear the Scottish National party talking about how the powers devolved to Scotland after we leave the EU will actually be used. That is the debate we should be having now.
First, on behalf of the lassies, may I echo the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State and wish everyone in the House a happy Burns day? In December, I stood at this Dispatch Box and was comforted to hear the Secretary of State commit to bringing forward amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill on Report. Sadly, he did not keep that commitment. Will he now please tell us why?
The answer is very simple: we could not meet the timescale that we had aspired to. I take responsibility for that. I gave a commitment at the Dispatch Box that we would bring forward amendments on Report, but we were unable to reach agreement with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government on those important amendments within the timescale. Significant work is ongoing in that regard, and the commitment to amend the Bill is unchanged. However, it will involve an amendment that can command the support of the Scottish Parliament, not a gimmick amendment.
That lack of planning is extremely disappointing, because the Secretary of State, in failing to keep his commitment, has now singlehandedly put the future of the devolution settlement in the hands of the other place. Given his lack of judgment in his previous commitment, how confident is the Secretary of State that an amendment will come back to this place that all parties will find acceptable?
The hon. Lady is relatively new to this House, but she will know that this Chamber will be able to discuss the amendment, which will be discussed by the Scottish Parliament when we seek its legislative consent. The Scottish Labour party has been all over the place on the EU, and I have no idea how it will vote on a legislative consent motion when it comes to the Scottish Parliament, but I hope that it will be yes.
My answer is “many.”
And yet the Secretary of State cannot name one. He failed in his promise to amend clause 11 in this House to avoid undermining the principle of devolution to Scotland and Wales, as not just Scotland’s governing party, but all Scottish MPs will be excluded from the next stage of the debate. Will he tell us now what proposals will be brought forward in the Lords?
I echo the remarks that Michael Russell made yesterday in Holyrood, where he said:
“The Scottish Government… aims to agree amendments to the bill with the UK Government that would allow a legislative consent motion to be brought to the chamber and passed.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 23 January 2018; c. 31.]
Mr Russell and, indeed, Mark Drakeford in the Welsh Assembly have not given a running commentary on the negotiations, and I do not intend to do so either.
Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution Committee has stated that clause 11, as currently drafted, is incompatible with the devolution settlement in Scotland. Does the Secretary of State agree?
I have committed to amending the Bill—my commitment remains exactly the same—so that it meets the concerns of the Committee set out in its report and so that a majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament can vote for a legislative consent motion in respect of the Bill.
The Secretary of State was left looking a bit glaikit this morning when the Brexit Secretary said that the Secretary of State had potentially made a promise that he could not keep. Is not the reality here that all the talk from the Tories about giving power back to Scotland is nothing less than a power grab and that that lot—the Scottish Conservatives—are just Lobby fodder?
The pantomime season is over, and the hon. Gentleman’s theatrical tone strikes a discordant note with the tone set yesterday by Michael Russell, the Minister in the Scottish Government responsible for such matters. There was no suggestion of a power grab. The suggestion was that both Governments are engaged in intensive negotiations to agree an amendment to the clause.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s honesty in saying that he ran out of time to get the amendments in, but unfortunately that is not good enough. How can he justify it being okay that Michelle Mone and Alan Sugar will have more of an impact on the Bill than Scotland’s elected Members, some of which sit on the Secretary of State’s side of the House?
From everything that I see and read in Scotland, the hon. Lady has a considerable impact on events in Scotland, and I am sure that her views on the Bill will be well recorded. The amendment will be debated in the House of Lords. I regret that it is being brought forward in the other House, but we simply did not meet the timescale to which we aspired. There will be a further opportunity to debate the amendment in this House, and the Scottish Parliament, which SNP Members say they are concerned about all the time, will also be able to have an extensive debate and vote on the clause.
Will the Secretary of State’s colleagues in the House of Lords make the changes he promised us he would make to the Brexit Bill? And will he sit down with the Scottish Government thereafter to discuss what further powers need to be devolved?
I intend to sit down with the Scottish Government next week to discuss progress on amending clause 11. In relation to further devolution, the Smith Commission determined the nature of the settlement, to which all parties in the Scottish Parliament signed up. This Government do not support changes to the devolution arrangements, as agreed in the Smith Commission.
The Secretary of State has failed to answer for his broken promise to this House and to his Tory colleagues in Scotland on clause 11. That means Karren Brady, Sebastian Coe, Joan Bakewell and 26 Church of England bishops now have more say over Scotland’s future than Scotland’s elected MPs. Will the Secretary of State finally apologise for that sad state of affairs?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s views and mine on the future of the House of Lords are closer than he would anticipate. I have taken full responsibility for not meeting the timescale I originally set out. We are committed to amending the Bill, and to amending the Bill in agreement with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. I would have thought that that is something even Opposition Members would recognise.
In a rare lucid moment, the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) said
“the Government made a clear commitment to the House on the amendments to clause 11, and I took those commitments at face value. As a Conservative Member, I never want to get to the point where I cannot take commitments given to me…at face value”,
“they have let this Chamber down by not delivering on what they promised.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 819-21.]
Will the Secretary of State apologise to his own colleagues, to this House and, more importantly, to the people of Scotland for letting us all down?
I think the hon. Gentleman seeks to conflate two issues. The commitment to amend the Bill remains unchanged. The Bill will be amended in agreement with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. We failed to meet the timescale to which I aspired, and I take full responsibility for that.
Resistance to further devolution of powers comes from many quarters, such as the Constitutional Research Council led by the Secretary of State’s friend, and prominent Scottish Tory, Richard Cook. As we all know, the CRC funded the Democratic Unionist party’s version of hard Brexit in the campaign. Does the Secretary of State now agree that it is time for full disclosure of those funds? If he does not, it undermines the very principles of liberal democracy that he says he stands up for.
That is an entirely separate issue. As you will recognise, Mr Speaker, a whole range of procedures are in place for people who have issues or concerns about the funding of political activity.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the flag of this nation will remain the Union flag and that no devolved Assembly should try to restrict it from being flown, whether at the white cliffs of Dover, Land’s End or John o’Groats?
As my hon. Friend knows, in September 2014 the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain within the United Kingdom, and the Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom. It beggars belief that, at a time when children’s hospital wards are being closed, educational standards are falling and Police Scotland is in chaos, the priority of the First Minister of Scotland is flags.
The Secretary of State talks a good game but, unfortunately, delivery does not appear to be his strong point. Speaking of auld acquaintance, it turns out that his key adviser tasked with increasing awareness of devolution across Government is none other than the interim chief executive of Carillion. Given the shambolic handling of clause 11 last week, how does the Secretary of State think that is going?
First, it is not correct to suggest that non-executive directors take policy decisions in relation to Government Departments. Keith Cochrane has done an excellent job as a non-executive director of the Scotland Office, and I pay tribute to him as one of Scotland’s most respected businessmen. However, in order not to become a distraction at a time of very important work for the Scotland Office, he has decided to step aside from his responsibilities until the investigation into Carillion and any subsequent inquiries are complete.
May I also wish you a very happy Burns season, Mr Speaker?
The Secretary of State talked of a powers bonanza and could not list one new power. He promised amendments on clause 11 and no such amendments were tabled. Can we now believe another word he says in this House?
I know that the hon. Gentleman does not necessarily have the best of relations with some people in the Scottish Government, but perhaps he could have a word with them about the publication of the frameworks. I am keen that we publish what has been agreed in relation to frameworks, but the current position of the Scottish Government is that that should not be published.
The right hon. Gentleman is personally responsible for a breakdown in the relationship between this House and the Scottish Government, and the breakdown in relationships between all the Members of this House. The Brexit Secretary today has suggested that the right hon. Gentleman is the blockage to progress. He has accepted full responsibility for not producing these amendments. Has he now had the time to think about his own position?
Again, the hon. Gentleman strikes a completely different tone from Michael Russell, who has pursued a very professional approach to these matters. They are complicated and difficult matters, and it is important that they are thoroughly debated, discussed and agreed. The reason the Government did not bring forward an amendment at that stage was that no amendment had been agreed with the Scottish Government, but we are committed to delivering that.
Economic Development: Cross-border Co-operation
Today’s figures from the Scottish Government again show that Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is worth nearly four times that with the EU. We know that more than half a million Scottish jobs depend on the vital UK internal market, and that people in Scotland want a UK-wide approach to trade. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is essential that we ensure that the important UK internal market can continue unimpeded.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the First Minister of Scotland recently said that,
“independence must be an option”,
highlighting once again some people’s interest in separation, not governing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that keeping separation on the table makes constructive, co-operative working difficult, and that opportunities will be missed both for Scotland and the UK as a result?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It has just become absolutely clear that when Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are asked what they want from Brexit, the answer is another independence referendum.
Brexit poses the biggest risk to Scotland’s economy. If the Government want to show co-operation with the Scottish Government, does the Secretary of State agree that the sectoral reports that are available to MPs in this place should also be made available to MSPs?
I understood that they had been made available to MSPs. If that is not the case, I will ensure that it is.
This week, Moray Council discussed the projects that will be included in the ambitious Moray growth deal. The Secretary of State knows of my strong support for the bid, so will he join me in Moray to meet the people involved in the Moray growth deal bid, to show the UK Government’s commitment to take these from proposals to projects delivered?
These growth deals and city deals across Scotland are very important to the economy as we prepare to leave the EU. I am excited by the proposals that have been brought forward by stakeholders in Moray and I would be delighted to visit with my hon. Friend.
Does the Secretary of State agree that today’s export statistics show the importance to Scotland of remaining in both the EU and the UK, despite the SNP’s latest attempt to break that link by taking down the flag?
The hon. Lady will expect that I will agree with part of what she said. Of course, as the people of Scotland voted, Scotland must remain in the UK and benefit from the UK internal market, but the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the EU, and we are leaving the EU.
Renewable Energy Sector
Thanks to the investments that we have all made in the future of renewables and the Government policy framework, Scotland’s renewable energy is thriving. A quarter of the UK’s renewable capacity is based in Scotland because of the climate and the geography. That capacity has more than doubled since the Conservative-led Government came to power in 2010, and we will be going further in bringing forward energy from remote offshore wind projects in the next auction, in 2019.
That is not what Scottish Renewables says. It says that, with the exception of offshore wind, growth across all other technologies is low to stagnant. How much funding will be available to Scotland under the Government’s clean growth strategy? Has the Minister assessed the impact that it will have in Scotland?
As I was pleased to set out in the clean growth strategy, we will make almost £560 million available up to 2025 to support all forms of renewable energy. As we have now set out, we will enable offshore wind projects, which are so vital to the remote islands, to bid in that next auction. We want to keep it going; Scotland is doing incredibly well. Last year, renewable energy right across the UK contributed a third of our electricity generation. We are on a renewables road.
City Region Deals
I spoke to the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work last week. We will meet again shortly to discuss our joint approach, including how we can deliver for my hon. Friend on the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal.
Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that the UK Government are committing new money to the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, not simply rebadging existing funding? When he next meets the Scottish Government, will he secure a similar commitment from them that they will put new money into the deal and not just rebadge existing funding?
I confirm that the UK Government will definitely put new money into the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal. That has always been our approach to such deals, and that is why they have such a transformative effect. I will speak to Keith Brown on the issue my hon. Friend raises, but I know Mr Brown takes a particular interest in that deal.
All the city region cash that has gone Inverness’s way is most welcomed by residents of Inverness. However, other communities in the Highlands such as Wick, Thurso and Tain struggle to see the benefit. It is supposed to be a city region deal. Will the Secretary of State look into why it is not working as it should?
I will of course look into the hon. Gentleman’s point, which was also raised with me when I was on Skye. May I use this opportunity to rebut the fake news that Skye is full and not open for business to tourists? It is open for business and a great destination.
Leaving the EU: Economic Opportunities
It is always a pleasure to speak to Scottish businesses. In fact, there have been more than 100 such conversations in the past year in my Department. I look forward to meeting many more businesses this Friday, when I travel to Aberdeen as the Government’s oil and gas champion, including a visit to the Oil and Gas Technology Centre, which benefited from £180 million as part of the Aberdeen city deal in 2016.
As Corby is the most Scottish town in England, I am well aware that Scotland produces some of the UK’s best-known products, including Scotch whisky. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that, as we leave the European Union, new opportunities are taken, for the benefit of the whole of the United Kingdom economy?
I am told that Corby is a great place in England to buy an Irn-Bru and a pie. As we know, whisky is one of the UK’s greatest exports. Forty thousand people are employed in the industry, and the value of exports is more than £4 billion. It absolutely stands to benefit from post-Brexit trade opportunities. Both our industrial strategy and—[Interruption.]
Order. This is rather discourteous. The Minister is giving us a detailed answer, which I think the House should hear.
I am sure whisky drinkers everywhere will be grateful for that intervention, Mr Speaker.
The industrial strategy sets out other opportunities with industries across the UK to grow their productivity, improve their exports and create high-value jobs. I am pleased to say we are working closely with the Scottish Government to implement the strategy.
To mitigate the extreme hard Tory Brexit and create further job opportunities in Scotland, will the Minister commit to speaking to onshore wind developers and allowing them to bid in future contract for difference auctions?
As the hon. Gentleman knows from conversations around the Dispatch Box, we are keen to bring forward renewable technology at the right price for bill payers and consumers right across the UK. We will continue to offer opportunities for all sorts of renewable businesses to get involved in CfD auctions going forward.
Leaving the EU: Common Frameworks
The UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments agreed the principles that will guide how we approach common frameworks in future at the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations on 16 October. Those principles have facilitated constructive engagement at official level, and we expect to make significant further progress in the coming months, including publishing our analysis.
During those constructive discussions, has the Secretary of State received any indication from the Scottish Government about how they intend to use the plethora of new powers that they will receive?
As I said in response to a previous question, we have heard nothing from the Scottish National party or the Scottish Government about how they intend to use the new powers that will be available after we leave the EU. Let us have a debate about using powers for Scotland’s benefit, not about process.
Hospital Car Parking Charges
I have not had discussions with the Scottish Government regarding hospital car parking charges. The policy falls wholly within their area of devolved competence.
The vast majority of national health service hospitals in Scotland do not charge for car parking. Will my right hon. Friend initiate discussions with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to explore the options for extending that to England?
I am sure that my colleague the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will have heard my right hon. Friend’s comments.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that Members throughout the House will wish to join me in marking Holocaust Memorial Day this Saturday and in remembering all those who endured such appalling suffering in the holocaust.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today. Later, I will travel to Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum and—who knows?—I might even bump into the shadow Chancellor while I am there.
Mr Speaker, as you and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will know, last week saw the successful launch of the Year of Engineering campaign, which is aimed at changing the perception of engineering and inspiring the next generation of engineers. I know that the Prime Minister is personally committed to the campaign, so may I invite her to join me and 80,000 young people at this year’s Big Bang fair, to reinforce the message that engineering is a great career that is open to everyone, regardless of their background, ethnicity and gender?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue of engineering, and particularly the need for more women to see engineering as a career, is something that I have promoted for many years now. Engineers are vital to our economy, which is why we want to see everyone, whatever their background—this is about not only gender but background and ethnicity—having a chance to build a good career in engineering. The Year of Engineering gives us a great opportunity to work together with business to do exactly that. If my diary allows, I would be happy to attend the fair to which my hon. Friend referred.
I join the Prime Minister in commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. Many Members will be signing the book of remembrance and attending the event tomorrow. We have to teach all generations that the descent into Nazism and the holocaust must never, ever be repeated anywhere on this planet.
Does the Prime Minister agree with the Foreign Secretary that the national health service needs an extra £5 billion?
As I recall, the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber for the autumn Budget speech delivered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he announced that we will be putting £6 billion more into the national health service.
The only problem with that is that it was £2.8 billion, spread like thin gruel over two years. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House that
“it is indeed the case that the NHS was better prepared this winter than ever before.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 315.]
Sixty-eight senior A&E doctors have written to the Prime Minister about what they describe as
“very serious concerns we have for the safety of our patients.”
They say that patients being treated in corridors are “dying prematurely”. Who should the public believe—the Prime Minister or A&E doctors?
It is right that the NHS was better prepared for this winter than it ever has been before. We saw 3,000 more beds being brought into use over the winter period; we saw the use of the 111 call system leading to a significant reduction in the number of call-outs and the number of people having to go into hospital; and we saw the changes made in accident and emergency, with GP streamlining, helping to ensure that people who did not need to go into hospital did not go into hospital. Overall, we saw 2.8 million more people last year visiting accident and emergency than did so in 2010. Our NHS is indeed providing for patients. There are winter pressures; we were prepared for those winter pressures. We will ensure, as we have done every year under this Conservative Government, that the NHS receives more funding.
Since 2010, we have lost 14,000 NHS beds. The King’s Fund, the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust all agree that the NHS needs another £4 billion. In December, the month just gone, NHS England recorded its worst ever A&E performances, with more patients than ever waiting more than four hours. Now the UK Statistics Authority says that the numbers may be worse because the figures have been fiddled. Can the Prime Minister tell the House when figures calculated in line with previous years will be published?
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the NHS is open in publishing a whole variety of figures in relation to its targets. We are putting more money into the NHS, year in and year out, and we are continuing to do that. If he wants to talk about figures and about targets being missed, yes, the latest figures show that, in England, 497 people were waiting more than 12 hours, but the latest figures also show that, under the Labour Government in Wales, 3,741 people were waiting more than 12 hours.
The Prime Minister is responsible for the underfunding of the Welsh Government and the needs of Wales. Despite that, the overall Welsh Labour Government health budget has grown by 5% in 2016-17. It is Labour Wales that has a problem of underfunding from a Conservative Government based in Westminster. So far this winter, 100,000 patients have been forced to wait more than 30 minutes in the back of an ambulance in NHS England, for which she is responsible, yet still she refuses to give the NHS the money that it needs. Can she tell us how many more patients will face life-threatening waits in the back of ambulances this winter?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that of course we want to ensure that people are not waiting in those ambulances, but the only answer that he ever comes up with is on the question of money. The question—[Interruption.] No, the question is this: why are there some hospitals where the percentage of patients waiting more than 30 minutes is zero and other hospitals where the percentage of patients waiting more than 30 minutes is considerably higher? If he wants to talk about funding, perhaps we should look at what the Labour party promised at the last general election last year. [Interruption.] It is all very well shadow Ministers shouting about the comparison of money. The point is that, at the last election, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said this:
“Labour and the Conservatives are pretty much on the same page…there’s not much to choose between them in terms of the money they’ll put into the NHS.”
A Labour Government would not be underfunding the NHS. A Labour Government would not be privatising the NHS. A Labour Government would not be underfunding social care. A Labour Government would be committed to an NHS free at the point of use as a human right.
According to a whistleblower, as many as—[Interruption.] Hang on, hang on. According to a whistleblower, as many as 80 patients were harmed or died following significant ambulance delays over a three-week period this winter. This is a very serious situation, and the Prime Minister must be aware of it. What investigation is the Department of Health carrying out into these deeply alarming reports?
When we hear reports of that sort, of course they are very alarming. That is why the Department of Health makes sure that investigations take place. That may be undertaken by the Department of Health or by the particular trust involved—the ambulance trust or the hospital. These issues are properly investigated, because we do not want to see this happening; we do want to see people being properly cared for. If there are lessons to be learned, then they will be learned, because our support for our NHS is about providing it with the funding, the doctors, the nurses, the treatments and the capabilities that it needs in order to be able to deliver for patients. That is why we are backing the NHS with more funding. It is why we are ensuring that it gets the best treatments; survival rates for cancer are higher than they have ever been before. It is why we are ensuring that we have better joined-up services across the NHS and social care so that people who do not need to go into hospital are able to be cared for at home. And it is why we are ensuring that we are reducing waste in the NHS so that taxpayers’ money is spent as effectively as may be on patient care. That is a plan for the NHS, but it is a plan that puts patients first.
The Prime Minister must be aware of ambulances backed up in hospital car parks, with nurses treating patients in the back of ambulances. Ambulance drivers and paramedics desperate to get on to deal with the next patient cannot leave because the patient they are dealing with at that moment cannot get into the A&E department. It has been reported that a man froze to death waiting 16 hours for an ambulance. Last week, a gentleman called Chris wrote to me, saying:
“My friend’s 93 year old father waited 4 hours for an ambulance after a fall.”
These are not isolated cases; they are common parlance all over the country. It needs money, it needs support, and it needs it now.
The Prime Minister is frankly in denial about the state of the NHS. Even the absent Foreign Secretary recognises it, but the Prime Minister is not listening. People using the NHS can see from their own experience that it is being starved of resources. People are dying unnecessarily in the back of ambulances and in hospital corridors. GP numbers are down, nurses are leaving, the NHS is in crisis—[Interruption.] Tory MPs might not like it, but I ask this question of the Prime Minister: when is she going to face up to the reality and take action to save the NHS from death by a thousand cuts?
There is only one part of the NHS that has seen a cut in its funding—the NHS in Wales under a Labour Government. This is a Government backing the NHS plan, putting more money into the NHS, recruiting more doctors and nurses, and seeing new treatments come on board which ensure that people are getting the best treatment that they need, because this is a Government who recognise the priorities of the British people: to ensure that our NHS remains a world-class healthcare system—indeed, the best healthcare system in the world—to build the homes that people need, and to make sure that our kids are in good schools. This is a Government who are building a country that works for everyone, and a country in which people can look to the future with optimism and hope.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on a very good council by-election result in Hulton, where the Conservatives took a seat from the Labour party?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue about strengthening our electoral process and enhancing the confidence people have in our democratic processes. We are shortly going to be running pilot schemes in five local authorities to identify the best way to implement voter ID and nationality checks. Tower Hamlets, Slough and Peterborough are going to be piloting measures to improve the integrity of the postal and proxy vote process. Our democracy matters, but it is important that people can have true confidence in it.
May I wish you a happy Burns day for tomorrow, Mr Speaker?
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister about Holocaust Memorial Day? We should never forget the horrible tragedies and the price that people had to pay. However, we should also remember the genocide that has happened in many territories since that time as well, and we all must work to eradicate that scourge from our society.
Earlier this week, the Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive officer, Ross McEwan, admitted—in a leaked memo—that closing 22 local branches would be “painful” for customers. Thirteen towns in Scotland are to lose their last bank. Prime Minister, I will give you one other opportunity: as the majority shareholder, will you meet RBS and make the case to keep the bank branches open?
The right hon. Gentleman has asked me this question on a number of occasions, and I have made the point in response to every one of those questions—and the answer is not going to change today—that these are commercial decisions for the banks involved. We do have a duty as a Government: we look at how the market is working for people, and that is why we established the access to banking standard that commits banks to carry out a certain number of steps before closing a branch. It is also why we welcome the fact that the Post Office has reached an agreement with the banks that will allow more customers than ever before to use post office services, so about 99% of personal customers are able to carry out their day-to-day banking at a post office as a result of that new agreement. That is the Government making sure that people are covered by the services they need.
I would simply say to the Prime Minister that we own RBS: it is time that you took your own responsibilities. By closing these branches and replacing some with mobile banking vans, which do not provide disability access, the Royal Bank of Scotland appears to be in breach of the UK Equality Act 2010. Wheelchair user Sandra Borthwick has described her experience of banking outside as “degrading”. Does the Prime Minister agree that RBS has a legal responsibility to offer equality of services to disabled customers, and will she hold RBS to account on this issue?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that, of course, we all want to see that all customers are able to access the services that they need—that is, both customers who are disabled and customers who live in remote areas. As I have said to him, this is a commercial decision that has been taken by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Banks are closing branches—other banks are closing branches—because what they see is actually less use being made of those branches. As the right hon. Gentleman has been talking about matters financial, I am sorry that he was not able to stand up and welcome the fact that today’s trade figures for Scotland show that their biggest export market remains the rest of the United Kingdom.
I call Damian Green.
My right hon. Friend is right in drawing attention to the impact of infrastructure when it is developed in various parts of the UK. On the specific point of the lower Thames crossing, I know that is going to unlock opportunities and economic growth for the region and the country, and will offer better connections, new connections and better journeys. It is, of course, part of the biggest investment in England’s road network in a generation.
As my right hon. Friend knows, Highways England has announced the preferred route; it did that last year. I recognise this has raised some concerns in affected constituencies, but may I assure him and other Members that there are going to be further opportunities, for both those who support these proposals and those who do not, to give their views and to have their say? But he is absolutely right: new infrastructure developments such as this can make a huge impact not only on jobs during the development of that infrastructure, but on the economy, locally and nationally.
I have said this on many occasions and I am very happy to repeat it: leaving the European Union means that we will be leaving the single market. We will no longer be members of the single market or the customs union. We want to be able to sign and implement trade deals with other parts of the world, as part of an independent trade policy. We are looking forward to the negotiations for a bespoke deal—a comprehensive free trade agreement—between the UK and the European Union for the future. We will be looking for as tariff-free and frictionless a trade agreement as possible.
My hon. Friend has raised a very important subject. In July the Government initiated the national security capability review, in support of the ongoing implementation of the 2015 national security strategy and strategic defence and security review, to ensure that we do indeed have the capabilities, and the investment in those capabilities, that we need in our national security, and that that investment and those capabilities are as effective and joined up as possible.
I agreed the high-level findings of the review with ministerial colleagues at the National Security Council, and I have directed that the work should be finalised, with a view to publishing a report in late spring. It has been a significant piece of work and it will help to ensure that we have the right capabilities. As part of that, we recognise that more work is needed on defence and on modernising defence. We want to ensure that the defence budget is being spent intelligently and efficiently, and that we are investing in the capabilities we need to keep our nation safe. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will update the House in due course.
This is an important issue and obviously we need to look at it. Although, as the hon. Lady will know, crimes traditionally measured by the independent crime survey have dropped by well over one third since 2010, we need to consider the root causes of violence—particularly among young people, and especially knife crimes. The nature of crime is changing; it is important that we remain adaptable and resilient, but we need to understand that. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about youth violence and the causes of youth violence.
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about this event and the tragedy that happened. First, we should recognise that all those who deliver our ambulance services work hard and regularly go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure our safety, but concerns have been raised about the provision of services in the East of England Ambulance Service trust, including, obviously, this very, very worrying, tragic case.
As I said earlier in response to the Leader of the Opposition, we take these cases very seriously—any claims that patient safety has been put at risk are taken seriously. The Department of Health and Social Care has received assurances that these reports are being investigated by the trust, in conjunction with its commissioners, as a serious incident. This is also an issue that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Health has discussed with the chief executives of NHS England and NHS Improvement.
The hon. Lady raises an important matter. Over the past six or seven years a significant number of homes have met the decent homes standard, but the conditions in which people live is an important concern, and I will ask the Leader of the House to look at the issue that she has raised about her Bill.
Cumbria is celebrated internationally for its lakes and mountains, and it is known for nuclear excellence. This afternoon, Parliament hosts “A Taste of Cumbria”, showcasing our fine food and drink. May I extend a warm invitation to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Prime Minister, to pop along and join us to sample some of our finest fare?
I am afraid that my diary does not permit me to attend “A Taste of Cumbria” this afternoon, but if I can drop my hon. Friend a hint, I understand that there was a taste of Lincolnshire event recently, and my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) sent me some Lincolnshire products after the events. I am not hinting at anything, but—
I’ll pop along!
The whole House was saddened to hear of Baroness Jowell’s diagnosis, but I am sure it was encouraged by the positive approach that she has taken. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says that Baroness Jowell’s speech this morning was very moving. I am sure that everyone across the whole House sends her their very best wishes.
Cancer treatment is a priority for the Government, and we want to make sure that the best treatments are provided. We will consider investing in anything that improves that. We have accepted 96 recommendations in the NHS cancer strategy, but we need constantly to look at this. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is happy to meet the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and Baroness Jowell.
Tessa Jowell has been an outstanding public servant. I hope that the House understands if I say that in my 20 years here I have never met a more courteous or gracious Member of Parliament.
I call Mr John Hayes.
I am only just beginning, Mr Speaker.
The Prime Minister will know of the devastation, debt and despair caused by fixed-odds betting terminals, which are now widespread—a far cry from the charm of the bingo hall, the pools coupon or the style of the sport of kings. Given the fact that there is a review, will she meet me and others to discuss how the maximum bet on those terminals can be reduced, and will she take the chance simultaneously to plan a crackdown on online gambling sites that target young children? The stakes are too high to gamble with our children’s futures.
We are clear that the fixed odds betting terminals stakes will be cut to make sure that we have a safe and sustainable industry where vulnerable people and children are protected. As I suspect my right hon. Friend knows, the consultation that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched on this closed yesterday, so a final decision will be made in due course. He will know, with regard to the specific point about children—this is important—that there are in place controls to prevent children and young people from accessing online gambling. The Gambling Commission has asked the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board to examine the wider relationship between children and gambling. I think it is important, as we take these decisions, that we all recognise the potential threats and dangers, but that we ensure that we have the best information possible in order to be able to act.
I send my condolences—I am sure the whole House does—to Amber’s family on this terrible thing that has happened. Look, the smear test is hugely important. Sadly, what we see, even for those women who qualify today to have the smear test, is that too many women do not take it up. I know that it is not a comfortable thing to do, because I have it, as others do, but it is so important for women’s health. I first want to encourage women to actually have the smear test. Secondly, the hon. Lady raised an issue about the availability of that test. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to look at this issue. It is a question that has been raised before for those who are under the age of 25. Of course, action has been taken in terms of the vaccine that has been introduced for teenagers. There have been some questions about that—I have had people in my constituency raising questions about it. We need to address this issue in every way possible, so we will look at the question of the age qualification for the smear test. My overall message is, please, those who are called for a smear test, go and have it.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Bexley rugby club on its 60th anniversary and agree with me that the pursuit of sport is good for health and wellbeing?
I am happy to endorse what my right hon. Friend says about sport, and indeed to join him in congratulating Bexley rugby club on this significant anniversary. I am sure that over all those years it has given many young people and others an introduction to the joy of sport and the way that sport can be both good for the community and for society, and for the individuals, so I am happy to endorse his claim.
As the hon. Lady will know, we made changes to the operation of universal credit, which were announced in the Budget, including changes that mean that the availability of advance payments has increased and that the size of those advance payments has increased. But I am sure, if she would like to write in with the details of the case, that we can look at it and make sure that it is properly considered.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the Government are making further progress in reducing the deficit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be reckless to change course now in favour of a policy of renationalisation, which would burden taxpayers such as those in Erewash with an estimated bill of over £170 billion?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It has not been easy reducing the deficit in the way we have. We had to deal with the biggest deficit in our peacetime history, which was left to us by the Labour party, but by decisions the Government—[Interruption.] Yes, yes. Labour might not like hearing that, but it is what happened. It is by the hard work of the British people and by decisions the Government have taken that we have been able to reduce the deficit. Adding to it an extra £170 billion to meet the ideological desires of the Leader of the Opposition would saddle people up and down this country with higher debt, and ordinary people would pay the price.
The DWP does not give details of individuals with whom it deals, and that is absolutely right; what it does is ensure we have a welfare system that provides support to those who need it and increasingly encourages those who can to get into the workplace, because we continue to believe that work is the best route out of poverty.
In a December press release, the Bank of England described the UK’s financial system as both “a national asset” and “a global public good”. Does my right hon. Friend think it unreasonable that the UK financial services sector, which pays billions of pounds in taxes, wants to hear the Government’s ambition to ensure that the City of London remains a global pre-eminent financial centre, in the same way they set out their ambition for other sectors last summer?
I have said in this Chamber and outside that we retain the ambition of ensuring the City of London remains a global financial centre, and that is indeed what we are working on. I was very pleased to welcome a number of senior representatives from the financial services sector to No. 10 Downing Street only a few weeks ago and to sit down and talk to them about how to do exactly that. London’s place as a financial centre for the world is not just a benefit to the UK; it is a benefit to the global financial system and to the EU.
I believe that there is very strong cross-party support for the western rail link for Heathrow. The hon. Gentleman has expressed his support, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has also been supporting it. It would reduce journey times for passengers in the south-west and could support the Thames valley economy as well. I myself, as a Thames valley MP, have looked into it previously. Development funding has been committed for the project and the Department for Transport will provide further detail on the timing in due course.
I congratulate the Prime Minister and the parties in Northern Ireland on the resumption today of talks at Stormont. What more can be done to ensure that the Executive are restored and the nightmare of direct rule avoided?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people of Northern Ireland need strong devolved government and political leadership, and cannot continue to have their public services suffer from the lack of an Executive and Ministers to make key policy and budget decisions. We are determined to re-establish a fully functioning, inclusive devolved Administration that works for everyone in Northern Ireland. We believe that a basis for a deal exists, and that is why, as he has said, today my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has started a set of political talks to restore the Executive. I believe that this is very important, and I would strongly encourage all parties to come together and focus on the job of restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland.
I applaud all those who have given their time voluntarily and raised money through their activities across the board. The hon. Lady has given a specific example of the work of people in Newcastle. I commend people who raise money for causes, but, as she knows, I cannot discuss an individual case at the Dispatch Box. I think it important for us to have a system that works properly and fairly, and I am sure that if she wishes to raise the individual case with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, it will be looked into.
The Prime Minister will know that the welcome introduction of the national minimum wage has created an as yet unresolved difficulty for the care sector, specifically relating to 24-hour care for those with significant learning difficulties. The issue is connected with sleep-in shifts and money owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will she agree to meet me, and a number of concerned colleagues, so that we can discuss how we can best find a way out of the impasse?
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue that is of concern to a number of organisations and Members of Parliament, and I should be happy to meet her to discuss it. The Cabinet Office has been working with the relevant Department—now called the Department of Health and Social Care—to try to resolve it, and measures have been taken to defer the implementation of certain aspects. However, we continue to work on it, and are happy to look into it further.
No one has been charged over Poppi Worthington’s death, although the 13-month-old was probably anally penetrated in the hours before her death at home. Poppi was not known to social services, despite a staggeringly troubled family history. Will the Prime Minister respond to our cross-party calls for a public inquiry, so that we can learn lessons from this and make children safer throughout the country?
Everyone in the country who is aware of the horrific abuse that was carried out has been shocked and appalled by it, and, obviously, by the tragic circumstances of Poppi’s death. I am sure that all Members will join me in offering condolences.
I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service has announced that it is considering the coroner’s decision in liaison with the Cumbria constabulary. I think it right for us to allow that process to continue and to await the outcome before deciding whether any further action is needed. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I—along with, I think, all other Members—am well apprised of the significance of the issue and how appalling this tragedy was, and of the need for us to ensure not only that there is justice but that lessons are learnt.
Presidents Club Charity Dinner
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he thinks that it is appropriate that David Meller remain a non-executive director in the Department for Education following the revelations about the men only Presidents Club dinner.
Mr Speaker, I am sure you have seen the papers this morning. It has been reported that last Thursday, the Presidents Club—this is the first time I have heard of the club—[Interruption.] I am just saying, I had not heard of it before. This club hosted a charity dinner to raise money for causes such as Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. I understand from reports that there are allegations of inappropriate and lewd behaviour at this event.
It is quite extraordinary to me that, in the 21st century, allegations of this kind are still emerging. Women have the right to feel safe wherever they work, and the type of behaviour alleged to have occurred is completely unacceptable. I have recently taken on ministerial responsibility for the board of the Department for Education and was previously Minister for Women. As hon. Members will know, David Meller has been a non-executive board member in the Department for Education and chair of the apprenticeship delivery board. The Government expect board members to adhere to the code of conduct for board members of public bodies, which clearly states that they should adhere to the seven principles of public life.
David Meller is stepping down as a non-executive board member for the Department for Education and as a member of the apprenticeship delivery board. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely clear that that is the right thing to do. In case right hon. and hon. Members or you, Mr Speaker, are in any doubt, the event was absolutely nothing to do with the Department for Education.
I thank the Minister and welcome David Meller standing down. The undercover report in the Financial Times about the event organised by the charitable trust that David Meller chairs tells more than just an alarming story. I notice that the organisation wants to put the blame on the individual members, but what actually happened is that women were bought as bait for men—rich men—not a mile from where we stand, as if that is acceptable behaviour. It is totally unacceptable.
The Department for Education recently published a response to the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment in schools, saying:
“The scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools set out by the inquiry shines a light on a worrying picture: sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life…and a prevailing culture in schools which seemingly condones sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’. It is clear that action is needed”.
Those are the words of the Department. Does the Minister think that one of the junior Ministers in that Department attending that event is appropriate? Did that Minister—the Minister for children and families—raise concerns with the Department about David Meller and his conduct after he realised what was going on at the event? What is the Department going to do to make sure that a message is sent that this “lads culture” has no place in our Department for Education and it has no place in our country?
My hon. Friend raises a number of important issues, not least sexual abuse and harassment in schools, and that is where the sort of culture that ends up at a dinner like last night’s starts. Unless we get it right in schools, it will simply feed through to the rest. The Department for Education is clear that this is unacceptable right from the word go. All Departments and public bodies need to ensure that this sort of behaviour is not going on anywhere; it cannot be tolerated. This is not just about forcing people to do the right thing; it is about changing attitudes. The reports of women being bought and sold are extraordinary. I contributed to a WhatsApp group this morning and said that words failed me. I am quite old—I was born in 1955—and as I have said at the Dispatch Box before, I thought that things had changed. However, it is absolutely clear that things have not changed. I think that there is an association between wealthy people and this sort of behaviour, and we have to send a clear message that it is unacceptable.
As a mother of three young women who are the same age as the hostesses who attended this function, I can only describe my initial response as emotional and like a lioness. I immediately put myself in the position of it having been one of my daughters. That must be the reaction of every woman and every mother across the country—[Hon. Members: “And fathers!”] And fathers, too. My apologies. I am a single parent; I never think of fathers. I support the Minister in her response. It was not just Conservative men at that dinner; they were from all political denominations. The problem is with the dinner itself, and the fact that there are men who attend those dinners and think that that is appropriate. One of the prizes on the brochure was plastic surgery to
“add spice to your wife”.
It is appalling that this continues, and I support the Minister in her response. We all have a duty to ensure that these dinners never happen again.
My hon. Friend is a lioness in so many ways. I also speak as the mother of a daughter, and this can become very personal. I have also been the Deputy Chief Whip, and to some extent had duties and responsibilities towards women in the House. This is an issue on which women across the House combine. We have to send out a clear message that this is unacceptable. People need to know where the line is, because there is a line. This is about changing attitudes.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this urgent question. I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place and thank the Minister for her comments today. I hope that the Secretary of State is as disappointed as I am that a board member and a Minister in his Department attended an event that described itself as
“the most un-PC event of the year”.
Let us be clear about what that meant. It meant an event where women were invited not as guests but as objects for rich and powerful men. They had to act as hostesses and were forced to wear revealing clothes. A number have reported that they were groped and sexually harassed. Will the Secretary of State make it clear that, like me, he believes those women and that the reported events were totally unacceptable?
I welcome the Minister’s comment that organising this kind of event should not be acceptable for any official, let alone a member of the board of the Department. I also welcome the fact that David Meller is standing down. He should not have any other role in education. Will the Secretary of State also investigate the attendance at the event of the Minister for children? Can he confirm reports that the Minister attended previous events and was invited personally by David Meller this year? His Department is responsible for safeguarding millions of children, for caring for thousands of victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse, for tackling sexual harassment and violence in our schools, colleges and universities and for educating another generation of girls and boys. Is it not time that it started leading by example?
I will lead by example. I have spoken to the Secretary of State this morning, and I know that he is equally appalled by the reports of this event. I have also spoken to my fellow Minister in the Department. He did not stay at the event long—[Interruption.]
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister found the event extremely uncomfortable. He left, and he was truly shocked by the reports that have emerged. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) said, this is an event that is attended by men of various party political allegiances—[Interruption.] Sadly, they do not know any better, and that is the tragedy—[Interruption.] That is the tragedy. Opposition Members are right to feel appalled. Believe you me, I also feel appalled. It is a tragedy that they do not know where the line should be and that they attended these events.
I congratulate the Minister on the clarity and swiftness of her response—[Interruption.]
In this centenary year of suffrage, is this not an opportunity for all female parliamentarians to unite and send a clear message on behalf of all women in this country that this behaviour is no longer acceptable?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In this centenary year, there is an important opportunity for women not just in this House but around the country —but particularly here—to join together and send out the message that this has to change. If there are men who do not understand what precisely it is that needs to change, they can come and talk to me and I will tell them.
Obviously, the Minister has been fairly robust in the comments she has made so far, but she said that those men “do not know where the line should be”. This event was billed as
“the most un-PC event of the year”,
so they clearly do know where the line should be, and they decided to cross it. We have heard reports of toilets being monitored and of women who were lingering too long in them being called out and led back to the ballroom. That is not sexism; that is slavery. It is appalling. I was a teacher for 20 years, and I had occasion to deal with sexism, but never on this scale or to this degree. Back in October, the previous Secretary of State for Education said that
“sexist…language must have no place in our society, and parliamentarians of all parties have a duty to stamp out this sort of behaviour wherever we encounter it”.
We might think that everyone agreed with that statement, but we need to ask ourselves whether the current Secretary of State and the Government really do agree with it. This comes at the start of what we were told would be a radical shake-up of the culture of sexual harassment—
Order. I recognise the extreme sensitivity of this subject, and I respect the hon. Lady and want to hear what she has to say, but she has now exceeded her time. She has given us a real sense of her anger, and I ask her now to put her question, please.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will put a couple of questions. First, what message does this send to our young people, and how are we giving our teachers the ability to fight sexism when the Government are appointing such people to prominent roles? I also ask the Minister, what screening is being carried out of people who are being appointed to all Departments?
I thank the hon. Lady, but I would just like to say that I do not think my attitude towards this issue and many others affecting women could be described as “fairly robust”. I am extremely robust and extremely radical. She made a point about where the line should be drawn. I have not seen how the event was billed, but the people who attended it clearly did not know where the line was. We need to make it clear where it is—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members would listen for a minute, I would just like to say that this is not about this Government. I will answer the points about due diligence and governance, but this is an issue for women that goes right across the political spectrum. This is not just about this Government or Conservative Members; this happens everywhere. If hon. Members do not think that it happens everywhere, they will be in for shock. The Government do understand, and there is no doubt that measures will be put in place so that proper due diligence is done. We cannot do that just once, however; we have to look at people’s behaviour continually. We cannot just do it as a one-off and leave it at that.
I thank the Minister for her strong condemnation of this event. Does she share my disgust for the women who put themselves in a position of leadership and groomed and pimped the young ladies involved? Does she agree that their actions are also abhorrent?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that related but important issue. There were women in leadership roles who painted these women, and it does not fall far short of payment for sex. It is shocking that such women were probably encouraging other women into these sort of jobs.
Is the Minister aware that, according to the Financial Times, the Presidents Club actually includes the following disclaimer in its corporate literature for the event? It states:
“The Presidents Club shall accept no responsibility and shall not be held liable for any actions of its members, staff or event attendees that amount to harassment.”
The fact that it tried to include that disclaimer in the first place shows how shocking things are. It was trying to disclaim any responsibility for what happened. The organisers chose to make it a men-only event. They chose to treat the hostesses in this way, making them parade across the stage in front of the men, making them wear black skimpy outfits and specifying the colour of their underwear. They chose to ask them to drink before the event. Does the Minister agree that all the organisers, including the Presidents Club and all the private companies involved in organising the event, should be investigated for breaches of the law and charity rules?
The right hon. Lady is obviously very angry about this, and her report—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, do I look like somebody who is not angry? Do I look like somebody who is in any way excusing this sort of behaviour? I am not. I am absolutely shocked by the Presidents Club. If the organisers were trying to deny responsibility in their literature, perhaps they will wake up at the end of this urgent question and realise that they now do have some responsibility. Things are now out in the public domain, and Members’ contributions today will have added to that. It is shocking, but do not cry at me; I feel as appalled as all Opposition Members.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement today. She has done absolutely the right thing. I share everybody’s anger, disgust and, frankly, astonishment that an event of this nature can even have taken place. Does she think that possibly one of the best things that we could do is to ensure that every single person at that dinner who runs a big business in our country damn well gets their gender pay gap data published?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Never miss an opportunity, I say, to mention the gender pay gap. She is absolutely right that every single business and organisation that attended that dinner should report that data at least by the end of this week.
The Fawcett Society recently published a report stating that violence and harassment against women was endemic in our country, with two thirds of women over 16 reporting that they have suffered sexual harassment. Does the Minister note that the employment contracts and notes for the women attending the event as hostesses asked them to be “tall, thin and pretty” and that they had to deal with what was expected to be harassment? That is surely against the law. Will she look at employment law protections and make it certain that the law is enforced, that the Equality and Human Rights Commission looks at the event and that we get some protection for vulnerable women?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I will certainly ensure that the situation is looked at with regard to employment law. I commend the Fawcett Society, which does brilliant cross-party work to further women’s rights and women’s political representation. But clearly—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks me from a sedentary position whether these women were self-employed. I do not know anything about the Presidents Club—[Interruption.] Let me finish. I know nothing about the Presidents Club, but we will clearly look into it, particularly if there is a suggestion that the law was broken. If any hon. Member knows of something that they think should be investigated, it would probably be helpful if they used me as a conduit and sent me their emails. I will investigate and ensure that, if any law has been broken, the full force of the law will come down on those who have broken it.
Order. I selected this urgent question because I regard it as a matter of the utmost importance, and I would like to accommodate every colleague who wants to contribute. I ask colleagues to bear in mind that there is a ten-minute rule motion to follow and two Opposition day debates, the first of which is particularly heavily subscribed. If we can have brief questions and brief replies, that would be helpful, but I do want colleagues to be heard.
I warmly welcome the Minister’s response and the resignation of the individual concerned. Does the Minister agree that there is much cross-party work that we could do to ensure that such events have no place in our society and that such behaviour is condemned?
“Cross-party” is absolutely the phrase to use, and perhaps that work will start from today.
The outstanding journalism of Madison Marriage at the Financial Times shines a spotlight on a real problem in our society. Some men, especially the rich and powerful, feel entitled to women, view their bodies as playthings and think that the lecherous pawing and groping of women is acceptable behaviour. That a charity is prepared to facilitate that behaviour as long as wealthy men are opening their chequebooks beggars belief. I am glad that David Meller has stepped down from the board of the Department for Education—perhaps he was encouraged to do so—but does the Minister agree that the Charity Commission urgently needs to investigate the failure of the trustees of this charity to discharge their duties to protect health and safety and the reputation of the charity?
The hon. Lady mentions rich entitled men, but I will also mention powerful entitled men because this is not just about the rich. I gather that Great Ormond Street Hospital is not going to take the money that was raised by the event, which is a start, and I also gather that the hon. Lady has raised her point with the Charity Commission.
I thank the Minister for her robust response, which is unequivocally supported by Conservative Members. The businesses involved need to be hit in the pocket. What more can the Minister do to send out a clear message that this culture is unacceptable and to damage their profits?
Today’s contributions from all around the House should send an important message to businesses that such behaviour is unacceptable, but this does not just happen at big charity events. We have heard about sexual abuse and harassment in this House but, believe you me, it is also going on in the workplaces of businesses up and down the country.
I suggest to the Minister that this is more than a collective misjudgment; it is a deliberate sticking up of two fingers to those who are perceived to be part of the PC culture. One way in which her Department could root out this behaviour is to expedite the introduction of compulsory personal, social, health and economic education in our schools, so that at least the next generation of men will know that it is totally unacceptable.
Sex and relationships education is now compulsory. The hon. Lady raises an important point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) also raised. What really matters is that we breed a new generation of young people who understand where the boundaries lie. What has gone so terribly wrong that we have bred young men—I suggest that a lot of people at the event were perhaps 20 or maybe even 30 years younger than me—who think that this sort of thing is acceptable?
I thank the Minister for her considered response. However, it is frankly not good enough to say that the Minister for children and families stayed a short time, which is a very subjective term—it might be an hour to some and three hours to others. Can she advise whether that same Minister reported back after he had seen, at worst, illegal or, at best, unsavoury activities during that event?
The hon. Lady will have to take me as vouching for the Minister for children and families. I know he felt deeply uncomfortable. I would be surprised if he had seen all the publicity material for the event, but I know he felt very, very uncomfortable. The hon. Lady will have to believe me that, from his demeanour this morning, the Minister for children and families was truly shocked.
I was profoundly shocked by the reports of what happened at the event organised by the Presidents Club, and I am pleased that the Minister has given such a robust condemnation of the event. Although she has been very loyal to her ministerial colleague, who reportedly did not stay for any long period of time, it is also reported that the same hon. Gentleman attended the Presidents Club event on a previous occasion. I have no idea whether that is true, but that is what has been reported. If that is the case, should he not consider his position?
I have no idea whether the Minister for children and families has attended the event before, but I know that senior Members on both sides of the House have attended this event. Let us hope that this urgent question draws a line in the sand and demonstrates to hon. Members that they should think twice about attending any event like this ever again.
With 64% of teachers in mixed secondary schools telling UK Feminista that they hear sexist language on a weekly basis, what message does the Minister think the attendance of the new Minister for children and families at this event sends to those teachers who are trying to combat sexism in their classrooms? And what action, not words, will the Department take to address it?
I know the Secretary of State will want to look at all aspects of this, not least the due diligence. The hon. Lady is right, but hearing sexist language in the playground and in schools is just the tip of the iceberg. The stories of sexual abuse, rape and harassment happening in some of our schools are shocking.
In light of the fact that a departmental non-executive director and a Minister attended this despicable event, does the Minister agree that it may be time for a review of the ministerial code of conduct and of the seven principles of public life to ensure that they reflect the commitment to the standards of equality and decency that we expect from our public servants? That will set an example and send a message to society as a whole.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is looking at a number of issues, and I believe the code of conduct is being reviewed. The tragedy is that we should not need a code of conduct, but we clearly do. It is a tragedy that we need it. Why do people need to be told to behave appropriately? Why do they need to be told not to use sexist or racist language? Why do they need to be told where the boundaries are? People clearly do, and that is the sadness of it. I am robust and angry, but a little bit of me is also extremely sad.
As a former Education Minister, I know jolly well that civil servants brief Ministers on what events are in their diary and give them information. I have a lot of time for the Minister. Can she find out exactly what was said to the Minister for children and families about attending the event last week?
The Minister for children and families did not attend in any official capacity. I understand that he attended not as a Minister, but as a private individual.
The Financial Times reports that lot four of the charity auction last week included lunch with the Foreign Secretary. Has the Minister spoken to him? Does she know whether the lunch is still going ahead? What message does it send out to the world that our Foreign Secretary endorses such an event?
I make it absolutely clear that the Foreign Secretary knew nothing of his inclusion in any auction, and he in no way endorsed the event.
It is absolutely clear from the Financial Times report that the women were employed to be harassed. They were forced to sign a disclaimer beforehand that they were not given time to read. Whatever the Minister’s personal views, will she take away the message from this House that we do not have confidence in the Minister for children and families, who attended the event and who is meant to be in charge of child protection?
Yes, I think they were employed to be a great deal more than harassed. We will look at all aspects of this in relation to employment law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) said earlier, this brings into sharp light the women leaders—the people who run the businesses that employed these young women. We need to look at it all, and we will take robust action. Have no fear about that.
As a former teacher, I woke up this morning thinking, “What on earth will my former students be thinking this morning about the state of the world?” It is absolutely disgusting. I press the Minister on the point already made about bringing sex and relationships education into schools for the upcoming academic year. Sex and relationships education has never been more needed. Please can we have it sooner rather than later?
We have an ongoing call for evidence. [Interruption.] I think it is extremely important to hear the views of young people themselves, because they are very aware of what sort of relationship and sex education is needed. There is no doubt that the Department will make sure these guidelines are out as soon as possible, because there is clearly an urgent need. It is absolutely right that we hear the views of young people on how they feel this should be delivered.
What talks does the Minister intend to have with the Financial Times? This was not a one-off incident, and the Financial Times must have had some suspicions that something like this was going to happen. How many times has it happened before?
That is a very good question. It is important to talk to journalists about this event and about whether they know of any others, how they found out about it, et cetera, particularly if we want to pursue the issues that have been raised about a possible breach of employment law.
It seems to me that the Minister for children and families has attended this event and failed to report his concerns about its nature. Will the right hon. Lady please inquire with him as to why he did not submit a report, and will she urge him to do so even at this late stage?
The Minister for children and families submitted a report to me first thing this morning, at the earliest opportunity.
The Minister talks about the importance of talking to young people. I am sure that all Members here spend time talking to young people, and I have been shocked, in my six months of being an MP, at the young girls who have an expectation that it is normal to sleep with their boyfriend’s friends, carry their boyfriend’s knives and behave in a certain way; and language is so important, as well as words. If it transpires that the Minister did not report his concerns, and that he attended the event on previous occasions, it is obvious that he needs to resign. Our women, our young girls are too important to be getting this kind of message from our leaders and to think that it is acceptable.
Language is critical because language says more than the words that are said, because it describes underlying attitudes. With relationship and sex education in schools, I think we can make young people understand what attitudes lie behind the words that they use.
These were crimes against women, but I hope the Minister will also agree that these were crimes against a decent society, and that plenty of men share my bewilderment and revulsion at what has gone on. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) the Minister offered to be a conduit, so would she possibly be a conduit to Home Office Ministers, who might then refer the matter on to the Metropolitan police for consideration of crimes such as indecent exposure and sexual assault?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, because it is important that we all recognise that men can be very powerful agents for change, at all levels, concerning the abuse of women. The appropriate authorities will look at all of this. Obviously, today’s exchanges in the Chamber will be read by Home Office Ministers, and I know they will take this matter very seriously; I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance of that.
What can I say? It is an absolutely appalling event. It objectified women, undermines the steps we have taken towards equality and perpetuates fundamentally abuse in society. When it comes to the Minister, I have to say I believe it is absolutely incongruous to be working seriously on sexual harassment in Parliament and beyond whilst attending this type of event.
I will finish where I started, and that is to say that I share the hon. Lady’s views. Words absolutely failed me when I heard reports of this event.
Points of Order
A slew of points of order. I call Tonia Antoniazzi.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on how to impress upon the Prime Minister her duty to respond to the First Minister Carwyn Jones’s offer of financial help for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.
The hon. Lady has transmitted her opinion on this matter through the attempted route of a bogus, albeit mildly ingenious, point of order. I dare say the Prime Minister will learn of what the hon. Lady has said, and it is up to the Prime Minister to decide by what means, and when, to respond.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Pursuant to the urgent question that was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills has answered very competently on the issues for the Department, but a number of issues are still outstanding regarding the conduct of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and it would be wrong for the right hon. Lady to try to answer on that. Will you suggest to me, Mr Speaker, how we may be able to get those answers about the Minister’s personal conduct in relation to this event, and how that may be tabled in this House so that we can all see whether he is fit for office?
It is open to the hon. Gentleman to table questions. The Minister, very fairly, pointed out that the Under-Secretary of State had not attended in an official capacity. However, the Under-Secretary of State is a Minister, and it is perfectly within the wit and sagacity of the hon. Gentleman to table questions to him. That is one route open to him. If he wants to raise the matter in other ways, I am sure he can consult his colleagues and decide whether, and if so how, to do so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday evening, it was confirmed by No. 10 that Defence would be coming out with a national capability review, and that there would be a statement in the House today from the Defence Secretary. We were told this morning in the armed forces debate in Westminster Hall that there would be no such statement. It now appears to be back on. Can you help us cut through the Government confusion and confirm whether or not there will be a statement today on the armed forces defence cuts?
I have received no notification of any ministerial statement on that matter taking place today. Whether there is a plan for a written ministerial statement, by which I would be surprised, I do not know, but I can certainly confirm that I have received no indication at all that there is to be an oral statement, and if there were to be an oral statement today, I think I can safely say that I would now be aware of it. But one of those to whom I look for worldly wisdom and procedural sagacity is enthusiastically waving a paper at me, though sadly, from the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, on this occasion—perhaps correctly—the inscribed word consists of two letters, of which the first is N and the second of which is O.
What I would say further to the hon. Gentleman—I do not scoff at the issue he has raised, which is an issue of great importance to Members in all parts of the House—is that I am sure other Members will be pursuing this matter. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee, is extremely well known to me, and he is as persistent a colleague as I know and takes a great interest in this matter. I rather imagine that if he is discontented about it, or simply in eager pursuit of ministerial answers, he will seek to ensure that the attention of the House is focused on it. So I think the hon. Gentleman will not be alone or isolated in his interest, and in his determination that this matter be aired sooner rather than later.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During a Westminster Hall debate I led last Wednesday, on drug consumption rooms, the Minister made some comments that must be queried for their validity. First, the Minister said:
“In terms of Spain, the evidence I am given by those who sit behind me is that there is one room open in Catalonia for one hour a day from Monday to Friday.”
However, according to the House of Commons Library briefing that I was given, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction stated that in February 2017 there were 13 in seven cities in Spain. The Minister also said:
“Canada has kept its provider, Insite, not because of the evidence that the services provided by Insite work, but because the users of Insite brought two court actions”—[Official Report, 17 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 406-407.]
However, the Canadian Supreme Court said that
“during its eight years of operation, Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada”.
Plainly, the Minister was inadvertently misrepresenting the facts on these two issues. Could you, Mr Speaker, indicate how I could get the Minister to set the record straight?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of this point of order. He will not, I imagine, be astonished to hear that I do not regard this as a point of order for the Chair, and I will happily explain why.
Each Member of this House is responsible for his or her contributions to debates, and these contributions are frequently open to interpretation and differences of opinion. In the spirit of transparency, I will say to the hon. Gentleman that I have heard detailed representations from the Minister concerned. The Minister is satisfied in her own mind that she has not misled anyone. There is obviously a genuine difference of opinion about this matter. The hon. Gentleman has expressed himself with his usual eloquence and alacrity, but I know that he will not expect me to adjudicate on this matter between him and the hon. Lady. We will leave it there for now, but he has ventilated his concern with some force.
If there are no further points of order, perhaps we can now move to the 10-minute rule motion.
Multi-employer Pension Schemes
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about multi-employer pension schemes, including provision for the protection of unincorporated businesses, such as plumbing businesses, from certain multi-employer pension scheme liabilities; and for connected purposes.
I must first declare an interest. My dad was a plumber and he currently receives a pension from the Plumbing and Mechanical Services (UK) Industry Pension Scheme, hereafter known as “the scheme”. That is a multi-employer pension scheme, which has potential debt issues that arise from Government legislation, and it is my desire to correct some wrongs via this proposed ten-minute rule Bill.
Let me be clear: my dad receiving a pension from the scheme is completely separate from my motives in advancing this Bill, and indeed when I first became aware of the issues, I did not know the source of his pension. However, that actually allows me to see the rationale behind the existing legislation and the flaws in it from both an employee’s and an employer’s perspective.
Workers like my dad, working in all kinds of weather, up roofs and under floors, and doing overtime at weekends and nights to get more money, deserve to be able to retire on a decent pension. They have worked hard for that all their lives, and some have worked too hard to be able to enjoy a long, happy retirement. That was why the existing scheme was set up in 1975.
The scheme is run by a trustee company, controlled by three organisations: the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation, the Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors and Unite the union. The nominated directors or trustees represent both employers and employees. The issue that concerns them all is legislation that stems mainly from the Pensions Act 1995, which came into being some 20 years after the scheme got up and running. That legislation was well meant, aiming to ensure that multi-employer schemes remain solvent and able to pay pensions due to former employees. Nobody can argue against that sound principle, but the legislation also incorporated the law of unintended consequences.
From 1995 until further changes in 2005, the fund was assessed on a minimum funding basis. When valued like that, the scheme was deemed to be fully funded, so any employer leaving the scheme did so without detriment to the overall scheme and employers remaining in the scheme. However, in 2005 the assessment of such schemes was altered to a buy-out basis: if the scheme were to close down, what would be the estimated cost for an insurance company to pick up the liabilities in the form of annuities? That is where the problems began.
That process can be up to three times more expensive in its valuations, and it has been applied retrospectively, so companies that previously left the scheme in good faith and did not have to pay any shortfall—because there was not one—are now deemed to have created a debt for the scheme. That debt cannot be recovered, so it is passed on to the remaining employers. The same applies to companies that become insolvent. Those accrued debts are known as orphan liabilities. Any company that now leaves the scheme triggers a section 75 debt, which attributes orphan liabilities into the mix.
Besides leaving the scheme, there are other ways of triggering a section 75 debt, such as no longer having an employee enrolled in the scheme, a change in ownership and changing from unincorporated status. In fact, some employers have inadvertently triggered the section 75 debt process through such actions, not realising what the outcome would be.
Although an accurate way of assessing a debt share under section 75 rules has yet to be formally agreed, estimates to date provide ridiculous sums of several hundred thousand pounds—and, in some cases, more than £1 million. That is completely unsustainable and, if put into practice, will bankrupt several individuals. That in turn will create a domino effect, increasing debts on remaining scheme members until the whole thing collapses. Jobs and apprenticeships will be lost, and individuals’ and families’ lives will be completely ruined.
I mentioned my dad as a hard-working employee. Employers are also hard-working, with many doing manual work while running their own companies, working hard to create an asset that they can either sell or pass on as a legacy to a family member. Yet, because of the debt issue, those companies are now effectively worthless and cannot be sold. That happened to a company in my constituency, which closed down before Christmas because a buyer could not be found. I also know an employer who works with his son. He is approaching 70, but he still has to work—he cannot retire and pass the company on, because of the debt issue. Those are responsible employers, trying to do the right thing by their employees. It is ironic that the Government have now made it compulsory for all companies to enrol their employees into a pension fund, yet the guys who did that many years ago now feel penalised for having done so.
It feels like Governments have buried their heads in the sand, but it does not have to be that way. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) raised such concerns in a Westminster Hall debate in October 2016, and the then Pensions Minister pledged to do work on the issue. Of course, Pensions Ministers come and go, and now others have to pick up the baton.
A couple of weeks ago, the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) brought about an Adjournment debate on this issue, and she was willing to sponsor the Bill. She raised several possible solutions, which appeared to be dismissed by the Minister. I intend to return to some of those and rebut the Minister’s answers.
As I come to solutions, let us remember that, using conservative estimates, the last actuarial valuation in 2014 said the scheme was fully-funded, based on technical provisions. It therefore makes sense to move away from the buy-out assessment, which is not implemented even if an employer makes a debt contribution. If an employer pays a debt, in theory that still does not protect its own workers, because the money goes into the general pot. That said, the reality is that allowing a change to the method of evaluation will allow the scheme to continue to function and honour its payouts.
Another ask is that orphaned liabilities are taken out of debt calculations. Why should current employers pay for historic debts applied retrospectively? Additionally, the Pension Protection Fund should be the guarantor of last resort for orphaned liabilities. It is hoped that such a guarantee would not be instigated, but it is the correct measure. We are currently in the crazy position of Carillion having created a pensions black hole while paying top staff handsomely, with the PPF picking up the slack. However, the Government are unwilling to do the same for the plumbing pensions. Carillion will make more firms insolvent, putting further liabilities on to the pension scheme, yet the Government are stepping in to help the Carillion pensioners but not the plumbers.
I also suggest that if the PPF has to step in for orphaned debts, in reality the whole scheme will have failed anyway. The Minister stated that using the PPF in such a way would be unfair to payers of the PPF levy. However, the plumbing pension fund is in fact a levy payer, so that argument falls down there.
We must also put legislation in place to allow unincorporated businesses to change, to protect them from unlimited liability. They must be able to incorporate without triggering a section 75 debt. The Minister claimed that that is possible under existing legislation, but it is not as straightforward as he made out. A number of exemptions act as barriers, with the main one being the funding test from the flexible apportionment arrangement. They must be removed, and my Bill aims to do that. The Minister needs to understand that that option is available only to employers currently participating in the scheme and not those who have left or are no longer trading. That is why the other measures I have outlined are also critical.
As the Government have changed legislation to ensure that all employees are required to have some form of pension, we have a duty to remove any anomalies from existing schemes that employers have paid into in good faith. It is an act of folly to allow a fully funded scheme to collapse, risking jobs, succession planning and even family homes. That is why I will pursue the Bill, which has the support of six political parties. I will also happily take any recommendations from the Government’s White Paper in due course.
It has been argued that the plumbers’ pension scheme cannot be treated differently. I would say it is unique, and it must be treated differently if need be. I will pursue this to the bitter end.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alan Brown, Pete Wishart, Deidre Brock, Patricia Gibson, Gavin Newlands, Jim Shannon, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Mr Jim Cunningham, Sir Peter Bottomley, Peter Aldous, Stephen Kerr and Hywel Williams present the Bill.
Alan Brown accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed (Bill 156).
[8th Allotted Day]
Refugees and Human Rights
I beg to move,
That this House believes that conflict resolution, climate change and the protection of human rights should be at the heart of UK foreign policy and that effective action should be taken to alleviate the refugee crisis and calls on the Government to lead international efforts through the United Nations and other international organisations to ensure that human rights are protected and upheld around the world.
We always welcome the wisdom of the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on these issues, but it is a great shame that although the Foreign Secretary has had time over the past week to act as Chancellor, as Health Secretary, and even as underwater construction engineer, he is not able to do his day job today. We hope that wherever he is heading on his travels, he is accorded rather more of a hearing than the Cabinet gave him yesterday.
The motion might be familiar to some, as it mirrors the words Labour used in our manifesto last June, in which we set out how we would tackle the causes of the refugee crisis—because some of us believe in our election promises. There is one more difference between our manifesto and the Government’s. No, it is not that ours was costed, nor that it was popular: it is that not a single one of the 25 countries that I will talk about in this speech was mentioned even once in the international section of the Tory manifesto last June—with, of course, one glaring exception: the United States.
We may differ in our attitudes towards the American leadership, but I am sure that Conservative Members would agree with me on some of the great figures of America’s past. It is fitting that this debate takes place 25 years to the day since we lost Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who, over six decades, helped to dismantle legal discrimination in America and to put human rights at the heart of its jurisprudence. It is worth remembering that his legendary legal career almost never began. As a young man, he only persuaded his grandmother to let him study law on the condition that he also learned to cook. She thought that that was a better guarantee of long-term employment. I wish someone had given me that advice—not that I would have changed my career, but I would at least be able to cook a proper roast dinner, like my nan could.
Among the many other great pieces of advice that Thurgood Marshall left the world are these words, which stand at the core of this debate:
“The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”
That measure is similar to the Leader of the Opposition’s when he said in Geneva last month that the refugee crisis is one of
“the biggest moral tests of our time”.
Let us be clear: as a country, our greatness is currently being tested, but not all will agree with Justice Marshall or the Leader of the Opposition about the right answer. There will be those who say that amid grave economic uncertainty and domestic pressures, we need to focus on our own finances and public services, not on showing compassion to those in need elsewhere; there will be those who say that if we need global alliances to help to preserve trade and investment, that must come ahead of other considerations, including human rights; and there will be those who say that we have enough on our plate trying to manage Brexit, and that the rest of the world’s problems can be left to the rest of the world. But they could not be more wrong.
Our global leadership is needed now more than ever, not least because the five challenges that currently leave 65 million people in our world internally displaced or as refugees are getting only worse. Those challenges are: first, the state-led violence faced by minority groups in places such as Myanmar; secondly, the seemingly intractable wars in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere; thirdly, the cycles of division and violence in which Israel, Palestine and others are trapped; fourthly, the political instability that faces post-conflict countries such as Lebanon; and fifthly, the ever more stark realities of climate change.
Those five challenges may vary, but they all lead to one crisis: millions of vulnerable civilians, many of them children, left in desperate humanitarian need, either trapped, praying that relief and protection will come to them, or fleeing in the hope that they will find it elsewhere. Make no mistake: in the coming years those challenges will test the limit of our resources, the depths of our compassion, the strength of our global leadership and, ultimately, the greatness of our country.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that one of the really big tests relates to our international agencies, particularly the United Nations, and the political paralysis that results from the lack of commitment from Russia, China and the United States? We have to get that commitment back. If we are going to lead, Britain has to make the United Nations central to the solution to the problems my right hon. Friend is outlining.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will develop those arguments later and look forward to listening to his speech, if he gets an opportunity to be heard.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise the work of the International Organization for Migration, a key UN agency leading the effort to provide solutions to the refugee crisis? Will she also take this opportunity to urge the Government, and particularly the Department for International Development, to increase funding for that key UN agency?
Particularly given its current role in Bangladesh, because of the distress of the Rohingya refugees, it is clearly important to put renewed focus on that organisation. It is also unfortunate that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is not given a greater role in Bangladesh.
In my speech, I shall talk about each of those five challenges and the countries they affect—countries where the humanitarian crisis is clear and the need for global leadership is clear, but where, at present, the Government’s response is anything but.
I have not heard much in what the right hon. Lady has said with which I disagree. The difficulty as I see it is how we use the UN when Russia and China block any attempt to move forward. Of course, Russia and China are also known for using international aid as, effectively, a loss-leader for their exports, rather than in the way we use it.
The right hon. Gentleman advises the House simply to give up. We do not give up. We must work in a multilateral way, within the United Nations, and fight our corner. We should be a force for good. We should not allow the difficulties that we face make us say that it is all too hard and that we should simply walk away.
Let me make some progress. There no shortage of state persecution in our world, whether it is done by states such as Russia and Iran, which the Government rightly criticise, or those such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, whose abuses they choose to ignore. As we saw in Darfur exactly 15 years ago, when the state turns an entire group of people—even the children and the elderly—into military targets, it leaves families with an impossible choice: they must risk their lives by staying put, or risk their lives by fleeing. That is exactly what we have seen in Myanmar.
No one present needs any reminding of the horrors and hardship that the Rohingya have faced ever since the attacks in August. No one needs any telling of the desperate humanitarian situation in the camps on the Bangladesh border. No one needs any warning of the dangers of the proposed repatriation of the Rohingya. What we need to know is what action our Government are actually taking—not just to alleviate the situation, but to resolve it.
My right hon. Friend will, like me, be disappointed to hear that the situation in Darfur is worse today than it was 15 years ago. There is more conflict there but, because of other conflicts in the world, it has sadly gone off the front pages. Will she do what she can to help the bedevilled people of Sudan and South Sudan, who have known nothing but conflict for the past 40 years?
My hon. Friend, having visited the region himself, is a great expert in that area. He echoes many of the things that the shadow Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), has been telling us. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) will sum up the debate, focusing particularly on the humanitarian situation in Africa.
We know that Myanmar simply will not act without external pressure—not on consent for repatriation, and not on the guarantees the Rohingya need regarding their future security, citizenship and economic viability. Will the Minister, finally, use our role as the UN penholder on this issue to submit a Security Council resolution to ensure legally binding guarantees on and international monitoring of all these issues? Until we get those guarantees, will he urge India and Japan to withdraw their offer to fund the planned repatriation?
As we work for the future protection of the Rohingya, we cannot forget those who have already suffered and died, so let me ask the Minister this as well: is it still the case that only two of the Government’s 70 experts on international sexual violence have so far been deployed in the region, despite the vast scale of crimes that have occurred? Will he make it clear that Myanmar must allow the UN special rapporteur on human rights to carry out her investigation unobstructed, or Myanmar risks once more being a pariah state and being pushed out into the cold?
The second challenge is about the countries locked in intractable conflicts, leaving millions of innocent civilians internally displaced or as refugees. I turn to Yemen. More than 5,000 children have now been killed or injured since the war began—five children every single day. Hundreds of children are now suffering with malnutrition, cholera and diphtheria. I learned only recently what diphtheria really meant. For me, it was just about my children being injected when they were young. Diphtheria is called the strangling disease: it strangles babies. It is now stalking Yemen, and 2 million children are now receiving no schooling at all.
UNICEF usually says that such and such percentage of children require support, but last week it was clear that almost every single child in Yemen now needs humanitarian aid. Resolving this situation could not be more urgent. In that context, I do not know whether the Minister was present for the Foreign Secretary’s recent Cabinet presentation on the Yemen conflict, but, according to The Mail on Sunday, his opening line was, “We have got to do something about the Saudi war on Yemen”. Well, that is what we have been telling the Government for two years now, so thank goodness they are finally listening, even if they do so only in private.
I hope that the Minister will admit another private truth today. He says that there is no military solution in Yemen—the UN says it and even Rex Tillerson says it—but the truth is that that is not what the Saudis believe. Just a few weeks ago, exiled President Hadi said that the current Saudi military offensive would
“put an end to the Houthi coup”
and that, as a result, there was no purpose in peace talks. In other words, the war will continue until the Saudis secure victory, no matter how long it takes and no matter what the cost. That is unacceptable. If the Government genuinely want to do something to end the Saudi war, I suggest that, as with Myanmar, they take the following steps: pull their finger out, get their pen out and do their job. They should do the job that they have been given by the United Nations and submit a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks. Will the Government follow the lead of Germany and Norway and suspend arms sales for use in this conflict pending the result of a full independent investigation of alleged war crimes?
In Syria, the humanitarian situation is equally dire. The need for peace is just as great, and we face the same impasse in moving towards a political solution. From Astana to Sochi, and from Geneva to Vienna, we have rival peace processes with no agreed set of participants and no agreed set of goals or acceptable outcomes. As long as that impasse continues, the only incentive on all sides is to maximise territorial gains whatever the costs.
We see that Assad’s typically criminal assault on Idlib and eastern Ghouta is already triggering a fresh wave of displaced civilians. What we also see is the US plan for an open-ended military presence to stabilise so-called liberated areas near the Turkish border alongside a new 30,000 strong Kurdish army, which was idiotically named by the Americans as the Syrian border force. Therefore, while we condemn Turkey’s response in invading the border area and assaulting the Afrin enclave, we must ask the US how it thought Turkey was likely to respond. It is a hugely dangerous development, and it takes me back to what I said at this Dispatch Box some 15 months ago, which is that a long-term political solution in Syria must be predicated on the de-escalation of overseas forces, not a move to their permanent presence.
I have these questions for the Minister. First, what steps is he taking to resolve the impasse over peace talks? In particular, is he determined now automatically to reject any positive outcome from next week’s congress in Sochi? Secondly, can he tell us whether there are any UK personnel—military or otherwise—involved either in training the new Kurdish border force or in America’s proposed “stabilisation activities” in Northern Syria? Finally, as the violence escalates in Idlib and Rojava, what preparations are the Government making for a fresh wave of Syrian refugees fleeing towards Turkey and the Aegean sea?
The third challenge concerns countries caught in a cycle of entrenched division and sporadic violence, leaving millions of civilians trapped in poverty and deprivation. My hon. Friend the shadow International Development Secretary will talk later about the grave situations in Somalia and South Sudan.
Let me focus in particular on the millions of Palestinian refugees spread across Gaza, the west bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. For almost 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has supported those refugees and their descendants. UNRWA’s budget last year was $760 million. We could fund its work for the next 220 years with the cost of just one “Boris bridge” across the channel, and it would be a far better use of the money.
Thanks to UNRWA, 500,000 Palestinian children receive schooling every day and millions more receive healthcare. Last week, Donald Trump cut their funding by $65 million. I am reluctant to quote his Tweet, but he said:
“we pay the Palestinians…MILLIONS…and get no appreciation or respect.”
Young children will be denied education and medicine all because poor Donald Trump does not think that he gets enough “appreciation or respect”. How utterly pathetic!
I completely endorse my right hon. Friend’s point. It is simply not acceptable for the United States President to give vent to his petulance by attacking the vital services that 5 million Palestinian refugees need. Does she also agree that we need to step up to the plate now and to bring forward or to increase the UK’s contribution to UNRWA, to buy some short-term respite for the organisation? There should also be an international conference to ensure that there is a long-term solution and long-term funding for that organisation.
My hon. Friend is a mind reader: that is exactly what I was about to suggest.
The concern is that this money could trigger a domino effect. Given that most of UNRWA’s costs are local staff salaries, cuts would mean severance payments and severance payments would mean further cuts, and the vicious cycle goes on. UNRWA could face a Catch-22 situation in which it cannot afford to maintain its services, but risks bankruptcy if it cuts them, which would be a devastating scenario for Palestinian families. It is a humanitarian crisis in the making—we know that—entirely caused by the egomania of the American President.
Although we would all welcome today a commitment of extra money from the UK—I hope that that is what we will hear—we know that short-term fixes by individual countries will not ultimately solve the problem. What we need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has said, is a long-term and multilateral solution to this shortfall. May I urge the Government today to lead that international effort and consider initiating a special funding conference, such as that held for humanitarian emergencies—the difference in this case being that we must not wait for that emergency to strike before acting? If it is not to be us, who will do it?
The fourth challenge concerns those countries trying to recover from major conflict whose stability and peace must be nurtured, lest they again collapse. We think of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More recently, we think of Libya, about which the shadow International Development Secretary will again speak later.
I want to focus today on Lebanon, which, for decades, has lurched from devastating conflict to chronic instability. Its peace must be preserved as it becomes the latest battleground for regional control between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In November, Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was invited to take a camping trip in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Salman. When he arrived, he was roughed up by Saudi guards and forced to read a televised statement announcing his resignation. He had to beg for a suit so that he did not resign in a T-shirt and jeans. If Riyadh’s plan was to provoke instability and civil conflict inside Lebanon, that certainly backfired, because instead it triggered a wave of support for Hariri that allowed him to return and withdraw his resignation.
But if that was a bullet dodged, we must still ask, “Why was it fired?”, because Lebanon cannot afford another war that would risk dragging in Israel, along with Iran, and create a fresh humanitarian crisis in a country that is already cracking under the weight of 1.5 million refugees from the war in Syria and hundreds of thousands more from Palestine. Does the Minister know what on earth Crown Prince Salman was playing at in November? Will he urge the Saudis not to do anything more, whether political interference or financial penalties, that weakens or destabilises Lebanon further? Will he also urge Israel to recognise that any short-term urge it has to damage Hezbollah must be outweighed by the long-term damage that another regional war would do?
The fifth and final challenge concerns countries affected by climate change. Of course that means all of us, but the sad truth is that some of the poorest countries that have contributed the least to global carbon emissions will be those hardest hit by the changes that we have created. Their physical infrastructure is the least well prepared to cope with flooding, droughts and other extreme weather events, because their economies are the least well adapted to cope with long-term changes such as erosion or pollution of farmland. One example is the Mekong delta in Vietnam, which is the traditional home of the country’s agriculture and is now plagued by rising sea levels and incursion of saltwater. Livelihoods that have lasted centuries are being wiped out. Over the past 10 years, a net 1 million people have left the delta—twice the national average of migration from rural areas.
That is climate change in action, and a pattern that is being repeated across the world. If we cannot reverse these trends, regions that are currently just in trouble will in due course become uninhabitable. The carbon targets we meet in this country will matter nothing in the grand scheme of things unless we show global leadership in helping the rest of the world, including the United States of America, to face up to the challenge of climate change. Will the Minister tell us, first, where in the Government’s list of overseas funding priorities is helping poorer countries adapt to climate change? Secondly, when Rex Tillerson visited London on Monday, was any effort make to persuade the United States to recommit to the Paris agreement, or was that considered simply a waste of time? Sadly, I think that we know the answer to the second question, because we are stuck with a President who does not give a fig about the problems and the future that the world is facing.
I spoke at the outset about the Thurgood Marshall anniversary, which allows us to celebrate the life of a great human rights hero.
May I ask the right hon. Lady to put on the record a tribute to the BBC journalists and other reporters around the world who highlight to us, with great sensitivity and great honesty, the appalling conflicts, the famines, the plight of refugees, and the cruelty experienced by Christians and other minorities? Will she also pay tribute to those journalists who have given their lives in reporting these issues around the world, and perhaps urge the Minister to do something at the UN to protect them?
The hon. Lady is quite right. Unfortunately, far too many journalists around the world are killed for reporting abuses of human rights. I join her in paying tribute to them.
I was talking about Thurgood Marshall’s anniversary, which gives us an opportunity to celebrate the life of this great human rights hero. In three days’ time, we are going to mark another anniversary. Unfortunately, there is no such cause for celebration, but it is central to our discussion. On Saturday, it will be a year since our Prime Minister held hands with Donald Trump just hours before he signed the executive order banning Muslim refugees from America. That was an act devoid of compassion by a President incapable of shame, and the start of a long and painful year of similar acts on the global stage.
We have now reached the stage where Donald Trump can describe the countries of the continent of Africa, including 19 of our Commonwealth cousins, as “shitholes”—and there is not a peep of protest from our Government. Instead, they continue to insist that Her Majesty the Queen, the head of the Commonwealth, must welcome him into her home. Perhaps next time the Foreign Secretary talks about “supine invertebrate jellies” he should take a good look at himself in the mirror.
However, Donald Trump’s behaviour has had one important consequence that goes to the heart of the motion. Last week, a Gallup poll revealed that in the past year global approval of American leadership had fallen to 18%, the lowest in the history of the survey. That leaves a massive void waiting to be filled by a country—so what about us? What about a country such as ours? Are we prepared to take the lead internationally on conflict resolution, climate change, human rights and the refugee crisis? Are we are prepared not just to wring our hands about the suffering of the Rohingya, the Yemeni people and the Palestinian refugees, but to do something—to take a global lead—to end that suffering? Are we prepared to stand up to Donald Trump and tell him clearly that he is not just wrong on UN funding cuts, climate change and refugees, but simply unfit to govern? That is the action we need to take, that is the policy the Labour party stands on and that is the message that this motion sends. I commend it to the House.
I thank the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for tabling the motion, the text of which the Government have at their own heart as well. Much of what she said is agreeable with. There were a number of issues that she did not raise, and I am happy to do so. There were also a number of things that we would query, and I am happy to respond.
May I begin with an apology? A change in whipping later on enables me to leave immediately after I have spoken to take up an opportunity to see the Foreign Minister of Morocco. If I left any later, I would not be able to do that. If the House would accept, and Mr Speaker would accept, that I can slip away—
Only if you talk about Western Sahara.
Western Sahara is always part of our discussions with friends in north Africa. Having met the right hon. Gentleman over many years, in all sorts of capacities, to discuss common interests in the area, I can assure him that he will not be disappointed in relation to that complex issue.
I thank the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury for reminding us of her manifesto, which came a good second in the general election, if I remember correctly. I am pleased to say that a number of issues raised are of great interest to us.
If the right hon. Lady wants to find a force for good, which she began with, I invite her to come to the United Nations General Assembly week in September. I would like her to see how the United Kingdom is seen, treated and spoken of in that Assembly, because of our commitment to development and to human rights, and because of the things that we stand up for. There is not a room that a Minister goes into where we do not find that. That is no praise for a Minister, because it is due to policy followed over a number of years by successive Governments, and the hard work done by our officials.
The sense that people have of the United Kingdom, certainly under this Government, is that these are issues on which we not only make a substantial contribution—it was this Government who were determined to put the target of 0.7% of gross national income into law—but give leadership. If the right hon. Lady really wants to be reminded that the United Kingdom is a force for good, rather than using it as a debating point, she should go to UNGA in September, see how we are treated and ask whether that Assembly thinks that we are force for good. She will get the answer that yes, we are. However, that is something we have to live up to. That is what these debates are about, and that is what the Government are determined to do.
Within her first weeks in the job, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary travelled to Cox’s Bazar. There she met a young mother—one of more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh since August. Her name is Yasmin. Yasmin had fled Burma with her new-born baby, after her village was burned down and her brother murdered. On their journey, she and her baby were thrown over the side of a smuggler’s boat so that her son’s crying did not alert the Burmese soldiers. They arrived in a giant, crowded camp only for her son to contract cholera.
Yasmin is just one of the 65 million people around the world—the right hon. Lady mentioned them—who have been forcibly displaced. She is like those I have met in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and like those a number of colleagues have met, because the whole House takes an interest in this issue and many colleagues have visited people in such circumstances. This number of 65 million is equivalent to the size of the UK population, and it has almost doubled in the past 20 years. Each is a life uprooted, a family torn apart and a future uncertain.
The Minister will be aware that on 16 March a private Member’s Bill on family reunification is coming up, which is supported by the Red Cross, Oxfam, the Refugee Council, Amnesty and the UNHCR. Will his Government be supportive of it, bearing it in mind that the rehabilitation of refugees is often helped when children can bring in adult parents or parents can bring in adult children so that families can be reunited?
I have not seen the content of the Bill, so I cannot give a response on that. I will, if I may, say something about children and family reunification a little later.
Human rights matter because they aim to protect the innate dignity of every human being. They promote freedom and non-discrimination, fairness and opportunity, but all too often it is the absence of those rights that drives people such as Yasmin from their homes. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury is right that the series of challenges now facing the world in relation to the number of people moving is immense and probably more complex than ever before. It is no longer the case that refugees move simply because some natural disaster has forced them from A to B, nor is such movement simply the result of some worldwide conflict, which is what drove refugees post-1918 and post-1945. There is a series of issues in play, from demographics to lack of opportunity and individual conflicts.
In a sense, the movement back from the post-1945 world order, with the challenge to rules-based organisations, is compounding that in that we cannot find answers. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) asked about what the UN should do given that if there is a veto in the Security Council, no action is taken. That has been demonstrated to be even more significant in recent times because of the conflict in Syria, but it can be raised in relation to other places. These are challenges the complexity of which we probably have not faced in our time, and they set the baseline against which we will all be judged.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that regional organisations such as the African Union, not just the United Nations, have an incredibly important role to play? If we think of the peacekeeping work that AU forces have done in Mogadishu and elsewhere on the continent, we see what they can do. However, they still need to do a great deal more, and perhaps we can support such work when UN action is not possible or is lacking.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he knows a great deal about the region and what he says is certainly true. The problem of the failure to deliver of those charged with these responsibilities in the past means that new opportunities have to be taken if we are not to leave more people in the circumstances that we have described. This is the way the world works: if an avenue to peace and the resolution of conflict is closed by the actions of some, we must look to open up new ones to prevent such a problem.
Turning to the some of the key challenges we face, I want to talk about conflict and the impact it can have. I assure the House that the UK Government remain committed to doing all we can to address the root causes of conflict and crises, and to redouble the efforts to find peace. I will address the particular areas that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury mentioned.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said last month, not only is standing up for human rights the right thing, but it helps to create a safer, more prosperous and progressive world for us all. This is what global Britain stands for. Promoting, championing and defending human rights is integral to our work. Similarly, the UK’s leadership in tackling a changing climate and protecting the world’s natural resources is vital for global prosperity and poverty reduction.
Just last week, the UK Committee on Climate Change warned that we were on track to miss our international targets on reducing emissions. Unless this Government take urgent action, the effects of climate change will be felt more acutely in developing countries, causing them even more hardship and suffering. Will the Minister seek to discuss this internally and take action?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific wants to refer to climate change in his winding-up speech, but our determination on climate change has, again, provided a sense of leadership. We have played an influential role in reaching international climate change agreements, including the Paris accord, and we are among the world’s leading providers of climate finance. We are committed to the Paris agreement limits, which aim to limit global temperature rises to less than 2 °C. Wherever there are areas in which we can continue to improve, we shall do so, but on climate change leadership, the United Kingdom’s position is very clear.
On international humanitarian rights, I reiterate the UK’s commitment to international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. As a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and its additional protocol, the UK has a long tradition of providing assistance and protection to those who need it most. We are the first G7 nation to have enshrined in law our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid, and that aid provides a lifeline to millions.
The first change I want to put to the House is that refugee crises are increasingly counted in decades, not months and years, and the humanitarian system is overstretched. This is why the UK is now leading a global shift to longer-term approaches to refugee assistance and protection. It is one that restores dignity to refugees and offers them a more viable future where they are, and one that ensures sustainable jobs, livelihoods and access to essential services both for refugees and the communities that host them. We aim to embed this approach in the UN global compact on refugees due to be adopted later this year.
One graphic reminder of the global refugee crisis is the plight of refugees, particularly unaccompanied minors, in Calais. Will the Foreign Office Minister encourage the Home Office to deal more quickly with cases such as that of the 14-year-old brother of one of my constituents, who is still waiting for the Home Office to respond to his application to come and rejoin his brother, my constituent, under the Dublin III convention? If I write to the Minister, will he take up the case with the Home Office for me?
The hon. Gentleman should keep in direct contact with the Home Office in relation to that case. In 2016, the UK transferred more than 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from Europe to the UK, including more than 750 from France as part of the UK’s support for the Calais camp clearance. I have some figures to give later about the 49,000 children who have been settled in the United Kingdom since 2010, including a number in the category that the hon. Gentleman has raised. However, processes have to be gone through, and I am quite sure that the Home Office intends to carry out its resettlement work as swiftly as possible. We have resettled a substantial number—that number is often not appreciated by the public at large—and I will talk more about that in a moment.
When we are talking about the dignity of people seeking asylum, is it worth considering, and will the Government consider looking again at, the current rules denying asylum seekers in this country the right and the ability to work during the year, or perhaps even longer, when they are seeking asylum? Would that not save the taxpayer a lot of money and put an end to much of the indignity—and, frankly, the destitution—that exists in our asylum-seeking community?
I have spoken for 12 minutes already, and I could speak for a lot longer. If I was to go into asylum support and the benefit system, I would be at the Dispatch Box for a lot longer. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, that matter has been taken up by the Department—it is a complex issue, as he knows very well—and I do not intend to go into it now.
For people contemplating the perilous voyage to Europe, our long-term focus has been on improving conditions where they are, so that they may decide to take up opportunities locally, rather than to undertake dangerous journeys. At the same time, we are taking steps to assist vulnerable people who are already on the move. I share the deep concern and alarm expressed by Members of the House about modern-day slavery. That was not a key part of the speech of the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury, simply because one cannot cover everything. The conditions migrants face in Libya—we have seen them most recently in the CNN reports on modern slavery and slave auctions—have been appalling, and they have reminded us how acute the crisis is.
We welcome the Libyan authorities’ commitment to investigation. I met the Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister recently to discuss the issue. I assure the House that the Government are doing all they can to go after the criminal gangs and networks of traffickers who profit from this human misery. The Royal Navy has destroyed 173 smuggling boats and saved more than 12,500 lives since Operation Sophia began, and Border Force vessels have provided vital search and rescue support, rescuing more than 4,500 people to date.
We are protecting the most vulnerable people on transit routes, including through a new £75 million migration programme focused on the route from west Africa via the Sahel to Libya. So far, our programmes have enabled 1,400 migrants to voluntarily return from Libya and reintegrate successfully into their home countries, while providing much-needed emergency interventions for more than 20,000.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) mentioned the International Organisation for Migration. I met Bill Swing, the charismatic director of IOM who will, sadly, complete his final term later this year and who has done so much to manifest the qualities of that organisation. We had a conversation about what we are all doing in relation to that process from west Africa through to Libya. If we are to challenge these gangs, we have to tackle every part of the process, as well as think more directly about what we can do about them when they reach Libya. It is important to cut off and prevent the process. We discussed the different ideas that different agencies are contemplating and already doing. This is a serious issue to which the House will return.
Before the Minister leaves the issue of Libya, I am sure he will agree with me that the most fundamental right of all is the right to life. There are people in the United Kingdom who suffered grievously as a result of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA Semtex bombs. Will the Minister assure me that, as well as the other human rights crises in the Mediterranean, that human rights issue, which affects people right across the United Kingdom, is still discussed with the Libyan Government?
I assure the hon. Lady that that is indeed the case, and we have discussed it with MPs from the area as well. It is absolutely not a matter to be forgotten. The Foreign Secretary and I have already met colleagues to discuss it. It was part of the conversations I had with the Libyan Government when I was previously in office, and there is still the opportunity to discuss it further. We can try to get to an agreement to find some accommodation that recognises the part played by the Gaddafi regime in the violence, but also to find a solution that brings people together, because both the Libyan people and the people of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, suffered grievously from the attacks. Something that binds people together as a result might be the most effective answer. It is very much still on all our minds.
I will say a little on the issue of children, which the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury did not focus on but I want to raise it. [Interruption.] Okay, a little bit more—the right hon. Lady cannot cover everything and that was not a criticism.
Aren’t children in Yemen dependent on aid?
Yes. I never had the right hon. Lady down as being thin-skinned. I do not want to get into that too much.
The UK has contributed significantly to hosting, supporting and protecting vulnerable children. We are the largest contributor to the Education Cannot Wait initiative, the first global movement and fund dedicated to education in emergencies. That builds on our extensive work in the Syria region through the No Lost Generation initiative.
In the year ending September 2017, the UK granted asylum or another form of leave to almost 9,000 children—in that year alone—and has done so for more than 49,000 children since 2010. We have committed to transferring 480 unaccompanied children to the UK from France, Greece and Italy under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, and last week the Home Secretary announced an amendment to the eligibility date to ensure that the most vulnerable unaccompanied children can be transferred to the UK.
We will resettle 3,000 vulnerable refugee children and their families from the middle east and north Africa by 2020. That is in addition to the commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. So far, we have welcomed more than 9,300 people through the scheme, half of whom are children.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. I praise the fact that children have been resettled in the UK; some might say that the numbers are not what we had hoped for, but, even so, some have been resettled. If some of those children who have been resettled in the UK have an opportunity for family reunification, will the Minister try to take in those other family members and allow them to join those children?
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s position, but let me say that we of course support the principle of family unity and have several routes for families to be reunited safely. Our family reunion policy allows a spouse or partner and children under the age of 18 of those granted protection in the UK to join them here if they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country. Under that policy, we have reunited many refugees with their immediate family and continue to do so. We have, in fact, granted more than 24,000 family reunion visas over the past five years. Family reunification really matters. Of course, colleagues will always argue for more, but that is a substantial figure. I will certainly suggest to colleagues that they look very carefully at the hon. Gentleman’s Bill.
Let me speak about one or two of the crises mentioned by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury. We have committed £1.3 billion to meet the needs of refugees and host communities in the Syria region, and it is here that we have pioneered a more comprehensive approach to refugee assistance, which includes a refugee compact with the Government of Joran that aims to create 200,000 jobs for refugees.
Of course, resolving the conflict remains the top priority. We are using all our diplomatic tools to call on all parties to protect civilians from harm, to open up humanitarian access and to support UN political talks aimed at ending the conflict. I was in Paris yesterday and met Secretary of State Tillerson in the margins of a meeting to find accountability for those who use chemical weapons in Syria. I met Staffan de Mistura in Geneva just the week before, and of course my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is doing even more at his level.
Syria is incredibly complex. The recent incursion by Turkey into the north of Syria complicates matters still further, but it is a crisis that can be resolved only by further political talks through the Geneva process. Our approach to Sochi is to say that it has a value only if it directs people towards the Geneva process. That is the determination that we and others have made.
We remain deeply concerned by the Rohingya crisis, where people are still crossing the border every day with stories of unimaginable trauma. This is a major humanitarian crisis created by Burma’s military. There has been ethnic cleansing and those responsible must be held accountable.
Does my right hon. Friend, like me, welcome the fact that the proposed repatriation has now been suspended, as announced on Monday? The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) did not refer to that. I welcome it because absolutely no guarantees have been given on the safety of any returning Rohingya.
The honest truth is that people are having to recognise that we are talking about a long-term, protracted refugee stay in Bangladesh. There is no quick return. We cannot ask people to return to a situation after they were expelled with maximum force, violence and horror. Although the agreement between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to return people over a two-year period is a welcome sign of intent, it cannot possibly have any serious basis unless we know that people are going to be safe. People cannot be returned on any other basis. The honest truth is that we have to be prepared for this to take time. We are pushing not only for the work that we do in Cox’s Bazar itself, but for a role for the international community in monitoring any return, with the UNHCR taking the lead.
We are one of the biggest donors to addressing the crisis. We have provided an additional £59 million since August and our aid is making a huge difference on the ground. The first tranche of funding to our partners includes support for emergency shelter for more than 130,000 people and counselling and psychological support for survivors of sexual violence. That is not an add-on to work that is already done. Counselling those women who have been victims of gender-based violence is absolutely crucial. We and other parts of the international community now give much more attention to psychological support for those who have been caught up in it. We are already co-ordinating work on the ground. We do not have as many people there as we would like. It takes time to get people in, but it is a matter of great concern and interest to us.
The Bangladesh Welfare Association Cardiff and friends of the Rohingya in Wales are in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, unloading trucks full of food parcels, blankets, baby food and medicines. They have encountered devastating scenes of hardship and heartbreak and have heard first-hand accounts that no one should experience: people losing loved ones, suffering violence and experiencing squalor, overcrowding and deprivation. Some 48,000 babies are due to be born in the refugee camps this year. Does the Minister agree—
Order. If the hon. Lady wishes to make a speech, there is plenty of time later. The Minister does not have plenty of time.
I take the hon. Lady’s point. The scale of the crisis is extraordinary. I have not been able to visit the refugee camp, but a number of colleagues have done so, as well as the Secretary of State for International Development. We are not only trying to provide for what is already there but we are planning for the future. We recognise the number of births that are due. In addition, we have taken pre-emptive action on disease. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury mentioned diphtheria in a different context, and I shall come on to that. I pay tribute to the emergency medical team that was sent by the Department for International Development in December. Two waves went out over the Christmas period to provide support for people suffering from diphtheria and to prepare vaccinations to prevent others from being infected. We have an outstanding record on that. The work that we are doing is looking ahead, as well as looking back.
The Minister has mentioned, as have other speakers, sexual violence in conflict, and the Government have taken a number of initiatives in this area. Can he say whether or not the prevention of sexual violence in conflict will appear on the agenda of the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London?
As far as I am aware, the agenda for CHOGM is not yet set. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the horror of violence against women, particularly in areas of conflict with which Commonwealth countries have a connection, is well understood. Without speaking about the agenda, it is a matter of the utmost importance to the United Kingdom, as has been demonstrated a number of times, so I take the point that my hon. Friend is making.
In looking ahead on Bangladesh, may I make a call for other donors to step up support? We are working closely with the Bangladeshi Government to identify acceptable solutions that protect and respect the rights and freedoms of the Rohingya people, as well as those of their Bangladeshi hosts.
The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury raised three issues: Yemen; the Occupied Palestinian Territories; and Lebanon. Yemen remains a matter of determination for the United Kingdom to seek a political solution. She opined on the opinions and views of Saudi Arabia and those who lead it—that is not a matter for the United Kingdom. We have made it clear publicly that a negotiated solution is the only answer. We support the UN process, and we are working towards that. Owing to the efforts of many, not least my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for International Development, the opening up of Hodeidah port for 30 days, reconfirmed yesterday, has made a significant difference to the passage of food and fuel. Again, that is another complex dispute that involves people from outside who have launched missiles towards Saudi Arabia and others, so achieving a negotiated end is complex, but it is the most important thing, and the United Kingdom is fully determined to do so and is working hard to secure it.
On the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, I mentioned during questions last week the fact that United Kingdom support this year is £50 million. I saw the director of UNRWA a month or so ago, before the US decision, and we have expressed concern in relation to that. We support UNRWA; we are working hard through it; and it remains a determination for us. We are talking with others about whether or not there can be further financial support, bearing in mind what the United States has said, but it has only withheld money at this stage. There is still an opportunity for this to be passed through to those who need it, and we sense that the consequences of not having that support at a crucial time are deeply worrying.
On that, you are saying that the United States has put it on hold. I hope you will commit to continue to apply pressure on the United States, and in the meantime will you consider increasing our contribution—
Order. I let the hon. Lady do it once, but three times she has called the Minister “you”. Now that we are well into this Parliament, I have to start clamping down. There is a very good reason why we use the third person and not the second person. The hon. Lady has to say, “Will the Minister do this?” She should not say, “Will you do this?” There is nothing wrong with her question, but will she phrase it properly?
My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister do his best to continue to apply pressure on the United States, and will he confirm whether or not we will increase our contributions to UNRWA?
In answer to the hon. Lady, the Minister will certainly continue to engage with the United States, despite a number of recent occasions when we have not been in agreement. We have made our disagreement clear, but the United States remains in many other respects a key partner and donor in some of the greatest crises in the world. I shall indeed take note of what the hon. Lady said, and we are considering with partners how to respond if the money is withdrawn rather than being withheld. Above all, in relation to the Palestinian Territories, the most important thing is not to let the opportunity for the middle east peace process go. No matter what has been said in relation to Jerusalem, that must not derail the ultimate determination to see a negotiated solution between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. The United Kingdom will do as much as it can to bring people together, and when proposals are introduced, we will try to see that that opportunity is not lost.
There can be no greater friend of Palestinians than the hon. Gentleman who is going to speak.
I am grateful to the Minister, but will he be more specific in relation to UNRWA? One country has already agreed to bring forward its contributions to UNRWA to get over the short-term financial crisis that it faces. First, will the UK do so, too, or increase its contribution? When can we expect a firm answer on that? Secondly, in talking with other countries, will the Minister agree to an international conference—
Order. I stopped the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin). The hon. Gentleman cannot make two interventions at once.
I gave a response on UNRWA. We are in conversation with others about resources. We are concerned about any withdrawal rather than withholding of funds—that is a matter of great concern. Our contribution this year was £50 million. Other contributions have not yet been assessed, but it is vital that UNRWA’s work continues.
Finally—the House has been generous with its time—may I conclude on Lebanon? I have been to Lebanon and have seen the work that DFID is doing there, particularly in relation to education. I met Minister Hamadeh, the Lebanese Education Minister. A number of colleagues may have seen mention this week of the Lebanon education forum. Lebanon, like Jordan, works double shifts to accommodate Syrian refugees in its schools. We have provided substantial support for this process, and our work is orientated towards supporting refugees where they are as much as possible, because that gives them the best chance to return. The stability of Lebanon matters hugely to the United Kingdom. It has come through a difficult time, and it appears that Prime Minister Hariri’s position has been strengthened as a result of recent experiences. There are elections to come; the security of Lebanon matters; and it is important that Hezbollah does not increase its influence in relation to that or other regional issues, which was the purpose of a dissociation agreement that was recently signed.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific will respond to the debate, and he will deal with climate change in more detail. I have mentioned violence against women and girls and modern slavery. I could also mention lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, which are increasingly important for the United Kingdom to stress—we will continue to do so—and freedom of religion and belief. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is in the Chamber, but her colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), a consistent advocate on this issue in the middle-east region, is not. If he were, he would want to hear again that the UK is determined to make sure that freedom of religion and belief assumes even greater importance.
All our experience in the middle east shows that a lack of tolerance is at the heart of so much and that the lack of tolerance of one faith for another is the breeding ground for so much that can then be exploited. This is not a minor issue of interest only to those who have faith, but a matter of interest to those who understand that this is a region where faith matters so much and impacts so much on everyone and that it has to be much further up our agenda in the west than perhaps it has been. We are determined to do all we can on that.
In conclusion, humanity is measured not by the strength of the strongest, but by the vulnerability of the vulnerable. The Government’s vision is of a world where no one is left behind and where all women and men, girls and boys—no matter who or where they are—have equal opportunity to realise their rights, to achieve their full potential and to live in dignity, free from extreme poverty, exclusion, stigma, violence and discrimination. That is central to the UN’s global goals and to securing a prosperous world. We are a big-hearted, open-minded and far-sighted nation—all of us—and our foreign policy reflects that.
I welcome the choice of debate and the motion, and I particularly welcome the call for effective action to alleviate the refugee crisis. With 23 million refugees worldwide and more than 40 million displaced internally, this is indeed, as has been said, one of the toughest global challenges of our time. There is no silver bullet to solve it, but Governments working together can achieve a great deal to alleviate the dreadful suffering and misery that it has brought—through efforts on conflict resolution, international aid and crucially, through the provision of safe legal routes for those fleeing persecution.
In my view, the report card on the Government’s response is mixed, with significant room for improvement. Let me start on a positive note with the role of the Department for International Development. As the Minister said, there is no doubt that UK aid in countries such as Lebanon has been hugely significant. In that respect the UK is playing its part, and long may that continue. However, it cannot and must not be the case that playing a part through international aid absolves any country of the responsibility of hosting a share of those who have fled persecution. In fairness, I do not think anyone is arguing with that, but on the question of whether the UK has played its part in sheltering its fair share of refugees in response to the crisis, I still believe that the Government have fallen short. Can we and should we be doing more? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes.
From the outset, the Government’s approach to resettlement and relocation of refugees and asylum seekers went essentially from strong resistance to extreme reluctance, only then to find that once the programmes were up and running, they can be genuine successes and make a genuine contribution to the international crisis. A case in point is the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, which the Minister pointed to. It was introduced by the previous Prime Minister following what can only be described as a summer of resistance from the Home Office. Only after immense public and parliamentary pressure, magnified by the tragic pictures of little Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach at Bodrum—who can ever forget them?—did we finally see a hugely welcome announcement that the UK would accept 20,000 vulnerable Syrians by 2020.
No scheme is perfect, but as I think everyone in this Chamber would agree, once up and running it has proved an extraordinary success. Across the UK, we have been very pleased to see more than 9,000 refugees arrive. As part of that, we were delighted to see the 2,000th arrival into Scotland just last month, and our thanks and congratulations go to all involved in making that happen.
Resettlement works and can make a crucial contribution to the task of the UNHCR. I hope that the Government’s initial reluctance towards resettlement schemes is now a thing of the past. As the Home Affairs Committee recently recommended, it is important that the Government establish a more general resettlement scheme for the future, echoing calls from the UNHCR, which estimated that 1.19 million people were in need of resettlement globally in 2017. It has asked the UK to aim for 10,000 places each year.
Whereas the Government’s report card on resettlement would say, “Solid start but could do better,” their record on solidarity with our European neighbours has fallen further short. It is worth remembering that at the outset, the Government even opposed the introduction of the Dubs scheme before being forced to accept a watered-down compromise. Despite that scheme having been significantly watered down, it is another example of one that can work and transform lives, as we saw when the Home Office was eventually pressed into urgent action by the impending demolition of the camps at Calais.
Although the recent change to the cut-off date applied to the Dubs scheme is a step in the right direction, this Parliament should insist on revisiting some other restrictions that the Government have placed on it, including, most obviously, the desperately inadequate “specified number.” We should insist on the necessary investment to make it work properly. We should find the children in Greece and Italy, and not make them resort to using people smugglers or travelling to Calais.
It is not only children who need protection, but men, women and children all require safety. Long before the Dubs amendment was tabled during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016, my party argued for UK participation in EU proposals to relocate refugees and asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other member states. It is to our huge regret that efforts at establishing a relocation scheme have continued to flounder.
As we have heard, what does exist is Dublin III. It is far from perfect, but it is there and must be made to work much more quickly and effectively. The recent agreement that the Government reached with France seeks to significantly reduce the processing times for take-charge requests, and that is very welcome. However, huge problems still exist with accessing the asylum system altogether. We should not be waiting for children to come to us, but actively seeking out those who may have grounds for transfer to the UK. Otherwise, it is inevitable that there will be further deaths as young people and children undertake hazardous trips to join family here.
We need to work faster in other countries, too—notably in Greece and Italy, where it can take up to a year for the Dublin process to run its course. If we can do more to fix delays here and to find potential applicants in those countries, we will undoubtedly save men, women and children from hazardous onward journeys, people smugglers and exploitation.
Resettlement, relocation, and Dublin are three examples of safe legal routes that we support that can help to prevent dangerous journeys and alleviate suffering, but let me mention one more: family reunion. Scottish National party Members have repeatedly argued that rights to refugee family reunion in the UK are simply too restrictive. People with family in the UK are clearly the ones who are most likely to try to get here, but by making it virtually impossible for too many categories of family members to qualify for family reunion, including siblings who are over 18, too many are left with no choice but to make dangerous journeys.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point about family reunion. Does he agree with me and my constituents, including children from St Mungo’s Academy and Garnetbank Primary School, who see the absolute logic of being reunited with their family? They do not see the difference between someone being a day under 18 or a day over it—they are their family. Does he agree that we need to do so much more to ensure that those families can stay together? If children at primary school and secondary school can see the logic, why do the Government not see it?
I agree, and I urge hon. Members to support the private Member’s Bill that has been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). I very much hope that it is passed. He has support from the Refugee Council, the UNHCR, Amnesty International, the British Red Cross and Oxfam, among others.
Indeed, the Red Cross, Oxfam, the Refugee Council, Amnesty and the UNHCR have said that having this Bill is their priority. Does my hon. Friend also welcome the warm words that I detected from the Minister regarding this Bill on family reunification—for codifying what is happening and giving people the legal right and assistance from legal aid, which is also in the Bill? That important part of it would enable the rights that hopefully the law would bring. I think the Minister is warm to it, at least.
My hon. Friend makes a series of valuable points. In Scotland a degree of legal aid still is available to support these applications, which are not straightforward, as a recent report from the Red Cross made absolutely clear. Ensuring that those who need legal aid have access to it would be a hugely welcome development.
On another day we will debate our asylum system for those who seek protection once they are here. Suffice it to say that on the SNP Benches, we see massive scope for improvement. Regular reports are critical of asylum casework, with backlogs and under-resourcing contributing to poor decision making. The Compass contracts for housing are little short of a disgrace. Levels of support are shocking, the right to work is ludicrously restricted and the move-on period after a positive asylum decision is a shambles. In Scotland, we recently launched our second refugee integration strategy. The Welsh Government have one and it is now time for this Government to produce one. Talk of a two-tier asylum system must be shelved, as must dangerous talk of seeking to redefine the very concept of what it means to be a refugee.
The crisis is not going away anytime soon. As the motion says, conflict resolution must be central to our foreign policy. I highlight, for example, the Scottish Government initiative to train women from conflict zones around the world on peacekeeping and conflict resolution as the sort of initiative that Governments across these islands can take. And we have barely begun considering what climate change will mean for migratory flows. New Zealand is considering a humanitarian visa category for people displaced by climate change. That is the sort of conversation we will have to have here as well.
I neglected to say in my initial intervention—it is perhaps worth an intervention on its own—that my private Member’s Bill will be considered on 16 March. I encourage Members to be here to support it and constituents watching to write to their MPs to make sure that they are.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I hope we see a busy House on that date.
In conclusion, I wish to make one further point. Sometimes in these debates we speak as if hosting refugees is necessarily a hardship for our country. It is important to put it on the record, therefore, that, given the chance, refugees far more often go on to make incredibly positive contributions to their communities and new countries and to bring great joy to their new friends and adopted families.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the response from the refugee families who come and live in our communities, but may I also point out what it does to the communities themselves in rejuvenating a sense of civic responsibility, caring and community, which is vital to our future as a society?
I welcome that intervention and agree with it wholeheartedly. These refugees are determined to take advantage of the amazing second chance given to them to live a life free from persecution. We can make that happen—the UN convention on refugees is the framework that allows it to happen. I simply urge the Government to work harder than ever to support that system and to deliver as many opportunities as they can.
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon, but there is limited time because we have another debate afterwards, so I am afraid I have to impose an immediate time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches.
Given my role as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh, I will confine my remarks in this short time to the experience of those fleeing persecution in Burma and living in Cox’s Bazar. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) seemed to imply that the Government needed to get their finger out, as if this were something that had just happened. I think the House needs a little history lesson. The first major push against the Rohingya was in 1978. Then the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982 left them out of the list of 135 ethnic minority communities, thus denying them their state—so this has been going on for a very long time. In 1992, their political party was also outlawed. I understand that by that point 47 individuals—four of them women—from the Rohingya community had served as MPs in the Burmese Parliament.
This process has, then, been going on for an extremely long time. Those of us who have visited the sites and camps—right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House—have seen the atrocious conditions these people are being forced to live in. We would all accept that a basic human right is the freedom to worship as we see fit. The one thing that joins the Rohingya in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Bangladesh is their religion. Unfortunately—it is a sad story to tell—the Buddhist community is complicit in and accepting of the driving out of the Muslim population that are the Rohingya. Yes, some Hindus have been forced out as well, but overwhelmingly it is the Rohingya, who are Muslims, who are being driven out. It is that link—of humanity and religion—that opens the arms of Bangladesh.
I am pleased that repatriation is no longer being considered, because the memorandum of understanding did not mention the word “Rohingya”. How can there be no voice for the Rohingya at the negotiating table? It is totally unacceptable that the oppressors, who are land-mining the border and driving people out with machine guns, and who have denied these people their rights since 1982, should be divvying up the role of the Rohingya and their future. It is no surprise that there have been marches and resistance on the camps to any talk of repatriation. How can anyone accept being asked to go back to a country where their existence has been denied since 1982? That needs to be dealt with as much as anything.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern at the British Government’s involvement in the last census in Burma, which we paid for but which made no mention of the Rohingya? We should be exercising our duty as the census payer to make sure the Rohingya are included.
It was an international effort, I believe, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is unacceptable that they are not on that census. This is not a simple problem, however. I mentioned that there were 135 ethnic communities. That is part of the issue: Burma is a fractured country. It is not a case of just getting our finger out. This could be a very dangerous situation for some of the other groups in the country. I am concerned that this be dealt with appropriately. My plea, given that they have been shattered for so long, is that somehow the Rohingya be given a voice. I understand that Ata Ullah is not an acceptable voice, as he is leading a resistance group, but there must be someone who can speak up for the Rohingya. They are a “talked about” and “done to” group, and that cannot be right.
I encourage the UNHCR to do all it can, but the reality is that Burma is blocking, and while I can understand Bangladesh’s need to solve this crisis, it is not a signatory to the 1952 convention; it is acting out of humanity and love for its fellow Muslims. That said, it is a poor country. It is in receipt of a lot of international aid, but it cannot continue with this on its shoulders. We must keep driving forward to find someone who will sit at the table and say what the Rohingya want to happen, otherwise the rioting and unrest in the camps will continue. The worst thing we can do is insist that people go back to a country where they are denied even their existence.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). I agree with what she said, particularly on the importance of the Rohingya voice being heard in this debate.
In September 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the New York declaration for refugees and migrants, which seeks a commitment by member states to strengthen and enhance their mechanisms to protect people on the move. It is a significant achievement, but the challenge is to turn words into action. As the International Development Committee report, which we published last week, pointed out, the Rohingya crisis has tested these commitments to destruction.
I echo what others have said today about the Rohingya crisis. One lesson we must surely learn, which is relevant to the excellent motion before us, is that prevention is always best. As the hon. Lady reminded us, this did not come from nowhere: we have known for years about the threat to the Rohingya people. In recent years, there have been early warnings from Human Rights Watch and the Holocaust museum in Washington. I also echo what others have said about repatriation. It cannot be on the agenda in the foreseeable future, and I hope that the Minister will reaffirm that in his closing remarks.
In the case of the Rohingya and others, such as Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, the increasing rhetoric about refugees being expected to return to countries that are simply not safe to return to is deeply concerning. We need to recognise that in many cases people are going to be in these countries for many years. One of the ideas given to the Select Committee was that we learn from the Jordan experience with Syrian refugees and look at whether Bangladesh could adopt a special development zone to provide economic prospects for both the Rohingya refugees and the local population to limit the danger of resentment among local people towards the refugees.
The average time someone can expect to be a refugee is 10 years. Many are refugees for far longer. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said in opening the debate, we have an increasing number of complex and protracted crises. We need to learn from experience elsewhere, and I want to cite again the example of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. It is vital that its crucial work be maintained, but I want to make a slightly different point. We can learn from it in responding to protracted crises in parts of Africa or the Rohingya crisis, for example. UNWRA’s amazing work to support Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the west bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan over almost seven decades is something from which we can learn lessons for other crises.
An aspect of this debate that is sometimes overlooked is internal displacement; there are more internally than externally displaced people. The situation may be much harder for an internally displaced person than for a refugee. Syrians who are still in Syria may have a much tougher time than those who make it to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan. That needs to be a larger part of our focus.
The theme of the global sustainable development goals is “Leave no one behind”. Disabled refugees often face some of the biggest challenges. The Select Committee has taken a great deal of evidence on that subject—for example, when we looked into the Syrian refugee crisis during the last Parliament. DFID is about to publish its policy refresher on education, and it is crucial for the educational needs of children who are living as refugees or IDPs to be at the centre of that.
As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who brings so much experience to debates such as this. I was, however, slightly disappointed by the disingenuous tone of the motion. The Government do work very hard on these matters, and I think we should adopt the “credit where it is due” approach.
I particularly appreciate the opportunity to speak this afternoon, given that when I was a Home Office parliamentary private secretary I was not able to speak about the subject on which I now wish to focus: the Syrian refugee crisis, and the issues that flow from it—because it fell within the Department’s responsibilities. I am proud of the holistic approach that the Government have adopted. Since 2012, we have given £2.6 billion to tackle this crisis. That is our largest ever contribution to deal with a humanitarian crisis, the largest contribution made by any country other than the United States, and a larger contribution than that of the rest of the European Union combined. However, I am sometimes rather frustrated when we end up talking so copiously about money. I believe that we should concentrate more on the outcomes and the impact that that money has, which have been very considerable.
We have been right to focus our effort predominantly in the region as part of that holistic approach, because for every person whom we bring to the United Kingdom, we can help 20 in the region; it helps to reduce the needless deaths in the Mediterranean, which none of us wants to see; it helps to keep families together; it assists the fight to stop human traffickers and criminal gangs from exploiting the most vulnerable people in the world; and it keeps the refugees close to home, which means that when the crisis and conflict are over, they will be best able to go back to their countries and help with the rebuilding process.
I, for one, have always argued that countries in the region ought to be doing more to help that process. However, it is also right for us to bring the most vulnerable refugees here. I am pleased that we have a defined route: we take vulnerable people, particularly children, directly from the camps. We are committed to taking 23,000 of those who find themselves in this most desperate of crises. That prevents them from making the perilous journeys that should be made unnecessary. I appreciated the commitment, made last week during President Macron’s visit to the United Kingdom, to extend the scope and the criteria that we have been applying, including the date, so that, as part of the wider effort in relation to France, Greece and Italy, we are now in a position to take more of the young people—especially children—who turn up on our continent.
All that ties in with the remarkable charitable effort that we have seen in this country. I can think of examples in my own constituency, such as the clothing and toy collections in Oundle, and the relocation in our town of a refugee family who have been made to feel incredibly welcome and part of our community. I am very proud of that. I am also proud of the fact that the Government have been matching the charitable donations that have been made throughout the crisis. As a country, we have a long history of standing up, being counted and doing the right thing. I believe that our response to this crisis lives up to the expectations and obligations upon us.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). I rise to support the motion, and I also speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees.
Taking a human-rights approach to refugees means treating them as human beings who have rights, but who also have skills and experience. We in the Labour party can be proud of the leading role that we played in the creation of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, fulfilling our legal obligations. The current Government have provided financial support for refugees in conflict zones, and that is welcome, but aid and charity, although admirable, are not a human-rights approach. They do not honour fully the spirit or the letter of the 1951 convention, and they deny the humanity of refugees and of ourselves.
The convention made it clear that refugees should be able to provide for themselves and their families by being allowed to seek work, take part in education or start up businesses. It explicitly did not seek to establish a culture of dependency, or structures of confinement or imprisonment. In Uganda, for example, more than 1 million south Sudanese refugees are being helped to get into education or work. There is an economic as well as a legal argument for a human-rights approach. Those refugees are not dependent on aid, are able to keep up the skills that will help them when they return home, and contribute to the local economy. Moreover, they are probably potential customers for our exports.
As well as the legal and economic arguments, however, there is a moral argument. In an ever more closely connected world, we are all neighbours. On this tiny rock in a corner of the universe, we may all need each other one day. I hope that if we in this country were ever to experience the difficulties faced by people in Syria, with record numbers of civilian deaths from airstrikes, we would receive the help from our neighbours that we should be proud to give to others. Do we want to be seen as the one who is ready to help when tragedy strikes, the one with the emergency food who will also help our neighbours to get back on their feet, or as the one whose doors are closed, whose walls are high, and who does not stretch out a helping, enabling hand? I know which I would like as to be seen as.
I respect the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, but time is limited.
I hear criticisms of the human-rights approach, and I have read them on social media. People say that when we welcome refugees we are letting in terrorists, and we should beware of the pull factor. For a start, there is no good evidence of a pull factor; there is evidence only of the determination of refugees to support themselves and their families, and to escape to wherever they can best do that. I strongly urge Members to come to the House on 16 March to support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, which will be presented by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil).
It is important to unpick the argument about terrorism. The 1951 convention makes a clear distinction between refugees and criminals. Being a refugee is not a crime, but being a criminal, or of criminal intent, means that a host country is entitled to restrict or cease its hospitality. However, leaving people trapped, with their movements restricted and their human rights held down, risks turning once desperate people into very angry people—and anger is a breeding ground for those who would recruit followers to ideologies of hate who wish to harm us. So my fifth and final rationale for a human-rights approach to refugees is a national-security one.
On the basis of moral, legal, economic and national-security arguments, and also for the sake of our standing in the world, we urgently need the Government to take a human-rights approach to foreign policy in general and refugees in particular. I think that we in the United Kingdom are proud to be instinctive humanitarians. We all represent people who want us, in Parliament and in Government, to take every opportunity to broker peace, promote human rights and treat refugees as human beings. I urge the Government to support the motion.