House of Commons
Tuesday 20 February 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Middle Level Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Wednesday 28 February at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Foreign Secretary has spoken to Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu about the operation in Afrin. We have called for de-escalation for the protection of civilians, while recognising Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders. It remains in our shared interests to focus on achieving a political settlement in Syria.
Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the Kurdish-led Administration in Afrin has built a secular, democratic system that has worked collaboratively with the international community to defeat Daesh, most recently in Raqqa? Does he accept that the international community owes a debt of honour to the Kurds? Will he step up efforts to stop the bloodshed in and around Afrin?
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but we must also recognise the legitimate security interests of Syria. They consider that, having launched Operation Olive Branch in January, it is in response to attacks from the Afrin area, and they believe that they are in compliance with proper UN standards.[Official Report, 21 February 2018, Vol. 636, c. 4MC.]
That is primarily a question on Syria, rather than Turkey. However, I would point out to the right hon. Lady that the PKK is a proscribed organisation in the UK, whereas the organisations to which she principally refers are not and so can be spoken to.
We on this side of the House unequivocally condemn Turkey for its disgraceful assault on Afrin. We are especially appalled that it has enlisted in its army the very jihadist militias that the Kurdish forces have worked so hard to drive out of northern Syria. If the Foreign Secretary is unable to join me today in condemning Turkey, will the Minister of State at least explain why he believes that “Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders” gives it the right to brutally attack the innocent Kurdish community in Afrin?
I do not think it is exactly as the right hon. Lady says. We need to recognise Turkey’s legitimate interests. Of course we condemn any kind of attacks on civilians and we wish to see a de-escalation of that, but the legitimate rights of Turkey should be recognised.
The truth is that the Turkish assault is part of a broader pattern, where too many foreign parties engaged in the Syrian civil war are now acting just like the Assad regime itself—without any regard for international law. When the Government obtained a military mandate for joining the coalition action in Syria, David Cameron guaranteed in this House that it was “exclusively” to combat the threat from Daesh. Given that that threat is now almost totally gone, will the Minister of State please spell out the coalition’s current military objectives in Syria? When will he seek a mandate for them from this House?
Girls’ education is a moral imperative. Women and girls have the right to be educated, equal, empowered and safe. This is one of the Foreign Secretary’s top priorities, and he has instructed his officials to put girls’ education at the heart of their work.
Given the appalling revelations about some employees in Oxfam and the subsequent attempts to cover that up, could the Minister assure us that any organisation that is asked to deliver education for girls’ programmes anywhere in the world by the British Government is fit for purpose?
I share my hon. Friend’s assessment that this is an utterly despicable example. I hope he agrees that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has shown real leadership by writing to all the organisations with which we contract to ensure that safeguarding levels are raised. I believe that you have allowed her to make a statement on this subject later this afternoon, Mr Speaker.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary champions this issue at every opportunity, including the opportunity that my hon. Friend mentioned. He will be aware that not only has my right hon. Friend shown tremendous leadership on this issue, but he has appointed a special envoy for gender equality and has really put this work at the heart of the diplomatic network.
Khwendo Kor provides education at the north-west frontier province of Pakistan, an incredibly dangerous environment for women and girls. UK Friends of Khwendo Kor tries to bring people over to the UK to provide human rights support, but the Home Office often blocks them. What discussion has the Minister had with the Home Office to help this situation?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the important work that a range of different organisations do, often in partnership with us. If she has specific examples on which she would like me to make representations to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I would be delighted to receive her correspondence.
Further to the previous question, what discussions has the Minister had with the Government of Pakistan on the education of girls in that country? Can she tell the House what proportion of UK aid to Pakistan goes towards the education of women and young girls?
It is certainly very significant. Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting two very impressive education Ministers from different parts of Pakistan. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, education is quite devolved across different parts of Pakistan. As for the specific statistics that he wishes me to provide, I will follow that up in a letter to him.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a huge amount to be done. Something like 136 million girls around the world are not in education. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, this is truly the Swiss army knife of development, because it works in so many different ways. It helps to resolve issues of conflict and is also important to advance global prosperity.
CNN recently reported the story of 12-year-old Halima from Yemen, who wants to become a doctor, but whose father is being forced to make the choice to marry her off to make ends meet. He will receive £2,000 as a dowry for marrying off his daughter. What will the Minister do to prevent conflict in Yemen so that young women there can fulfil their potential?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight a particular example that illustrates the challenges faced by girls around the world. The UK Government have demonstrated significant leadership on this issue as a way of progressing peace and development around the world, and are urging all parties to the conflict in Yemen to make a political solution.
New Channel Link
At the conclusion of the highly successful Anglo-French summit, it was indeed agreed that a committee of wise people, or “comité des sages”, should be established to look at reviving the great tradition of UK-France collaboration in such matters as security, defence, space, genomics, infrastructure, and indeed, infrastructure projects, such as the idea of a new connection between our two countries—an idea, I can tell the House, that was warmly welcomed both by my counterpart, Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, and by President Macron himself.
I note that the Foreign Secretary did not say whether he would be on this committee of wise people. He will be aware of the warning from Maritime UK and many others that the channel ports face gridlock if a transition arrangement for Brexit is not put in place urgently. What is the point of a 20-mile bridge if there is going to be a 20-mile queue waiting to get on to it?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on crowbarring Brexit into that question. Most people appreciate that the existing channel tunnel is likely, at the current rate, to be full within the next seven years, which is a very short time in the lifetime of a great infrastructure project. It is a curiosity that two of the most powerful economies in the world, separated by barely 21 miles of water, are connected by only one railway line. I think that is a matter for legitimate reflection by our two countries on the way forward.
With regard to links across the channel with France and many other European partners, yesterday the Exiting the European Union Committee heard evidence from Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and many others, and it is absolutely clear that the deep partnership we are seeking with the European Union will be a unique and specific agreement that will benefit those on both sides of the channel enormously. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that should be the outcome of the talks that will be starting again soon?
Order. On the subject of crowbarring, or indeed shoehorning, I remind the Foreign Secretary—I am sure that he requires no reminding—that the question is not about Brexit; it is about a fixed link across the channel. That is the pertinent matter upon which he will focus.
If I may say so, I think that my hon. Friend has hit upon the notion of a metaphorical fixed link: a great, swollen, throbbing umbilicus of trade—I will not say which way it is going—with each side mutually nourishing the other. I very much approve of the note of optimism that he strikes.
I am generally in favour of building bridges rather than walls, but may I urge the Foreign Secretary, instead of indulging in fantasy engineering projects, to focus on the important work, which he just mentioned, of building metaphorical bridges with nations that share our values, such as France and other European neighbours, in order to prevent Brexit Britain from becoming isolated and increasingly reliant for trade and influence on regimes that have dubious human rights records?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, but she will recognise that we are beefing up our diplomatic representation in the EU and seizing the opportunity to build new links and revive old partnerships around the world. Nobody could have been more eloquent about our unconditional commitment to our friends and partners in the EU than the Prime Minister was in Munich last week.
In 1971, when French and English counterparts starting talking about the channel tunnel, they were mocked. Can we have more vision and less mockery about ideas on how we can take forward our future relationships?
I remind those Opposition Members who have been jeering from a sedentary position about great infrastructure projects that it has invariably been Conservative Administrations who have come forward with these schemes. It was the Conservatives who revived the east end of London with the Canary Wharf project, and it was Margaret Thatcher who green-lighted the first channel tunnel.
It is estimated that the Foreign Secretary’s channel bridge could be built at a cost of £120 billion. He wants to build bridges, but at the same time he is pushing for a hard Brexit, pushing us further away from the European Union. Does he think that that money could instead be better spent over the next six and a half years by giving the national health service £350 million a week? Which would he prefer?
The hon. Gentleman is possibly too young to remember, but when the first channel tunnel was commissioned it was the vision of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, that it should be entirely privately financed, and there is no reason why we should not have the same ambition this time. As for his point about the Brexit dividend, as the Prime Minister has herself said, there will unquestionably be substantial sums of money available for spending in this country on the priorities of the British people, including the NHS. If Labour Members are opposed to that, let them stand up and say so now.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I defer the economic analysis to the comité—the committee of wise people. However, the first channel tunnel will be full within the next few years, by the middle of the next decade. I think it incumbent on us to be responsible enough to reflect on the future development of our economies, and I look forward to the committee’s findings.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me about the importance of evidence from impartial civil servants? Does he agree with me that evidence in terms of our relationship with France and the rest of Europe is important, and, in that context, does he agree with the former First Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), about the
“problem of politicians who won’t accept evidence”?
Illegal Wildlife Trade
The United Kingdom will host an ambitious, high-level illegal wildlife trade conference in London in October this year. I believe that the ambition to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade is shared by the entire British people.
As my hon. Friend will know, we are nearing the conclusion of a consultation about a total ban on ivory, which I think many people in the House and in the country would agree is devoutly to be wished for. We will see where we get to, but I think my hon. Friend can count on us once again to be in the lead, and I believe that the October summit will produce some very substantive conclusions on saving elephants.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House, and the people of the United Kingdom, that an international approach is being taken to ensure that nations across the developed globe take a similar position, so that we can ostracise and alienate those who are engaged in this sort of trade?
I was able to meet with both Prime Minister Abadi and Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Munich at the weekend, when on behalf of the UK I encouraged the continuing dialogue recently begun between them individually, which is essential to the long-term stability of Iraq. We have no current plans for observers from the UK to attend May’s elections, but we are working with others to ensure efficient and effective monitoring.
Will British diplomats study the Federal Government’s progress in implementing the Iraqi constitution, especially in disputed areas like Kirkuk, where there have been reports of murder, looting and expropriation, and where the autonomy promised under the Iraqi constitution is under threat?
There is no doubt that both sides see the opportunity under the constitution to ensure that the relationships between them are strong and good. There has been a great deal of conciliation in an area that could be one of much greater conflict, and the UK is encouraging that dialogue to minimise the risk of the issues that my hon. Friend raises.
Will my right hon. Friend accept the Foreign Affairs Committee’s observation that many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country they see as not implementing the commitment to equality for them? Does he also agree that the five month-long blockade of international flights to and from Kurdistan has been a needless outrage, separating families, obstructing medical treatment and impairing the economy, and will he encourage Baghdad to lift the blockade?
The issue of the airport is foremost in the discussions between the respective Prime Ministers, and there is a recognition that if the arrangements for the airport could be changed, that would make a difference. It is essential for the future of a Kurdish region in Iraq that it is stable and secure and that rights are honoured on both sides, and that the constitution is seen to be effective.
I have just returned from Iraq, and I monitored the first ever elections in Iraq. Elections are important, and the Iraqis in particular would like more technical assistance and advice. They are doing a good job there at the moment, but they need more UK help to bring about reconciliation and progress between the various factions.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her steadfast support of Iraq over many years. Indeed, she and colleagues from the Inter-Parliamentary Union were over there to talk to those in the Iraqi Parliament about governance issues, and the contribution she has made over many years is immensely valuable. Of course, technical assistance from the UK to assist in this process is part of the support we provide, and I will certainly be looking into what more we can do in relation to the elections.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas referred to the Turkish issue earlier. Certainly there is concern about what is happening on the border and a recognition that the needs of the Kurdish peoples, who are represented by a number of different parties, should be recognised. The UK is always conscious of the relationship we have with those peoples, and with the people of Iraq.
My right hon. Friend is a noted expert on the region, and it is a pleasure to see him representing Her Majesty’s Government in the middle east, but can he bring a little clarity, which the FAC asked for, on the difference between the YPG and the PKK? We received evidence after evidence that there is indeed no real difference, yet Her Majesty’s Government are supporting a group that appears, at least slightly, to be linked to a group that, as my right hon. Friend’s colleague the Minister for Europe and the Americas said just now, is a proscribed organisation.
I thank my hon. Friend not only for his question but for his leadership of the FAC, and we will study its report carefully. It asked for clarity in some situations in which it is genuinely difficult to provide clarity. There will be a full written response from the Foreign Office in due course, but we do designate the PKK as a proscribed organisation; that is the situation at present.
Syria: Chemical Weapons
We are deeply concerned by recent reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. UK officials are in contact with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is investigating. We condemn all use of chemical weapons and are working with international partners to identify and hold to account those responsible.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Anyone who seeks to draw a false equivalence in relation to Syria’s grotesque gassing of its own citizens risks aiding and abetting that gruesome activity. The Government’s concern is not enough, and words are not enough. What is the UK actually going to do to take action to stop this activity? This was supposed to be a red line for the international community, but it has been walked over time and again.
The hon. Gentleman is right to express concern and anger not only about the use of chemical weapons but about their increasing use. We think that they have been used on perhaps four occasions since the turn of this year. If the use of chemical weapons once again becomes the norm in war, that will go against a century of a united response against them by the world. I took part in the recent conference in Paris led by the French Foreign Minister and the United States Secretary of State to counter activities in the UN, where the joint investigative mechanism has been vetoed on three occasions, by trying to create some other mechanism. We will continue to work through the UN to ensure that the international convention on chemical weapons once again becomes properly effective.
I thank the Minister for his responses on this subject, but 2018 has proved to be an absolutely brutal year so far for Syrian civilians. What can we do? We can put in place monitoring in that country. Will the Minister tell us a little more about what UK Government resources are available for monitoring and collecting evidence of these terrible crimes?
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the UK has been working to equip civilians on the ground with the tools they need to collect evidence that can be used to ensure accountability and justice. We have been doing that work for some years, and we will continue to do it. The hon. Lady has called attention to the increased use of chemical weapons in the past few weeks, which is an outrage. The world community is entitled to be outraged by it, and we must ensure that, through the UN, we do something effective to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The United Kingdom supports the concept of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Department for International Development’s people-to-people programme has similar aims, and brings together individuals from both sides to build support for a durable solution. We also remain concerned about the provision of healthcare in Gaza, and we are urging all the parties to take the necessary steps to improve conditions there.
I think the Minister for his response. With the UK’s increased commitment to funding coexistence projects in Israel-Palestine, which many on both sides of the House have long supported, we have an opportunity to lead the way on the global stage. Will he therefore pledge the UK’s diplomatic support to help to create that international fund, to ensure that our funding is matched by others as part of a sustainable international initiative to build the peace in the middle east that we all long for?
Many of us have worried over the years that one of the worst aspects of the conflict has been the separation of peoples. To that extent, we are following the concept of the development of this fund very carefully, and I will continue to take a strong personal interest in it. The sentiment behind it is exactly why we have the £3 million programme, but we will be watching the development of the international fund and giving it support where we can.
A couple of weeks ago, I was humbled to meet a group of young Palestinians and listen to their personal stories about the restrictions on healthcare. A report from the World Health Organisation states that 54 patients died in 2017 while awaiting exit permits to get medical treatment outside Gaza. Will the Minister press Israel to remove the restrictions on patients, to prevent more Palestinians from dying while waiting for medical treatment?
The circumstances in Gaza remain dire in many ways. The free movement of patients and medical personnel is vital to the effectiveness of care. We regularly raise concerns about ambulance and permit delays with the Israeli authorities, and we will continue to do so.
Since September 2015, some 58 Israelis and four foreign nationals have been murdered by Palestinian terrorists in more than 400 separate stabbing, shooting and car ramming incidents. The terrorists have been rewarded with honorary titles, monthly salaries and other opportunities. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the Palestinian Authority that, until such time as glorification of terrorism ends, there can be no peace in the middle east?
As my hon. Friend is aware, we continue to condemn incitement and violent activities in the region at all times. The attacks that he mentions are absolutely not conducive to peace and should not be celebrated. However, the context of the situation means that we must continue to work for an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, because only when that happens will the seeds of conflict be taken away. In the meantime, we unreservedly condemn all terrorist and violent attacks.
After the US halved its funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency last month, President Trump explained the decision by saying that the Palestinians
“disrespected us…by not allowing our great vice president to see them...that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.”
May I ask the Minister to state, on behalf of this House, that extorting the Palestinian Authority to bend the knee to Mike Pence by removing essential healthcare and education from impoverished Palestinian families is nothing short of a disgrace?
The actions of the United States Government in this case have nothing to do with us. Our view on UNRWA remains absolutely clear. I met the director of UNRWA just this morning at the Department for International Development. We will continue to support it and to fund it. To leave refugees in Lebanon and Jordan without support would be a disaster. UNRWA needs to continue to get support, and it will do so from the United Kingdom.
Institute for Free Trade: Launch Cost
There was no cost to the public purse.
Oh, come off it! Come off it! The right hon. Gentleman must think that we were all born yesterday. The truth is that this was a private party, which was going on on Government premises, sanctioned by the Foreign Secretary. He has been trying to dress up a tinpot bunch of ideological crackpots as an institute, quite against the law, and he has broken the ministerial code. He has been caught in flagrante delicto, hasn’t he?
I am under the unhappy duty of contradicting the hon. Gentleman. He is talking the most perfect tripe. The event that took place was completely non-partisan. Members of all parties were present. [Interruption.] Including the Labour party. EU and non-EU ambassadors were represented. It was fully in line with Foreign and Commonwealth Office rules on hosting such events, and I have here a letter from the Cabinet Secretary to confirm that, which I am happy to pass to the hon. Gentleman. I am afraid to say that the Cabinet Secretary has been pestered with complaints from the Labour party about this absolutely blameless event, which was there to support and encourage free trade, which is a major objective of Government policy and should be an objective of the hon. Gentleman—or is it not?
I hesitate for an age before correcting you, Mr Speaker, but it was a serious discussion of the advancement of free trade. The subject of free trade in the African Union, which my hon. Friend raises, is a very good one. The only advice I would give to the African Union is not to acquire a parliament, a court or a single currency.
Global Ocean Conservation
At the previous Foreign Office questions in January, I explained that the UK is leading by example on ocean conservation. The Government are on track to meet their manifesto blue belt pledge, which will deliver marine protection across nearly 4 million sq km of the waters around our overseas territories by 2020. Through the Commonwealth marine economies programme, we are working to enable small island Commonwealth states to conserve and use their maritime space sustainably.
In common with my constituents, I welcome the microbeads ban and other measures taken by the Government to protect the marine environment, but we need a global approach. What diplomatic steps is my right hon. Friend taking to engage with the United Nations and other countries to push the blue belt charter up the global agenda?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the steps that we have taken, such as on microbeads. As for her main point, we are closely involved in negotiations to develop a UN treaty on marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions. As chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years, we will work with member states to create a Commonwealth blue charter. In the G7, we are working closely with Canada during its presidency to deliver our shared ambition to tackle the threats facing our oceans.
I welcome the significant contribution made by the British Council to projecting British values overseas, which I regularly witness on my visits to Asia and the Pacific. My officials and I are in regular dialogue with the British Council across the globe to discuss the scope of its important work. We will continue to work with it to ensure compliance with our manifesto commitment to
“place… the British Council on a secure footing”.
I thank the Minister for that response. Given the importance of the British Council to our soft power, what are the implications of possible cuts to non-overseas development aid funding for the council’s work? How might they affect the Government’s plans for a global Britain?
The council has agreed to reduce its non-ODA grant from the Foreign Office to zero by the end of the spending review period in exchange for additional official development assistance funding. As part of our vision for a global Britain, we want a properly funded and effective council that projects British values right across the world. The council will continue to deliver activity in non-ODA countries through the income generated from other sources, such as its commercial income.
Leaving the EU: Diplomatic Co-operation
We are seeking a deep and special partnership with the EU post Brexit. Our existing relationship provides a strong foundation for vital continued co-operation on global challenges. We are working to strengthen, reinvigorate and reshape our bilateral relationships with our European partners, focusing on shared values and interests.
The Foreign Secretary’s 5,000-word speech on Brexit last week was described by one of his ministerial colleagues as follows:
“He is completely in denial about the complexity of the exit and the negative economic…consequences.”
Will the Foreign Secretary clear something up? Is he in denial or is he just wrong?
If I may, I will respectfully resist the alternatives that the hon. Gentleman lays before me. Last week, I was trying to make the point that we now have a massive opportunity to come together—people who voted remain and people who voted leave—to get a positive arrangement and a positive Brexit that will be of massive benefit to people both in this country and in the whole of the European continent. If we are ambitious and positive, I have absolutely no doubt that we can pull it off.
The Foreign Secretary claimed last week that it would be “intolerable” for the UK not to set its own regulations after Brexit. The next day, a Harvard survey of UK importers and exporters found that the last thing that they want is the dual regulatory burden of having to comply with both UK and EU rules. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us who is right?
I think that the Harvard survey is right: nobody wants two sets of regulations to be imposed on the UK economy. That is why the Prime Minister was completely right—wasn’t she?—at Lancaster House and, indeed, in Florence and in sundry other places when she said that Brexit means taking back control of our money, our borders and, above all, our laws. That is what we are going to do.
Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to praise the work of Her Majesty’s diplomatic service? Is he content that our embassies in the 27 remaining EU countries are sufficiently resourced to represent the United Kingdom effectively after Brexit?
It has been pointed out that the Foreign Secretary’s Brexit speech last week was 5,000 words long, but it did not once include the words “Northern” or “Ireland”. That is perhaps the biggest problem that the Government need to tackle, yet the Foreign Secretary did not even mention it. Will he belatedly take the opportunity to explain in simple terms how it is possible for the UK to diverge from the EU in regulations, tariffs and other aspects of trade while retaining the current arrangements on the Irish land border? Will he enlighten us? What is the plan?
As the right hon. Lady knows very well, there is no reason whatsoever why we should not be able to exit the customs union and the single market while maintaining frictionless trade not only north-south in Northern Ireland, but with the rest of continental Europe. That is exactly what the Government will spell out in the course of the coming negotiations.
The UK champions peacekeeping financially, politically and militarily. Since 2015, we have more than doubled our commitment to UN peacekeeping, with British forces deploying to South Sudan and Somalia. There are now more than 700 UK personnel deployed on eight UN peacekeeping missions in seven countries.
In the light of ongoing reports of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, does the Minister agree that increasing the number of women peacekeepers is a vital part of addressing the crisis in the long term? Will she also tell us the proportion of peacekeepers from the UK who are women and what plans she has to increase their representation on UN deployments?
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s leadership on the issue and her work on all aspects of it. I think that she will admire the leadership role that the UK has played not only in putting the subject on the UN’s agenda last year, but with our Prime Minister’s appointment to the Secretary-General’s Circle of Leadership. I assure her that we will continue to champion that agenda at every opportunity.
On the topic that the hon. Lady raised about women from our armed forces, she will know about the impressive agenda that includes the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018, and that we are aiming to increase the proportion of women from 11% to 15%.
My immediate priority is to take forward Britain’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma and in Bangladesh. I was deeply moved by the plight of Rohingya refugees whom I met in Cox’s Bazar earlier this month. I went to Burma with the express purpose of raising the tragedy with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The UK’s goal is to help to create the conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the refugees to their homes.
The House will join me in welcoming the Gambia back to the Commonwealth, providing an excellent prelude to the Commonwealth summit in London in April.
I have just returned from a sun-kissed New Zealand, where I had fruitful discussions—[Interruption.]—indoors in the main, with a range of political figures, including my counterparts the Associate Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister, and with the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. New Zealand is a valued Five Eyes security partner and a priority for a deeper security and trade agreement once we leave the EU. We have the broadest and deepest friendship with New Zealand.
The UK is joint guarantor of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, yet we have seen booksellers abducted, elected legislators barred and student demonstrators imprisoned, and in Guangdong, in December, 10 people were tried in a sports stadium before being executed. Why did the Prime Minister not raise the issue of human rights in public in Beijing? Was it because she does not care or because she is so desperate to get a trade deal?
I reassure the shadow Minister that the Prime Minister did raise these issues, but we do this not through megaphone diplomacy but in private meetings; we relentlessly raise human rights issues, not least in respect of Hong Kong. As the hon. Lady rightly says, it is vital that Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms are respected. Our most recent six-monthly report states that one country, two systems must continue to function well, and we remain concerned by, for example, the rejection of Agnes Chow’s most recent nomination for March’s Legislative Council election.
We have fully supported the United Nations resolutions that have imposed increasing sanctions upon the use of overseas labour from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Many such workers operate in slavery-like conditions while the DPRK regime takes a large slice of their wages. The latest of those was UN Security Council resolution 2397, which was adopted as recently as 22 December last year.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in this subject. As he knows, the difficulty is that in the UN Security Council there will be those who would not support such a resolution at present. The crucial thing is that everybody in the region and around the world makes it clear to the Government in Naypyidaw and to Daw Suu that the only way forward now for Burma is to create the conditions for a safe, dignified and voluntary return—and that must mean an independent UN-led agency to oversee the repatriation; otherwise those people are going to be too frightened to return. That is the priority on which we should focus.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this disastrous situation and the importance of the UK’s role. He will be aware that the DRC is an extremely dangerous place even for the UN peacekeepers; some were killed last year. The UK Government are calling on President Kabila to respect the constitution, to fulfil the commitments made in the Saint-Sylvestre accord and to continue with the implementation path to elections this year.
We have one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world, governed both by this House and by the law, and we will continue to abide by that. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to encourage a diplomatic solution to end the conflict in Yemen. That is the only thing that will bring the suffering of the people of Yemen to an end.
We are totally aligned with what is taking place in Redditch in the sense that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa said earlier, our ambition for there to be 12 years of quality education for every girl in the world, which I believe is the universal spanner that will help to unlock so many other global problems, is at the heart of our Commonwealth summit—
The universal spanner—a device that will solve almost any problem. I truly believe that female education is at the heart of solving so many other global problems, which is why we are putting it at the very centre of the Commonwealth summit in April and the upcoming G7 summit. Across our network, female education is at the heart of everything that we do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; I am well aware that this issue is close to his heart. He will be aware that Lord Ahmad and I regularly liaise on the issue with our embassies and high commissions. I wrote a joint letter to those on my patch, in Asia and the Pacific, and I have received replies from Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. I am encouraged that the network takes the issue as seriously as the hon. Gentleman does.
If Britain is to assume a more ambitious global trading role as we leave the EU, we shall surely need to expand the depth and reach of our network of high commissions and embassies in regions such as North America. What assurances can my right hon. Friend offer the House that critical diplomatic missions in countries such as Canada are being expanded, not cut back?
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that to the best of my knowledge we have, just in the past 18 months, opened three new trade missions in North America. I cannot comment about Canada specifically, but we are certainly beefing up our presence in the United States in advance of doing a great free trade deal.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described what is happening to the Rohingya people as a military campaign in which
“you cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed”.
Having met the victims in Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Foreign Secretary said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) that a Security Council referral is too difficult. Will he show some leadership and work with our EU partners next week at the Foreign Affairs Council to build support for a referral? The act of a referral will make a difference.
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, Myanmar is not signed up to the International Criminal Court, but there must be no doubt about the gravity of what has taken place. Anybody who flies over northern Rakhine, as I did last week, will see literally hundreds of villages that have been burned or destroyed. Some 680,000 people have been displaced. This has been ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale and it may also have been genocide. It is vital that the evidence is acquired to determine whether any future prosecution can be mounted.
The recent extension of the state of emergency and the arrest of former President Gayoom and two Supreme Court judges has shown President Yameen tightening his grip in the Maldives and the further extinguishing of the democratic institutions there. Given the fact that at any one time there are literally thousands of British holidaymakers on those islands, and that until recently the Maldives was a welcome member of the Commonwealth family, will the Secretary of State agree to head up a mission there, or encourage the UN to establish one? The situation has the potential to bring China and India into an unwelcome regional conflict.
Like my right hon. Friend I am deeply troubled by the declaration of a state of emergency in the Maldives on 5 February and the accompanying suspension of fundamental rights. Last November in London, I met former President Nasheed, whose own time in office was turbulent, and we discussed the deteriorating situation. We will very much take on board my right hon. Friend’s suggestions.
Is the Secretary of State concerned about weekend reports by human rights observers that the civilians of Afrin have been subjected to chemical gas attacks by Turkish forces? Should we expect that conduct from a so-called NATO ally?
As I mentioned earlier, any suggestion of the use of chemical weapons must be independently verified. The degree to which they have become more used in the Syrian conflict by a number of different sources, not least the regime, is a matter of great concern, but any suggestion must be properly identified and verified.
The Good Friday agreement has brought about peace for almost 20 years in Northern Ireland. Will the Foreign Secretary give an unequivocal assurance that Her Majesty’s Government will not do anything that undermines the agreement, including pursuing any policy that undermines the principles that led to its creation?
Has the Secretary of State had the chance to speak to the Sri Lankan ambassador regarding his defence attaché Brigadier Priyanka Fernando and his behaviour on 4 February, when he made throat-slitting gestures to Tamil protesters? If somebody else incited hatred in that way on our streets, they would be interviewed by the police. Will the Minister make arrangements for Brigadier Priyanka Fernando to be interviewed by the police about that crime?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the UK takes this incident very seriously. When I spoke recently to Foreign Minister Marapana, he left me in no doubt that the Sri Lankan Government were treating it with the seriousness that it deserves. They have informed the UK Government that they have ordered the defence attaché to return to Colombo from London with immediate effect for consultations while the incident is thoroughly investigated. I hope that the UK and Sri Lanka bilateral relationship will remain strong and co-operative.
I know the Foreign Secretary shares my view that our leadership in marine conservation, particularly in respect of the blue belt, is a source of national pride, but may I urge him please to use the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April to press our Commonwealth allies, more than half of which are island states, to make that a high priority in the discussions ahead?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the pioneering role he has played in championing the blue belt initiative, which has consecrated millions of square miles of ocean, protecting habitats and species around the world. As he knows, the UK Government have put a further £20 million into that scheme. As he rightly foreshadows, it is our ambition at the Commonwealth summit to go further.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the plight of my constituents Mr and Mrs Westwood, who were first of all defrauded of their entire possessions in Zimbabwe and then forced to flee for their lives by armed gangs with very close links with the Mugabe regime. Will he explain why the Westwoods recently received a letter that appeared to indicate that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was no longer willing to give them any assistance? Will he agree to meet me and the Westwoods to give them his personal assurance that the FCO will not abandon them?
May I ask my right hon. Friend what his view is of the position with the Ecuadorian embassy in London? The situation has been going on since 19 June 2012. In the first three years, it was estimated to have cost the Metropolitan police an extra £11 million. When are we going to take action?
Julian Assange breached his bail conditions in 2012. In upholding the arrest warrant of 13 February, Judge Arbuthnot said:
“He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour.”
In our view, Assange is not a victim of arbitrary detention. He is avoiding lawful arrest. He should step outside the door and face justice. That would bring an end to the matter.
Almost two years ago, my constituent Adrian St John was murdered in Trinidad. Since then, his mother Sharon and I have been working with Ministers and officials in both countries to secure justice, but progress has been grindingly slow. The case in Trinidad has been adjourned 27 times. Will the Government ensure that Adrian’s murder is on the agenda when the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago visits London in April, and will Ministers allow time during Mr Rowley’s official visit to meet Sharon and me to help her to secure justice?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he is defending the interests of his constituent. I am acutely aware of this case. Adrian was murdered in Trinidad. We cannot interfere in the judicial process, but we are extending every possible support. I advise the House that we understand that a preliminary trial to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the accused with murder will be held on 8 March. I hope that this will mark some progress towards what the hon. Gentleman is seeking.
Millions of people are celebrating the seventh anniversary of the start of the Libyan uprising and the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi. Fayez al-Sarraj has been the Prime Minister of Libya for nearly two years and progress has been painfully slow. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what his Department is doing to help the Government of National Accord to bring about a prosperous and—more importantly—peaceful Libya?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest in a country that is still bedevilled by factional feuding between a very small number of men—a maximum of about half a dozen—who have it in their power to come together and build a better future for Libya. We are trying to back the efforts of UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé to bring the eastern and western parts of Libya together, with a plan for the whole country—a new constitution, to be followed by elections. That is what we are working for.
May I ask the Minister for the Middle East what representations have been made in the case of Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who is facing another long prison sentence tomorrow, simply for taking to social media to criticise torture in Bahrain’s prisons and the Saudi-led war in Yemen?
There are a small number of those who have been arrested and have had lengthy trials in Bahrain. The United Kingdom has made representations in a number of these cases, including those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and we continue to monitor the trials and processes very carefully.
Estimates suggest that 12 million tonnes of plastic go into our oceans every year, causing immense damage to our ecosystems. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need not only to get involved on the global stage to influence the cleaning up of our oceans, but to lead by example in the UK, not least—it might only be a small thing—by giving up plastic for Lent as far as we can, as many hon. Members are doing?
My hon. Friend speaks for millions of people in the country who feel ashamed to see the state of our oceans and wish that they could be cleared up. This country is taking a lead. Cracking down on plastic waste will certainly be at the heart of the Commonwealth summit. I have to admit that I do not know how easily I could give up plastic for Lent. I have a plastic biro in my right hand; I propose to take it out and dispose of it in a suitable manner. My hon. Friend is entirely right.
I, personally, and the Government sympathise deeply with the situation faced by Alfie Dingley and his family. I think that everyone on both sides of the House and outside it will understand and respect the desire of the family to try to alleviate his suffering in any way possible. I assure my hon. Friend that we want to help to find a solution within the existing regulations.
As my hon. Friend will know, the current situation is that cannabis, in its raw form, is not recognised in the UK as having any medicinal benefits. It is therefore listed as a schedule 1 drug under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. This means that it is unlawful to produce, supply or possess raw cannabis unless it is for the purposes of research. Products must be thoroughly tested in the UK to provide the necessary assurances of their efficacy, quality and safety.
We have a clear regime in place that is administered by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to enable medicines, including those containing controlled drugs such as cannabis, to be developed, licensed and made available for medicinal use to patients in the UK, as happened in the case of Sativex, as my hon. Friend knows. The Home Office will consider issuing a licence to enable trials of any new medicine under schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, providing that it complies with appropriate ethical approvals. Cannabis-based products should be treated in the same way as all other drugs, meaning that they should go through the normal testing procedures applied to any other medicines.
The current situation is that outside of research we would not issue licences for the personal consumption of cannabis because it is listed as a schedule 1 drug. However, we are aware of differing approaches in other countries and continue to monitor the World Health Organisation’s expert committee on drug dependence, which has committed to reviewing the use of medicinal cannabis. We will wait until the outcome of the review before considering any next steps. [Interruption.] I am also aware—before the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) starts chuntering—that the private Member’s Bill on the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal purposes introduced by the hon. Gentleman will give the House a further opportunity to debate the wider policy.
The whole House will understand that it is a natural desire for parents to do everything they can to make sure that their children do not suffer unnecessarily, but we also need to make sure that cannabis is subjected to the same regulatory framework that applies to all medicines in the UK. We must ensure that only medicines that have been tested for their safety to the correct standard are prescribed for UK children.
I thank my right hon. Friend for saying at the beginning of his response that he is determined to find a solution to this. That will also be welcomed by my right hon. Friend the Attorney General, Alfie Dingley’s MP, who has been working hard, if necessarily privately, on his behalf.
I hope that the Home Office is going to find a way to cease standing behind a 1961 UN scheduling of cannabis as having no medicinal benefit whatsoever. My right hon. Friend mentioned Sativex. However, there are now 12, soon to be 15, states of the European Union and 29 states of the United States of America, and the District of Columbia, that have all found a way to license the medicinal use of cannabis. Is he aware of the position of the Republic of Ireland, which, with a legal framework very similar to ours, gave its Health Minister the explicit power to license use of the medicine in cases such as Alfie’s?
My right hon. Friend’s position, and that of the Government, currently flies in the face of the popular view in the United Kingdom, where 78% of people think that we should find a way of using cannabis-based medicine. Out there, most people instinctively understand the pain and symptom relief that is available from cannabis-based medicines. Here, we know from the Barnes review of 2016, commissioned by the all-party parliamentary group on drug policy reform, that there is good, peer-reviewed medical evidence of the effectiveness of cannabis-based medicines for conditions associated with multiple sclerosis, the side-effects of chemotherapy, and epilepsy.
Failure by the Government to move from their current position will sentence Alfie to the steroid-based treatment he was receiving before he went to the Netherlands, which is likely to give him early psychosis and a premature death. Their position also means that British citizens are being denied all the potential medical and symptomatic benefits that could come from a properly licensed, regulated and researched access programme to cannabis-based medicines. If we do not give people the licences to do the medical research, we will not get the products. Granting the licences would mean that we would not have to rely on the wisdom of crowds and illegally sourced and unreliable products, and would have peer-reviewed, evidence-based treatments produced to pharmaceutical standards.
I urge my right hon. Friend, who is very far from being cruel and heartless—as indeed are the rest of his colleagues in the Home Office—to help either the manufacturers of the drug that will save Alfie’s life, or his doctors or the family to find a way through to get a licence to treat him, and to instruct his officials to assist. It is an indication of just how messed up our management of this issue is that my right hon. Friend from the Home Office is answering this urgent question and not a Health Minister. On health grounds, this is an open-and-shut case.
I thank my hon. Friend. I totally respect his position. I should place it on record that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), is sitting next to me, very much in listening mode.
I reassure my hon. Friend, and my right hon. Friend the Attorney General, who has made many representations to me on behalf of Alfie Dingley and his family, that there are clearly some special circumstances in this case that need to be respected. I have undertaken to meet the family, and I will do that as quickly as possible. I also undertake to explore every option within the current regulatory framework. I give that undertaking with sincerity.
I know my hon. Friend well enough to know that he will understand the importance of proceeding on the basis of evidence, particularly when it concerns the safety of drugs and of children. We have our position—he is right that it has been established for a long time—and it is supported by expert opinion. However, we are aware that the position is shifting in other countries, and we monitor that closely.
We are also aware that cannabis is an extremely complex substance, and the WHO quite rightly is looking at it from every angle to get an up-to-date view on its therapeutic use. We are monitoring all that closely. Our current regulatory position is what it is. However, I have undertaken to explore every option within the regulatory framework to see whether we can find a solution to this extremely emotive case.
There has been a call to allow a licence for administering medical cannabis to Alfie Dingley, but the Government must thoroughly examine the evidence in this area—both the stated benefits and the supposed risks of medical cannabis. Our policies must always be based on evidence and not frightened of scary headlines or chasing favourable ones. Only in that way can the House come to an informed decision on the wider issues.
Alfie Dingley is a six-year-old boy whose life is blighted by epileptic fits, and it is understandable that his family want him to have whatever medication they feel will help him. They look to us as politicians to facilitate that, but we are constrained by laws. Members supportive of drug policy reform would like the Home Secretary to issue a licence so that Alfie can continue taking the medication, but the Home Office has responded that the drug
“cannot be practically prescribed, administered or supplied to the public”.
Cannabis use is illegal in this country—we do not dispute that. However, we need assurances from the Minister that all the evidence relating to Alfie’s case has been looked at and that all avenues of treatment are being considered. We need confidence that the Minister and his colleagues are doing everything in their power to ensure that Alfie has the best possible quality of life.
This case is the latest in a long line of prominent examples that have led to more calls for legislation to permit the medical use of cannabis. Is it now time for a review of the law, to look at how we can better support those living in chronic pain, those with long-term degenerative conditions and those in the final stages of life?
I agree with the hon. Lady that policy should be evidence-led, and I support entirely her point that we need to think very carefully about the implications and consequences of everything we do.
As I said in my statement, outside of research we would not issue licences for the personal consumption of cannabis because it is listed as a schedule 1 drug. However, as in the case of Sativex, the Home Office will consider issuing a licence to enable trials of any new medicine under schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, providing it complies with appropriate ethical approvals. I repeat that I personally undertake to explore every option within the existing regulations to see if we can find a solution.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I dispute the allegation that the Government are not fleet of foot on this. As I said in my statement, we are aware that things are changing in other countries and that the WHO is reviewing the evidence, and we will follow that very closely indeed.
We would have to have a heart of stone if any of our children or grandchildren were in this position and we were told by a stubborn bureaucracy that they had to turn blue up to 30 times a day and have seizures because our law says that that is the situation. Twenty-nine American states have legalised cannabis for medicinal purposes, and in every one of them the use of deadly, dangerous opioids has gone down. Every alternative to natural cannabis is worse. It is not just one case; thousands of people have the choice of suffering terrible pain and seizures every day or criminalising themselves by breaking the law. I urge them to break the law, because the law in this case is an ass, and it is cruel and lacks compassion.
I do not have a heart of stone, and I say that not just as a parent of six children. Anyone with or without children could not fail to be moved by this case, but, as the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, we have to look at this through the lens of its implications across the system. We have to look at this through the lens of the existing law, which is set on the basis of expert advice, not least from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It is very clear that
“the use of cannabis is a significant public health issue”,
and, in its words, can
“unquestionably cause harm to individuals and society.”
We cannot ignore that advice. However, as I have said, we are monitoring closely the work done by the WHO and other countries, and precedents elsewhere, and, as I have undertaken to do in this particular case, we will explore every option within the existing regulations.
As the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said, it is not just Alfie; thousands of people have such conditions. I have a constituent, Vicky Clarke—now just 5 stone in weight—in St Giles hospice in my constituency, suffering from the very final stages of multiple sclerosis. Her husband has found that the only drug that alleviated her pain was cannabis, and he has twice been investigated by the police. We are not talking about the general administration of cannabis; we are talking about the medical prescription of cannabis. If a doctor says that cannabis is the only cure or a medical professional says that it is the only way to alleviate pain, surely they should be legally allowed to prescribe that drug.
Well, they still have to operate within the law. The law does permit the development, licensing and marketing of medicines, including those containing controlled drugs, such as cannabis. I have used the example of Sativex, which I believe provides relief to patients with MS. My hon. Friend talks about lots of other cases like this one. It is worth noting, however, that in the case of Alfie Dingley, I think only nine other children in the world suffer from the same type of epilepsy as he does. That is why I have undertaken to explore every option on his behalf. I make it quite clear that the Home Office and the Government are keeping this area under review, because this is fast moving. The House will of course have the chance to debate it along with the private Member’s Bill.
The Scottish National party is in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use, given the evidence of the benefit it has in alleviating the symptoms of many serious conditions, such as that suffered by young Alfie Dingley. In 2016, our party conference heard evidence from a multiple sclerosis sufferer, Laura Brennan-Whitefield, who called for “compassion and common sense” on this issue. She said:
“I’m not advocating the smoking of cannabis, what I’m advocating is a progressive and reasonable, compassionate society where you can access pain relief”.
We urge the UK Government to look again very seriously at decriminalising the use of cannabis for medicinal use. If they are not prepared to do so, we ask them to devolve the power to Scotland, so that the Scottish Government can take appropriate steps. However, we would like to see this for everybody in the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her contribution, and this issue will be debated with the private Member’s Bill on Friday. Again, I come back to the point that we have the existing regulatory framework, and we will not issue licences for the personal consumption of cannabis because it is listed as a schedule 1 drug. However, it is possible to consider issuing licences to enable trials of any new medicine under schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, and there is precedent for doing so.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I certainly was here, just silent. I support the medical use of cannabis, particularly in this case. If the Bill sponsored by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) passes with a sufficient majority on Friday, might the Government fast-track it through the House?
The Minister has heard support from those of us on these Benches, but does he not support the views of his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, where the health spokesman Miles Briggs said:
“it is time for a comprehensive, UK wide review…and for Parliament to look to reform access to cannabis for medical and scientific purposes”?
Does he recognise that there is widespread support in all parties?
There are good reasons for the Government’s current position. As I made clear in my statement, we are looking very closely at the approaches being taken by other countries. We have a keen eye on what the global experts, the WHO’s expert committee on drug dependence, conclude in relation to the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of cannabis.
I have had a number of constituents in the past eight years who have suffered from different illnesses, such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. They told me that conventional drugs have not worked for them. Often, they have had to travel abroad, especially Holland, to obtain and use cannabis, which has helped them significantly. I therefore urge the Minister and the Government to please consider allowing the medicinal use of cannabis.
I totally understand the hon. Lady’s point, which underlines why the WHO is undertaking its work. I am sure she will agree, however, that cannabis products must be treated in the same way as all other drugs. That means going through the normal testing procedures that apply to any other medicine.
May I help the Minister and suggest that he speak with his colleague the Secretary of State for Health and ask about the extensive trial, known as delta-9, which took place in the Royal Marsden hospital 40 years ago? Cannabis was found to be an excellent prophylactic against nausea caused by ontological medicine. The data is there. The empirical evidence is there. Why does he not save time and trouble by having a word with the Secretary of State and drawing this information to the attention of the House? Let us resolve this matter once and for all.
The hon. Gentleman will understand why I approach any offer of help from him with caution, but in this case I will certainly discuss the evidence he mentions with my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. We need to proceed on the basis of evidence, because of the need for safety.
The Government have heard several times that cannabis for medicinal use is available in many countries. It is clear that the evidence is there. It is allowed in other EU countries. One of the benefits of being in the EU, while we are still there, is collaboration. We are able to review research that is available elsewhere and come to a quick decision. Will the Minister confirm that there are no barriers at the top level of the Government preventing that?
I am not aware of any barriers. What I am aware of is the current regulatory framework, underpinned by expert advice, which continues to be that cannabis in its raw form is not recognised in the UK as having any medicinal benefit. The situation is evolving in other countries and the WHO is looking at it. It is right that we keep an open mind and that we continue to look at the evidence and the precedence from other countries.
I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on epilepsy and as the daughter of an epilepsy sufferer. In addition to the cost in human misery, can the Minister advise on whether any attempt has been made to estimate the net cost of continuous ineffective treatment for epilepsy sufferers who are denied access to cannabis for medicinal purposes?
The whole House will welcome the fact that the Minister has agreed to meet the family of Alfie Dingley. Will he also agree to meet the campaign group End Our Pain, which is campaigning to allow doctors to prescribe cannabis when it would help their patients? End Our Pain wants to present to the Minister the evidence that honourable colleagues have talked about and discuss the fact that the Multiple Sclerosis Society has changed its position on the use of medicinal cannabis, based on the evidence.
I wonder whether the Minister knows the book “The Boy in 7 Billion”, by Callie Blackwell, the mum of Deryn Blackwell who, at the age of 10, was diagnosed with a very rare cancer and then, through the use of cannabis oil, made a miraculous recovery. If he likes, I can lend him my copy. I got one over recess at THTC, a company in my constituency that makes hemp t-shirts—sorry, it does not make them; it supplies them. It is not allowed to make them in this country. It also pointed out that in Mexico, where the medicinal use of cannabis has been legalised, violent crime has dramatically dropped. Does the Minister not think that those things are more than a coincidence, and will he not investigate?
The hon. Lady is taking us beyond a UK scope. I do not know the book and I am grateful to her for her offer, but I come back to what I said at the start. The Government have a position based on the listing as a schedule 1 drug and the view of experts, but we review, and keep under review, what is happening in other countries and, most importantly, the WHO’s position.
We seem to be in some kind of Alice in Wonderland world where words mean the opposite of what we imagine. The Minister said that he is being fleet of foot, yet we have established that we are dragging our feet behind 15 EU member states and 29 US states. I have lost count of the number of times that he has talked about the importance of evidence, yet will he not accept the overwhelming evidence that there are no downsides to the kind of policy change that we are talking about, no matter how hard he looks for them? Why will he not commit at the very least to trials of the regulation of medical-based cannabis? That could, for example, answer questions about how best to distinguish between different types of use and facilitate research that might otherwise be hindered.
We are fleet of foot in the sense that we keep abreast of the evidence as it develops. I made it very clear in my statement that the Home Office will consider issuing licences to enable trials of any new medicine under schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, providing that it complies with the appropriate ethical approvals.
Alfie’s mother said that any one of the 30 seizures that he has a day could be life-threatening, so there is incredible urgency. I have heard the Minister say that he is very sympathetic and I do not doubt that for a minute, but I have not heard him say when he will make a decision to help Alfie because of that urgency.
I totally accept the point about urgency, and I totally accept the point made by others that we cannot look at policy entirely through the lens of one case. However, I have undertaken to meet the family as quickly as possible, and we are exploring every option inside the existing regulatory envelope.
I have heard the Minister say that he is going to monitor the situation and that he is looking for evidence, but we have had that situation for decades. This place created the problem with poor legislation as far back as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We are in a situation where we know that medicinal cannabis is available that will particularly help Alfie. He has been taking it in the Netherlands. It is not beyond the wit of man to facilitate the continuation of that supply, if the will is there.
As I said in my statement, the UK has a view, which is that cannabis in its raw form is not recognised in the UK as having any medicinal benefits. As I also said, I recognise that there may be special circumstances in this case, which is why I am absolutely determined to look at every option inside the existing regulatory envelope.
As a Welsh MP, I am very proud of the Welsh Assembly, which recognises the need to legalise cannabis for medicinal use. Sativex is a very unpleasant, alcohol-based medicine that is unsuitable for many patients, and I hope that the Government will recognise that. However, we as a country are light years behind other countries, so the excuses today are just not valid. Why does the word “cannabis” scare the Government so much? We need to stop hiding and stop making excuses. Can the Minister tell the parents of children such as Alfie and all the other people who need access to medicinal cannabis legally across the UK when that is going to happen?
What the Government do is listen to the independent, statutory Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which has been very clear that
“the use of cannabis is a significant public health issue. Cannabis can unquestionably cause harm to individuals and society.”
We cannot just ignore that expert advice. As I said in my statement, there is a precedent for medicines, including controlled drugs such as cannabis and Sativex, to be issued with a licence to enable trials.