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—
1. Whether he has made representations to his Turkish counterpart on that country’s operation in Afrin. 
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.]
When we make representations to our Turkish NATO allies, can we also make representations on behalf of the tens of thousands of journalists and others who have been locked up by the Turkish Government?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that we do, and we do so in all our meetings at all levels with our Turkish counterparts.
Do the Government agree that the Democratic Union party—the PYD—and the People’s Protection Units—the YPG—should be included in the Geneva process to end Syria’s war and discuss the country’s future?
That is primarily a question on Syria, rather than Turkey. However, I would point out to the 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.
Will the Minister make representations to the Turkish Foreign Minister to ask the Turkish navy to cease obstructing vessels seeking to extract hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean?
I understand the issue to which my right hon. Friend refers, which is the drilling for oil and gas on the edge of Cyprus. We are assessing what has been reported over the past day or so about what exactly is happening in that area.
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?
I find the right hon. Lady’s analysis extremely bizarre, particularly as the YPG has been reported as wishing to ally itself with the Assad regime in order to fight back against Turkey’s activity.
Further to that point, what is the Minister’s assessment of the veracity of reports that the Assad regime and the Kurds are joining forces militarily to resist the Turkish incursion?
That is exactly the issue to which I have just referred. We are assessing it, and I am sure that there will be further reports later, but it is too early to say exactly what may be happening.
2. What steps his Department is taking to support the delivery of girls’ education throughout the world. 
9. What steps his Department is taking to support the delivery of girls’ education throughout the world. 
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.
During the Foreign Secretary’s recent trip, what discussions did he have with Burma, Thailand and Bangladesh on the Government’s policy on the education of women and girls?
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.
I welcome the work that my hon. Friend and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are doing in this field, but does she agree that in a place such as Africa, a huge amount more needs to be done?
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
3. Whether he has had discussions with his French counterpart on the construction of a new fixed link across the channel. 
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.
Can the Foreign Secretary tell us about any economic analysis that he has had done on the infrastructure that he is talking about, and tell us where it sits in relation to the Government’s new Mad Max dystopian barometer?
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”?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have nothing but admiration for the hard work and dedication of the Whitehall civil servants who are preparing the Brexit negotiations. Believe me, they are doing a superb job.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
4. What steps his Department is taking to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. 
13. What steps his Department is taking to tackle the 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.
At that conference, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the United Kingdom remains at the forefront of efforts to stamp out the illegal trade in ivory?
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.
During his recent trip to south-east Asia, what discussions did my right hon. Friend have with palm oil-producing countries about the illegal wildlife trade and deforestation?
I am acutely aware of the problems caused by palm oil cultivation. We are in urgent dialogue with our partners to discourage them from deforestation and the consequent loss of species.
China has come a long way in the ivory trade discussions, but what discussions is the team having with Vietnam and some of the other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
Only the other day, I had discussions with Thailand. We absolutely appreciate the importance of not simply diverting the flow of ivory from China to other countries in south-east Asia.
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?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why we are hosting a global summit, and the participation rates are already very high indeed.
5. Whether the Government plan to send observers to the elections in Iraq scheduled for May 2018. [R] 
11. What steps the Government are taking to encourage dialogue between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Government of Iraq. 
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.
I know the Minister to be a fair-minded man, so when any of these negotiations are taking place, will he balance loyalty as allies of the Kurdish people over many long years with the track record of President Erdoğan?
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
6. What evidence his Department has received on the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. 
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.
7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on supporting the creation of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. 
17. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on the political obstacles to the provision of healthcare to Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza. 
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
8. What the cost to the public purse was of the launch of the Institute for Free Trade held on his Department’s premises. 
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?
Was the excellent continental free trade area agreement of the African Union, which would bring great prosperity, discussed? If it was not discussed then, could it be discussed at the next meeting? I would be very happy to pay for it.
I don’t think it was a meeting, I think it was a booze-up.
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.
I readily defer to the Foreign Secretary’s knowledge of this important event.
He was there for a long time.
I do not know how long he was there, and I cannot say that I greatly care. We have had the answers.
Global Ocean Conservation
10. What steps his Department is taking to support 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.
12. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the level of funding for the British Council. 
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
14. What assessment he has made of the strength of the UK’s future diplomatic co-operation with its current EU partners after leaving the EU. 
22. What assessment he has made of the strength of the UK’s future diplomatic co-operation with its current EU partners after leaving the EU. 
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?
I am so glad that my hon. Friend asked that question because we are not only upgrading seven ambassadorial posts in the 27 other EU countries, but increasing our staffing across the network in the EU by 50.
No you’re not.
Yes we are. Again, I am getting some negativity from a sedentary position on the Opposition Benches. In addition to beefing up our relations with our EU friends and partners, we will open 15 embassies in Africa.
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.
15. What steps he is taking to support international peacekeeping efforts. 
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 the 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%.
T3. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
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.
Will my right hon. Friend say what discussions he has had with the Government in Wellington about UK-New Zealand trade and co-operation on Brexit?
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.
T4. What steps has the Department taken to highlight concerns about North Koreans sent to other countries to work, in effect, as slave labourers—and with what result? 
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 2379, which was adopted as recently as 22 December last year.
T6. The Foreign Secretary mentioned his visit to Bangladesh and Burma, and his meetings with the Rohingya. We hold the pen at the UN on this issue. Will the British Government bring forward a resolution referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, given what happened? 
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.
T5. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have suffered for far too long. At least 6 million people have died in the past 20 years—it is probably more—and 4 million were internally displaced last year, which is more than the figure for any other country in the world. Will the Minister say what the British Government are doing to ensure that we do all we can to see the suffering brought to an end? 
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.
T7. Since the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed in Yemen. Norway and Germany recently suspended their arms sales to Saudi Arabia. What will it take for the UK Government to do the same? 
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.
T9. In the light of the recent Vote 100 celebrations in this House and the launch of our Equalitea party in Redditch, supported by women and girls of all ages, will my right hon. Friend assure me that his international agendas are also supporting women and girls? 
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 what?
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.
Order. There is a lot of chortling going on in the Chamber, but we have had an update on the spanner situation, for which we are indebted to the Foreign Secretary.
What steps is the Department taking to provide training on freedom of religion or belief for its officials?
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 the 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?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
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.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the case of Alfie Dingley, whose parents and doctors are seeking access to medical cannabis to treat his epilepsy.
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 support the medical use of cannabis and think the Government should be more fleet of foot on this issue. A sensible proposed amendment to the law in a free vote in this House would, I think, be carried.
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.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Just before I call the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), can I ask him whether he was present at the start of these exchanges?
He was. Very good.
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?
We look forward to the debate on Friday. We will see what the will of the House is.
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.
It is Bill number three on Friday. There is not going to be a debate, is there?
That depends on what happens to the first two Bills.
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 of 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?
I think that question is best answered by the Department of Health. What I am keen to register with the House is our determination to try to explore every option within the boundaries of the existing regulations to see whether we can support this case.
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 am certainly happy to meet that group, or a more appropriate Minister could, so the answer is yes.
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 broader than 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 differentiate 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 as 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.
Order. I intend no discourtesy to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), but he was certainly not in that place some minutes ago. Whether he has just entered the Chamber, or has beetled there from another part of the Chamber—
He has beetled around the Chamber. It is slightly confusing for the Chair when people perambulate around the Chamber. Nevertheless, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has important thoughts to volunteer, so let us hear them.
Looking around the world, it seems to me that the case for medical cannabis is somewhat overwhelming, although I understand that the Minister is in a difficult position at the moment. Does he think that there will ever be a time when medical cannabis is legal in this country, so that its benefits can be felt by those who need it?
Of course, policy must be evidence-led, so Governments of all colours must keep the evidence under review. I think that the next critical milestone will be the output of the WHO review. Cannabis is a highly complex substance, and the review is looking at it from every angle to try to give us the most definitive, up-to-date view on its medicinal and therapeutic benefits.
The Minister says that public health concerns are a key driver of policy making, but, as we have seen with the case just for piloting safe drug consumption rooms, the Government stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming body of evidence that shows that public health would benefit. Is this not just another example of the Government putting the inertia of the criminal justice system ahead of an urgent public health issue, with drug-related deaths at epidemic levels? Will the Government not change the emphasis in policy making to matters of public health, rather than the inertia of the criminal justice system, which for 40 years has had an obsolete and arbitrary method of regulating drugs in this country?
I do not recognise that description of “inertia”. I have tried to give a flavour of the fact that this is a highly complex area that we keep under constant review.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the current political situation in Northern Ireland.
Over recent weeks there have been talks involving the main political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, to see whether there is a basis for re-establishing the Executive. The UK Government have facilitated and supported those intensive negotiations. We have been in close touch with all the parties and have responded to requests for advice and support.
The Irish Government have also been involved, in accordance with the well established three-strand approach. I would like to place on the record my appreciation of the contribution made by the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his team. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been consistently and closely involved, speaking to party leaders and visiting Belfast last Monday. I have continued to give her up-to-date reports as the talks have progressed.
The aim of the talks has been very clear: to bring about the re-establishment of inclusive devolved government at Stormont, which Northern Ireland has effectively been without for over 13 months. In so doing, we have been able to build on the progress made by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), whom I warmly welcome back to the House today.
In the Government’s view, all parties, including the DUP and Sinn Féin, participated in discussions seriously and in good faith, and we believe that progress towards reaching agreement on all the key substantive issues has been made. It became possible, in the light of this progress, to identify a basis for a possible agreement to allow an Executive to be formed, embracing how the parties ensured that the Executive was sustainable, how they reached a balanced and fair accommodation on the difficult issues of language and culture, and how this was reflected in a package of legislation. Many other issues were also addressed, if not always resolved.
Unfortunately, however, by last Wednesday it had become clear that the current phase of talks had reached a conclusion without such an agreement being finalised and endorsed by both parties. As I said then, it is important for everyone to reflect on the circumstances that have led to this, and on their positions both now and in the future. What is important today is for me to give some directions on the next steps.
First, as our manifesto set out at the last election, the Government believe in devolution under the terms of the 1998 Belfast agreement. We want local politicians making decisions on local matters to be accountable to a local Assembly. We need devolved government to help deliver a stronger economy, to build a stronger society, and to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is properly heard as we leave the European Union. In addition, we want to see all the other institutions of the agreement operating in the way that was intended.
I cannot reiterate too strongly that devolved government is in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, because it ensures that their interests and concerns are fairly and equitably represented. It is also in the best interests of maintaining and strengthening the Union, to which the Government remain fully committed, consistent with the principle of consent. We will therefore continue to explore with the parties whether the basis for a political agreement still exists. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reaffirmed, we stand ready to introduce the legislation that would enable an Executive to be formed at the earliest opportunity. That is the Government’s clear hope and desire, and I believe that our view is shared widely on both sides of the House.
Secondly, however, matters in Northern Ireland cannot simply remain in a state of limbo. A number of challenging decisions will have to be made. Ultimately, the Government have a responsibility to ensure good governance and the continued delivery of public services. In particular, as the head of the Northern Ireland civil service has made clear, there needs to be certainty and clarity on a budget for Northern Ireland for next year as soon as possible. I intend to take steps to provide that clarity, and I will update the House as soon as I am in a position to do so. This is clearly not where I want to be, but in the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland I have no other choice.
In the longer term, the Government will not shirk their responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to provide certainty and stability for the people of Northern Ireland, while maintaining our commitment to govern with rigorous impartiality in the interests of all of them. However, we will do that only once we are sure that all other viable options designed to restore devolved government have been properly considered, including my current statutory obligation to call an Assembly election.
In the absence of devolution, it is also right for us to consider the issue of salaries for Assembly Members. At the end of last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup received recommendations on that from Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk of the Assembly. The Government will need to decide shortly on the next steps. I acknowledge the public concern about the fact that while a number of Assembly Members continue to carry out constituency and representative functions, current salaries are maintained while the Assembly is not meeting.
As for the issue of addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, the Government have manifesto commitments to consult on the implementation of the bodies set out in the 2014 Stormont House agreement, and to support the reform of inquests. I would much prefer to do that in the context of an agreement that would lead to the restoration of a devolved Executive, but I am conscious of the Government’s responsibility to make progress in this respect to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles. We will therefore continue to proceed towards a full consultation as soon as possible, so that everyone can have their say.
As the House will know, April marks the 20th anniversary of the historic Belfast agreement. That agreement, along with its successors, has been fundamental in helping Northern Ireland to move forward from its violent past to a brighter, more secure future. The Government’s support for those agreements remains steadfast, as does our commitment to govern for everyone in Northern Ireland.
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland has taken huge strides forward in the past 20 years. In my short time as Northern Ireland Secretary, I have seen a place full of wonderful talent and huge potential, but any commemorations this year will look decidedly hollow if Northern Ireland still has no functioning Government of its own. Everyone must continue to strive to see devolved government restored and to build a Northern Ireland fit for the future, and that remains the clear focus and determination of this Government.
May I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement? I also thank her and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)—whom I am delighted to see back in his place in this House today—for all the efforts they have both made, alongside the Irish Government, to facilitate agreement between the parties.
All of us in this place know that these are very difficult issues, and I commend all the parties in the talks, especially the DUP and Sinn Féin, on the total engagement they have shown on behalf of their communities. I have to say that I must also commend the Secretary of State on the Herculean optimism she continues to hold to in still hoping for a deal to be done and on the clear statement that she is rejecting the calls to accede to direct rule with immediate effect. Optimism is a vital ingredient in Northern Ireland, even when it is at its most difficult to summon, so I will not criticise the Government for remaining hopeful.
But clarity and contingency planning have also been important features of the process, so people know where they are in that process and what will follow if there is no progress. On those questions, I fear that many in Northern Ireland will be little the wiser after the Secretary of State’s statement this afternoon, because she told us, in a crucial passage, that “it became possible” in the recent talks “to identify a basis for a possible agreement” to form an Executive, including “on the difficult issues of language and culture”. That is a very optimistic statement, and it is a view that has been echoed by the Irish Government and Sinn Féin, but it is hotly disputed by the DUP, whose leader told us that there was no prospect of these discussions leading to a deal.
Ambiguity has also played a very important part on occasion in the Northern Ireland process, but both accounts cannot be accurate, and I hope the Secretary of State will accept that she has a duty to provide clarity to the people of Northern Ireland, not just because they deserve to know what is going on in their peace process, but because some, including some in this House, are using this period of confusion to advance their own agendas: to undermine the Good Friday agreement, which some see as an obstacle to Brexit, or to damage the concept of power sharing, which some have never supported. That is a reckless and dangerous game to play, because we in this place must never forget that the Belfast agreement ended a conflict that led to 3,500 lives being lost. Nor should we forget—especially those who are so quick to assert that the Brexit referendum is to be respected—that the Belfast agreement itself was copper-fastened with its own referendums, north and south, and they too must be respected and protected.
So I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that the Government’s support for the agreement remains steadfast, and I ask her to confirm that she sees the Good Friday agreement as the only viable long-term option for the peaceful governance of Northern Ireland, and that the Government believe that its unique form of power sharing is indispensable to the agreement.
Coming back to last week and the events in Belfast, a simple way for the Government to clear up this confusion is to publish precisely where there was agreement and where the gaps remain—not in order to apportion blame, but to provide greater reassurance that progress has been made over the 13 months. So will the Secretary of State commit to providing further detail and to publishing some of those details?
One area where the Secretary of State has offered some further clarity today is on the possibility of a fresh election in Northern Ireland, and she should know that that would be met with glacial enthusiasm. Why does the Secretary of State think there is potentially an advantage in another election, the fifth in three years, in Northern Ireland? What would it achieve? Although she does have a statutory duty to call one at some point, that has been true since 27 March last year, and she and her predecessor have resisted the temptation to date.
The Secretary of State has also said that she is considering how best to give some certainty about the budget in Northern Ireland. We understand and accept that, and urge only that she consults properly with the parties, so that we can ensure maximum acceptance of, and agreements on, those budget allocations as part of the contingency planning. I hope she can commit to that too today.
Finally, may I ask the Secretary of State to consider what she will do to take forward some of the pressing issues facing Northern Ireland if her optimism is misplaced and a deal cannot be struck? It is not just on the issue of MLAs’ pay that people in Northern Ireland want to see action. Vital questions on the treatment of victims, both of the troubles and of historical institutional abuse, need to be resolved not just with consultation, but with legislation. These people have been waiting for far too long, so will she commit to looking at that in the absence of a deal?
Will the Secretary of State also commit to taking forward issues of human rights and social justice that are enjoyed naturally in other parts of the UK but denied to our citizens in Northern Ireland? In particular, can she confirm that one area of discussion between the parties was on the issue of equal marriage, and that agreement was reached to take matters forward through a private Member’s Bill in Stormont? In the absence of a Stormont Bill, would she consider legislating similarly to extend equal marriage rights to Northern Ireland? We believe that she should, and we will support her if she does so. To be clear, a Labour Government would legislate on that if Stormont could not do so.
Political problems are nothing new in Northern Ireland, but the current impasse has left the Northern Irish people without an accountable Government for almost 400 days. This is a profound crisis, and the Government have a profound duty to try to resolve it, and to preserve the Good Friday agreement and the principle of power sharing. We will continue to support the Government in trying to resolve the crisis, and we will support them on legislation wherever it is necessary, but we will hold them to account to preserve the Good Friday agreement in its spirit and its letter.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and for the tone of them. It is important that we in this House show unity and a unified front when it comes to resolving these issues and re-establishing devolved government in Northern Ireland. If both sides of the House work together with that purpose in mind, we will have all the more reason to hope that that can be achieved. He asked about a number of matters, and I will try to address as many of them as I can.
On the topic of legacy, to which I made reference in my statement, we have been working with the parties and the Victims’ Commissioner on a consultation programme. As I have said, I would very much prefer to do that in the context of devolved government in Stormont, but we clearly have a responsibility to the victims of the troubles, and it is absolutely right that we should deal with that. We will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the matter of legacy is dealt with, but as I say, we would much rather that it was done in the context of having devolved government in Stormont. We are committed to the institutions as set out in the Stormont House agreement, and we will be consulting on that.
We are also committed to the Belfast agreement, as I said in my statement, and to all successor agreements. The position in the Conservative party manifesto at the last election, and the position of this Government, is that the Belfast agreement is the right approach. It has led to great success for Northern Ireland, and more success can come. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Brexit. The joint report that was signed before Christmas makes specific reference to a commitment to the Belfast agreement and to respecting the institutions in the agreement.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the talks, and about what the British Government would publish. I want to make it clear that the talks that we have facilitated—we did not impose them—have been between the parties, particularly the two main parties. Therefore, any documentation or anything that has been written down is a matter for the parties; it is not a matter for the British Government. He also asked about an election. I have a statutory duty as Secretary of State to call an election, but I want to ensure that we have exhausted every avenue and every viable option to re-establish devolved government at Stormont. That is what the Government want to see, and that is what we are working towards. We will do all we can to achieve that, and I thank him for his support in that regard.
It is good to be back, and I thank colleagues on both sides of the House for their kind, generous and supportive comments over the past few weeks. What is not so welcome, however, is the continuing lack of devolved government in Northern Ireland, which it desperately needs. I commend the Secretary of State for all her work and for her efforts in seeking to bring the parties together. I also commend the Irish Government for their work.
I commend what the Secretary of State said about the Government’s commitment the Belfast agreement. That is our cornerstone; it is the bedrock of what we do. I also commend what she said about the troubles and the legacy of the past, and about making progress on the consultation. I hope that she will agree, however, that we need to remain firmly focused on restoring devolved government. Rather than talking up direct rule, we should continue to focus on talking out the remaining issues that lie between the two parties, and I hope that she will agree that we need to retain that focus in all we do if we are to restore devolved government and give Northern Ireland the bright, positive future that I know its people want to see.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and questions, and for his approach. He was an outstanding Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and he is very much missed in Northern Ireland. I do not think I have been to a single event since being appointed Secretary of State where he has not been mentioned in the warmest and most generous terms. I am fully aware that his are big shoes for me to fill.
I agree with all that my right hon. Friend says about the importance of restoring devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland elected the Members of the Legislative Assembly, and those MLAs need to be in Stormont. That fabulous, wonderful Parliament building is empty and bereft, and it needs to be filled with the people who were elected to fill it, taking decisions on behalf of their constituents for all the people in Northern Ireland.
I join others in welcoming the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), on his return to the Chamber.
I also thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement, but we share the disappointment we are hearing that, although there has been some progress to report, there has not been enough. We welcome the continued public commitment of the UK and Irish Governments to the Good Friday agreement, noting, as she does, that we are approaching its 20th anniversary.
The Good Friday agreement and the institutions it established were endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, and the preservation and restoration of those institutions should be the focus of all the parties and interlocutors involved in these vital talks. We also note the Irish Government’s firm position that the agreement, and its subsequent agreements, must be implemented in full, and in that context the Irish Government have reiterated that they do not want to see the introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland.
I ask the Secretary of State to clarify her timetable for the next steps she has outlined. In particular, given the absence of talks, under what circumstances would she consider calling fresh elections to the Assembly? What consideration has she given to convening the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which was established under strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his statement of commitment to the Belfast agreement. On my priorities now, in the past few weeks I have focused on the talks process. I still continue to work and communicate with all parties to see what we can do to re-establish discussion and to help the parties get to an accommodation that will enable a devolved Executive to be established. My priority in the immediate term is clearly the budget, as we need to make sure that the dedicated civil servants and public servants in Northern Ireland have the certainty they need to continue delivering public services.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Of course this is an extremely important statement, upon which a further 27 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that there are two further ministerial statements to follow that might be considered to be on chunky matters eliciting substantial interest, and several people have applied to speak in the debate subsequent to that. There is therefore a premium on brevity, and I appeal to colleagues not to offer us mini speeches, which is not uncommon in these circumstances, but rather pithy inquiries to which I know the Secretary of State will succinctly reply. We can be led in this exercise by someone of no lesser distinction than the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers.
None of us should underestimate the difficulty of reaching accommodation on issues of culture and identity that have divided people for centuries. Will the Secretary of State urge the parties to come together to try to find a balanced package that reflects the cultural sensitivities of all sides of the community in modern Northern Ireland?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and hers are another pair of shoes that I endeavour to fill. She was an excellent Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She went through a number of these processes, so she knows only too well how these things operate. I agree wholeheartedly with what she says.
I join others in warmly welcoming the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) back to the Chamber. I wish him well.
As the Secretary of State knows, we of course stand ready to form an Executive tomorrow, on the basis of no preconditions and on the basis of the programme for Government that was agreed with Sinn Féin back in December, before Sinn Féin walked out and set preconditions—political demands—that they want to see implemented before they get back into the Executive.
The fact that there is no Executive is not the fault of the Democratic Unionist party. Indeed, it is not the fault of the smaller parties, either—I make that very clear. But in the absence of devolved government, now is the time for the Secretary of State to do right by all the people of Northern Ireland.
I have just come from a meeting of a group of charities and others who want somebody to lobby—a Minister to argue with—about mental health funding in Northern Ireland. There have been no Ministers for 13 months. That cannot continue. Secretary of State, it is time to set a budget. Let the efforts for devolution continue—yes, we want to see devolution—but it is a dereliction of duty to continue without a budget and without ministerial decisions. It is time to get on with it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his assertion of the DUP’s commitment to devolved government, which is warmly welcomed by everyone. He and I have had and will continue to have discussions about the budget. The shadow Secretary of State asked whether I would be consulting the parties about the budget. I have committed to do that and will ensure that I work with the right hon. Gentleman and his party’s Members on that. He fervently summed up the reasons why devolved government is so important.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and warmly welcome seeing my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) back in his place and in fine form.
The head of the Northern Ireland civil service said to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 24 January:
“It will be incredibly difficult for us if we do not have budget certainty by 8 February.”
It is now 20 February. What will the Secretary of State now do to set a budget and therefore the political direction that Northern Ireland so needs?
I thank the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. As I said in my statement, I am now working to ensure that we get certainty for civil servants in Northern Ireland—those dedicated public servants—and I will return to the House when I have further information.
The Secretary of State was absolutely right to say that she was not willing to conduct a running commentary on the talks, but now that they have collapsed once again, should she not publish the basis on which the talks failed yet again? The people of Northern Ireland have a right to know the areas of difference and what still needs to be resolved.
As I explained in my response to the shadow Secretary of State, I was not present at the discussions held between the two parties. I facilitated them, but I was not present during them. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to speculate on exactly where the parties reached in discussing their concerns. It is a matter of public record, however, that I have said that the concerns related to the very difficult issues of language and culture and the sustainability of the Executive.
Would there be any role for the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly if direct rule, which nobody in this House wants, were to be instituted?
Some Opposition Members were Ministers during the previous period of direct rule—the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) will be asking a question shortly—and it was clear then that there was no role for Members of the Assembly at that point.
It is clear from the talks and their failure that the structures of the Belfast agreement have given a power of veto and blackmail to Sinn Féin. Given that there will be no giving in to that blackmail, will the Secretary of State recognise that, in the absence of the ability to set up an Executive, the only way forward for proper governance in Northern Ireland is for her to start taking some of the decisions that are important for the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland?
As I said in my statement, I want to see devolved government in Northern Ireland, I want the politicians elected by people in Northern Ireland to be able to take their places and represent them in the Assembly, and I want an Executive in place. That is what I am focused on in trying to deliver that as best we can, as I think Members on both sides of the House have stated.
Will the Secretary of State set out what role, if any, the smaller parties played in the talks last week?
All five parties were involved in the talks, including some roundtable talks. However, the clear point is that, for an Executive to be formed, the two large parties need to reach an accommodation. That is what we were working towards, and what I would like to happen in the near future.
In the welcome absence of direct rule, of which I had personal experience as a Minister, will the Secretary of State tell the House how she will bring forward the budget, what form the approval of that budget will take and whether, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) asked, Assembly Members will make any contribution to the discussions of the proposals in it?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman served as a Minister during the last period of direct rule. I have been led to believe that there was a small incident involving a football match—Wales versus Northern Ireland—when he possibly found it difficult to know which side to support. I have said that I will come back to the House on the budget.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I know that for her, as for me, the priority will be to ensure that the peace process keeps on track. Will she therefore outline in some detail what exactly direct rule would mean for the people of Northern Ireland and for this House?
My focus is on getting devolved government back up and running because people want to know that their elected politicians—the people they have elected locally—will make the decisions for them. Those of us who believe in devolution, be it locally in our constituencies or in the devolved Administrations, know that, when local people make decisions, they are more representative of what voters want. That is why it is so important to get devolved government back up and running.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s continuing commitment to the Good Friday agreement, but does she agree that being more open and transparent about what happened in the talks—notwithstanding the fact that she says that she cannot do that because they were conducted by the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—and explaining to the public the problems and where the parties failed to agree might mean that they were in a position to support more properly the leaders of their respective communities who are trying to reach a deal?
As I have said, it would not be appropriate for me to speculate on what happened behind closed doors at a meeting between the two parties. They are now working to see what they can do to come back to the table, and that is what I am encouraging.
I join in the tributes to my right hon. Friend for her determination and work on this issue.
Northern Ireland has enjoyed significant economic success in recent years, largely down to the dynamism of the people of Northern Ireland, but also to the conditions that effective, devolved, power-sharing government created. Does she share my view that certainty about a budget and the restoration of a devolved power-sharing Government are the most effective ways in which to ensure that that economic success continues?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have said that I will come to the House about the budget. Last Friday, I met business representatives in Belfast and they were unanimous that they needed their politicians to form an Executive so that they could encourage investment, create jobs and wealth and build on the fantastic success story that is Northern Ireland.
My party remains committed to total restoration of an Executive on a fair and equitable basis, and I commend the Secretary of State for what she has said. As was mentioned earlier, the head of the civil service said that it would be incredibly difficult for us if we did not have budget certainty by 8 February—we are now two weeks beyond that. Does she therefore agree that the important matters that divide us are not life and death matters that require a budget to resolve them? She has the power to set one—when will she do it?
As I said, I need to consult the parties about the budget and I will return to the House at the earliest opportunity with confirmation of my decision on that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s continuing optimism and urge her to press on, not least because, with Brexit on the horizon, Northern Ireland needs one voice, provided by a functioning Executive, to make it the best Brexit deal not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole of the UK. Does she agree that, on this issue, time is of the essence?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. We need to make sure Northern Ireland’s voice is heard properly through the proper processes in the Brexit process, and that requires a devolved Government.
The British and Irish Governments are the guardians of the Good Friday agreement, but its owners are the people of Ireland, north and south, who overwhelmingly endorsed it in referendums. Does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be usurped by this House, by any party or by any individual in it, and that she will work for its full implementation, alongside the Irish Government?
I do agree.
By how much is my right hon. Friend going to cut their pay?
A quick answer deserves another quick question, does it not, Mr Speaker? Mr Trevor Reaney has made recommendations on the pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly, and I am considering those at the moment.
The people of Northern Ireland will be disappointed in the Secretary of State’s statement. Of course they would like the Executive back, but what they want more than anything is a budget, and agreement on reform of the health service and education, which were all agreed before Sinn Féin walked out. Why is she still dilly-dallying, and waiting and waiting? What does she actually think is going to be achieved in the next month?
I am exploring every possible window of opportunity to get devolved government back up and running, while looking at those important decisions that need to be taken. I will revert to the House on those matters.
I warmly commend the Secretary of State for her calm and positive tone in her statement today and her response to questions. I am very pleased that the British Government have not been bounced into moving to direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland want their Assembly up and running—it is their Assembly—and they were extremely disappointed and angry last week when the talks collapsed. I am not pointing the finger of blame, because that is not going to help anybody, but the people of Northern Ireland will also be extremely angry that MLAs are receiving their full salary. What possible justification can there be for paying them a full salary 13 months after collapsing the Assembly?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. My predecessor did ask Trevor Reaney to look at this matter. I will be considering the recommendations and will come back to the House shortly.
Does the Secretary of State share my anxieties at the noises—the drum beat—coming from some of the hard Brexit quarters in the debate about how the Good Friday agreement has “failed” and “outlived its use”? Will she take this opportunity to reassert the Government’s view that nothing—no Brexit ideology and no attempt to justify instituting a new border—should jeopardise this carefully brokered peace settlement and that the Government are fully, 100% behind the Good Friday agreement?
I can confirm that the Government are 100% behind the Belfast agreement and that it was specifically referenced in the joint report as being of great relevance and importance to everybody in Northern Ireland.
The common structures of the EU provided the basis of a peace in Ireland via the Good Friday agreement. Is not the reality that the British Government have failed to recognise that in their Brexit positioning and that maintaining the agreement has been a secondary consideration?
I do not agree with that assessment.
As has been said, in the past 48 hours, a couple of Members of this House and a British MEP have attacked the Good Friday agreement as “failed” and “unsustainable”. Will the Secretary of State join the Tanaiste, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, in condemning such language as “irresponsible”?
As I say, I can only set out the Government’s position, which is that we fully support the Belfast agreement.
A young generation in Ireland, north and south, and on the mainland have no recollection of violence because of the Good Friday agreement. Therefore, does the Secretary of State agree that those who are playing fast and loose with that agreement for their own terms over Brexit should not be doing so?
I agree that people do not remember what it was like; my children visited Northern Ireland recently and were astonished to see that there are still walls between communities. That was a shock to them because they had no idea about what the troubles were like and what it was like for people living there. The people of Northern Ireland have come so far in 20 years, and it is vital that we restore devolved government and maintain the Belfast agreement.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. In the light of the failure of the talks and what has ultimately happened, the vacuum has been filled by those who wish to bring about more Dublin interference in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State assure us that Dublin will have no say in the running and governance of Northern Ireland?
We have been clear that the three-stranded approach has applied in everything we have been doing. Strand 1 issues clearly do not involve the Irish Government. The hon. Gentleman will know that the best way to ensure the protection of the Union and that the people of Northern Ireland have their say is the restoration of devolved government in Stormont.
I urge the Secretary of State to get off the fence in respect of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. We simply would not tolerate such discrimination against any other group of UK citizens. It is not acceptable that the Government continue to be complicit in discrimination against LGBT people in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State support efforts in this place to bring forward change?
This is a devolved matter. I was proud to vote for same-sex marriage for my constituents in this House when we had that vote, but I did not vote to impose same-sex marriage in Scotland. It is not the job of this Government to introduce legislation; it is for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected politicians to make the decision.
Given the Secretary of State’s stated determination to reinstate devolved government in Northern Ireland, does she agree that perhaps the time has come for the appointment of an external mediator to chair the power-sharing talks?
I have been clear that I rule nothing out. Everything is under review and I will look at all viable options to ensure that we get devolved government back up and running.
In situations such as this, we will always get verbal excess or an aspirational wheeze from some of the participants. Will the Secretary of State indicate clearly that nowhere in the Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement, the legislation that underpins them or the constitution of this country is there provision for joint authority?
I fully respect the Belfast agreement and the successor agreements. We adhere to the three-stranded approach very strictly.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. Will she outline the timeline for the imposition of direct rule as it is legislated for in this place, to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland do not continue to be led by the nose by Sinn Féin, a party that does not have the interests of Northern Ireland at heart but seeks only the destruction of the state of Northern Ireland in an attempt to secure an unwanted and unworkable Ireland that is never, never, never going to happen?
My priority, focus and energies are on the restoration of devolved government in line with the Belfast agreement. That is what I will be focusing on and that is what I am determined to achieve, alongside addressing the urgent issues, including the budget, that need to be dealt with in the very near future.
Aid Sector: Safeguarding
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on my Department’s response to the sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by charity workers in Haiti in 2011, and on the measures we are taking to improve safeguarding across the aid sector.
Let me start by paying tribute to Sean O’Neill of The Times and to the two sets of whistleblowers—those in 2011 and later—for bringing this case to light. On 9 February, The Times reported that when certain Oxfam staff were in Haiti in 2011, they had abused their positions of trust and paid for sex with local women. The incidents happened in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions more homeless and reliant on aid for basic needs such as food and shelter. That is shocking, but it is not by itself what has caused such concern about Oxfam’s safeguarding—it was what Oxfam then did.
In chaotic and desperate situations, the very best safeguarding procedures and practices must be put in to place to prevent harm, but when organisations fail to report and follow up incidents of wrongdoing that occur, it undermines trust and sends a message that sexual exploitation and abuse are tolerated. We cannot prevent sexual exploitation and abuse if we do not demonstrate zero tolerance. In such circumstances, we must be able to trust organisations not only to do all they can to prevent harm, but to report and follow up incidents of wrongdoing when they occur.
In that duty, Oxfam failed, under the watch of Barbara Stocking and Penny Lawrence. They did not provide a full report to the Charity Commission. They did not provide a full report to their donors. They did not provide any report to prosecuting authorities. In my view, they misled, quite possibly deliberately, even as their report concluded that their investigation could not rule out the allegation that some of the women involved were actually children. They did not think it was necessary to report that to the police either in Haiti or in the country of origin of those accountable. I believe that their motivation appears to be the protection of the organisation’s reputation. They put that before those they were there to help and protect, which is a complete betrayal of trust, a betrayal of those who sent them there—the British people—and a betrayal of all those Oxfam staff and volunteers who put the people they serve first.
Last week, I met Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, and Caroline Thomson, Oxfam’s chair of trustees. I made three demands of them: that they fully co-operate with the Haitian authorities, handing over all evidence they hold; that they report staff members involved in the incident to their respective national Governments; and that they make clear how they will handle any forthcoming allegations around safeguarding, historic or live. I stressed that, for me, holding to account those who made the decision not to report, and to let those potentially guilty of criminal activity slip away, was a necessity in winning back confidence in Oxfam.
As a result of those discussions, Oxfam has agreed to withdraw from bidding for any new UK Government funding until the Department for International Development is satisfied that it can meet the high safeguarding standards we expect of our partners. I will take a decision on current programming after 26 February —at that time, I will have further information that will help me to decide whether I need to adjust how that is currently delivered.
Given the concerns about the wider sector this case has raised, I have written to every UK charity working overseas that receives UK aid—192 organisations—insisting that they spell out the steps they are taking to ensure that their safeguarding policies are fully in place, and that they confirm that they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities, including prosecuting authorities. I have set the deadline of 26 February for replies. We are also conducting in parallel an exercise to make clear our standards to all non-UK charity partners— 393 organisations in total—and to all our suppliers, including those in the private sector, which number more than 500 organisations, and to remind them of their obligations. We are doing the same with all multilateral partners.
The UK Government reserve the right to take whatever decisions about present or future funding for Oxfam or any other organisation as we deem necessary. We have been very clear that we will not work with any organisation that does not live up to the high standards on safeguarding and protection that we require. We will share this approach with other Governments Departments responsible for ODA spend. Although that work is not yet complete, it is clear from the Charity Commission reporting data, and lack of it from some organisations, that cultural change is needed to ensure that all that can be done to stop sexual exploitation in the aid sector is being done.
We need to take some practical steps and set up our own systems now—we should not wait for the United Nations to take action. My Department and the Charity Commission will hold a safeguarding summit on 5 March, where we will meet UK international development charities, regulators and experts to confront safeguarding failures and agree practical measures, such as an aid worker accreditation scheme that we in the UK can use. Later in the year, we will take this programme of work to a wide-ranging global safeguarding conference to drive action across the whole international aid sector. I am pleased to say that the US, Canada, Netherlands and others have already agreed to support our goals of improving safeguarding standards across the sector. The UK is not waiting for others to act and will take the lead.
We have been speaking to colleagues across Government and beyond about what more we can do to stop exploitation and abuse in the UN and the broader multilateral system. The message from us to all parts of the UN is clear: they can either get their house in order, or they can prepare to carry out their good work without our money.
We welcome the UN’s announcement on 14 February that it does not and will not claim immunity for sexual abuse cases. That sends a clear signal that the UN is not a soft target, but we must hold it to account for that. Further actions we have taken in the past week include the creation of a new safeguarding unit. We have also promoted our whistleblowing and reporting phone line to encourage anyone with information on safeguarding issues to contact us. We have appointed Sheila Drew Smith, a recent member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who has agreed to bring her expertise and her challenge to support my Department’s ambition on safeguarding. She will report to me directly. We have asked to meet leaders of the audit profession to discuss what more they can do to provide independent assurance over safeguarding to the organisations that DFID partners with globally.
I have held my own Department to the same scrutiny that I am demanding of others. I have asked the Department to go through our centrally held human resources systems and our fraud and whistleblowing records as far back as they exist. I am assured that there are no centrally recorded cases that were dealt with incorrectly. Separately we are reviewing any locally reported allegations of sexual misconduct involving DFID staff and delivery partners. To date, our review of staff cases has looked at 75% of our teams across DFID and will complete within a fortnight. Our investigations are still ongoing. If, during this process, we discover any historical or current cases that have not been dealt with appropriately, I will report on our handling of them to Parliament.
DFID, other Government Departments and the National Crime Agency work closely together when serious allegations of potentially criminal activity in partner organisations are brought to our attention. We are strengthening this work, as the new strategy director at the NCA will take on a lead role for the aid sector. I am calling on anyone who has any concerns about abuse or exploitation in the sector to come forward and report them to our counter-fraud and whistleblowing team. Details are on the DFID website and all communications will be treated in complete confidence. Later today, I have further meetings with the Defence Secretary regarding peacekeeping troops, and the Secretary of State at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport regarding the charity sector.[Official Report, 21 February 2018, Vol. 636, c. 3MC.]
My absolute priority is to keep the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people safe from harm. It is utterly despicable that sexual exploitation and abuse continue to exist in the aid sector. The recent reports should be a wake-up call to us all. Now is the time for us to act. But as we do, we should note the good people working across the world in the sector—saving lives, often by endangering their own—and all those, from fundraisers to trustees, who make that work possible. Since news of this scandal broke just a week ago, UK aid and aid workers have helped to vaccinate 850,000 children against polio. We should recognise that that good work can only be done with the support of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and thank her for advance sight of it. I join her in utter disgust at the stories that have emerged in recent days of incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation, and of the appalling culture of silence.
Let me say very clearly that, for the Haitian women and girls fighting to survive an earthquake who were exploited and abused, it is just not good enough; for the British public and loyal Oxfam supporters who donate time, money, taxes and support, it is just not good enough; and for those of us in this House who support charities such as Oxfam to save lives in crisis and to tackle the root causes of injustice, it is just not good enough. We need reform.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has written to taxpayer-funded charities to ask for written assurance that they have safeguards in place, but I am not convinced that that will do the job. We need each charity to tell us how many cases they are aware of, how they have been resolved and whether there could be others. We need a full, sector-wide picture to be reported back to Parliament. The inquiry must target not only UK charities funded by DFID, but private suppliers, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations in developing countries and charities funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK embassies and other Government Departments. The Secretary of State says that she has asked those agencies for assurance. Will she tell us the timeframe for that?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s swift commitment to a safeguarding summit on 5 March. Out of that summit must now come a real commitment to reform: tightening international criminal regulations; establishing a global passport or register for humanitarian workers; and setting up an independent regulator or a centre of excellence. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly when later on this year that will happen, so that the House will know when to expect to see real reforms? Reform must not just improve tools and procedures. Our aid agencies are supposed to set an example and challenge the abuse of power—always, everywhere. Reform must also involve aid agencies themselves looking at their culture, redistributing power, challenging its abuses, and putting people before their reputation. This is what aid agencies must now do, and a Labour Government will help them to do it.
Over the past 10 days, some have tried to use this scandal and weaponise it to call for the UK to end its commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid. That is absolutely shameful. Our aid budget does not just save millions of lives: it is also our best chance to stop sexual abuse and exploitation. Taking Syria alone, in the first half of 2017, UK aid supported 4,687 survivors of sexual violence. Last year, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, the UK got to help up to 1,979 survivors of sexual violence within the first 72 hours. We owe it to those women and girls to keep some perspective. When an abuse scandal hits Westminster, the Church or the Army, nobody seriously suggests shutting the whole thing down. So let us root out the bad apples, focus on fixing the system, and have the conviction to stand up proudly for the good that UK aid can still do, which, even at this darkest moment, far exceeds the evil.
The Secretary of State has said that she believes in aid, but I have not heard her call out those shameful opportunists, including her own predecessor and many in her own party, who have jumped on this scandal and attacked aid. Well, if she will not, then I will, because it is wrong. It does an injustice to our country and it will distract us from what really needs to happen—reforms that are badly, badly needed.
I thank the hon. Lady for the support that she has given to the sector, for her recognition of the good work that does actually go on and for her support—ongoing, I hope—for the practical measures that we are taking forward. There are many things that we can do to influence others, but we need to take some practical action. We need, at the very least, to get the UK aid sector in order, with a catalyst effect on others in also raising their game. In addition to the accreditation system, this may include, for example, co-ordinating our requirements in our funding agreements with third parties. That is what will help to drive change.
I do not recognise the caricature that the hon. Lady paints of my predecessor. In fact, I should pay tribute to my predecessor for what she did to try to raise this with the UN. That is important, but it is also important that we work with the component parts of the UN. Ultimately, as I said in my statement, if we cannot be assured of the practices within these organisations, we should not fund them. That is the sanction that we have. I pay tribute to the other Secretaries of State in the Department who set up the systems that I am now able to interrogate to provide confidence to this House and to the public.
Let me turn to the other points that the hon. Lady raised. The activities that I have outlined and that I am undertaking are only part of what is going on. The Charity Commission is the body that is taking a lead, as it has been since we beefed up its responsibilities in 2016 to take a greater role in these issues, with charities having to report to it the numbers of cases involved. I am not going to duplicate that work. However, I want to see that work improving and to see that, where the commission has concerns, they are properly reported to the National Crime Agency. That needs to work better. The Charity Commission is obviously doing its own investigation, and it is right that it takes the lead on that.
For organisations based in the UK, I have set the deadline of 26 February. For other organisations that are not based in the UK, it will be in a fortnight. We need to move swiftly on this. Although I am asking for written confirmation about organisations’ policies and any historical or live cases, that is an important step in allowing people to come forward now if they have any outstanding issues.
The safeguarding summit on 5 March will have a UK focus, with our own charities and organisations, but international partners have also asked if they can attend. We have not finalised a date for the follow-up conference, but we want to do it swiftly. We will be working with other nations to find a suitable time to get the right people in the room. It is important that we do not just talk about this but make some agreements and put some things into action.
I have not heard people attack the aid budget over this. I actually think people have shown maturity in recognising the seriousness of this issue. This is not an event that should cause us not to give money to charity, not to carry out aid work and not to vote some of our budget towards that. That is the approach I have heard, and I hope it will continue as we carry out this important work.
It is clear that my right hon. Friend has handled these shattering circumstances extremely well and correctly. Can she confirm that none of the trustees or senior management at Oxfam at the time of those dreadful events is still in post today? Will she join me in thanking the overwhelming majority of wonderful people of deep integrity who work in the development sector, often at some considerable risk to themselves, for the remarkable work they do in very difficult places, which reflects so well on Britain and our international development efforts?
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says. We should be proud of those people and what they do. I have made it clear to Oxfam that we cannot have confidence in an organisation that still has sitting on its board or among its employees people whose judgment was so fundamentally flawed. I note that following that discussion, Penny Lawrence left the organisation. The Charity Commission is conducting its own investigation, and I know it will be particularly concerned about the role of trustees. I am not going to call for resignations. We need to investigate and look at the facts, and we need to hold the individuals responsible for this accountable.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. The Scottish National party is horrified at these revelations. Any form of sexual misconduct is completely and utterly unacceptable. Today’s appearance by Oxfam and others before the International Development Committee has left many questions unanswered. There needs therefore to be a fuller inquiry into the reported sickening events in Haiti and others emerging by the day. Allegations have now been made against Médecins sans Frontières, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee. We hear a lot of apologies, but we need deeds to match those words.
Sadly, a picture has now emerged of a culture of bullying, harassment, sexual abuse and racism among agencies around the world. All the good and essential work of this vital sector has been deeply damaged by not just what has happened but the way it has been dealt with. We heard today that many individuals responsible for these appalling activities were not dealt with and instead were often just passed on to other agencies and charities. There clearly has to be accountability and safeguards put in place to rebuild that trust. Wherever we see this type of behaviour, whether in the aid sector, Hollywood or politics, it must not be tolerated.
It is deeply concerning that some members of this Government have not shied away from their desire to see the aid budget cut. This scandal must not be used by the Secretary of State as a tool for cutting aid funding. I therefore call on her to confirm today in this House unequivocally that organisations will not have funds unduly stripped from them as they go about their vital work in some of the most vulnerable communities on this earth.
The international aid sector does fantastic work, and we cannot let this scandal overshadow the overwhelmingly positive actions done and support given around the world by many. However, we need to get to the root of these events and make sure, with robust safeguards, that they never happen again, or if they do, that action is taken immediately.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says. We should note that the Charity Commission, as well as its other work, is liaising with its counterparts in the devolved nations, which will be part of any such work.
It was this Government who brought in the 0.7% target. We think that is right and has helped, and that other nations around the world look to us as a development superpower. If we want to meet the sustainable development goals, we need to ensure that we spend that money really well. I want to get the money to work harder: there are always improvements we can drive. We are committed to the 0.7% target.
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I will wait until I have information back, not just about Oxfam, but about all other delivery partners to which I may transfer work. Until I have back that information, I will not make decisions about current programming, because the welfare of beneficiaries and the safety of staff in the field are my prime concerns.
I thank the Secretary of State for the truly amazing work she is doing. That is quite often said in this House, but having sat through three and a half hours in the Select Committee listening to Oxfam, I came away realising how appalling the situation really is. May I, however, urge her not to leap into action too quickly, given, horrifically, that we have no understanding at the moment of the size of the problem? It is quite possible that predatory individuals, including predatory paedophiles, actually go into international situations, as they go into domestic situations, to abuse others. While I do not want to taint the people who go into such professions either in the UK or internationally, we may very well be on the precipice of a much bigger problem than simply Oxfam and a few others.
I note my hon. Friend’s concerns, but I think we do need to act now. This has obviously been triggered by a specific case, but we have known for a long time that this is a problem. It is a difficult problem to crack, but we have to start making moves to crack it. Having spoken to my opposite numbers in other nations, I can tell him that they are of the same mind. By getting to grips with this—putting in measures that will not by themselves solve the problem, but will help—we will also send a message to predatory individuals that the aid sector is not a safe haven for them.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, and I commend her for her swift action over the past 10 days. This morning, the Select Committee decided that we will hold a full inquiry into this issue. Does she agree with me that as well as Oxfam having to get its house in order and the action that DFID needs to take, international action will be crucial if we are to prevent another such crisis ever happening again in the future?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for the hearing this morning and for the inquiry that he is going to undertake, which will help the situation dramatically. He is right: we can get our own house in order and take a lead on this, but, ultimately, the component parts of the UN and other organisations in the international community must also follow suit. We also have to tackle the other enormous issues on the fringe of what we are discussing—in particular, UN peacekeeping troops. These are not easy things to crack, but we have to crack them.
Many thousands of incredible people work in the aid sector, helping some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, and it is the betrayal of trust in organisations such as Oxfam that I think has caused the current outcry. Not only has Oxfam tried to cover up sex crimes by its workers, but in doing so it has shown a flagrant disregard for the criminal justice system in Haiti. Should the UK Government ever be working with an organisation that thinks it is above the law in one of the poorest countries in the world, such as Haiti?
This case is truly shocking and it may be that prosecutions result from what has gone on. We need to take stock of the sector, which is why I commissioned the review into what our partners are doing. It is also absolutely vital that we are very clear with any organisation we work with about what we expect from them. We often say “zero tolerance”, but we have to live that and mean that, and there have to be consequences when people breach the requirements we have of them. I said last week in Stockholm at the End Violence against Children conference that there is no organisation too big, or our work with them too complex, that we will not withhold funding from them if they do not meet those standards.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. She will know that this morning’s Select Committee meeting highlighted not only the really grotesque actions of a number of Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011, but the fact that the whole sector has been far too slow to address the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation. Does she agree that at this stage three things are important: first, there has to be full accountability; secondly, action needs to be taken internationally, and an international register of humanitarian workers would help with that; and, thirdly, recognising the vital work the vast majority of aid workers do, nothing must be done to jeopardise UK aid to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world?
Yes, yes and yes.
I commend the Secretary of State for her statement and gently say to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) that this is not an issue on which anybody should be seeking to make any form of political capital. This is not the subject of party politics; this is an appalling situation. About a year ago, I went to the Zaatari refugee camp as a guest of Oxfam. I saw the great work that so many of its workers do. Those workers represent the majority of people who work for our great British charities. Can the Secretary of State assure us all that the action she has to take—nobody disputes that—will not affect the beneficiaries of that work and that their interests will be absolutely paramount?
I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. That is why, although Oxfam has said it will not bid for any new funding, I have paused what I am going to do with current programming until I have assurances about every other partner operating in the same theatres. I will then take a decision on whether I can have confidence in what Oxfam is currently doing in those locations, or whether I need to adjust how we are doing that aid delivery.
I completely share the horror and revulsion about the revelations. I praise the Secretary of State for the very robust and comprehensive way in which she has handled the situation over the past 10 days. As a former Oxfam staff member, I feel let down. I know that many current Oxfam staff members feel completely let down, too, both by the actions of those who carried out these terrible incidents and by the failure to deal with them robustly at the time. The Secretary of State mentioned the situation regarding UN peacekeeping. That area has long been on public record as one where there has been serious sexual abuse and exploitation, with the use of prostitutes and all sorts of terrible things. Will she say a little more about the conversation she is going to have with the Defence Secretary and others about how we can ensure very high standards, in particular when UK funding is being used to support that important work, where there have been serious abuses?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It is good that the message has gone out from this House that we recognise the good work that is done by many people working and volunteering for Oxfam. We can all go into our local Oxfam shop and give them our support at the weekend, and we should do that. We should recognise that our armed forces have already done a lot to raise the standards of peacekeeping troops. We do a huge amount of capacity building. We do a huge amount of work to address gender-based violence and exploitation and to enable people to recover in the aftermath of conflict and war. We have huge expertise and I am very interested in how we can use that expertise. I have spoken to other nations with similar programmes, such as Canada, to see what we can do to help to raise standards. I am open to ideas, but that is the nature of the conversation I will be having with the Defence Secretary.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on taking a firm and robust stance from day one. Some charities may feel that there is a disincentive in the system to being open and transparent because of the need to bid for Government money and to appeal to the generous British public. Does she agree that the reputation of the big charities, as well as their outcomes, depends on being open and transparent, and not having obfuscation and cover-up?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If any charity thinks that it is a good idea to put their reputation before their beneficiaries, they need to look at what is happening to Oxfam now. It is also important to set a culture in which people are not afraid to report. Ironically, Oxfam is one of the better organisations for reporting numbers to the Charity Commission. I am also looking at where there are gaps, with organisations not reporting incidents and concerns. Reporting and numbers are not necessarily a bad thing, but it is about the practices surrounding that and what organisations do when they know that something has gone wrong.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, her actions on the horrific events and her assurance that the Government’s commitment to helping the world’s poorest is undimmed. This is not only a charity sector problem, a parliamentary problem, or a Hollywood problem; it is a pervasive, persistent problem across sectors, society and the world. Vulnerable people—mostly women and children—are sexually objectified, exploited and abused by people with power, who are mostly men. Given the cross-cutting nature of this gendered violence, what discussions is the Secretary of State having across Government to take action to change the culture on sexual harassment and abuse across the board and to ensure that systems are in place to hold perpetrators to account?
As the hon. Lady will appreciate, in the immediate case I am concerned with a small slice of that, but I have been asking questions about how we hold Government Departments to account for our safeguarding work. I have also strengthened our whistleblowing practices with external oversight and, as I mentioned in my statement, we have written to other Government Departments that administer official development assistance spend.
This is a cultural change, and the Nolan principles of public life can help with the work that the Government do. Since 2013, we have had the UN’s code of conduct enshrined in our staff behaviour rules, and now that this incident has come to light, we are strengthening those rules by making explicit what we expect from all our staff. It does not matter whether prostitution is legal in a country or not; if someone is working for us, they cannot take part in those activities.
Will the Secretary of State stress that her Department makes no distinction about where a charity gets its money from—whether it is from Government or the charitable giving of British citizens—and that we will judge a charity by its deeds? When bad happens, as in the Oxfam case, the real victims are not Oxfam, which has now lost 7,000 subscribers, but the people on the ground, such as those in Haiti. They are the ones who really suffer.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The beneficiaries of aid are the victims in the Oxfam scandal, not anyone else. I absolutely recognise that individuals and members of the public will judge charities on how they respond, how they operate and their practices and responsibilities towards their beneficiaries. My Department has a particular responsibility to investigate those who are in receipt of UK aid, and the Charity Commission will look at the whole sector.
Following the International Development Committee’s hearing this morning, a number of areas for immediate action were raised. One was about charities’ ability to do a Disclosure and Barring Service check—formerly a Criminal Records Bureau check—for all their workers. Will the Secretary of State take immediate action to ensure that they can do that by including them as a regulated class of profession?
Secondly, we were told today that Interpol is ready to open up a register but lacks the finances to do so. Will the Secretary of State ensure that we put all resources into Interpol to make sure that that register is open, to stop paedophiles working in this sector?