House of Commons
Monday 26 February 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Let me begin by updating the House briefly on the recent tragedy in Leicester. Five people are now confirmed to have died in an explosion last night at a shop in Hinckley road. Five others remain in hospital, one with serious injuries. I thank the fire crews who are continuing to search for survivors, and the hospital staff who are working tirelessly to save lives. I know that I speak for all of us when I say that our thoughts are with the family and friends of those who have died, as well as those who have been injured.
Domestic violence is a devastating crime that shatters the lives of victims and families. The Government have introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, rolled out new tools to tackle domestic violence—such as protection orders—and committed £100 million to support for victims.
The number of domestic violence offences in Greater Manchester rose by more than 20% last year, and the local police identified my constituency as a particular hotspot. The police, local authorities and support groups are working flat out to ensure that cases are reported, families are supported and prosecutions take place. Given the significant Government cuts in those services, what steps will the Home Secretary take to ensure that the forthcoming legislation will resource public services adequately so that they are equipped to deal with the rise in domestic violence?
I agree with the hon. Lady that tackling domestic violence and abuse is a priority. It will always be a priority for the Government, which is why we are introducing a domestic violence and abuse Bill. There will be a consultation first, and I hope that the hon. Lady will participate in it. There has been an increase in reporting, and although it seems counterintuitive, it is right to welcome that, because it shows that the police are taking domestic violence more seriously, which is exactly what we want.
The Southern Domestic Abuse Service, which is based in Havant, does great work tackling domestic violence in southern Hampshire. Will my right hon. Friend support the local and regional charities that do such great work, and will she back the service’s recent campaign to raise funds in order to build a women’s refuge in southern Hampshire?
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating southern Hampshire on taking action to protect women and to raise funds for refuges. The support of local charities, councillors and local activists is often necessary to ensure that the women in their communities are kept safe.
Marianne and Tracy, two domestic violence victims in my constituency, came to see me to ask me to support their petition asking the Government to do more to tackle serial domestic abuses by, for instance, providing a publicly accessible register to help to prevent perpetrators such as George Ward, their former partner, from successfully targeting new potential victims through dating websites such as Tinder.
The hon. Lady is right: serial domestic abusers are one of the worst elements of this whole subject. I encourage her, and her constituents, to participate in the consultation so that we can ensure that that particular trend is addressed.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s article in today’s edition of The Times, which sets out a clear commitment to this important issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that the increased use of screens and video links so that victims of domestic violence can give evidence without having to face their attackers will not only lead to increased reporting, but give the victims a voice in court?
I thank my hon. Friend for referring to that article. The purpose of the announcements that I have made today is to ensure that victims are more confident about coming forward and of feeling safe, and to ensure that we can be more certain of securing the convictions that they expect and we all want.
We on the Labour Benches also wish to thank the brave fire crews in Leicester, and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.
It is welcome that the Home Secretary has expressed concern about domestic violence, but we know that, on average, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. That is the end point of too much domestic violence. We also know that the number of refuge services in England has sharply reduced over the last few years. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that it fell from 294 in 2010 to 274 in 2017. It is all very well for the Home Secretary to talk about the role of charities, but what will the Government do to address the funding crisis that refuges now face?
I point out to the right hon. Lady that there are more beds available to women seeking them now than there were in 2010. This Government will always make sure there are sufficient numbers of beds for the women who need them, so that women are kept safe when they need to be. Since 2010, domestic abuse prosecutions have risen by 26% and convictions by 33%. It is good that women are able to come forward and that convictions are taking place, but terrible crime and gender-based violence against women remains, so I share the right hon. Lady’s view about the need to do something. She can rest assured that this Government are taking action, and I hope she will support the Bill we will be introducing.
EU Nationals: Residence Rights
European Union citizens resident before we leave the EU are covered by the agreement we reached in December. We welcome the contribution they have made both to our economy and our societies, and they and their families can stay and carry on living their lives here.
The reality is that many sectors that rely on EU nationals are struggling with recruitment, and the Government have created further uncertainty with mixed messages about the status of EU nationals who come here during any transitional period, so will the Minister provide clarity for businesses and people thinking about coming here? What will be their rights, and will they match the rights of the 3 million EU citizens already living here?
At various points over the last six weeks I have in this House—and, indeed, in Committee—highlighted the rights that will be available to EU nationals living here. The Government have undertaken to provide regular updates, and I can assure the House that that will indeed be the case going forward.
When might the immigration Bill actually be brought forward, and what is the reason for its lengthy delay?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Of course, that Bill was the subject of an urgent question in the House, and I made it very clear then that it will be coming forward in due course.
While protecting the rights of EU nationals who are already here, can the Minister reassure my constituents that, whatever the other details of the final Brexit agreement, it will include the end of free movement?
We have been very clear that, when people voted to leave the European Union back in 2016, that involved the end of free movement, so I can certainly reassure the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents that that will be the case.
I am pleased that the Government are delivering on their pledge to secure the rights of EU citizens here—especially those from Taunton Deane. Will my right hon. Friend comment, however, on how straightforward applying to stay might be, and whether we might have a little more detail?
It is very important that we make it clear that, for EU citizens already living here and who have come here before the specified date, we want as smooth and seamless a process as possible. They will be able to apply digitally online, and we want that process to open on a voluntary basis later this year.
The most recent migration statistics show immigration from outside the EU, which the Government have always been able to control, going up, while EU citizens are leaving in their largest numbers for almost a decade. The Government have again postponed their White Paper on post-Brexit immigration strategy. Rather than taking back control, are this Government in fact driven by confusion and inaction?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are working very hard to make sure we have a sustainable immigration system both now and going forward. I welcome the fact that there are so many students coming here to study—he will of course be aware that there is no limit on the number of students who can come to this country—but what I really welcome is the number of EU citizens who came to this country not just looking for a job, but with a job to go to.
Regional Organised Crime Units
Serious and organised crime does not respect force boundaries, which is why we organise our response at regional level, giving us the ability to tackle organised crime groups head-on. The Government have invested £140 million in ROCUs since 2013, and last year we announced £40 million of additional funding to enhance ROCU capabilities further in areas such as cyber-crime and undercover work.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when using informants to tackle serious and organised crime such as paedophile rings, it should be unacceptable to use paedophiles as informants in such investigations?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but I can assure her that the use of informants is strongly controlled by robust safeguards and independent oversight. We must not shy away from using informants, as their use in certain circumstances is vital in stopping some of the worst in society carrying out their crimes.
Has the Minister heard, as I have, from police up and down the country about the influence of Russia in our serious and organised crime? I hear time and again about Russian money and influence, and about Russians coming in via Malta and Cyprus.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a number of active Russians and indeed other nationals are involved in organised crime in this country. That is why the Government are reviewing the organised crime strategy that was first published in 2013 and why we introduced the Criminal Finance Act 2017 to give us the powers to deal not only with the people inflicting these crimes but with their money, should they choose to push it through this country.
The Security and Economic Crime Minister will be aware of the great number of loyalist and republican crime gangs that operate with organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, and also internationally. He knows that they are subject to the paramilitary taskforce, but will he meet me to discuss how we can ensure that that succeeds?
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that matter. We realise that the best way to tackle organised crime is similar to the way in which we have often tackled terrorism in the past—that is, alongside the criminal justice outcome, to use the broad shoulders of the whole state, local authorities, financial regulation, the police and neighbourhoods to tackle these people.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the article in The New York Times—because I sent it to him—about the British television series “McMafia”. Indeed, he was mentioned in that article. Does he agree, though, that while it is important to recognise that many Russians are involved in organised crime, it would be utterly wrong and simplistic to demonise a whole nation and its immigrants in the United Kingdom?
There is absolutely no intention of demonising a nation, an ethnicity or a culture. However, it is important to note that illicit money flows into the United Kingdom come predominantly from China and Russia, and that we have to tackle that. The powers in the Criminal Finance Act 2017 will allow us to go upstream and to take real action. If we take their money away, those people will know that they and their dirty money are not welcome in this country, and that they can either go to prison here or go home.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit the National Crime Agency this morning to see the great work that its staff are doing to tackle crime. However, there is little doubt that the tech giants could be doing a great deal more. I know that the Prime Minister has recently asked them to do so, but she was also asking them to do more in her early months as Home Secretary nearly eight years ago. When can we have more emphasis on action rather than words?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the empowerment that the internet gives to criminals, terrorists and radicalisers is extraordinary. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has helped to lead the charge in the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, and recently visited silicon valley to ensure that companies there start to deliver. We have seen significant changes involving the taking down of radicalising material and enabling us to catch the bad people who are doing the crimes. It is, however, important to note that one of the ways in which the National Crime Agency, the police and our intelligence services get to the bottom of these crimes is through the use of the powers given to them under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, whose effectiveness some Members in this House still try to block.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is standing up for his constituents in Sutton by asking this question. The Government have drawn up a comprehensive action plan with the police, motorcycle and insurance industry leaders, local councils, charities and representatives of the motorcycle riding community to focus on the causes of moped-enabled crime, and on what works and what needs to be done to prevent these crimes.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that the police already have the necessary legal powers to tackle this issue, and that what is important for the Londoners across the 32 London boroughs who are increasingly becoming victims of this crime is that the Government should continue to work with the Met police and the Mayor of London to ensure that those existing powers are used more effectively to tackle this scourge?
I agree that the police have the powers they need, but those powers need to be used in conjunction with charities, local authorities and so on to ensure that we have a thorough response to the problem. We are reviewing the law, guidance and practice around pursuits, because there are concerns about the policy and because we want to be sure that the current arrangements provide the right legal protections for officers who pursue offenders. We will publish the outcome of the review shortly.
I represent a relatively low-crime area that has seen a big increase in moped crime, so what are the Government doing to support the campaign among petrol station owners to stop serving masked riders?
One of my first meetings shortly after my appointment was with the Petrol Retailers Association. Of course, we have to consider all sorts of measures to see what will work, which is why it is so key that our action plan involves not just law enforcement and councils, but those who ride their motorbikes quite legitimately.
This is not just about mopeds; scrambler bikes and quad bikes are terrorising parts of my constituency. In Maesteg and Caerau, riders on these bikes are chasing people and blocking them from gaining access to public rights of way. What more can the Minister do to try to tackle the scourge not just of mopeds, but of the other types of off-road bikes that can access footpaths and pavements?
We are keen that police forces collaborate on crimes enabled by mopeds and other smaller vehicles. For example, the Metropolitan police is now using DNA sprays, and we have great hopes that that will help to catch offenders. Such measures should be shared around constabularies to ensure that offenders are brought to justice.
I must say that I feel considerably better informed about the moped situation now than I was five minutes ago. I hope that colleagues feel the same.
Tier 2 Visas
The cap on tier 2 visas was set in 2011 following advice from the Migration Advisory Committee. It enables the Government to control migration and encourages employers to look first to the domestic workforce before recruiting from overseas. The Government are clear that carefully controlled economic migration benefits the economy, but we remain committed to reducing migration and protecting the jobs of British workers. We keep all immigration routes under review to ensure that the system serves the national interest.
I am grateful to the Minister, but given that the cap has been reached three times in the past three months, what would she say to employers that are desperate for skilled staff, such as Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge? They find those people, but then discover that the Government say that they cannot come here. Is it really Government policy to deny the national health service the skilled people that it needs?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that no medical professionals on the shortage occupation list have been refused a visa. It is important that we keep things under review and ensure that we recruit more doctors and nurses from within the UK, and my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary is committed to ensuring that the number of training places for both nurses and doctors increases.
Is the Minister aware of the levels of staff and skills shortages in a series of economic sectors, including the NHS and social care? How does she see the impacts on these sectors if there are further restrictions on migration for such purposes?
Nurses are on the shortage occupation list, meaning that no nurse is turned away. The important thing is that we keep the matter under review and that we understand the situation through our work with the Migration Advisory Committee, which is looking at the pattern of EU work routes in this country, so that we come forward with an immigration policy that reflects the needs of our economy.
Has the Home Office decided whether EU citizens wanting to come to the UK to work in our NHS post Brexit will be subject to the tier 2 visa cap? If no decision has yet been taken, when do Ministers intend to end the uncertainty facing NHS employers?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He will have heard me say earlier that we will come forward with an immigration Bill in due course. He will also have heard me undertake to ensure that the House is updated on our EU exit policies in regular time, and that will of course happen.
I start by associating my party with the Home Secretary’s remarks about the tragedy in Leicester. Our thoughts and prayers are very much with the families.
The Minister suggests that the tier 2 cap situation is under review. With respect, that is not good enough. Failed applicants in the past three months may have no option but to apply again in the months ahead, making it ever more competitive for tier 2 certificates of sponsorship, which will make the problem much worse. Surely, if there is some sort of review, or if we have to wait for the Migration Advisory Committee, it makes sense to lift the cap in the meantime.
We are very clear that businesses should look first to employ people from within the UK, and we remain committed to reducing migration to sustainable levels. Interestingly, businesses have told us that our system compares well with our global competitors and that businesses like its speed and certainty.
The system works well for some businesses, but not for all. Breaching the tier 2 cap essentially meant that, to qualify for a certificate of sponsorship in December 2017, a job was required to offer a salary of £55,000 or above. That might be common enough for multinational companies in London, but it is much rarer elsewhere.
Given the Government say that they want a system that works for the whole United Kingdom, will the Minister make available information on the geographic spread of jobs that qualified for certificates of sponsorship over the past three months when the cap was breached?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, of course, we keep a separate shortage occupation list for Scotland, if that is what he is referring to, but that broadly reflects the shortage occupations across the whole UK. We look carefully at this issue, as he might expect, but it is important that he reflects on the fact that we are determined to have an immigration system in the UK that works for the whole country.
Security Spending (Calais)
Since 2014 the United Kingdom has invested approximately £200 million to fund joint co-operation on illegal migration in northern France and committed another £44.5 million at the recent UK-France summit. Funding focuses on improving port security and infrastructure; facilities for children; accommodation; tackling organised crime, including trafficking; and support with returning migrants. We have allocated £3.6 million to work with France to improve identification and transfer of asylum seekers between the UK and France, including children, under the Dublin regulation.
Border Force tells us that it is stopping around 1,000 people a week who are trying to get to the UK, a third of whom are minors, but those children are not being taken into care or asked whether they have family elsewhere—just like Mohammed Hassan, a teenager who had family in Bahrain but was stopped by our Border Force, sent back and died two days later trying again. What action are the Government taking to make sure that our Border Force people are not sending children into the hands of traffickers?
I am sure the hon. Lady would welcome my comment about working to combat organised crime, and we should always reflect that many perilous journeys that are made are in the hands of organised criminals. Any loss of life is an absolute tragedy, but it is important we reflect that our juxtaposed controls are an important part of our border. Our Border Force staff are incredibly well trained and look for vulnerabilities wherever they might see them. She makes an important point, and we are committed to doing more to make sure we meet our allocation of Dubs children. Also, under the Dublin regulation, we continue to resettle thousands of children every year.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that our recent agreement with the French Government will not merely treat the symptoms of the problem but address the deeper-rooted problem by reducing the number of migrant journeys to northern France?
An important component of the recent treaty looks at the whole route of migration. It is critical that we understand we cannot solve this solely by working with France. There is a real commitment with both Italy and Greece to make sure that, particularly with reference to our Dubs commitment, we resettle the children we are determined to bring to the UK.
Thousands of unaccompanied children at risk of trafficking and exploitation still sit in camps in Europe and further afield. Many of them have family members in the UK, so will the Minister amend the immigration regulations so that these desperate children can join their relatives here in the UK to be granted safety and sanctuary?
We have a number of schemes that already allow children to come to the UK, including Dublin and the Dubs commitment that I have outlined. We are determined to make sure that we meet our international commitments and our humanitarian commitments, to make sure that, where we can help children in desperate need across the continent and, indeed, in the wider middle east and north Africa region, we do so.
The Government have been clear that there should be no space online for terrorists and supporters to radicalise, recruit, incite or inspire. The UK has led the way in setting up the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, to ensure that the larger communications service providers and all internet providers take down that material.
I thank the Home Secretary for that answer. From speaking to experts such as Professor Peter Neumann from King’s College London, I am aware that the vast majority of Daesh supporters have moved away from using online systems such as Facebook and Twitter, and are now using private messaging systems such as Telegram. What steps has the Home Secretary taken, by working with such organisations, to help to tackle these threats?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important point. He is right to say that a lot of the activity by radicalised people has migrated to the smaller sites. That is partly due to the some of the success that Facebook and Twitter have had; these people are now moving to the smaller sites. We reckon that more than 450 were set up just last year. It is so important to have the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism because the larger companies have committed to working with the smaller companies to show them how to adapt their platforms to keep the terrorists offline.
But how does it give the public confidence in the Government’s anti-radicalisation and anti-terrorism strategy for the former British soldier James Matthews, who fought alongside our Kurdish allies against ISIS in Syria, to be prosecuted for terrorist offences?
There are certain elements to this and I cannot be drawn on individual ones because that particular case is sub judice. However, I understand that there are concerns about the level way in which the Government are approaching this. No individual from this country can go out and fight with another person’s army or terrorist organisation in order perhaps to promote their own way of life. We have to be very clear and even-handed about this.
Prisoners: Social Media and Mobile Phones
Prisoners’ illegal use of mobile phones enables their continued offending, threatens the safety and security of our prisons, and harms our communities. The Government have introduced legislation to disconnect mobile phones in prisons remotely; they have invested £2 million in mobile phone detection equipment; and the Ministry of Justice is working closely with mobile network operators to deliver cutting-edge technology to prevent mobile phones from being smuggled into prisons and then working.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but I have recently been dealing with two cases where violent partners have been running a campaign of threats and intimidation from within prison against their former partners, yet they are still up for parole. It does not seem that the police locally, who are investigating these crimes, are contacting the MOJ and the Prison Service to ensure that this is taken into account when these people are considered for parole.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will appreciate that I am not able to comment specifically on those cases, but I ask him to write to me about them so that we can see what further can be done. I want to emphasise that it is getting harder and harder for prisoners to get mobile phones into prisons and to then use them. Indeed, at least 150 phones have been disconnected since the telecommunications restriction regulations came into force.
We know that in December some 79 illegal mobile phones were seized as a result of joint operations between police and the Prison Service at HMP Hewell. What steps are being taken by the Home Office, police and crime commissioners and the Prison Service to set up proper protocols and systems for joint working between the police and the Prison Service? Obviously, illegal activity is taking place on the outside in order to get these phones in, as well as within the prisons.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, as Chair of the Justice Committee he knows a great deal about this. More than 23,000 handsets and SIM cards were seized from prisons last year. The Government are investing £25 million to create a new security directorate in prisons and £14 million to transform our intelligence, search and disruption capabilities in prisons at the national, regional and local levels. That includes more than £3 million to establish serious organised crime units to deny offenders space to operate in prisons.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate reports regularly on efficiency. In its last report, it ranked two forces as outstanding, Thames Valley and Durham, 30 forces as good, including Northamptonshire, and 10 forces as requiring improvement.
Are the most efficient forces getting together with the least efficient forces so that the least efficient can raise their game?
That is an excellent question. One of the great challenges that faces our 43-force police system is how we encourage and support greater collaboration and the greater spreading of ideas. We have joint working groups on emergency services collaboration and it is something that we look at closely.
For my constituents there is only one true test of police efficiency: can we sleep easily at night, free from crime, and are there police on the streets to keep us safe? On Merseyside, where the police are rated good, reported incidents of burglary are up by 22%, rape is up by 32%, robbery is up by 31% and the list goes on. The only thing that is down is the number of police: we had 4,700 police officers five years ago; today, the number is less than 3,500. What can the Minister do to reassure the people of Merseyside about this terrible situation?
The hon. Lady omitted one other figure that is up: the amount of cash available to Merseyside police. It is up £5.2 million next year and I hope she will welcome that number.
In Northamptonshire, we have seen cutting-edge policing and fire service innovation, which is leading to better outcomes for local people. How can that innovation be shared with other forces? Will the Government continue to support innovation as much as possible?
I think it is fair to say that Northamptonshire is closely associated with best practice on collaboration among the emergency services and sets an example to the rest of the country. My hon. Friend will be aware that the local police and crime commissioner, Stephen Mold, has applied for joint governance of fire and police. That is in the system.
Sutton police are very efficient. Is the Minister aware of the London Mayor’s plans that would see the merger of Sutton, Bromley and Croydon police? Does he share my concern that that would lead to their being less efficient and unable to focus on the needs of each borough in the way they should?
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am a London MP, and my constituents express similar concerns about plans in north-west London. The bottom line is that these operating decisions are being driven by the police and crime commissioner team and the commissioner. They are accountable to the public for their decisions.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary identified forensics as one of the key areas impeding police efficiency. Crucial forensics tests can make the difference as to whether a person is jailed or loses their family or their job, yet shockingly the Minister told me in a recent written answer that private providers in civil cases do not need to meet any specific scientific standards. There is no regulation in this area at all. Forensics is becoming the wild west of the criminal justice system, so when will the Government stop dithering and give the regulators the powers they have been calling for?
I do not think the hon. Lady’s description of a wild west does justice to the regulators’ work in this space. In fact, everyone agrees that standards have increased on our watch. We have made it clear that we want to put powers on a statutory basis and are actively exploring opportunities for the parliamentary time to do just that.
It is true that fire response times have increased gradually over the past 20 years, but over the same period the number of fires, fire-related fatalities and non-fatal casualties has decreased. There is no clear link between response times and firefighter numbers. As I am sure the hon. Lady will know, a range of factors influence response times, including changing traffic levels and call-handling policy.
Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has the lowest per-incident spending power of any fire and rescue service. When do the Government intend to start to fund fire and rescue services based on risk, not just on demand?
Tyne and Wear will receive £47.7 million of core spending power in 2018-19. That is an increase of 0.8% compared with 2017-18. It also has £23 million of non-ring-fenced reserves, representing almost 50% of revenue.
Fire Services: Funding and Pay
It is the responsibility of the National Joint Council to consider what pay award is appropriate for firefighters in England. Central Government have no role in the process.
Firefighters go into burning buildings to save lives. They are professional, compassionate heroes who put their lives at risk to save our families. Can the Minister look every one of them in the eye and tell them it is acceptable that they have received a pay cut in real terms?
What I say to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I do apologise—man flu. What I say to the hon. Lady is that the Government are determined to make sure that firefighters, who do difficult, dangerous work—as we have seen today in Leicester—get fair pay for their work. It is also very true, as she suggested, that over recent years they have been asked to make sacrifices as part of the contribution to getting on top of the deficit we inherited from Labour.
Active pay negotiations are going on between the employer and employees at the moment, which we are watching closely. It is for them to sort out. We believe that fire authorities have the resources to make an appropriate offer, but we are watching the situation closely and engaging with them. If we can help, we will, but we need to see a business case for that.
Last night’s fire in Leicestershire, in which five people sadly lost their lives, once again highlighted the bravery of our firefighters. The number of firefighters has been cut by 11,000 since 2010, and their wages have seen a real-terms cut. The current level of un-earmarked reserves equates to just three weeks’ operating costs, at the same time as deaths in fires have increased. I ask the Minister to reconsider the levels of funding and resourcing for our fire service. There has been praise today for our firefighters. When will the Government pay them a fair wage for the courageous work they undertake?
No one disputes the courageous work that firefighters do: we saw it at Grenfell and we saw it yesterday in Leicestershire. The point is that active negotiations are going on between those who are responsible—employer and employee. Central Government do not have a role in that process, unless we are called in for additional support.
The hon. Lady mentions reserves. Labour is in denial on this. The fact is that the fire system, which claims to be short of cash, has increased its reserves by £288 million since 2011. Reserves can only be increased by not using the money received, so our question to the fire service is, “Tell us what you’re going to do with the public’s money.”
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
The level of support provided to refugees and asylum seekers will vary depending on their status in the UK and the route that they were granted. Last week in Lebanon, I heard first hand how important our resettlement scheme is and how it helps individuals and families fleeing danger and conflict to rebuild their lives.
I thank the Home Secretary for that answer, but a recent report from Refugee Rights Europe showed that two thirds of asylum seekers feel unsafe or very unsafe in their accommodation. At my surgery on Friday, I met a Malawian constituent who showed me photographs of her accommodation, which is simply unacceptable. Will the Home Secretary agree to meet me to discuss not just my constituent’s case, but that recent report by Refugee Rights Europe?
We are committed to ensuring that all asylum seekers are kept in safe accommodation, so I will of course meet the hon. Gentleman to look at the evidence. But I take this opportunity to thank the city of Glasgow, which does so much—way above proportionately—to look after vulnerable people and to assist with the Syrian and vulnerable people refugee scheme.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Worcestershire County Council, which recently agreed to resettle 50 more Syrian refugees, taking the total to 100 in the county? That is a real contribution to this country’s efforts to resettle the refugees.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that up, and I join her in thanking her council for doing that. The great success of the Syrian and vulnerable people resettlement scheme was something that I was able to celebrate last week, when we passed the halfway mark—we passed 10,000, of whom half are children. It is the generosity of British people and the support of local authorities and councils that has allowed that to take place. We must all be mindful of the work that our councils and communities do.
I am very pleased that one of the first families to be resettled from Syria under the community sponsorship scheme lives in my constituency. But they are trying to bring over their parents for an important family visit, and the parents are in a refugee camp in Lebanon and cannot supply the necessary evidence to complete their application. Will the Home Secretary or Immigration Minister meet me to discuss the case and the wider issue affecting refugees seeking to make visits here?
I understand the difficulty and heartbreak that there can be for the wider families when families are resettled over here. We have to allow the UNHCR to do its job and to make its selection based on who is the most vulnerable. There are some schemes, small though they are, that allow for additional family resettlement. I welcome the hon. Lady meeting one of my ministerial colleagues to discuss the matter, but I must put before the House the fact that, although we do resettle families, resettling the wider family would take up too much of the space allowed.
I recently met refugee families at an event run by the volunteers of the Milngavie refugee action group. One woman there showed me heartbreaking footage on her phone of injured children being removed from rubble. She had been sent the footage by her sister, who is stranded in Syria. Given how few Syrian refugees we have taken in to date, what hope can the Government give to refugees here who fear for the lives of their parents and siblings who are stuck in danger in Syria or in refugee camps in neighbouring countries?
We have all seen those pictures and images of children—I saw for myself just last week the children in the refugee camp in Lebanon—and the situation is heartbreaking. The UK is doing the right thing by taking up to 20,000 refugees by 2020. That is five times as many as were resettled from the region under the former Labour Government, and it is more than any other European country in terms of resettlement from the region. The UK is doing its bit, but this is a dual approach. As the hon. Lady no doubt knows, we are one of the largest bilateral donors to the area, having put in £2.4 billion since the Syrian crisis began.
Leaving the EU: Preparations
The Department continues to make preparations for a range of possible outcomes from the UK’s negotiations with the European Union, working in close co-ordination with the Department for Exiting the European Union and others. We are already recruiting additional staff in Border Force and across the wider UK Visas and Immigration department to ensure that the correct preparations for leaving the European Union are well under way.
Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how much has been invested in our borders since the referendum and how much is planned between now and Brexit day in March 2019? Will the Home Office be ready on day one, prepared for every single eventuality?
As I reassured my hon. Friend, we are making preparations for every eventuality. The Home Office has already invested £60 million in 2017-18. We will continue to review the funding position as negotiations continue and details of the final agreement become clearer. As he might expect, we are in continuing discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury.
The phase 1 agreement before Christmas rightly confirmed the Government’s commitment to the avoidance of a hard border in Northern Ireland, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls. The Minister will know the concerns of the Police Service of Northern Ireland that any infrastructure at all could pose a security threat. So far, the Government have not set out any way in which to operate border and customs checks—if the UK is outside a customs union—without some kind of physical infrastructure such as, for example, cameras at or near the border. Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s commitment to no physical infrastructure also means a commitment to no cameras at or near the border, which would also pose a security threat?
The right hon. Lady will be aware that we have made a very firm commitment to no hard border, and that we will continue to update the House as negotiations progress.
As a proportion of overall violence, alcohol-related violent crime climbed steadily from 41% in 1995 to 55% in 2009-10. More recently, it has fallen back to 40% of all violent crime in 2016-17. The cost of alcohol misuse to society is estimated to be around £21 billion a year, with alcohol-related crime estimated to account for around £11 billion a year. We continue to work with the police to equip them with the right powers to take effective action.
The Minister is obviously aware of the terrible damage that alcohol does, but is she aware of a recent report implicating alcohol as a major factor in child abuse among other things? When are the Government going to take serious, comprehensive and effective action to reduce alcohol abuse, and the suffering and cost that it still inflicts across our society?
Both the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care take this issue very seriously. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State for Health recently announced a report on helping children of alcoholic parents. Violent crime is down and alcohol consumption overall is down, particularly among young people, but of course it is very important to look at this issue, particularly in relation to domestic abuse. We will be looking at how we can deal with it, in combination with the Department of Health, as part of our modern crime prevention strategy.
It has just been confirmed that all alcoholic drinks in Scotland must cost at least 50p per unit from May this year. Will the Minister now review our alcohol strategy to allow us to take up this evidence-based policy that will do so much to tackle the scourge of cheap, high-strength alcohol and reduce pressure on our emergency services?
We are of course aware of the Scottish Parliament’s policy on this, and we are looking at it with interest. We set out our alcohol strategy in the 2016 strategy on dealing with modern crime, but we keep the issue under review.
I was one of those who was persuaded years back that we needed to reform our late-night drinking laws. The reality is that this has been a failure. Will the Government seriously consider talking to our police forces and local authorities about how we can ensure a more rational way of dealing with late-night drinking, so that we do not see the problems that it currently causes?
Very much so. This is obviously a matter for review and for police and crime commissioners and local police forces to look at in their own local areas. We have changed the late-night levy to try to make it more flexible and targeted, so that district councils and others can use it for the areas that present the most harm in terms of the night-time economy.
On Saturday night I was out with Inspector Simon Jenkinson and his team seeing how they police Torquay’s night-time economy. Does the Minister agree that it is important that councils work with their local policing teams? Will she agree to meet to discuss how we can review some of the more outdated provisions, such as the Vagrancy Acts, which have a real impact on our night-time economy?
Local councils and local policing teams know where the hotspots of trouble can be in their local areas. That is why it is essential that councils and police work together. Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this important issue.
I would like to update the House on the UK’s recent ranking as one of the least corrupt countries in the world following our decisive action to tackle corruption both at home and abroad. Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks 180 countries on perceived public sector corruption. In the latest index, published only last Wednesday, the UK moved up two places from joint tenth least corrupt in the world to joint eighth. We now have the second-highest score in the G20.
Our improved position reflects the proactive approach that this Government have taken to combat corruption, but we recognise that there is still more to do. The national anti-corruption strategy published in December establishes an ambitious framework to tackle corruption to 2022 and contains over 100 commitments to guide Government efforts. I know that Ministers and the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption champion, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), will support me in driving efforts across Government and around the world.
That was a most useful answer, but far too long. It is one of those answers that officials draft and to which a Minister, however busy and distinguished, needs sometimes perhaps to apply the blue pencil. But we are extremely grateful to the Home Secretary for what she has said.
Despite overwhelming evidence from over 90 cities around the world, the Home Secretary still intransigently prevents a pilot study on unsafe drug consumption in the city of Glasgow, where drug-related deaths are at epidemic levels. Why is she being so intransigent on this issue?
I do not find the evidence as conclusive as the hon. Gentleman does. We have looked at this. It is an area that is constantly having different reviews and different champions. If he wants to come and meet the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, I am happy for him to do that, but we cannot see, at the moment, any reason to change the policy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. To his last point, the answer is yes, and Northamptonshire is a good example of where emergency services are working across the lights. I am delighted to say that on 1 October, Roger Hirst of Essex police became the country’s first police, fire and crime commissioner. Six other police and crime commissioners have submitted proposals to take on fire, and we aim to make an announcement soon.
Ministers will be aware that I visited Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre last week, after a year of asking the Home Office to be allowed to visit. Are Ministers aware of the long-standing concerns about the quality of medical care at Yarl’s Wood—concerns that were raised with me by so many women last week? Is the Minister aware that victims of trafficking and sexual abuse are being held at Yarl’s Wood, contrary to Government undertakings? Is the Minister aware that some women at Yarl’s Wood are on hunger strike—a hunger strike that the Home Office flatly refuses to admit is happening? The women of Yarl’s Wood are desperate, and we owe them a duty of care. Will the Minister agree to meet with me, so that I can share with her the specific concerns that so many women raised with me?
I am always delighted to meet the right hon. Lady and to listen carefully to any suggestions that she has and her experiences of visiting Yarl’s Wood. We take the health of everybody at any detention centre very seriously. There are high standards there, and if there are any examples otherwise, we will always take a look at them. I was concerned by some of her suggestions afterwards when she made her speech. Immigration detention centres play an important part in enforcing our immigration rules. Some of the people there are very dangerous, and it is right that they are detained and then removed.
As my hon. Friend knows, an application has been made with a business case that has been independently assessed. We have had to delay a decision on that because of the inspection in Northamptonshire, as we need to make sure that the financial projection assumptions made by Northamptonshire County Council are built on rock rather than sand. He appreciates that. As soon as that process is resolved, we want to move ahead with a decision as quickly as possible.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will be aware that we had a Westminster Hall debate on that subject last week and that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) has a private Member’s Bill on it, which will come forward on 16 March. This is a policy area where we enable some refugee families to be reunited here. We have a proud track record of so far resettling 10,000 of the 20,000 we are expecting under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. This is an important policy. We are determined to be as compassionate as we can within the commitments we have already made.
I can certainly do that. Kent police is regularly rated excellent for the good service it delivers. It performs well across all strands of inspection and has been rated outstanding for the legitimacy with which it keeps people safe and reduces crime. Through my hon. Friend, I would like to congratulate the commissioner, the leadership and all the frontline officers in Kent for the outstanding work they do.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for the meeting that she asked me to attend with leaders of Rotherham Council and the police. There has been and continues to be significant Government investment in response to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, including £5.17 million to fund transformational change there, funding for police forces to meet the costs of unexpected events and up to £2 million for children’s social care in recognition of social workers’ increased workload resulting from the investigation of CSE. We have previously provided approximately £5.6 million for Operation Stovewood in the last two years, and we are considering an application for funding for the costs of investigation in 2017-18.
My hon. Friend is right that successful data transfer—through existing schemes such as Schengen Information System II and the European Criminal Records Information System and, indeed, the use of Europol data—is one of the things that keeps all our citizens safe and keeps other European citizens safe too. That is why the UK has proposed a third-party treaty, so that we can engage just as successfully and just as fully with the European Union as we have done previously, keeping Londoners in Paris and Parisians in London just as safe after we leave as they were before.
I confirm to the hon. Lady that I did indeed meet the parents and grandmother of Alfie this morning to progress exactly what I said at the Dispatch Box last week about our intention to explore every option within the existing regulations to help Alfie.
But should not the provision of prescription medicines, even if derived from narcotics, be a purely clinical matter?
As I have said, I am looking at this through the lens of what we can do within the existing regulations to support Alfie, and those decisions will be clinically led.
This is an area that we will constantly keep under review. It is an area that is sometimes covered by the Cabinet. We have the national cyber-security strategy, backed up by the National Cyber Security Centre. It is something we are very aware of and will continue to discuss in order to make sure that this country is kept safe.
I have been contacted by a local optician in Elgin. He is a tier 2 sponsor, but because optometry is not listed as a priority profession, he has been affected by the tier 2 cap being reached in recent months. Will the Minister and colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care consider including optometrists as priority professionals for tier 2 visas?
The tier 2 cap operates to ensure that our immigration system brings the best talent to the UK while still controlling numbers. Any profession on the shortage occupation list automatically gets priority. The shortage occupation list is determined by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. It has not yet included opticians on the list, but as my hon. Friend will know, it is currently carrying out a major labour market review.
We know that we have a flat-cash police settlement this year and we know that local ratepayers are going to have to pay increased rates to meet the need, but do we yet know who is going to pay for the police pay rise, given the Police Federation’s 3.4% request today?
As the former Policing Minister knows very well, we have to look at the police settlement in the round, balancing the cash that the taxpayer pays from the centre—the Home Office—and the cash that the local taxpayer pays through the precept. We responded to both the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the National Police Chiefs Council on additional precept flexibility. That allowed us to put forward a settlement that will see investment in the police increase by £450 million next year—an increase that the Labour party opposed.
Is the Home Office confident that it and its agencies can compete with the private sector, and recruit and retain people with the key digital and cyber skills that we need?
For security reasons, I am unable to comment on specific recruitment levels and on the geographical distribution of police and intelligence agencies in specialist areas, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are seeing strong levels of recruitment. GCHQ and the National Crime Agency are doing great work in encouraging the next generation of cyber-sleuths through their Cyber First programme.
I am sure the Policing Minister will be as concerned as I am about the 309 assaults on police officers in Humberside in the past year. What more will the Government do to keep our brave police officers safe on the streets?
I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s concern about an increase in assaults on police, which is why we are looking very favourably at supporting the emergency workers protection Bill—the “protect the protectors” Bill—to try to have greater safeguards through the law. On engagement with police leadership, we keep under regular and constant review the application of operational tools at their disposal, such as Tasers.
In using the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to penalise rogue landlords and breaches in planning law, local authorities can act as a deterrent and also compensate council tax payers who end up footing the bill. Given that Sussex local authorities have used only one such power, what more can my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime do to encourage them to use more of them?
My hon. Friend is right to point out his worries. We hope that the Criminal Finances Act 2017 will give a new boost to training local authority officers to deliver on it and increase the amount we take from rogue landlords and property owners.
A number of migrant workers are starting to lose their jobs because of delays in the renewal and extension of visas. What can the Home Secretary do to speed up the process, so that they do not face that problem in the future?
The hon. Gentleman will have to give me a bit more information—which sort of migrant workers and where? Of course, there has been no change to EU citizens being able to come and go, nor will there be until we have actually left the European Union. In terms of any other types of migrant workers, I ask him to write to me with more information.
The Minister for Policing and the Fire Service has already spoken about the benefits of collaboration between emergency services and will be aware of proposed closer working between Warwickshire and West Midlands fire services, while there is already a strategic partnership between Warwickshire and West Mercia police services. Is there any potential conflict if Warwickshire’s blue-light services collaborate with bodies from different areas?
There is no conflict as far as I can see. We are keen to encourage the greatest levels of collaboration between our emergency services.
When constituents have no recourse to public funds, serious delays in processing their visas result in them being plunged into abject poverty. What is the Home Secretary doing about that?
I did not hear the start of the hon. Lady’s question, but I think she was referring in particular to women who have no recourse to public funds. I am concerned about that, and it will be covered partly in our consultation. If she has other concerns about that particular cohort who are applying for refugee status, I urge her to contact my Department.
With Suffolk police being one of the lowest-funded forces with the highest number of case loads per officer in the country, will the Policing Minister set out a timetable for reviewing the police funding formula?
My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner on behalf of Suffolk police, and he knows that next year, as a result of the funding settlement, it will get an additional £3.6 million. I have made it clear that we will be looking at the fair funding formula in the context of the next comprehensive spending review, because we think that is the most appropriate framework to do so. Although we do not have an exact timetable, I expect that work to start soon.
I note the encouraging words from the Immigration Minister, as well as her excellent pronunciation. Refugees would be greatly helped by the passing of the private Member’s Bill on family reunion, which will receive its Second Reading in the House on Friday 16 March. It is supported by the British Red Cross, Amnesty International, the Refugee Council, Oxfam and United Nations agencies. Given the Minister’s good, warm words, which I welcome, how much thought have the Government given to supporting that Bill to enable families to have very clear rights to be together, which of course is the best security they could have?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I am sure he will understand the trepidation with which I seek to pronounce his constituency name—that was the second time I have managed it in a week. As I have said, we will look very carefully at his Bill, which I understand he published only at the beginning of last week, and we will have a full opportunity to debate it on 16 March.
The pronunciation struck me as magnificent, and I hope it will be shared with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, preferably sooner rather than later.
Order. There are lots of people wishing to speak, but I am afraid there is no time. If there are points of order—I had an indication that there was likely to be one—they must they come after the urgent question.
Syria: De-escalation Zones
(Urgent Question) To ask the Foreign Secretary what action the UK Government are taking on the conflict and humanitarian situation inside de-escalation zones in Syria following attacks on civilians in the last week.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for raising this vital issue.
In seven years of bloodshed, the war in Syria has claimed 400,000 lives and driven 11 million people from their homes, causing a humanitarian tragedy on a scale unknown anywhere else in the world. The House should never forget that the Assad regime, aided and abetted by Russia and Iran, has inflicted the overwhelming burden of that suffering. Assad’s forces are now bombarding the enclave of eastern Ghouta, where 393,000 people are living under siege, enduring what has become a signature tactic of the regime, whereby civilians are starved and pounded into submission. With bitter irony, Russia and Iran declared eastern Ghouta to be a “de-escalation area” in May last year and promised to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. But the truth is that Assad’s regime has allowed only one United Nations convoy to enter eastern Ghouta so far this year and that carried supplies for only a fraction of the area’s people. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in eastern Ghouta in the last week alone and the House will have noted the disturbing reports of the use of chlorine gas. I call for those reports to be fully investigated and for anyone held responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria to be held accountable.
Over the weekend I discussed the situation with my Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Sa’ad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon. Earlier today, I spoke to Sigmar Gabriel, the German Foreign Minister, and I shall be speaking to other European counterparts and António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in the next few days. Britain has joined with our allies to mobilise the Security Council to demand a ceasefire across the whole of Syria and the immediate delivery of emergency aid to all in need. Last Saturday, after days of prevarication from Russia, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2401, demanding that
“all parties cease hostilities without delay”
and allow the
“safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid”
“medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded”.
The main armed groups in eastern Ghouta have accepted the ceasefire, but as of today, the warplanes of the Assad regime are still reported to be striking targets in the enclave and the UN has been unable to deliver any aid. I remind the House that hundreds of thousands of civilians are going hungry in eastern Ghouta only a few miles from UN warehouses in Damascus that are laden with food. The Assad regime must allow the UN to deliver those supplies, in compliance with resolution 2401, and we look to Russia and Iran to make sure this happens, in accordance with their own promises. I have invited the Russian Ambassador to come to the Foreign Office and give an account of his country’s plans to implement resolution 2401. I have instructed the UK mission at the UN to convene another meeting of the Security Council to discuss the Assad regime’s refusal to respect the will of the UN and implement the ceasefire without delay.
Only a political settlement in Syria can ensure that the carnage is brought to an end and I believe that such a settlement is possible if the will exists. The UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is ready to take forward the talks in Geneva, and the opposition are ready to negotiate pragmatically and without preconditions. The international community has united behind the path to a solution laid out in UN resolution 2254 and Russia has stated its wish to achieve a political settlement under the auspices of the UN. Today, only the Assad regime stands in the way of progress. I urge Russia to use all its influence to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table and take the steps towards peace that Syria’s people so desperately need.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that response. Last week, 527 people were killed in Ghouta, including 129 children. The bombardment killed over 250 people in just two days—the deadliest 48 hours in the conflict since the 2013 gas attack, also on Ghouta. This House failed them then; now surely we must find the courage to act. Right now, a team led by British surgeon, David Nott, is ready to evacuate 175 very sick children from Ghouta and 1,000 adults needing life-saving treatment. The UK could take them. Will the Government commit to doing that?
The EU is today announcing stronger sanctions on regime officials. Will we also impose sanctions on Russian individuals and companies involved in the conflict? Will we have the courage to recognise what is blindingly obvious—that for all the so-called agreement to new resolutions, the Security Council is broken while one of its permanent members flouts the basic laws and systems of order that it was created to uphold, and that, in these dreadful circumstances, being cowed into inaction by this strangulated body is a greater violation than seeking to act even without its authorisation? Will we work with any and all nations committed to returning humanity to Syria to consider the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ghouta, or for peacekeepers to allow aid to get in, or indeed, for strikes on the forces responsible for these atrocities, like we failed to authorise in 2013?
The men and women of Ghouta who lie in pieces, deliberately targeted by Assad’s Russia-enabled bombs, and the dead children whose faces are altered by the chlorine gas that choked them should not be strewn in the rubble of eastern Ghouta. Those bodies should be piled up in this Chamber and lain at the feet of Governments of every single nation that continues to shrug in the face of this horror.
My final question comes from a doctor in Ghouta who spoke to a British journalist yesterday, his voice apparently thick with exhaustion and resignation. He said:
“I have a question for the world. What number of victims does the world need to show responsibility. Its moral responsibility. Its legal responsibility. To stop these crimes.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the continuing and campaigning interest that he has shown in this matter. He speaks for many people in this country in his indignation and outrage at what is taking place.
Let me take some of his points in turn. On the evacuation of medical cases, particularly children, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is in discussion about that very issue with David Nott, to whom the hon. Gentleman rightly alludes. On the point about holding the perpetrators to account and perhaps even bringing Russian agents to justice, we will certainly gather what evidence we can, knowing that the mills of justice may grind slowly, but they grind small. We will want in the end to bring all those responsible to justice.
On the hon. Gentleman’s central point that we in this country and in the west in the end did not do enough to turn the tide in Syria and that we missed our opportunity in 2013, no one can conceivably contradict him. We all understand what took place and the gap that we allowed to be opened up for the Russians and Iranians to come in and support the Assad regime. We all understand the failure that took place then, but we also have to recognise that there is no military solution that we can impose. It is now essential that the Russians recognise that, just because Assad is in possession of half the territory of Syria, or perhaps 75% of the population of Syria, that does not mean that he has won. He has come nowhere near to a complete military victory and I do not believe that it is within his grasp to achieve a complete military victory. Nobody should be under the illusion that that is what will happen. Nobody should be under the illusion that the suffering of the people of eastern Ghouta is simply the sad prerequisite or precursor to an eventual Assad military victory. I do not believe that that is the case. I believe that it will prove almost impossible for the Assad regime to achieve a military victory, even with Russian and Iranian support.
The only way forward—the only way out of this mess and this morass—for the Russians is to go for a political solution. The Sochi experiment did not work. Now is the moment to encourage that regime to get down to Geneva and begin those political talks, which I believe will have the support of the entire House.
I call Tom Tugendhat.
I was going to wait, Mr Speaker.
That is very decent of the hon. Gentleman, but if he feels a question welling up in his breast, he should share it with the nation.
Many hon. Members wanted to ask questions early, so I was going to wait and allow them to do so.
We are saving the hon. Gentleman up for the edification of the House.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is correct in saying that, in the end, it will be a political and diplomatic solution, but do we not have a responsibility to demonstrate to the world that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated? At the very least, are limited strikes to deny the Assad regime the ability to continue this horror within our responsibility?
Many people in this country will share my hon. Friend’s sentiments, and many people will believe that the United States of America did exactly the right thing when it responded to the abomination of the attack at Khan Sheikhoun in April with the strike at the Shayrat airfield. If the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons produces incontrovertible evidence of the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime or its supporters, I would certainly hope very much that the west will not stand idly by.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for securing it.
During the Opposition day debate in the House a month ago, I warned of the Assad regime’s impending criminal assault on eastern Ghouta. Sadly, that is exactly what we have seen in recent weeks. Whatever words we use to describe the assaults, and even if we say, as UNICEF said last week, that there are simply no adequate words, one thing must be made clear: because of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, the targeting of hospitals and medical centres, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and the alleged use of chemical weapons, the assault is simply a war crime and there must be a reckoning for those responsible.
In the brief time I have, may I ask the Foreign Secretary three questions? First, all hon. Members welcome the UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, but it was clear to anyone reading the text with care that it in fact excluded military action against terrorists. That will allow Assad and his allies to justify continuing their assault against the jihadist armies of Jaysh al-Islam and Tahrir al-Islam inside eastern Ghouta. It will also allow Turkey to justify continuing its assault on Afrin. To stop the assault on eastern Ghouta, therefore, should the UN not instead be clear that there must be a temporary cessation of all military action within Syria, and not the conditional cessation that Assad and his allies are using to justify continuing their assault?
Secondly, I ask the Foreign Secretary what practical discussions there have been at the UN and elsewhere about opening a corridor from eastern Ghouta to Mleiha or Harasta, both to allow access for humanitarian relief and to allow civilian safe passage out of the city.
Finally, while I appreciate that it is the view of some in the House that the suffering of eastern Ghouta can be stopped only by yet more western military intervention, I believe that that would simply prolong and deepen the war. Ultimately, we can end this dreadful conflict and the suffering of all the Syrian people only through genuine peace talks involving all non-jihadi parties and the agreement of a political solution, so may I ask the Foreign Secretary this: what is Britain doing to drive this process forward?
As I am sure the right hon. Lady will appreciate, United Nations Security Council resolution 2401 was, in fact, a considerable success of diplomacy, given the position that the Russians had previously taken. I think that it represents a strong commitment to a ceasefire on the part of the entire international community. It is now up to the Russians to enforce that ceasefire, and to get their client state to enforce it as well. That is the point that we are making, and the point that we will definitely make to ambassador Yakovenko. As for the issue of humanitarian corridors, I think that all these ideas are extremely good and we certainly support them, but it will take the acquiescence of the Assad regime to achieve what we want.
The right hon. Lady asked about the UK Government. The UK Government have been in the lead in Geneva and the United Nations in driving the process of holding the Assad regime to account through Security Council resolutions, and we continue to do that. We are calling again for the Security Council to meet to discuss the failure to implement resolution 2401 today. As the right hon. Lady knows, the UK Government are part of the Syria Small Group, which is working to counterbalance what has turned out to be a doomed—or perhaps I should say “so far unsuccessful”—Russian venture at Sochi. That is because we think it is our job to bring the international community together. I am not talking about the Astana process or the Sochi process. We should bring the members of the international community together, as one, in Geneva, with a single political process. That is what the job of the UK Government is, and that is where we will continue to direct our efforts.
Thank you for your patience, Mr Speaker. I am extremely grateful.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the urgent question. May I share with him the disappointment that I am sure many Conservative Members feel as a war continues and Stop the War does not protest outside the Russian embassy, but stays silent about the brutality that we are seeing?
My right hon. Friend rightly said that Britain should be at the centre of this process. May I ask him what conversations he has had with Minister Zarif and Minister Lavrov over the last few days, given that Minister Lavrov was instrumental in first blocking and then delaying the UN process? May I also ask him whether it is true that both President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany have spoken to President Putin of Russia? What contact have we had with Russia over the last few days?
I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that we are directing all our conversations and all our energies to getting the Russians to accept their responsibilities. I cannot go into the details of the contacts that we have had with them over the last few days, but suffice it to say that we believe that it is overwhelmingly in their interests to begin a political process. I feel that if they do not do that, they will be bogged down in this conflict for years, perhaps decades, to come. There is no military solution. There are 4 million people in Syria whom Assad does not control, and whom the Russians do not control either. We are therefore exerting all the influence we can to bring the process back to Geneva, where it belongs.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for requesting it.
This is a multi-faceted war. Robert Fisk of The Independent has warned that it is Ghouta today, but it will be Raqqa later. We welcome the united approach of the UN Security Council to this critically urgent issue, and, indeed, the efforts of the UK Government in helping to secure it. However, there is concern about the fact that the resolution does not make it clear how the ceasefire will be enforced, how the injured will be evacuated, and how returning aid workers will be protected. Will the Foreign Secretary provide some clarity on that, and might he think about working to achieve an improved resolution?
We know that, yesterday, both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron spoke to the Kremlin to urge Russia to use its influence to ensure the ceasefire is respected. Following on from the question of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), what representations are the UK Government planning to make to Russia to ensure the ceasefire is announced and, indeed, implemented, and especially for safe corridors, in which Russia could play a big part?
With Syria and Turkey now disagreeing over whether the ceasefire applies to Turkish forces in north-west Syria, and Iran insisting it does not apply to parts of Damascus, there is a real risk that the limited scope and clarity will lead to the ceasefire being disregarded. Can the Secretary of State confirm if there will be any further discussions aimed at ensuring there is zero ambiguity among all parties as to what the ceasefire entails, especially given Robert Fisk’s warning that the bombing in Ghouta will not end any time soon and, indeed, that there are other cities further down the line that will, when the dominoes start to topple, suffer the same fate?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the safe return of aid workers is paramount, and we are working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to ensure that that is possible and that people can go about their jobs looking after the humanitarian needs of the victims in safety. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the need to bear down on Russia and make it clear to the world that Russia bears responsibility for bringing its client state to heel and delivering it to the talks in Geneva—and, as I have said many times to the House, that is pre-eminently in Russia’s interests.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this ceasefire is absolutely vital not only to get humanitarian aid in, but to aid the medical evacuations across Syria and especially in eastern Ghouta?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she will have heard the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) detail some of the suffering taking place in eastern Ghouta, including the signs that hundreds of children are victims, some of them perhaps now of chemical weapons. It is crucial that those victims receive the medical attention they need, and, as I told the House just now, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is working with the doctors concerned to see what we can do.
The Russian Defence Minister has announced that, starting tomorrow, there will be a daily humanitarian pause from 9 o’clock in the morning until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that limiting the bombing to 19 hours a day, as opposed to 24, will be of scant comfort to the residents of “hell on Earth”, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations has described eastern Ghouta? What further action is the Foreign Secretary prepared to take, above that which he has already described to the House, to ensure that Russia abides by the terms of the resolution it supported—a humanitarian pause for 30 consecutive days to ensure humanitarian aid gets in? Is not the reason we are having this discussion today that in the past the words of the west have failed to have any impact whatsoever?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I remember him making a passionate speech on that very subject. It is a great shame that at a critical moment this House did not give this country the authorisation to respond to the use of chemical weapons, which we might otherwise have done. From that decision all sorts of consequences have flowed, and it has put Russia in the position it now finds itself in. The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is absurd for the Russians to say they are going to desist from bombing for a certain number of hours per day. There needs to be a complete ceasefire, there needs to be an end to the carnage in eastern Ghouta, and Russia needs to be held to account—and the Russians who are responsible for this will eventually be held to account, because we will make sure there is in the end some judicial process that allows us to hold those responsible for war crimes to account.
This is the same neighbourhood where, following another chemical attack in 2013, President Obama rubbed out his own red line, and this place—wrongly in my view—turned its back and abandoned these people to their fate. When Russia breaks the terms of the resolution and when President Assad breaks international law and gasses his people again, both of which will happen, are we going to carry on with this merry dance and with warm, angry words and stomping our feet, or are we in this country eventually going to say that enough is enough and actually do something?
When such questions are posed in this House, there is often cheering and noises of assent from the Benches on both sides, and I have to say that I share that sentiment. I would like to see us in a position to do something and not to allow the use of chemical weapons to go unpunished, but I remind the House of what happened in 2013 when we did have that choice. We had that option then, but we failed to take it. Let us not let the people of Syria down again.
May I seek two points of clarity from the Foreign Secretary? He says that we must “bear down on Russia”. Can he tell us explicitly whether anyone from his Government has sought to contact President Putin directly about the situation in Ghouta? He also says that he has met his Turkish counterpart. Did he ask him explicitly about Operation Olive Branch, and did he discuss ensuring that, whatever the Turkish forces are doing, our Kurdish allies are able to receive aid?
Unfortunately, I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Lady about any contact between this Government and President Putin over the past few days. I certainly have not had any myself, but as I told the House, the Russian ambassador has been invited to come, and contact has certainly been made with Sergei Lavrov—[Interruption.] I will just make this point to the hon. Lady. In the end, there must be a political solution to this crisis, and it is up to the Russians to deliver their client. That is the best way forward.
I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for bringing this urgent question to the House. As far back as 2017, the United Nations said that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on more than two dozen occasions. Would my right hon. Friend now concede that, sadly, due to their regular use over the past few years, chemical munitions are now an accepted weapon of war in the modern era?
No, I do not think that anybody in this House would want to concede that. We do not concede that chemical weapons are an acceptable weapon of war, and we want those who use them to be held properly to account.
The Foreign Secretary said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) that if there were further evidence of the use of chemical weapons, he hoped that we would not stand idly by. So why are we standing idly by while civilians are being slaughtered in their hundreds now, in flagrant breach of a binding United Nations resolution?
I do not believe that we are standing idly by. To say that we are doing so is to do a grave disservice to the work of the many hundreds of British people working in the Department for International Development and in our military who are doing all sorts of things on a budget of about £2.5 billion. We are the second biggest contributor to humanitarian relief in this area, and to say that we are doing nothing does a grave disservice to the efforts of this country. If the right hon. Gentleman is seriously advocating military intervention, which seems to be the position being taken up by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), he and the hon. Lady need to be clear about what they are advocating—[Interruption.] I have to say to the House that the last time military intervention was seriously proposed, a very modest proposal was put to the House and the House rejected it. If it is the view on the Labour Benches that Labour Members would now support military action—[Interruption.] They are making an awful lot of racket, but I am asking them a serious question. If it is their view that they would now support military action in Syria, I think they should be explicit about it—[Interruption.] They are chuntering away at me and accusing the UK of not doing anything in a way that I think is gravely disrespectful to the huge efforts that are being made by this Government.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the president of the Council of Europe recently had to resign due to a visit to see Assad without the Council’s knowledge and with the support of Russian MPs. What, if any, direct relationship should there now be with the Syrian regime?
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question about relations between the Council of Europe and the Syrian regime. I think there should be no such relations at the present time.
It is crucial that those who commit international war crimes know that the world is watching and that we will not forget. What steps are being taken to enable UN monitoring forces to ensure that careful records are kept of attacks on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure and of the indiscriminate killing of women, men and children, so that the perpetrators of such crimes can ultimately be held to account?
The hon. Lady asks an important question. As I said to the House, careful records and tabulations are being made of exactly what is happening with a view to holding the perpetrators to account.
The overwhelming majority of abuses in Syria have been committed by the Assad regime and his backers. Will the Foreign Secretary assure us that everything will be done to ensure that those who flout international law and human rights laws will be held properly to account?
We will certainly do everything we can both to gather the evidence that is necessary and to hold the perpetrators to account.
It is good that the UN Security Council has passed a resolution, but why should President Assad fear the Security Council? What will it do to enforce the resolution?
The answer has already been given several times in the House this afternoon: the greatest fear and constraint upon Bashar al-Assad and other members of the Assad regime are the eventual consequences that they will face in terms of prosecution for war crimes.
Meanwhile, just up the road in Afrin, our friends the Kurdish peshmerga, without whom we would not have been able to defeat ISIS, are being backed by Assad’s military forces against a Turkish invasion. Whose side are we on there?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I neglected to answer that part of the question from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). We view the Turkish incursion into Afrin with grave concern. Everybody understands Turkey’s feelings about the YPG and the PKK, and everybody understands Turkey’s legitimate need to protect its own security. However, we do have concerns about the humanitarian consequences in Afrin, which I raised with my Turkish counterpart yesterday morning. We are also concerned about the possibility, which seems to be happening, of the diversion of Kurdish fighters, who have been so effective against Daesh, from the eastern part of Syria back to Afrin and the Manbij gap area to take on the Turks. We simply do not welcome that diversion in the fight against Daesh.
Last week, I met with Dr Ahmad Tarakji, the president of the Syrian American Medical Society, which is supporting the 100 doctors left in eastern Ghouta, where the benighted people are being bombed, besieged and starved into submission. When the International Development Secretary discusses the doctors in eastern Ghouta, will she also undertake to channel funding into SAMS? It exists on $35 million a year, which is tiny in DFID’s funding landscape, and those doctors are the last human rights defenders in eastern Ghouta. We are funding the White Helmets, so why are we not funding SAMS?
That is an excellent question. As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the SAMS hospital is where we received the evidence of children arriving with symptoms as though they had been poisoned with chlorine gas, so we applaud and support the work of SAMS. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has told me that we will certainly look at what we can do to fund SAMS.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. In 1995, in relation to the Srebrenica massacre and genocide, the international community authorised international humanitarian military action. Will he clarify whether a similar threshold has now been met in relation to taking action in Syria? If so, it is now for the international community to decide whether or not it wants to take that decisive action.
The concept of international humanitarian military action, as was employed after Srebrenica, is certainly one that many people have considered. In all candour, I must say to the House that we are not at that point at the moment. I appreciate very much the sincerity of the demands from Opposition Members, if I have understood their sentiments correctly, for a more robust military posture, with airstrikes perhaps—I do not know quite what is being recommended—but I would be misleading the House if I said there is a strong will in the international community to engage in quite that way. In response to the individual use of chemical weapons perhaps, but not a sustained military engagement.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly said that trying to sort this out will involve getting the Russians to bring their clients, the Syrians, to the peace negotiation table, and we seem a very long way from that. Given its importance, will he tell the House whether the Prime Minister has talked to President Putin to express our strong wish in this country that that should happen?
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows very well, the Prime Minister is in regular contact with President Putin of Russia and has repeatedly made clear the view of the British Government that there is only one way forward, which is for the Russians to put pressure on the Assad regime to get to the negotiating table. I think that view may at last be gaining ground in Russia, because the Kremlin has no easy way out of this morass.
I am sure the Foreign Secretary has noticed that the very fact a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta on humanitarian grounds has been announced in Moscow says it all for who exactly is pulling the strings in this situation, and who should be taking responsibility for the slaughter. Does he agree it is vital that the UK Government, along with their allies, work to ensure that the resolution is fully implemented, and not just for five hours a day?
The House has spoken as one on that matter this afternoon, and that is what we will continue to convey to Moscow.
The Foreign Secretary just said that the Prime Minister has regular discussions with President Putin, but has she had recent discussions with President Putin, as we know full well that both President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have? If the Prime Minister has not, both sides of the House urge her to have those urgent conversations.
I will, of course, make sure that the views of the House are communicated to the Prime Minister. I can tell the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister has regular contact with her Russian counterpart and has repeatedly made that point.
Given the slaughter in eastern Ghouta, and given the regret expressed on both sides of the House, including by the Foreign Secretary, does he not agree that the time is long overdue that we urgently review how this House makes different sorts of decisions about intervention and about what sorts of intervention to take?
If the hon. Lady is saying that she would like the right to approve such interventions to be once again taken back by the Executive and not necessarily to be a matter for the House of Commons, that is a very interesting point of view.
Three years ago, the YPG and the YPJ had already defended Kabone against the better-armed Daesh forces and took the fight to Raqqa and won. Why are the British Government now effectively supporting a similar brutal offensive by the Turkish army against those same Kurdish forces in Afrin province? Has it got anything to do with the recent £100 million fighter jet deal signed by Turkey and British arms exporters? Will the Foreign Secretary today call for a de-escalation zone in this part of Syria?
I must correct the way the hon. Gentleman has expressed it. The UK is not effectively supporting the Turkish incursion in Afrin. As I said to my Turkish counterpart yesterday, we have grave reservations about humanitarian suffering and the consequences for the struggle against Daesh.
The Foreign Secretary attempted to make party political points earlier on. May I just ask him to go back and read a previous Foreign Secretary’s answers to me and other Members—some on his own Benches—calling for no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012? His Government—the coalition Government—refused intervention at that time. Is it not a fact that the Russians are in the dominant position they are now because people failed to support the democratic and, at that time, peaceful Syrian opposition?
Of course I mean absolutely no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, who, in common with Members on this side of the House and from across the House, took a different view in 2013—on the other hand, that was not the prevailing view. I seem to recall, unless my memory fails me, that it was the then leader of the Labour party who took a contrary view. As a result of that decision, we see this particular political conjuncture in Syria, in which Russia, as Members from across the House have said, has the dominant role.
One of the agitators in the region is Iran. What engagement has the Foreign Secretary had with his Iranian colleagues in order to try to find a way through this crisis?
I spoke to my Iranian counterpart on Friday, I believe it was, about what Iran could do, both in the Syrian theatre and in the region more widely, to promote the cause of peace. I hope that the Iranians will use their considerable influence to do that.
The pro-Assad media organisation al-Watan yesterday reported, unequivocally, that Russian jets were involved in striking targets in Ghouta. Is it the Foreign Secretary’s understanding that in recent days Russian jets have struck targets and broken the ceasefire that the Security Council called for just on Saturday, in its resolution?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. I have to say it would be shocking if the Russians were to be convicted in the eyes of world opinion of breaking the ceasefire that they signed up to in New York. I will study the evidence that he has cited and we will certainly be putting it to the Russians.
The Foreign Secretary is right in one regard: this is an amoral Russian leadership backing this immoral and wicked Government in Syria. But he is missing one point: the Russians are particularly vulnerable on one count. I refer not to bombing them, but to economic sanctions. The word from the American Treasury and from many Americans is that Europe and Britain have gone soft on sanctions. We need Russia to be totally isolated by the toughest sanctions that this world has ever known. Will he renew sanctions of an extreme kind?
The hon. Gentleman will know very well that it is actually the UK that is in the lead in the EU in calling for Russia to be held to account, not just for Ukraine, but for what it is doing in Syria.
The Foreign Secretary said that there can be no military victory in eastern Ghouta, but I fear that Russia, Iran and Assad are not looking for that sort of military victory. They are looking to weaken resistance and instil fear and tension—not only in the middle east but in north Africa and eastern Europe—and to build a cadre of battle-hardened troops and proven military weapons so that they can impose their order on the rest of the world. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that?
That may indeed be their ambition, but they have not an earthly chance of achieving it.
They are achieving it!
Well, as I told the House, there are still substantial numbers of people in Syria—around 4 million, which is around a quarter of the population—who are not under the regime’s control. Furthermore, the hon. Lady should remember that the Assad regime is basically a minority regime that seeks to impose itself on a Sunni majority in the country. It is sowing the seeds of its own destruction by its continued brutality. It is not a strategy that can work in the long term, which is why a political process has to begin now.
On Friday, I was pressed by the Afrin diaspora in my constituency about the Turkish bombardment and invasion. I understand that today President Macron picked up the phone and spoke to President Erdoğan to remind him that the humanitarian truce applies. From what the Foreign Secretary has said, though, I am still not clear what representations Her Majesty’s Government or the Prime Minister have made to President Erdoğan to underline that the truce does apply.
I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I think I said pretty clearly to the House just now. Yesterday morning, at my initiative, I had a long conversation with my Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, about what is happening in Afrin, the suffering that is taking place there and the UK Government’s strong desire that restraint should be shown—notwithstanding Turkey’s security concerns, which we all understand—and that the primary focus should be on the political process in Geneva and on the defeat of Daesh.
It is now nearly five years since the then American Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister came to an agreement about the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. What further diplomatic steps can the Foreign Secretary take to ensure that that happens, including by securing better access for representatives of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, after the Khan Shaykhun episode and the work of the joint investigative mechanism to establish almost certainly the culprits behind that chemical weapons attack, Russia has, alas, vetoed any further such activity by the OPCW. Again, it comes back to the Russians and the question that they must ask themselves, which is what kind of international actor they want to be and how they want to be regarded by the world.
The Foreign Secretary has said that a peaceful solution is possible if the political will exists. What if the political will does not exist? If chemical attacks, including the use of chlorine gas after a ceasefire, are not this country’s red line, will he tell us what is?
I do not wish to go back over the points that I have already made this afternoon about the red line that was, alas, crossed in 2013. Where there is incontrovertible evidence of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime, with the connivance of the Russians, then—to answer the question that has been posed many times—the people responsible for those attacks should be held to account. By the way, it was as a result of UK lobbying and the activities of this Government that after the Khan Shaykhun attack we listed several members of the Assad military and imposed new sanctions on Syria. That is the way forward. To get to the question asked by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), in the end it will be the fear of prosecution, sanctions and being prosecuted for war crimes that will have the most powerful effect on the imagination of these individuals.
I agree entirely with the Foreign Secretary that we must aim for a political solution. Do today’s revelations in the media that we have spent more on our air campaign in the region than we have on humanitarian aid in both Syria and Iraq during the same period show that we should put our money where our mouth is and prioritise aid, sanctions and peace negotiations, not a costly air campaign next door that does not seem to be working?
Much as I admire the hon. Gentleman’s idealism, I must respectfully disagree with him. I believe that our military campaign has been highly effective in removing Daesh from Raqqa and Mosul. It was invaluable. The UK had the second biggest number of missions in the air campaign, as the House will know, and it was crucial that we did that. At the same time, as I have said to many hon. Members, we should not neglect the towering work of our humanitarian aid workers. We support the White Helmets very generously, for example, and they have saved 100,000 lives, which is something in which the people of this country can take a great deal of pride. Britain is leading in the humanitarian effort in Syria.
In the last decade of bloodshed and tragedy in Syria, we have seen that the old adage that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must holds true today. The latest machination of that has the UN warning that civilians in Afrin are effectively trapped by the ongoing violence. If the Foreign Secretary will not urge his Turkish colleagues to stop the violence altogether, can he not, as an immediate step, urge them to open up corridors to a safety zone that can be guaranteed by the NATO alliance?
We certainly have urged our Turkish counterparts to do everything they can to minimise humanitarian suffering, and I will study the proposal the hon. Gentleman makes.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the Foreign Secretary’s contributions, he suggested that in my contribution to the urgent question I had called for military intervention in Ghouta. Actually, I simply called for him to pick up the phone to the Russian president. I wonder if there is a way to correct the record to make it clear what I said.
The hon. Lady has found her own salvation. The Foreign Secretary is nodding approvingly from a sedentary position, which I think is confirmation that he accepts the truth of what the hon. Lady has said. There is a satisfactory conclusion, and I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary—[Interruption.] He may come to the Dispatch Box if he wishes.
Further to that point of order, I am happy to accept the hon. Lady’s assurances that she was not in fact calling for military intervention.
Thank you. From memory, I think the record will confirm that the hon. Lady was not advocating that. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I was disgusted on Wednesday when someone, consumed with hatred, tried to pull off the turban of one of my Sikh guests, as he queued up outside our Parliament buildings, and shouted “Muslim, go back home.” It has been brought to the Government’s attention on previous occasions that the hate crime action plan to properly record and monitor hate crimes completely ignores Sikhs. The Sikhs regard the turban as a crown on their heads. Indeed, Mr Speaker, when you presided over the launch of the national Sikh war memorial campaign, for which I am extremely grateful, you will have ascertained the substantial strength of feeling in the community about the need for a statue of turbaned Sikh soldiers in our capital. More than 80,000 turbaned individuals died for the freedom of this country—our country.
Given that considerable context, Mr Speaker, when giving your advice, perhaps you would be kind enough to impress on the House authorities and the police the need to take this matter very seriously and to bring the assailant to justice.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his courtesy in offering me advance notice of his intention to raise it. First, let me take this opportunity from the Chair to empathise with the hon. Gentleman and all decent people across the House on this subject. It was a truly appalling incident. I feel a great sense of shame that such an act could have been perpetrated in our country. The hon. Gentleman’s friend and visitor to Parliament must have been very shaken by his experience. The act can have been motivated only by hatred, ignorance or—more likely— an extremely regrettable combination of the two. The matter is under active consideration by the police. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment in detail upon it. In any case, I would not be able to do myself, although I have received a report of the incident.
Let me make it absolutely clear that I take the matter extremely seriously, as, I am sure, do the House authorities. It is absolutely imperative that visitors to this place are—to the best of our ability and that of the police and security staff here—safe from physical attack and abuse. Moreover, I say to the hon. Gentleman that if I am provided with an address, I would like to write, on behalf of the House, to the hon. Gentleman’s visitor to express our regret about the attack that he experienced. I think that we will have to leave it there for today, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for airing the matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There is a convention in this House when a Member of Parliament visits someone else’s constituency that they should write to them, informing them that they have done so. Many Members of Parliament from England may have stayed and dined—or, indeed, drowned their sorrows—in my constituency on Saturday, after the rugby. Now, I do not really want them all to write to me, but I wondered whether there was a mechanism to find out who they were so that I could write to them in order to remind them of the convention, and also maybe to just about gloat about Scotland’s Calcutta cup success on Saturday.
Far be it from me to rain on the hon. Gentleman’s parade after he has shown such considerable ingenuity and sense of humour to raise this matter. The convention, of course, applies only to visits that are undertaken on official business, but I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. I am pleased to say that, so far, no Member of Parliament representing a Manchester constituency has been so unkind as to raise with me the fact of my own team’s defeat at Wembley yesterday.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I hope that I have not brought on a trickle, still less a flood. I was admiring the forbearance and courtesy of the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). I hope that he is enjoying his day, possibly more than I have been enjoying mine.
Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Greg Clark, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary Chris Grayling, Secretary Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Claire Perry, presented a Bill to make provision for the imposition of a cap on rates charged to domestic customers for the supply of gas and electricity; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 168) with explanatory notes (Bill 168-EN).
[1st Allotted Day]
SUPPLEMENTARY ESTIMATES 2017-18
Ministry of Defence
[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Defence Committee, Gambling on ‘Efficiency’: Defence Acquisition and Procurement, HC 431; Second Report of the Defence Committee, Session 2017-19, Unclear for take-off? F-35 Procurement, HC 326; Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 21 February 2018, on Departmental Priorities, HC 814; Written evidence to the Defence Committee, on the Ministry of Defence Supplementary Estimates 2017–18, reported to the House and published on 20 February 2018; Written evidence to the Defence Committee, on the Armed Forces Pension and Compensation Schemes 2017/18 Supplementary Estimates, reported to the House and published on 20 February 2018.]
I should inform colleagues that, following recommendations by the Procedure Committee, this year the subjects for the estimates debate have been chosen by the Backbench Business Committee based on bids from Members. The subjects chosen by the Backbench Business Committee were then recommended to the Liaison Committee, which in turn, under Standing Order No. 145, recommended them to the House, which agreed to them on 22 February. Needless to say, I am sure that all colleagues present are intimately conscious of this chronology of events, of which I am merely serving to remind them. We will start with the motion on the supplementary estimate for the Ministry of Defence and the debate on the spending of the Ministry of Defence. This debate will be led by a notable knight of the Lincolnshire shires, namely Sir Edward Leigh.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2018, for expenditure by the Ministry of Defence:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £8,852,638,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 808,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £1,363,500,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,703,385,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Mr Ellwood.)
This is the first proper departmental estimates debate, thanks to the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee. In our 2012 report to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, “Options to Improve Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Expenditure”, Dr John Pugh, who was then a Member of Parliament, and I included a recommendation to introduce additional estimates days on subjects to be suggested by a budget committee that we also proposed to create. Dr Pugh decided to test this matter by trying to talk on the subject of estimates on estimates days. He was ruled out of order by your Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker, despite speaking about estimates on estimates days.
The reason we are here today is thanks to the work of the Procedure Committee, which I had the privilege of serving on in the previous Parliament.
Of which the hon. Gentleman was, I think I can fairly say, a distinguished ornament.
I put it to the Procedure Committee, and it recommended to the Backbench Business Committee, that we take on the role of determining estimates to be debated on estimates days. Scrutiny of the Government’s supply estimates was listed under “unfinished business” at the end of the previous Parliament. It is thanks to the current Committee and its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), that this business is no longer unfinished and we have now decided to debate estimates on estimates days. It is quite shocking how little power or influence the House of Commons has over spending in the estimates procedure, with a budget of some £800 billion a year. We have one of the best post-hoc systems in the world, through the Public Accounts Committee. We have one of the weakest systems in the world in terms of parliamentary scrutiny of what we are planning to spend, not of what we have spent.
Estimates days, as they have existed, have borne little relation to the actual content of the departmental estimates. Let me give a little bit of history, which is always interesting. This debate has gone on for quite a long time. In 1911, the then Clerk of the House, Sir Courtenay Ilbert, said:
“The sittings of the committee of supply continue through the greater part of the session, and, under existing standing orders, at least twenty days must be set apart for this purpose” .
Already, estimates days were just being used as a kind of general critique of government rather than actually to deal with what we were going to spend. Another report, in 1981, said:
“By 1966 there was a considerable discrepancy between the theory of supply procedure, under which individual estimates were put down for detailed consideration at regular intervals, and the practice, under which supply days were used by the opposition to discuss topics of their choice”,
which often had little, if anything, to do with the votes concerned. Indeed, the Clerk Assistant told the House that by the 1960s more and more supply day procedures had gone through which were “Little short of farcical”. I am glad that thanks to the Procedure Committee, and all the work that has been done and the debates that we have had, we are now going to talk about money.
However, given that the Government intend this parliamentary Session to last for two years, the already insufficient allocation of days for estimates days is doubly inadequate. Overall, in the past 100 years the House of Commons has delegated its role to the Treasury. We in this Chamber should be doing more. Why should we leave it just to unelected civil servants to debate what we spend and how we allocate spending among Government Departments? This House is asked to approve Executive spending even though we are not given much clarity about what that spending is expected to deliver, nor indeed the means to influence spending levels or priorities. As long ago as 1999, the Procedure Committee said that
“when motions are directed to future plans, motions recommending that ‘in the opinion of the House’ increases in expenditure or transfers between certain budgets are desirable, should be permissible.”
I believe that Select Committees should have stronger powers to investigate and scrutinise public spending. In Australia, Select Committees also sit as estimates committees, with Ministers and departmental body heads appearing before MPs or Senators to justify their spending. In other Commonwealth countries, quite a lot of work has been done on this. For instance, in several other countries with public financial management systems that are based on the British system, estimates include spending information at a programme level, with past spending information for each programme and medium-term estimates of the cost of the programme covering the Budget year and at least two further years. Good estimates help us to understand the link between Government priorities, desired impacts and the contribution of programmes to them.
There is still a lot of work to do. I would have thought that parliamentary scrutiny of the Budget was at the very heart of this body’s raison d’être. We have fought wars on this very subject yet are not particularly bothered by the comparatively little scrutiny we have of Government spending. Debates such as this one will, I hope, encourage broader participation of Members of this House in the formal budgetary process. We have a range of experience and points of view. I hope that this use of the debate to look at the Ministry of Defence estimates might also encourage us to have a more substantial debate on defence in general.
When I saw that at last we were going to get this estimates day debate, I approached my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee, because I thought there was no better subject than defence to lead off on in discussing Government spending on an estimates day. That is why we are here, and this is a real opportunity. I will now talk a little bit about defence, although I recognise that there are people who are far more expert than me in this Chamber.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and thank him for achieving this debate. Is he surprised and disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here to respond? We are very much aware, through the press, that the Secretary of State appears to be pushing for greater budgets for the armed forces. It would have been nice if he had been here today to tell us all about the work he is doing.
Well, I think it is very nice that we have such an impressive Minister as the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), sitting in front of us.
On that introduction, how could I fail to get to my feet? The Defence Secretary sends his apologies. He is with the Prime Minister, telling her what he is doing, which I think is appropriate, given the challenges on finances that we face.
I am grateful for that.
Given our commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, as is required of NATO members, which most NATO countries ignore, we will have to spend more on defence regardless, in order to keep with up that target. That is the challenge we face.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for the way he has introduced the debate. Of course it is important that we scrutinise the estimates, but we need substantial amounts of money to consider. Does he share my concern about a lack of amphibious capacity, which could reduce our capacity to carry out humanitarian missions, for example?
That is an extremely good point, and if I have time I will deal with amphibious capacity later in my speech.
This is a real challenge. As Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, pointed out in his evidence to the Defence Committee:
“While the MoD budget is set to grow by 0.5 per cent per annum over the next five years, national income (GDP) is projected to grow by an average of 2.4 per cent per annum over the same period.”
That means that the current Government commitments to defence spending imply that UK defence expenditure will fall from 2.8% of GDP in 2015-16 to 1.85% in 2020-21. I believe that Ministers need to come clean and make it clear whether they intend to abandon the 2% commitment, as seems to be the case.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He says that the Government are committed to a 0.5% increase, but does he agree that that is just on equipment, not personnel? Something like 55% of the budget goes on daily running costs and people, and that will be completely constrained if no new cash is put into the people side of the budget.
That is an extremely good point, and I will come on to deal with the people side.
As the Defence Committee has pointed out, there appear to be some shenanigans going on in relation to how we reach the 2% target, and this is a really good opportunity for us to discuss money in detail and for the Minister to reply to these points. The criteria seem to change from year to year, with new bits—war pensions and other expenditure—qualifying when they have not previously done so. NATO is apparently satisfied, but this rather gives the impression that we are meeting our targets only by means of creative accounting, and when it comes to the defence of the realm, surely creative accounting is not good enough.
Let me say a word about procurement. What are our procurement procedures, and are we getting value for money? Professor Julian Lindley French testified, again to the Defence Committee:
“If you look at the $90 billion being spent by the Russians as part of their modernisation programme, the $150 billion or so being spent by the Chinese and what other countries around the world are doing, what strikes me is how few assets—both platforms and systems—the UK gets for its money.”
As a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I am talking not just about more money for the MOD, but about spending the money more wisely.
The MOD committed itself to new purchases arising from its 2015 strategic defence and security review before it established how they could be paid for. This requires the MOD to generate £5.8 billion of new savings from within the defence equipment plan itself, in addition to £1.5 billion from the wider defence budget, which is already under pressure. We never of course know what crisis may happen, and if a crisis happens and our troops have to be deployed, where will the money come from? In such a case, will we end up taking money from procurement that we had not expected to take?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that very important point and for his excellent introduction to the debate. Does he recognise the issue of the defence inflation rate, which in recent years has been 3.9%, while background inflation has been just 0.8%, leading to a real depreciation in real purchasing power for defence? Is that not the root cause of the problems we are seeing with the attrition of defence capability?
That point on purchasing power is a very pertinent one. I hope that the Minister replies to it, because it is a point well made.
Uncertainties and over-optimism—there is over-optimism—in the project costs mean that the final costs of the defence equipment plan may be significantly understated. The MOD’s cost assurance and analysis service reported that the costs in the 2016 plan were understated by £4.8 billion. Over a period of years, the MOD has failed to agree a workable way forward with the prime contractor on the procurement of a Type 26 warship, which has compromised maritime capability and placed further upward pressure on costs.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he see the recently announced combat air strategy as a similar sort of programme, and what might its impact be on procurement?
That is a good point. Again, I hope the Minister replies to it. It may be a case of when times change, procurement policies change, but will that result in more pressure? What I am saying—several Members, particularly my hon. Friend, have made this point in their interventions—is that the defence equipment plan has no leeway to cope with new equipment requirements resulting from emerging threats. As the National Audit Office’s investigation of the plan put it:
“The Department’s Equipment Plan is not affordable. It does not provide a realistic forecast of the costs of buying and supporting the equipment that the Armed Forces will need over the next 10 years.”
If it does not do so, what is it for? The NAO continues:
“Unless the Department takes urgent action to close the gap in affordability, it will find that spending on equipment can only be made affordable by reducing the scope of projects”.
We have had training exercises cancelled, and we know that soldiers, sailors and airmen need to keep active so that they are fully trained and at the ready. Cancelling training exercises is short-sighted and a false economy.
Just to be fair for a moment to the MOD and the pressures it is facing, we are not the only ones having problems. Documents linked to Die Welt newspaper show that the German military has secretly admitted that it cannot fulfil its NATO obligations. The Bundeswehr was due to take over the rotating lead of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, but despite committing 44 Leopard 2 battle tanks to the force, it was revealed that only nine are operational. It begins to look as though the arrangements for the conventional defence of Europe are a bit of a shambles.
The reality is that we are underspending, just as we did in the lead-up to the second world war. Back then, we were capable of jump-starting and expanding our defence capabilities because we faced an existential threat. God willing, we will not face that kind of threat in the coming years, though we can never rule out the possibility.
One of the problems with being in a NATO alliance—I know this as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—is that there is nowhere to hide from our allies, and allies are noticing that Britain is withdrawing from exercises. They are concerned because they have seen Britain as an ally on which they could rely and depend. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most worrying things is the lack of credibility of our armed forces—valiant though they may be—because of the cuts we face in expenditure?
That is a very good point. With France, and after America, we are the leading military power in Europe and we have to set an example. If we withdraw from exercises, that creates a bad impression.
I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) is here. He introduced his Backbench Business debate on defence last month and pointed out that the risks this country faces are only intensifying. If we face a multiplicity and variety of threats, surely our capabilities must reflect that. Russia is indeed a threat again, because it realised that the only way to be taken seriously is to be seen to be a threat. We treated Russia with contempt during the 1990s and it has drawn the lesson. It is a geopolitical gamble that we may not approve of, but in terms of Russian influence it has paid off. What have we been talking about for the past hour except Russia? According to some estimates, its economy’s GDP is equivalent to that of Italy or even that of Australia. Russia’s emphasis on its defence spending has made it an extremely important geopolitical player. Although we are constantly told that times have changed and that defence spending is not as important as it was, perhaps the Russian example shows that defence spending does pay off. I am not for one moment defending or approving of Russia or anything it does, but it has drawn the obvious lessons from the 1990s. There is a threat from Russia and we need to take it seriously.
Surely one lesson we can draw from the past, particularly from the lead-up to the second world war, is that, in terms of commitments, we must have a real presence. There is no point in our having a token commitment to or presence in the Baltic states; we need a real presence if deterrence is to work.
Many other threats are developing from Russia, the Chinese and other potential opponents: cyber-attacks and information warfare are all potential threats.
The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies the potential difficulties on the north European plain. Should not the Ministry of Defence therefore reconsider its decision to withdraw from north Germany and reinstate our capability there?
Yes, I certainly think it should reconsider it. All the old, conventional threats are still very real and require conventional responses. We have to maintain our original capabilities while also expanding and improving them.
On the range of capabilities, last year Hurricane Irma wreaked devastation in the Caribbean, and HMS Ocean was a key element in our response to that tragedy. Now, apparently we have sold HMS Ocean to the Brazilians, but we have a proud humanitarian tradition on these islands and it is our duty to maintain it. This is not just about responding to threats; it is also about our humanitarian duty. We have direct responsibility for our overseas territories and bonds of close friendship with other members of the Commonwealth.
Ministers have so far refused to commit to keeping HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which give our armed forces an amphibious landing capability, as the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said in an earlier intervention. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) pointed out last month that
“40% of the world’s population live within 100 km of the coast”.—[Official Report, 11 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 516.]
I voted against the Iraq war, but the fact remains that we made a very effective contribution with our amphibious invasion of the al-Faw peninsula in 2003. I may not always be in favour of using military options, but I want, and the British people demand, that we have as many options on the table as we can and that we maintain our capabilities.
Meanwhile, there are proposals to cut the Royal Marines, some of our most useful, well-trained, high-quality and greatly effective troops. The variety of roles they can undertake underpins the ability of Great Britain to project our military power. As I will mention in a moment, this has led to low morale and a culture of fear for the future in one of the most important and valuable parts of our military.
Then there is the Navy. I received an email—one of many that have been sent to many Members from all sorts of sources—from a former Army major, writing to me through “gritted teeth”:
“the area of defence that has been shockingly neglected is the Royal Navy. Put Trident to one side and disregard the vanity project that is HMS Queen Elizabeth and you have virtually no ships. The Royal Navy has to be the most important service for an outwardly facing island nation.”
I agree with that. In December 2017, all six of our Type 45 destroyers were laid up in Portsmouth, whether for repairs, equipment failures, routine maintenance or manpower shortages. The possibility of a significant crisis requiring a naval deployment catching us not ready is strong—too strong.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is absolutely right. In December 2017, not only were none of our destroyers out, but, as revealed by an answer to my parliamentary question, for the first time in history not a single Royal Navy frigate or destroyer was deployed overseas. That demonstrates powerfully the scale of the pressure on our Royal Navy and its lack of capability.
That is a very good point and that was a worrying incident.
On recruitment and numbers, the Public Accounts Committee “Army 2020” report notes that
“the Army’s recruiting partner, Capita, missed its regular soldier recruitment target by 30% in 2013-14 and it recruited only around 2,000 reserves against a target of 6,000. A huge step-up in performance is required if the Army is to hit its ambitious target of recruiting 9,270 new reserves in 2016-17. The size of the regular Army is reducing faster than originally planned but the size of the trained Army reserve has not increased in the last two years because more people have left the reserve than joined.”
We have shifted from an emphasis on the Regular Army to one that includes a very strong Army reserve. All the same, we still need a Regular Army, but we are not meeting targets for that either. Our force strength numbers are not up to scratch. In April 2016, we were short by 5,750 personnel. A year later, that had increased to over 6,000. By August 2017, it was over 7,000 and the latest statistics available show our armed forces are short of their full strength by 8,160 men. The problem is getting worse.
My hon. Friend highlights a very important point. What I cannot understand is why it takes the best part of a year for someone to be able to join the armed forces. Surely that should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
There is clearly a problem, one I hope the Minister will deal with later. Why does it take so long to recruit? Are we putting off potential recruits with our very slow processes?
Just before my hon. Friend moves on from the issue of recruitment, does he agree that the performance of the Capita recruitment partnering project contract has been distinctly sub-optimal, and that if this continues for very much longer the Ministry of Defence would be wise to seek an alternative?
My right hon. Friend is of course a former Minister for the Armed Forces and really does know what he is talking about. The Government should listen to him.
There is a problem with morale. Those who perceive service morale as low increased by 12% on the previous year in the Army and 15% in the Royal Marines in 2017. The overwhelming majority, 74%, feel proud to serve—we are proud of them for feeling proud to serve—but only a third feel valued by their service. What is the point of training men and women if we fail to keep them?
On retention, the hon. Gentleman referred to the reservists and the recruitment challenges that they face. My infantry battalion—a reserve battalion—has seen a significant influx of former regular soldiers echeloning through from the Regular Army as it has been severely downsized, including by, in effect, the disbanding of an entire battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The concern is how long these former regular soldiers will remain reservists before they move out altogether, because they have benefited from a transition payment. Could that financial incentive just be temporary, and will we see a further pressure on reserve recruitment in the longer term?
That is a fair point. Pressures build on pressures.
In conclusion, the problems are many, but they must be tackled head on. Speaking personally, my record on spending and saving is clear: I think that the state should spend as little as possible. However, we also have responsibilities of absolute necessity, such as the defence of the realm. It is not pompous to say that—it is an absolute fact. That is the first responsibility of what we do in this House and we are falling short. The Government simply have to commit to spending more if we are to have the armed forces that this country requires. In order to maintain our independence—not just our sovereignty, but our freedom of action and ability to make our own decisions rather than be dictated to by circumstances—we need highly trained, fully manned, well-equipped armed forces. For a trading island nation on the cusp of Brexit and turning her face to the world, Great Britain must turn the tide of decline in defence.
I hope that this debate will prove to be a turning point, but that is up to the Government to decide. One thing is sure: further stagnation and cutting capabilities will set us back further. Once again, I am reminded of the wise words of Admiral Andrew Cunningham during the battle of Crete. Exposed to German air assault, his ships were taking heavy losses as they helped to evacuate the Army from Crete to Egypt. Some suggested that he should suspend the Navy’s part in the evacuation, saving his ships but ending the tradition of solidarity under fire among the armed forces. Cunningham knew that the Navy must not let the Army down and he refused. He said these words:
“It takes three years to build a ship, but it takes three centuries to build a tradition. The evacuation will continue.”
Our traditions of a great nation and great armed forces must continue. That is why this important debate must continue, too.
It is a great pleasure to follow the fantastic overview that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) set out of the defence estimates. For Members who do not find themselves—as many of us do—becoming defence-obsessed, due to our concerns at the lack of funding being sent into the defence of this wonderful realm, it was a fantastic primer on the concerns that we must face as a country.
I want to look at the reserve forces, an area that the hon. Gentleman also raised. I declare a sort of interest as the chair of the all-party group on reserves and cadets. I recently met an academic from the University of Bath, Dr Patrick Bury, who has been looking at the progress of the Future Reserves 2020 plan, the main purpose of which was to provide direct support to a reduced Army and to increase the reserves to 35,000. Following the meeting, I rather upset a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, who received more than 100 parliamentary questions in the lead-up to Christmas. He took me aside to remonstrate with me for giving him so much work. I pointed out that if he had answered some of the questions the first time around, there might have been 50% less questions, but that is the way of asking and pursuing parliamentary questions.
The information I will speak to in today’s debate is all provided—sometimes reluctantly, but it was provided eventually—by the Ministry of Defence following parliamentary questions. I am deeply concerned that the expenses involved in Future Reserves 2020 not only show a programme that is struggling to achieve its goals, but are such that we need either to redefine or to look at whether the money we are spending, given the outcomes we are achieving, would be better spent elsewhere. We all know that the Ministry of Defence cannot afford to waste that expense. Every penny counts in the Ministry of Defence.
To provide context and make the costs clear, what is the current reserve structure? The reserve model means that Army reservists sign a contract in which they commit to achieving a certain amount of training time, and to achieving training targets over a financial year. That involves 27 days’ training, including a two-week continuous period away, which is known as annual camp. If the reservists achieve that commitment, they are considered to be fully trained and up to date, and ready to fulfil their role in supporting the Regular Army—in other words, they are deployable—and are rewarded with a tax-free bounty cash payment.
It goes without saying that, for a reservist to achieve a high level of practice and well-honed skills, they would need to achieve that minimum level of training. It is only 27 days. Many members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme spend more than 27 days in the armed forces and do not qualify to be reservists. They nevertheless give that commitment. Unlike those in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the reservist is not compelled to complete their commitment to get their pass-out certificate. They have only to complete a minimum of 27 days. The only compelling desire is achieving the tax-free bounty.
We can therefore use that tax-free bounty as a useful way of assessing how many people in the reserves are deployable. It is possible to be an Army reservist without achieving any training targets in a financial year, so if we want to know about the Army reserves, we need to look at how many achieve their bounties. Let us look at the cost of the programme. The easiest way to calculate the cost is to look at the bounty payments combined with the number of reservist service days claimed over the past few years. I am making a general assumption. A basic private’s pay in April 2017 was £46.42 a day—some will earn more, and therefore my numbers might be lower, but I am giving the benefit of the doubt and working on the assumption that everybody gets the minimum payment.
In 2016-17, 1,008,290 reserve days were claimed, and 14,930 reservists qualified for their bounty. That resulted in a spend of £68 million—it was nearly £69 million. In the year 2015-16, 957,390 reserve service days were claimed, and 14,990 reservists qualified for their bounty. In 2014-15, 884,050 reserve service days were claimed, and 14,270 reservists qualified for their bounty. Therefore, despite the rising costs, and despite continual recruitment, the true number of qualified reservists has remained stable, at just less than 15,000. It is not just that we are failing to meet targets year on year, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, but we are not increasing our numbers of deployable reservists.
The wages and the bonuses are low.
What my hon. Friend is describing is fascinating. Does she agree that Army 2020 was really designed to give the Government political cover in the light of the reduction of the Regular Army to 82,000? It is not just a question of the retraining days; it is a question of whether the 15,000 reservists to whom she referred can actually be deployed alongside regular troops. I am told that in some cases there is no joint training at all.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we have here is a consistent pattern of only about 15,000 deployable reservists. Despite the money that has been poured into the reserve forces, we have not increased their number, but we have massively decreased the number of regulars. Our Army capability is therefore shrinking. That is something that we must be very worried about, but what worries me even more is the fact that we are spending huge amounts of money while receiving little or no return.
My hon. Friend has referred to the significant reductions in the regular forces. As was mentioned earlier, a large number of former regular service personnel have moved into the reserves, but they may be doing so on a temporary basis. That may explain why so few people—in real terms—are achieving their bounty qualifications each year.
I intend to talk about the reserve bonus scheme in the next part of my speech. I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome that.
Part of the problem is that, despite the theory that employers would be willing, and even encouraged, to allow people to take their time to go to, for instance, the annual camp, it is not happening. As people are under pressure to remain in work and to retain their jobs, they are not willing to give those 27 days. They are not able to make that commitment.
Further inefficient costs to the Army reserve can be seen when we look at the “regular to reserve” bonus scheme and its failure to retain personnel. The scheme was introduced in 2013 as a way of enticing former regular soldiers to join the reserves in order to keep their expertise within the military and pass it on to the new reserves who were being recruited. We were retaining capability, and also using the former regulars to train the reserves. The incentive for ex-regulars to join the scheme is, again, financial: a £10,000 bonus is paid in four instalments, provided that they meet the requirements of training and attendance at each stage.
As of October 2017, 4,350 ex-regular soldiers have joined the reserves under the scheme. At first that looks like a good number, but the question is, how many have been retained? In 2017, only 480 of those soldiers achieved all four instalments, which indicates a dropout rate of 89%. I accept that that figure does not take into account the fact that entry into the scheme may be staggered over the preceding four years, but it none the less demonstrates that retention of ex-regular soldiers in the Army reserve is a problem.
I can give an example. An ex-regular soldier who turned up at my house to do a piece of work had signed up for the reserve bonus scheme, and had found that once he had left the military and started work, the pressures of civilian life—being back with his family and getting into the new job—meant that he could not retain the commitment that he had thought he would want to ease his transition out of the military and into the civilian world. These are men and women with vital knowledge and expertise who are used to military life. Their retention is vital, but even with that offer of £10,000, there is not enough to keep them and for them to commit to what is being asked. This further suggests that the current model of the Army reserve just is not working.
The situation looks bad on its own, but if the cost of the scheme is taken into account, it looks a lot worse. Breaking down the entrants to the scheme into their respective ranks and assuming this distribution follows through the key milestone payments, and using these elements and combining wages and bonuses, the scheme so far has cost just over £29 million, with only 480 soldiers reaching all four payments. I am sorry to bat on about this, and I know the figures are boring, but I am deeply concerned. We have a reducing capability in our Army. We have been sold a pup, with a promise that the reserves would fill a gap in the regular forces, but that is not happening.
Defence is an expensive business—there is no getting around that—but it is also a business in which we cannot afford to lose highly skilled and highly able individuals willing to give the time and effort to get through their training so that they are deployable. I know that many Members of this House, including the Minister, are eager to fulfil our commitment to them so that they retain their membership of the reserves and their employability. I honour, and express my gratitude for, the service of all those reservists, but are we getting value for money in a way that allows us as a country to have the forces that we need? It is my concern that we do not, and the MOD’s own figures suggest that the reserves model as it stands cannot provide us with the numbers we need.
The challenges and menaces we face are very real. Many of our platforms are not fit for purpose and the readiness of our forces is just not in place, and we have heard about the disastrous Capita contract. I appreciate that the Minister has apparently suggested that he will resign if the military is cut further, and I hope he does not have to resign, because he is a good Minister, whom we trust, rely on and respect, but we also need the Minister to hear the concerns that we are expressing.
None of us want our Army to be damaged. All of us know that our personnel can, when fully trained and fully committed, be some of the best in the world; that knowledge is shared across our NATO alliance. But we are getting weaker, and that is unacceptable. I call on the Minister to look at how we are spending in terms of the reserve forces.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about the numbers, but does she share my concern that a huge amount of experience is being lost from our military? There are people performing roles with a few years’ experience who would have taken 10 or 15 years to reach that position in the past, and the experience of many of them—excellent soldiers and sailors though they are—might come under pressure in the fiercest of circumstances.
My hon. Friend is right, and this is also making them so much easier to be bought off by companies who seek the expertise and qualifications they achieve in the military. They feel dissatisfaction when they see the forces they joined—particularly the Army—being hollowed out. That is leading many more to consider leaving.
I shall make one final comment. I have spoken to a young man who was working as a full-time reservist when I first met him. He has told me that a lot of his time as a full-time reservist was spent going out and trying to recruit. He said that one of the most frightening things was that so many of the youngsters he spoke to about joining the armed forces had no understanding of military life. They had no idea of what NATO stood for, for example. This is a wider problem that we as a country need to tackle. We need to get the message out about how invaluable our armed forces are and how critical it is that our young people should seek the life, the experience, the skills, the challenge and the satisfaction of a military career, whether as a reservist or full time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we still need to do a lot more for people leaving the service? There are still too many ex-military personnel finding civilian life very difficult. Does she agree that we need to support them as they adapt?
I agree with my hon. Friend; it is difficult for people who have been in an all-encompassing environment to transition. I know many ex-MPs who have found it very difficult to transition out of this place, because it is not just a job; it is our whole life and requires great commitment. That is what the military is like as well, and that transition is grave.
I shall take no more interventions, but before I finally sit down, I want to make the point that life in the military does not mean that someone will get post-traumatic stress disorder. It worries me that that possibility seems to have got into the public consciousness. Life in the military will offer someone a chance to grow, to mature and to become an asset to their country, and I just wish that more people understood that, rather than thinking about the downsides of joining our military.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). As a former Defence Minister, I too can attest to being on the receiving end of a rolling barrage of parliamentary questions. This points to her great assiduity when it comes to defence matters, which she has demonstrated again in her speech this afternoon. I am glad to have been called to speak on the Defence estimates, which, for reasons I will explain, include an important change in the Government’s defence policy. I therefore believe that the estimates need to be increased. In giving important evidence to the Defence Committee last week, the new Secretary of State for Defence argued that “state on state” threats were now the primary threat to the security of the United Kingdom. This is an important shift in the Government’s position, and it has the logical knock-on effect that defence expenditure should now be increased to meet these new circumstances and the far more serious challenge that they represent.
It is important to put this change into historical context. I shall begin by going back to the 1980s, when the Berlin wall was still standing and the cold war was at its height. Britain, then as now, was a key member of NATO, and we spent about 5% of our GDP on defence, principally to deter the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw pact countries. As the Chairman of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), has pointed out in the House before, in the 1990s after the wall had come down, we, like other countries, took a peace dividend. This reduced our defence spending to between 3% and 3.5% of our GDP.
As we entered the new millennium, the horrific events of 9/11 led to massive shifts in strategy. The United Kingdom became involved in expeditionary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where our forces became increasingly optimised to fight wars with a counter-insurgency element, at reach, against technologically inferior but nevertheless very determined enemies. As a result, and with the MOD already under considerable financial pressure, we optimised our force mix accordingly while deprioritising areas such as anti-submarine warfare and air defence to the point where, today, we have only 19 frigates and destroyers and have seen a major reduction in fast jet squadrons. As the process continued, by the time of the 2010 strategic defence and security review and the accompanying national security strategy, it became the Government’s policy that there was no existential threat to the security of the United Kingdom. With echoes of the 10-year rule of the 1930s, state-based threats to our security were effectively seen as no longer relevant. However, the events of the past few years have shown those assumptions to be highly erroneous.
The activities of a resurgent Russia in annexing Crimea and effectively invading parts of Ukraine have shown a Russian willingness to use military force on the European landmass in order to achieve its political objectives. We have also seen heavy Russian involvement in Syria, which the House was discussing a little over two hours ago, and massively increased Russian submarine activity in the North sea, the north Atlantic and the GIUK gap. Russia has also exerted pressure on the Baltic states, which are now members of NATO and covered by the article 5 guarantee. All of that is occurring at a time when we have reduced our defence expenditure further to where it sits today: barely 2% of our GDP.
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman is going to address our undersea cables and the risks posed by Russian submarines in particular. I was recently at a meeting at which Defence Ministers from several states expressed grave concerns about the number of Russian submarines that they were seeing off their coasts and alarm at those submarines seeking the undersea cables that come ashore in their countries. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of that issue?
I am sure that the Minister may want to say something about that when he replies, but he will be constrained, because it is difficult to discuss the exact details of such matters in an open forum. However, when I served in the Ministry, I was certainly aware of a potential threat to those undersea cables, and everything that I have understood since then leads me to believe that that threat has increased, not decreased, so the hon. Lady makes an important point. The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, sounded a timely warning in his recent very good speech to the Royal United Services Institute about growing Russian military capability and areas where we need to bolster our own Army in response.
In the United States, the recently published defence strategy, authored by Secretary Mattis, has declared that state-on-state competition, particularly with Russia and China, is now viewed as the primary threat to the security of the United States and its allies. That important change in policy was then echoed to some degree by our Secretary of State for Defence in his evidence to the Defence Committee only last Wednesday, and it is really important that the House appreciates what he said. During the sitting, he explained that the threat to the United Kingdom from other states, such as Russia and North Korea, is now greater than the threated posed by terrorism, telling the Committee:
“We would highlight state-based threats… as the top priority”.
He went on to say that state-based threats have
“grown immeasurably over the past few years.”
When I put it to the Secretary of State at that hearing that what he was announcing—the primacy of state-based threats to our security—was a massive change in focus and that it would have a knock-on effect on how Britain’s military was structured and its readiness for war, he replied unequivocally, “Yes it does.”
That means that the defence review that is currently under way—the modernising defence programme—is now taking place against a significantly revised strategic background, in which deterring military threats from other states such as Russia, North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China is now to become the primary focus of this country’s defence policy. This new context brings with it certain important implications.
First, we absolutely must retain our independent strategic nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantee of our national security. All three states I just mentioned are nuclear armed, and it is important that we retain our deterrent to deter any nuclear threat against us.
Secondly, if we are to deter state-on-state threats, clearly we must bolster our conventional defences. Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, “Quantity has a quality all of its own.” We can no longer rely on advances in technological capability always to give us the edge in any future war. We also need to make sure we have sufficient mass—the number of platforms—to deter our potential enemies. That means, for instance, rebuilding our air defences and bolstering our anti-submarine warfare capabilities to help to protect the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic, which will be vital in any conflagration on the European mainland.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I am interested in his comments on rebuilding our air defences. Is he as encouraged as I am by the announcement last week of the combat air strategy? Does he also agree that, given the enormous cost of modern aviation programmes, we will have to look at doing one of two things? We will either have to take a very serious strategic look at what kind of aviation military capacity we want and then to plan accordingly or, if we want full-spectrum military capability, it will ultimately mean more money.
I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right that the Secretary of State for Defence announced the new combat air strategy at the Committee, but what he announced on state-on-state threats was even more important. If we now have to deter Russian aviation capability as a state-on-state threat, it will be extremely expensive but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) wisely reminded the House in his excellent introduction to this debate, the first duty of Government, above all others, is the defence of the realm. Our whole history as a nation reminds us that we forget that at our peril.
Thirdly, we must seriously consider how we could reconstitute forces in a national emergency. We must accumulate war reserves in order to show that we have the ability to sustain a fight if we were ever to get into one. As just one example, the Committee took evidence from BAE Systems executives a few months ago. When we asked how long it would take to build a Typhoon from scratch, we were told it would take four years or, if they attempted to accelerate the process, perhaps three years at best.
Those long lead times for manufacturing sophisticated modern military equipment mean that, in reality, we would likely have to fight a so-called “come as you are” war, which involves using equipment that is either immediately available or that can be reintroduced into service at short notice. It follows from this that we should now adopt a practice of mothballing highly expensive and complex equipment when it goes out of service—rather than disposing of it all, often for a pittance—so we have the ability to reconstitute at least some mass, should that be required if the skies were ever to darken again.
Fourthly, in light of the new strategic situation of state-on-state threats, spending 2% of our GDP on defence is simply not sufficient. We helped to deter Russia during the cold war by spending 5% of GDP on defence. If we now have to deter Russia again, we will simply not be able to do so by spending only 2% of GDP on defence —our allies also need to make a greater contribution. If we are to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent, bolster our conventional forces and build up our war reserves, we obviously need to spend something much nearer to 3% than 2% on defence. If we will the ends, we must also will the means.
Finally, I went to the cinema recently to watch Gary Oldman’s wonderful portrayal of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”—he got the BAFTA and I very much hope he gets the Oscar, too. That film brought home graphically what happened to our nation after the policy of appeasement in the 1930s and our having run down our armed forces to the point where they were unable to deter war. I humbly suggest that my friends the “pinstripe warriors” of the Treasury, as I call them, should be taken en masse to watch that film as part of their continued professional development, in the hope that that might yet bolster our overall determination as a nation to defend ourselves.
I am going to make a relatively brief contribution to this debate. I wish to make one simple point, which I shall base on something I have mentioned before in this Chamber. First, for the record, I probably ought to draw the House’s attention to the fact that I have a family member serving in the armed forces.
What we should do first is bank the good news, which, as we all know, is that the armed forces enjoy popular support the length and breadth of this country. I have made mention before of the Territorials and cadets in my constituency, all of whom are greatly supported by the local communities. It gladdens everyone’s heart to see the cadets parade on Remembrance Sunday. Even better is when, as happens now and again, the 4th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland—the Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons—come to exercise their right to parade through my home town of Tain with bayonets fixed and colours flying. I assure Members that people from my home town and round about turn out in great numbers to see this. Equally, when HMS Sutherland pays her occasional visit to the county of Sutherland, at Invergordon in Easter Ross or indeed off the north coast, people are very pleased to see that warship.
I wish to take the opportunity to give my personal thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). He may not know about this, but a Royal Navy warship—a small one, I suspect—is going to visit Wick on 6 April. That is hot news in the royal borough of Wick and I assure him that the ship will be very well received. As a humorous aside, I might add that my own way of saying thank you to the 4th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland when it came to parade was to give the sergeants’ mess a bottle of very good whisky made in my home town which goes by the name of Glenmorangie. The commanding officer was not at all pleased with me for having done that, but I shall spare hon. Members the details.
So I have set out the basic premise on which I base my argument, which is that we have the foundation of good will, and the point I wish to make today is simply that we should build on it. In the past, small local projects could be undertaken by the armed forces for the good of the community. In the past, the Royal Engineers could come out to build a small bridge, repair a footpath and so on. One might say that that was not a wise expenditure of armed forces money, but they do have to train. We should try to get back to that kind of involvement of the armed forces in the community. I am not talking about doing this in a social work way; it should be a genuine involvement.
Mention has been made of how so many people are unaware of what the armed forces do and even of what NATO stands for. One way of reversing that decline is to get the people in Wick to come on board this warship on 6 April—they will learn something—and to come to see the 4th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland parading. That will build up knowledge, and will build up even further confidence in and enthusiastic support for our armed forces.