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Commons Chamber

Volume 636: debated on Monday 26 February 2018

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

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Violence

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

3. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of regional organised crime units in tackling serious and organised crime. (903995)

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.

Moped Crime

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)

6. How much and what proportion of the Government’s actual and planned spending on security in Calais will be allocated to anti-trafficking and child protection. (903998)

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.

Online Radicalisation

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

8. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on monitoring crimes committed by prisoners via social media and mobile phones. (904000)

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.

Police Efficiency

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.

Fire Services

10. What recent assessment she has made of the correlation between trends in the number of firefighters and in fire service response times. (904002)

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

14. What steps her Department has taken to prepare for the UK leaving the EU; and if she will make a statement. (904006)

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.

Alcohol Abuse

15. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of alcohol abuse on levels of crime and costs of policing. (904008)

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.

Topical Questions

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.

T2. What progress is being made in bringing together the work of the police service and the fire service as emergency services? Is there not a case also for looking at whether the ambulance service should come under the same jurisdiction? (904019)

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.

T3. As soon as the Government’s best-value inspection of Northamptonshire County Council is concluded at the end of March, will the Policing and Fire Minister facilitate the transfer of the fire and rescue service to the police and crime commissioner? (904020)

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.

T5. Many constituents have contacted me about the limited provisions on refugee family reunion. Will the Minister undertake to expand those provisions, in line with my constituents’ concerns? (904022)

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.

T4. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Kent police, which has been rated outstanding for the third year in a row by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary? It is the only police force to get such a rating and is doing a fantastic job in keeping the residents of Kent and Medway safe. (904021)

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.

T6. In Rotherham, 1,510 adult survivors of child sexual exploitation have now been identified by the National Crime Agency. Both the Minister and the Home Secretary know that unless there is a package of support around those adults, the cases will start to falter. Will the Minister support Rotherham’s funding application to get a package of care around those adult survivors? (904024)

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.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that although we are leaving the European Union, the Government remain committed to very close security and counter-terrorism co-operation with our European friends to keep our constituents safe? (904025)

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.

T8. I understand that the Minister met the family of Alfie Dingley this morning. Following statements in the House last week that the Minister wants to help to find a solution within the existing regulations, will he update the House on when Alfie and others in a similar position will receive the medicines they need? (904026)

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.

T9. What discussions has the Home Secretary had with Cabinet colleagues on preparing for cyber-attacks against critical national infrastructure? (904027)

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”

along with

“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.

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.

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.