Cookies: We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our site. By continuing to use the site you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more.

House of Commons Hansard

Commons Chamber

06 March 2018
Volume 637

    House of Commons

    Tuesday 6 March 2018

    The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


    [Mr Speaker in the Chair]

    Oral Answers to Questions


    The Secretary of State was asked—

    Court Closures

  • 1. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. [904186]

  • 2. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. [904188]

  • Maintaining access to justice is a key principle when changes to the estate are proposed. Before issuing our consultation on court closures in January, we assessed the impact on access to justice—principally, the changes in travel time for court users. The decision to close a court is never taken lightly, and is made only after full public consultation and where we are satisfied that access to justice is maintained. Our reform programme will improve access to justice for many users, while allowing many needs to be met without the need to attend court. Online solutions and video hearings will make access to justice easier.

  • The Minister’s experience is not happening in my constituency, where Buxton court closed in 2016. Some of my constituents now have to travel 40 miles on a one-and-a-half-hour trip to Chesterfield court. The police say that it now takes them a whole day to take someone to court, whereas it used to take less than half a day, and that is having an impact on the number of offenders they can bring to court and on justice in my area. Please will the Minister take this into account in the current consultation?

  • I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, but we also have to take into account the fact that 41% of courts and tribunals used less than half their available hearing capacity during the financial year 2016-17, and across the country courts are utilised at 58% of their capacity. In those circumstances, where resources are scarce we have to make decisions about the reforms we undertake.

  • I have been raising concerns about the closure of Lambeth county court for the past two years, and the court finally closed in December. My constituents facing the repossession of their homes must now attend Clerkenwell county court, which lawyers report to be a chaotic environment, which is impossible to contact by telephone, where cases and files frequently go missing and where the number of respondents failing to attend is rocketing. When will the Justice Secretary take action to address this unacceptable situation?

  • The reality is that we are undertaking a series of reforms, making much greater use of digital technology and increasing access to online ways of dealing with this. This is an important modernisation that the courts system needs.

  • Very sadly, we have lost our magistrates court in Kettering, which, I have to say to the Government, was a mistake. It means that magistrates, the police and witnesses are all having to travel further. The closure of court sends a poor signal to the magistracy that they are not valued. Can we get rid of this ridiculous age limit, whereby magistrates have to retire at the age of 70?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, on which I have received representations. This is consistent with what happens elsewhere within the judiciary, but I am conscious that it will continue to be a matter of some debate.

  • The Government are continuing to cut court staff, close courts and sign contracts worth millions of pounds for their digitisation programme. These are huge changes, which will have an impact on our courts for decades. Will the Minister promise not to close any more courts or sign contracts until the courts Bill is published and the matter has been debated fully in this Chamber?

  • I hope to be able to bring forward further news on the courts Bill in the near future, but I am not going to give the undertaking the hon. Lady seeks. It is important that we continue to look to get the best out of the resources we have. If that means reforms here in making greater use of digital technology and ensuring that our court estate is as rational and efficient as possible, we will need to continue to do that.

  • Vulnerable Witnesses

  • 3. What assessment his Department has made of the time taken to bring to court criminal cases involving vulnerable witnesses. [904189]

  • I understand that the hon. Gentleman has a great interest in this area and did a lot of work when he was the police and crime commissioner of Greater Manchester, calling for a review of how victims and witnesses are treated in the criminal justice system. It is right that cases come to court as quickly as possible, and timeliness in the criminal courts system is improving. The average mean number of days from listing to completion is down from 33 in 2015 to 27 in the third quarter of 2017. Unfortunately, as he will know, there are particular challenges in relation to sex offences, where it does take longer for cases to come to court.

  • The Minister is absolutely right that there are complexities in cases of, for example, child sexual abuse or rape. Nevertheless, constant, even legitimate, adjournments in cases can lead to months of delay. Sometimes, it takes years before victims come to court. Victims who are already traumatised by what has happened to them deserve better than to be traumatised by the process. Can we make them a priority?

  • The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to be extremely careful with vulnerable witnesses and witnesses in sex cases and ensure that they get justice. We are bringing in and rolling out measures on the taking of their evidence to ensure that they can do that pre-trial and therefore safely, which will speed up justice. As the hon. Gentleman knows and as the Secretary of State has mentioned, we are hoping to introduce the courts Bill, which will ensure the streamlining of justice and do away with unnecessary hearings. Hopefully, that will speed up access to justice.

  • Will the Minister further outline what training lawyers receive in the handling of vulnerable witnesses? Does the Department intend to make updates to such training compulsory?

  • In the family court, all judges have training on dealing with vulnerable witnesses. I am sure that the Crown Prosecution Service has training as well.

  • Victims and Witnesses: Court Experience

  • 4. What steps his Department is taking to improve the court experience for victims and witnesses. [904190]

  • We are committed to improving the experiences of those who have become victims of crime, which is why, by the summer, we will publish our victims strategy, a key aspect of which is how we can improve support for victims as they interact with the criminal justice system.

  • I welcome the steps the Government have taken. Does my hon. Friend agree that the video hearing system and other new technologies have the potential not only to improve victims’ experience in court but to increase court capacity?

  • My hon. Friend is right. Ensuring that victims of crime are able to give evidence in the easiest possible way is among our highest priorities. The roll-out of new video and audio technology will ensure that courts and their work loads are managed more efficiently.

  • The serious case review of the appalling sexual abuse of girls and vulnerable adults in Newcastle was published last month. Although it generally praised the actions of local authorities, the police and so on, it also raised significant concerns about how the victims of these appalling crimes were supported and the way they were made to relive harrowing experiences. Will the Minister be responding directly to the Spicer review’s recommendations?

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Department is of course aware of that serious case review of the sexual exploitation of children. The details are shocking. Like all the agencies involved, we are looking into ways to continuously improve our service. I shall write to the hon. Lady about whether we will respond directly to that review.

  • Is the Minister aware of new regulations that the Scottish Government are introducing to exempt domestic abuse victims, recipients of crisis welfare support and those on low incomes from civil court fees? What discussions is he having with the Scottish Government about what lessons he might learn from that process?

  • We have plenty to learn from what is happening in Scotland with regard to the way we deal with women who are victims of domestic abuse, and indeed offenders who have been victims of domestic abuse. As the Justice Minister with responsibility for the devolved Administrations, my discussions continue regularly. I look forward to learning from Scotland in future.

  • The Government had plans to legislate to ban alleged domestic abusers from cross-examining their victims in the family courts. Is that still Government policy? If so, when will such a provision be put before the House? Every day that there is a delay, more vulnerable people get tormented in court.

  • The right hon. Gentleman is spot on in his analysis. The abuse and coercion of females, invariably by males, through the court process is wrong and not acceptable. We will bring forward details on how we intend to address that in the Bill that is coming later this year.

  • The court experience can be a bewildering one—it can often feel like a different planet. That is not helped by the fact that 72% of court judges are men. It is International Women’s Day on Thursday; will the Government commit to a timetable to ensure that 50% of court judges are women?

  • The hon. Lady points to something with which I would agree. It would be appropriate if the number of women in that position in our society was greater. I am supporting International Women’s Day by visiting HMP Bronzefield on Thursday evening. I cannot commit to a timetable—the hon. Lady knows that—but I will certainly take away her suggestion.

  • Unduly Lenient Sentences

  • 5. If he will extend the range of offences that can be appealed for being unduly lenient. [904191]

  • As the House will be aware, a major change in the law was brought in in 1988 to allow victims to be able to challenge unduly lenient sentences. At the moment, that applies to the most serious indictable offences, but the Government have recently extended it to a range of terrorist offences.

  • I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but as he well knows the Government have promised for quite some time—including in our manifesto—to extend it to a further range of offences. When will the Government pull their finger out and extend the number of cases that can be appealed for being unduly lenient, as we have been promising for quite some time?

  • As I have already said in my answer, the most serious offences—murder and so on—are already covered by the unduly lenient sentence scheme. We have extended it twice in the past few years, but we are talking very closely to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General about looking at other opportunities to extend the scheme.

  • The Secretary of State will know that I regularly write to him about unduly lenient and unduly severe sentences, but I never ever seem to get a reply. The fact is that too many women are locked up for non-violent offences for long periods of time, and that is the sort of case that I write to him about. Why do we never get any comeback?

  • It is reassuring to know that I am not the only person to whom the hon. Gentleman regularly writes. I am grateful to him for confirming that important fact on the Floor of the House.

  • To get to the nub of the hon. Gentleman’s question, there is a very serious issue here, which is that it is absolutely true that there are many more women in prison than we would like. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), is working very hard to reduce that population for exactly the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

  • While I welcome the fact that victims can ask for a review in relation to unduly lenient sentences, there is an absolute 28-day limit on that. A criminal case can be very traumatising for victims. Will the Minister consider perhaps introducing a discretion in relation to that 28-day absolute limit?

  • That is a very interesting idea. Perhaps the hon. Lady and I can sit down to discuss that interesting idea in more detail.

  • Prison Officer Recruitment

  • 6. What progress his Department has made on recruiting 2,500 new prison officers. [904192]

  • 14. What progress his Department has made on recruiting 2,500 new prison officers. [904201]

  • 23. What steps his Department is taking to recruit prison officers. [904210]

  • Skilled professional prison officers are absolutely heart and centre of running good prisons. That is why we have committed to recruiting 2,500 extra prison officers. I am pleased to say that we are now nine months ahead of target on delivering those prison officers.

  • I of course welcome the fact that the Government are making progress in recruiting extra prison officers, but will the Minister reassure the House that he is making every effort to retain the services of experienced and long-serving officers who are absolutely essential for mentoring new recruits into the service?

  • Absolutely. As my hon. Friend points out, this is not just about numbers. Working in a prison is incredibly challenging, and having the experience and the prison craft to do it is vital, so we are putting incentive schemes in place to try to retain our most experienced staff and to understand, when they do leave, why they are doing so.

  • There is a huge opportunity for rehabilitation in prisons, which is often not taken. What rehabilitative capacity will this increase in prison officers create?

  • The central objective of bringing in 2,500 extra prison officers is to allow us to pair each individual prison officer with six prisoners, which allows them to develop their individual personal relationship over time through weekly meetings to achieve exactly the rehabilitative and educational objectives needed to reduce reoffending and protect the public.

  • The redevelopment of Wellingborough prison will provide many new employment opportunities for people across Northamptonshire, including in my constituency, but what are the Government doing to attract local people into the profession and to encourage them to stay in the role—including, for example, former members of the armed forces?

  • I am very pleased that this has been raised. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, almost 40% of prison officers traditionally came from the armed forces, but that number has fallen. We are now working very closely with the Ministry of Defence to explain what an interesting career this can be, and we are doing a lot of advertising. But the most important thing we can do is remind people that, as we have all seen when meeting prison officers, although it is a very challenging and sometimes quite difficult career it also can be a deeply fulfilling one, and we would like to encourage many more people to come forward into the profession.

  • 15. What effect does the Minister think the shortage of prison officers has on the number of suicides and the amount of self-harm in prisons? [904202]

  • There are a number of drivers of suicide and self-harm, of which the number of staff is one. There are other questions around the estate, but probably the largest single driver that we have seen since 2011 is the use of new psychotropic drugs that are creating extraordinary psychotic episodes and leading to a direct increase in violence. We must address those drugs.

  • The Government’s recruitment drive is welcome, but is it not true that we are just now catching up? The number of staff at Feltham young offenders institution in my constituency has fallen by a third, from 600 in 2013 to 461, which has had a huge impact on the governor and staff. The institution has been deemed unsafe for both staff and prisoners. Is it not time that the Government committed to working closely with staff and the Prison Officers Association to tackle this crisis and ensure that we get back on track with rehabilitation for young offenders?

  • One hundred per cent.—we will be working very closely with prison officers for exactly that reason. As the hon. Lady points out, we must get the numbers right. Those 2,500 extra prison officers will be vital in order to get the 1:6 ratio needed for rehabilitation.

  • I have listened carefully this morning to the Secretary of State talking about high-security prisons. Ministers talk of finally starting to address the crisis that they made by axing so many prison officers, yet over a third of high-security prisons have actually seen a fall in the number of prison officers since the Department’s so-called recruitment drive began. Will the Minister guarantee that these high-security prisons will have more staff by the next Justice questions?

  • One of the challenges around the high-security estate, particularly in places such as London, has been the employment opportunities. We have put new incentives in place—a signing-on bonus and a retention bonus—to recruit people in London. I am not in a position to guarantee the employment market exactly, but we are making a lot of progress—for example, in recruitment to the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London.

  • I thank the Minister for his answer, but nearly one in four prisons has seen prison officer numbers fall since the Government’s recruitment drive began. Moving on, we have another problem of very experienced officers leaving the service, creating a dangerous cocktail of inexperienced officers and experienced prisoners. In the last year alone, 1,000 prison officers with more than five years’ experience each have left the service. That is the equivalent of more than 5,000 years of experience in the Prison Service lost in the last year alone. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be more prison officers will five years’ experience at the end of the year than there are now?

  • The hon. Gentleman’s fundamental point is right: we need experienced prison officers. It is very difficult working in a prison. We can bring in huge numbers of new junior staff, but it will be difficult to get the kind of results we need unless they have experience. We therefore have a plan whereby we have targeted the prisons that are losing the most experienced officers and we are understanding why that is happening. We are both working with the staff and putting in place financial incentives to retain experienced staff.

  • 22. The new recruits are certainly welcome, but senior officers are also important. I am told that on certain grades, prison staff acting up to higher roles are paid more than if they accepted the actual promotion. This acts as a disincentive to staff looking to take on more responsibility. Will my hon. Friend look into this anomaly? [904209]

  • I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend, particularly on prisons and advocating for the prison population in her constituency. It is absolutely true that there is a strange anomaly in the human resources procedure, and we must tackle it. It cannot make sense that people are paid more to act up than to occupy the role. We want people to have career development and we will focus on the issue immediately.

  • Prisoner Work Experience

  • 7. How many prisoners have undertaken work experience before release in the last 12 months. [904193]

  • In 2016-17, offenders completed 16 million hours of work and there were, on average, 11,200 offenders working in prison workshops. In the same period, 2,048 individuals were released on temporary licence for work-related purposes. The New Futures Network will aim to get even more prisoners working during their sentence and to see that that work leads to employment on release.

  • I know that the Secretary of State is new in office, but people at Ranby Prison have been waiting for two years now to be able to get on with creating the sports facilities that they are capable of building inside— the seating, the dugouts for community sports, and even the changing rooms—but the one thing they have not been given is the Secretary of State’s permission to proceed with doing this commercial work. Could I incentivise him with perhaps a cup of tea afterwards, to concentrate his mind on why he needs to make this decision urgently?

  • Certainly, the prospect of a cup of tea with the hon. Gentleman does concentrate the mind, and I would be delighted to accept his invitation. We are trying to ensure that we have a prison system that encourages people to progress by having opportunities to gain experience of work, and I am keen to do that in this post.

  • The hon. Gentleman’s offer is an interesting one. It might also be thought by some to be a divisible proposition.

  • The Secretary of State’s speech this morning and his emphasis on more use of release on temporary licence is extremely welcome and constructive. Will he bear in mind, though, that the Through the Gate programme currently involves careers and employment advice being given only towards the very end of a prisoner’s sentence, whereas all the evidence suggests that that should happen much earlier?

  • I thank the Chair of the Justice Committee for his comments. I do want to look at whether we can expand release on temporary licence and provide these opportunities more widely. On his second point, I am keen to ensure that we provide as much support as possible and make it clear that there is a second chance for people who have gone to prison. If they abide by the rules and comply with the system, we want to give them the support to turn their lives around.

  • Will the Secretary of State consider what can be done to facilitate prisoners in applying for universal credit before they are released, so that they can receive the support of jobcentre and other staff immediately on release to move into paid work as quickly as possible?

  • The hon. Lady raises a good point, and rightly so. I am keen to do precisely as she suggests. A lot of work already goes on in prisons with, for example, work coaches providing this support. Part of the challenge is about access to emails. We need to look very carefully at that because it raises a large number of questions.

  • Work experience in prison that leads to work on release is proven to reduce reoffending. Does the Secretary of State therefore believe that, while we rightly praise employers who offer ex-offenders work experience, we need to call out those employers who have a blanket ban on employing ex-offenders unrelated to any reasonable or fair risk assessment of doing so?

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen surveys suggesting that some 50% of employers simply will not engage. It is frustrating that when one speaks to employers who do take on ex-offenders, their experience is frequently very positive indeed. If we can increasingly build a culture whereby these offenders are given that opportunity, that is good for the offenders and good for society, as it will reduce reoffending.

  • Port Talbot Prison

  • 8. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of building a new prison in Port Talbot. [904194]

  • I believe that the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue about five times in the past six weeks. I pay tribute to him for being a very firm advocate for his community. We have listened very carefully to his complaints. A decision on this prison is not likely to be imminent, as construction is not likely to be imminent. I would like to say, however, in addition to having listened to his complaints, that a prison built in the right place in the right way can provide significant economic opportunities for an area.

  • I thank the Minister for his answer, but the problem is that the proposed site is right next to residential areas, schools and a care home; is served by very poor transport links; is on a designated enterprise zone; is on marshland; and is restricted by a covenant saying that it can only be used as an industrial park. The Minister must surely agree therefore that the whole idea is a non-starter and should be scrapped with immediate effect.

  • The hon. Gentleman has made those points on a number of occasions. We are listening very carefully. Indeed, two members of our Department travelled to Port Talbot, to a very lively public meeting where those points were made repeatedly. We are listening very carefully to him.

  • Would there be an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question on the industrial estate if any new prison fully incorporated the work of ONE3ONE Solutions, which was designed more than six years ago to increase the productive and commercial output of prisoners? The numbers given by the Justice Secretary just now suggest that we have not made much progress in the number of prisoners who are working. Will any new prison include ONE3ONE Solutions, and how are we getting on with prisoners working overall?

  • Particularly if any prospect of their working is in Port Talbot, upon which the question is focused.

  • I look forward very much to meeting my hon. Friend to hear more about ONE3ONE Solutions.

  • If a super-prison is built in Port Talbot, there will up to 1,000 more prison places in Wales than there are presently prisoners from Wales. Does the Minister share the Howard League’s concern that Wales is set to become Westminster’s penal colony?

  • I think we ought to be very careful with that kind of language. There are currently about 85,000 prisoners within the estate, so having 1,000 extra prisoners in Wales is not the creation of England’s penal colony.

  • If that prison is built, will the Minister ensure that its chaplaincy avoids the extraordinary carrying-on that has recently been reported at HMP Brixton?

  • I would like to take this opportunity not to get drawn into the individual case of Brixton, which I am looking at personally, but to pay tribute in general to the work of the chaplaincy—that is the Christian chaplaincy, the Jewish chaplaincy and the five imams I met recently at Belmarsh Prison who are doing extraordinary work with the Muslim community.

  • Leaving the EU: Legal System

  • 9. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the operation of the legal system in each jurisdiction of the UK. [904196]

  • We are seeking a new deep and special partnership with the EU that works for the whole United Kingdom. Of course, Scotland and Northern Ireland have distinct legal systems. That is why, in the negotiations on civil judicial co-operation, market access for our legal services and criminal justice, I want a deal that works for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales. That is also why my Department is meeting regularly with the devolved Administrations to look at the ways in which our legal and justice systems are affected by EU exit.

  • Unlike the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill gives the Scottish Parliament an enhanced role in scrutinising legal changes to devolved laws due to Brexit. What is the Secretary of State doing to urge his Cabinet colleagues to make similar provision for this Parliament for reserved matters in the EU withdrawal Bill?

  • In terms of what is described as the continuity Bill, I am not sure, in all honesty, how helpful or useful that will prove to be. The reality is that there is very close scrutiny in this House of the measures the Government are taking and the negotiations we are having.

  • The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) has the next question, so he does not have long to wait. We are saving him up for the delectation of the House. It will be a short wait.

  • Is the Secretary of State looking forward to April next year, when each of the jurisdictions across the United Kingdom will be able to fashion and formulate legislation in keeping with the demands and the requirements of the people of the United Kingdom?

  • The hon. Gentleman states his position very clearly and forthrightly. As we leave the European Union, new flexibilities will arise for all parts of the United Kingdom.

  • Unlike the EU withdrawal Bill, the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill contains a power to enable devolved law in Scotland to keep pace with EU law after Brexit, where appropriate. Does the Secretary of State agree that similar provisions should be made in the EU withdrawal Bill for reserved matters and for the benefit of the English legal system?

  • The extent to which this Parliament decides that it wishes to replicate provisions of EU law is a matter for this Parliament, and whether or not we put that in the EU withdrawal Bill, that freedom will continue to exist for this Parliament.

  • Another point of contrast between the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill and the EU withdrawal Bill is that the Scottish Government’s Bill incorporates the charter of fundamental rights into Scots law in so far as it applies to devolved matters. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that everyone in the United Kingdom keeps their rights guaranteed by the charter, regardless of which jurisdiction they live in?

  • When the charter of fundamental rights was brought in, the argument was made at the time that it was essentially replicating rights set out elsewhere in other parts of EU treaties. To the extent that that fundamentally changes matters, there is certainly a debate to be had about it.

  • Leaving the EU: UK Legal System

  • 10. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. [904197]

  • 20. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. [904207]

  • 21. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. [904208]

  • It is absolutely right that we provide legal certainty for businesses, families and individuals as we leave the European Union. That is why, as the Prime Minister said in her speech on Friday, part of our future partnership with the EU will be to have effective reciprocal arrangements with the EU to deal with cross-border legal disputes in civil and family matters. The best way to deliver that co-operation is with a close and comprehensive agreement between the UK and the EU that sets out coherent common rules.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Leaving the EU is likely to lead to additional workload for the UK legal system. What additional resources have been made available to his Department and to the legal and courts system more generally to ensure that they are fully prepared?

  • My hon. Friend is right that we should be prepared. He will be aware that the Treasury has made another £3 billion of extra funding available to Departments for 2018 to 2020. We are in discussion with the Treasury about the allocation for the justice system, and we hope to agree it soon.

  • As we leave the European Union, many powers over many aspects of our legal and judicial enforcement will return from Brussels. What discussions have the Government had with the Scottish Government on how such policies will be implemented after Brexit, and does the Secretary of State agree that the SNP Government’s disruptive continuity Bill will do nothing but add to the uncertainty in our country?

  • We are committed to securing a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom—for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all parts of England. The Government expect that the outcome of leaving the EU will significantly increase the decision making of each devolved Administration. I can tell the House that I wrote to Michael Matheson last month to reaffirm the Department’s commitment to continue meaningful engagement with the Scottish Government.

  • Professional services, including legal services, are clearly one of the key exports of this country. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that there will be new arrangements for the recognition of legal standards and qualifications?

  • My hon. Friend raises a good question. We recognise that this is an important right to protect UK nationals, so that they can continue with their chosen line of work. It has already been agreed that those who have received a recognition decision or applied for one before the withdrawal date will be able to have their qualifications recognised after exit, including lawyers. Talks on many key issues, including the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, will continue into the next phase of negotiations. We will seek to reach an agreement with the EU on parts of MRPQ that are not seen as in scope of the withdrawal negotiations, such as home title practice. The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU to be able to continue their lives broadly as now.

  • Order. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) has a not wholly dissimilar inquiry at Question 19, and he is welcome to come in on this question if he is so inclined, because we are not likely to reach Question 19.

  • 19. I would be delighted to do so. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.As the Prime Minister has made a number of concessions with regard to the European Court of Justice after Brexit and given that the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill provides that, when exercising devolved jurisdiction, Scottish courts may have regard to the decisions of the ECJ, is it not time to amend clause 6 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to the same effect? [904206]

  • On clause 6 and this question more widely, let us be clear: we are leaving the EU, so the jurisdiction of the ECJ will end, but EU law and the decisions of the ECJ will continue to affect us. For a start, the ECJ determines whether agreements the EU has struck are legal under the EU’s own law. If, as part of our future partnership, Parliament passes an identical law to an EU law, it makes sense for our courts to look at the appropriate ECJ judgments, so that we interpret those laws consistently. We have to remember, however, that our Parliament will remain ultimately sovereign. It could decide not to accept such rules, but there would be consequences for our membership of the relevant agencies and linked market access rights.

  • Private Sector Probation Companies

  • 11. What recent assessment he has made of the performance of private sector probation companies. [904198]

  • There have been a number of challenges with the community rehabilitation companies—CRCs—particularly in transition. It is not all bad news: in fact, the number of people reoffending has come down by 2% and certain CRCs, such as Cumbria and my own county, are performing well. But we need to focus particularly on the questions of assessment, planning and meeting, and that is what we have focused on in the report on London that is due on Thursday.

  • Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation recently warned that private sector probation companies’ focus on contract compliance rather the true quality of supervision was inevitably having an impact on culture and was undermining the established values of probation professionals. Does the Minister agree that it is time to put proper probation ahead of private profit?

  • The hon. Gentleman is a Nottingham Member, and I had a very interesting meeting with the CRC last week on my visit to Nottingham Prison, where the CRC is providing very good through-the-gate services—in fact, services for prisoners in prison that did not exist before the transformation reforms. Before, they were outside the prisons. I do not believe this is a question whether it is done by the private sector, the public sector or the voluntary sector, but it is a question of getting the basic standards right. As I say, that is exactly what we will be assessing the London CRC on on Thursday.

  • Putting it bluntly, probation privatisation has been a disaster. Despite that, the Government are still pursuing their privatisation agenda. Last week, the Government outsourced night staff in probation hostels. Given that those hostels house some of the most dangerous ex-offenders, will the Minister accept full responsibility for any impact on public safety resulting from that ideological outsourcing?

  • The shadow Minister refers to a decision by the National Probation Service—which is a Government- run service, so it is not a CRC service—to bring in additional contracted staff to provide double night duty in the hostels. That has been done because it is not work that is traditionally done by trained probation officers, but by contracted staff. Of course I will accept full responsibility for that decision.

  • Supreme Court Judgment: Metropolitan Police Commissioner

  • 12. Whether he has discussed with the Home Secretary the implications for Government policies of the Supreme Court judgment on the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v. DSD and another. [904199]

  • This case is a matter for the Home Office and the police. However, I understand that the Home Office is working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council to understand the impact of the ruling and monitor current claims.

  • Failures to disclose digital evidence have led to the collapse of four rape trials in recent months. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in the light of the landmark ruling on the Worboys case, the lack of digital capacity now exposes the police to huge financial liability and risks breaching the human rights of victims on an unprecedented scale? Will he make representations to the Home Office to carry out a full resource impact assessment of the decision?

  • As the Attorney General has said, disclosure in cases is a question of public authorities performing the roles that they should and doing their jobs properly. Clearly, it is of great concern that there have been cases in which that appears not to have happened.

  • Service Animals

  • 13. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of creating a specific offence of attacking service animals. [904200]

  • I would like to express, as I am sure would the whole House, our immense gratitude for the role that service animals play and have played for a long time in public life. They frequently do things that humans would not do, ranging from detection of bombs and drugs to taking on violent criminals. There are serious aggravating circumstances that a judge can take into account when sentencing, and serious sentences can be given to anyone attacking a service animal—that is absolutely right.

  • Police dog Finn was brutally stabbed several times in my constituency while apprehending a violent criminal. The current law treats police dog Finn, a canine hero, like a piece of computer equipment—the charge is criminal damage. This is unacceptable. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) is leading a campaign to introduce Finn’s law. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my right hon. and learned Friend, so that we can provide greater protection for our service animals in the course of their duty?

  • I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and others for the very active campaign that they are leading. I would of course be delighted to meet them to discuss that law.

  • Given that Canada, America, Australia and many European Union states have a law similar to that being introduced by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire—I am a sponsor of his Bill—why did the Minister order the Government to block the Bill last Friday?

  • As we have discussed, very significant sentences of up to 10 years can already be imposed for this kind of action, but I would be delighted to discuss the issue in more detail with the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends.

  • And doubtless with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald).

  • I am very grateful to the Minister for that kind offer. I just make the point that there is a gap in the law. There are legal difficulties with prosecuting under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, because of the drafting of section 4. Prosecuting for criminal damage means that the value of the animal determines the sentence. However, a police dog like Finn, who was eight years old, is not worth much money—he is of course invaluable to PC Dave Wardell and the country’s police enforcement efforts, but he is not worth a lot of money. I am therefore grateful that the Minister will to talk to us about this issue.

  • Perhaps we could have an Adjournment debate about Finn, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not already procured such.

  • I have already done that, Mr Speaker, and I have a ten-minute rule Bill as well.

  • Very well done. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is obviously ahead of events. I was enjoying the family history he was educating us on just now.

  • My right hon. and learned Friend is a great authority on the law. There are a number of issues here, ranging from the exact sentences that can be imposed to the work my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing to introduce new sentences for animal cruelty. I look forward to discussing all those issues both in the House and over a cup of tea.

  • Violence and Self-harm in Prison

  • 16. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the levels of violence and self-harm in prisons. [904203]

  • Health services are commissioned by NHS England, which is responsible for assessing provision of mental health treatment in prisons in England. In Wales, health is devolved to the Welsh Government and separate arrangements are made for assessment.

  • I think the Minister might be a bit confused. I have the impression that he is answering a question that would have been put if the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) had not been called earlier on a different question. The question with which we are now dealing is Question 16, on levels of violence and self-harm.

  • My apologies, Mr Speaker.

    There have been worrying increases in levels of violence and self-harm. As was said earlier, a lot of that is being driven by new drugs inducing psychotic episodes. We are working hard on this issue. We have provided training to an additional 14,000 prison officers focused on issues of violence and self-harm. More staffing will help, but there is much more to do.

  • The Minister will be aware that incidences of self-harm in prisons have risen by 75% since 2007. I appreciate the Minister giving us the drivers of violence and self-harm in prisons, but will he tell us in more detail what steps he will take to reduce the amount of self-harm and suicide? Does he agree that part of the solution is encouraging the use of mental health treatment requirements, which has fallen by 48%?

  • The hon. Lady is absolutely correct that mental health is at the heart of a lot of these issues. On the concrete steps we are taking, one is the training for 14,000 additional officers and the second is the proper use of the ACCT—assessment, care in custody and teamwork—strategy, which is the process for assessing the risk posed to the prisoner and coming up with a plan to deal with it. We have managed to significantly reduce suicide over the past 18 months, but the level is still far too high. Any death is a great tragedy, and we will continue to work very closely to reduce suicide further.

  • Sixty-two years ago, Bessie Braddock, the then MP for Liverpool Exchange division, stood in this Chamber and raised concerns about the appalling conditions at Liverpool Prison—then called Walton Prison—and particularly the treatment of prisoners with mental illness. In the past two years at that very same prison, seven inmates have taken their life, including Tony Paine two weeks ago. I note that the Minister said on 22 February that the conditions at the prison were “very disturbing” and “unacceptable”. What action is he going to take today to ensure that all prisoners’ mental health needs are adequately met and that no other prisoner takes their life in one of our prisons?

  • As the hon. Lady mentions, the situation at Liverpool Prison was very disturbing. I have visited Liverpool Prison, and mental health provision is now significantly better than it was at the time of the inspection—I spent quite a lot of time with the mental health staff there—but there is a broader issue. Although we are reducing suicide, there is still far too much of it happening. A lot of this will be about making sure not only that we deal with drugs, but that we have the right kind of purposeful activity in prisons, so that prisoners do not feel the temptation to take their own life.

  • Legal Aid

  • 17. What research his Department has conducted on the cost-effectiveness of providing legal aid for early legal help. [904204]

  • The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the value of early legal advice, which is why the Department spent £100 million in legal aid on early legal advice for civil cases last year.

  • Citizens Advice has estimated that for every £1 of legal aid spending on housing advice the state would save over £2, and that if the advice was on debt and housing, it would save even more. Will the Minister commit to commissioning research into the cost-effectiveness of reintroducing early legal advice in the housing sector, so that we can save money in the long run?

  • Advice can already be taken through a telephone hotline in relation to housing. Legal aid is available where homelessness is a risk, and debt leads to homelessness. A whole variety of early legal advice is available through legal aid at the moment, but as the hon. Lady will know, we are conducting a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and this issue will be considered.

  • Family Contact for Prisoners

  • 18. What recent steps his Department has taken to increase family contact for prisoners. [904205]

  • Reducing reoffending is above all about having healthy relationships between the individual and their family, the individual and society, and the individual and the state, so having that relationship with the family is vital. That is partly, of course, about the prisoners’ entitlement to two visits a month. There have been some excellent examples in Liverpool—for example, at Altcourse Prison, with its fantastic family centre for meeting family—and it is also about having telephony in place to keep those contacts up.

  • I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree with the findings in the Conservative-led strengthening families manifesto, which found that if family contact is maintained, reoffending can be reduced by more than 39%?

  • Absolutely. Getting that family relationship right and embedding people properly with their family is vital to reducing reoffending, along with many of the measures we take on education.

  • Topical Questions

  • T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [904211]

  • For prisons to be effective, we must get the basics right. This means creating prisons that are safe, secure and decent. It also means tackling the ringleaders of serious organised crime, so that they cannot continue to profit from their crimes and ruin people’s lives through drugs, deaths and violence from behind bars. I can announce that we are investing an extra £14 million to tackle serious organised crime. This includes creating new intelligence and serious organised crime teams to support work with the National Crime Agency, and enhancing our intelligence and information-gathering capacity across the country. I will also look at how we categorise prisoners to make sure that we are using our most secure prisons to tackle ongoing criminality behind bars. At the same time, we will reset the system of incentives in our prisons, so that they work much more in the favour of prisoners who play by the rules and want to turn their lives around, while coming down harder on those who show no intention of doing so.

  • The number of foreign national offenders from EU countries in our prisons remains at around 4,000. As part of the negotiations on leaving the EU, is my right hon. Friend liaising with other Government Departments, including the Home Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union, to ensure that we can deport more of the thousands of EU nationals who are in our prisons and remove these dangerous people from Britain?

  • Since 2010 we have removed more than 40,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, immigration removal centres and the community. A range of removal mechanisms exist that enable foreign offenders to be returned to their home countries, and we are working closely with the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Home Office as we consider our future criminal justice arrangements with the EU, with the aim of carrying on our close working relationship.

  • In a formal statement, the previous Secretary of State for Justice said that the Grenfell inquiry would

    “get to the truth and see justice done”.

    For that to be the case, Grenfell survivors and the bereaved families must have full confidence in it, so to tackle the obvious current lack of trust, does the Minister agree with survivors and bereaved families who are calling for a broad inquiry panel, as there was in the watershed inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence?

  • I believe that the processes have been set up, that the inquiry led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick is the right approach and that the focus should be on ensuring that the inquiry can make progress rather than trying in any way to undermine it.

  • T2. Family law has been in need of reform for far too long. We now have a situation where the judiciary is supporting early intervention and wishing to carry out a pilot scheme. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how to make this excellent solution a reality? [904212]

  • I am very aware of the importance of looking at family law, in the context of the fact that relationship breakdown leads to unwelcome life chances for the children of that relationship. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, who should know that I have already met the president of the family division and the chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and to discuss this issue.

  • T5. As the Minister knows, there has already been a public meeting in my constituency about the prison there. He will be delighted to know that we have organised another on 12 April, to which he has been invited. May I encourage him to come and meet my constituents to hear directly their concerns, and I can guarantee that he will receive a warm welcome in the valleys? [904215]

  • I am very grateful. There is almost no Member of Parliament who has been more assiduous on this subject, with, I think, five meetings in the past six weeks. There was a vigorous encounter between my officials and the hon. Gentleman’s community on their last visit. I would like very much to have the next meeting here in London, if that is possible, and I would be delighted to discuss the issues on that occasion.

  • T3. The Torbay offender management team works to reduce crime and prevent those released from prison from reoffending. What assessment has the Lord Chancellor made of its effectiveness in preventing crime in Torbay? [904213]

  • That is an interesting example of a community rehabilitation company in Devon and Cornwall. The particular strengths of the Torbay approach seem to us to be in the partnership working with the police and children’s services and in the work done with Catch22 on accommodation.

  • T7. In December, the previous Prisons Minister wrote to me saying that the spate of deaths at HMP Nottingham was a random occurrence, blaming a phenomenon called “suicide cluster”. In January, an inspection of the prison deemed it fundamentally unsafe. Last month there was another death, reported to be a suicide. Will Ministers now accept that there is nothing random going on at this jail and that it is not a safe environment? [904217]

  • As the hon. Gentleman will know, I had a serious visit to HMP Nottingham last week. I pay tribute to the prison officers and the governor for their work, but there are a number of serious challenges in the prison. We are particularly focused on safety. We have a new manager in place and a new violence reduction strategy, and the ACCT process will be central to solving these problems.

  • T4. I am sure that in 100 years’ time people will look at our prisons in the same way as we look at Victorian prisons—as being cruel and locking up too many people with health problems. One thing we could do is clear out of our prisons people serving less than a year. It does no good, they are moved around and they cannot be trained. Will the Minister look at that? [904214]

  • It is absolutely true that many of the serious challenges we have been discussing in the House today, particularly on violence, self-harm and drug use, focus on the population imprisoned for less than 12 months. The more we can do to try to rehabilitate people in the community while protecting the public the better.

  • T9. Since 2010, six successive Courts Ministers have dodged a decision over the future of Sunderland’s court estate. Despite more than £2 million having been spent on preparations for a new centre for justice, a further £284,000 will now be spent on urgent repairs to the city’s crumbling magistrates courts as a result of that unacceptable delay. Will the new Minister meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) to see whether we can put an end to this saga and give the people of Sunderland a decision at last? [904219]

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It was a pleasure to meet her recently to discuss the issue, and I am grateful to her for following up with an email on Friday. I am very happy to meet her again to discuss the issue, and I have sent her a letter today, as I said I would, setting out a timetable for the consideration of sites. When she has had a chance to look at that I am happy to meet her again.

  • T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as he reforms the justice system, a system of incentives could help prisoners with good behaviour records and reduce reoffending in the future? [904216]

  • I very much agree. Indeed, I advanced that argument this morning in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts. If prisoners are abiding by the rules and complying with what is required of them, governors should have more flexibility to reward them with additional privileges. I think that that could help to move people in the right direction and change behaviour in a positive way.

  • T10. The most recent figures from the Department show that only 6% of employment tribunal fees have been repaid, although the Supreme Court declared them unlawful last year. If the Department cannot uphold the law, how can it expect anyone else to? [904220]

  • The Department is responsible for upholding the law, and it does so. As for the specific issue of refunds, the Department has done a great deal of work in trying to explain to interested bodies how they can make a refund. It has written to Citizens Advice, the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Free Representation Unit. New figures will be published on 8 March. If people do not receive refunds, we will continue to liaise with them.

  • T8. What percentage of inmates currently have literacy problems, and what solutions are the Government coming up with to tackle those problems? [904218]

  • Levels of literacy in prisons are shocking. About 54% of prisoners currently have a reading level below that which we would expect in an 11-year-old. Let me put that in context. Nearly 50% of prisoners have been excluded from school at some point, compared with about 2% of the general population. Our solution is to give governors more control of their education budgets, and to ensure that literacy training is available in every prison as part of the core curriculum.

  • The Minister’s earlier answers to questions about violence in prisons focused on prisoner violence. Our hard-working prison officers face daily violence in their jobs. I have just written to the Minister about a constituent who had urine and excrement poured over him, but let me now ask him a wider question. What is the Department doing to ensure that prison officers are given full support when they are assaulted, and also to ensure that mental health services become better than they are at present?

  • We have a huge obligation to prison officers, particularly when they are assaulted. We can deal with the problem in a number of ways. We need to ensure that prisoners are punished for assaults, and to make it clear that they will be punished. We need to reduce drugs, and we need violence reduction strategies. We are already using more CCTV cameras and body-held cameras to record assaults, but our prison officers must feel safe in their environment. [Interruption.]

  • I very much hope that the Foreign Secretary is beetling his way towards the Chamber as I speak, and I dare say that that will be the aspiration of the House. Either the right hon. Gentleman himself or one of his ministerial accomplices is required in the Chamber. We cannot ask the Lord Chancellor to deal with the next business; that would be unreasonable. [Hon. Members: “Border check!”] I do not think that the Foreign Secretary is between Islington and Camden. No, I am sure he is not.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

  • No, I will not take points of order now. I am always interested in the views of the hon. Gentleman, but not now. We will hear from him in due course, and we look forward to that with interest and anticipation. Well done—the hon. Gentleman should stay in his seat, and we will hear from him in due course.

  • I commend the Prisons Minister for following up his predecessor’s strong support for Lord Farmer’s review. Will he meet me to discuss extending its reach to the welfare of prisoners’ children, especially at the point—[Interruption.]

  • Order. It is very good of the Foreign Secretary to drop in on us—we are deeply grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. However, I think that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) should be given a chance to reprise her question, because I have interrupted her. Blurt it out from start to finish.

  • Will the Prisons Minister meet me to discuss the welfare of prisoner’ children, especially at the point of sentencing? There are 200,000 such children a year, and they often fall through the care system completely.

  • Absolutely. One of the most terrifying statistics is the very high number of prisoners’ children who go on to offend themselves. I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss not just the issue of families, but the issue of children in particular.

  • What are the Government doing to reverse the dramatic fall in community sentencing, which has nearly halved in the past decade, with a particularly sharp drop in recent years?

  • We have seen an increased use of suspended sentences, but the hon. Lady is right that we must do more. We want to work closely with community rehabilitation companies and the National Probation Service, because the judiciary must have confidence in non-custodial sentences as well as custodial sentences.

  • The Foreign Secretary is scribbling away with great determination and no little emotion, and we are grateful for that, but I have an appetite to hear a couple more questions—[Interruption.] Yes, I want to hear a couple more questions to the Justice Secretary while the Foreign Secretary is recovering his breath.

  • We need compulsory prisoner transfer agreements to send foreign national offenders back to prison in their own country. Are the Government seeking to sign any new such agreements? If so, with which countries?

  • As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), in the last few years, something like 40,000 foreign national offenders have been returned to their own countries. We continue to seek to sign additional agreements so we can continue to make progress with this.

  • Will the impact of cuts to legal aid on unaccompanied and separated children under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 be considered?

  • The purpose of the review is to look at the effectiveness of the legislation, so any changes made by LASPO will be considered.

  • So what exactly has happened at the chaplaincy at HMP Brixton?

  • That is a brilliant question. The answer is that I am still trying to get to the bottom of it and I cannot provide an answer to the House.

  • May I exhort the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) for the umpteenth time to circulate his textbook on succinct questions to all colleagues in the House? If he is in a generous mood, he might even offer copies to people sitting in the Public Gallery as well?

  • And to the Speaker.

  • I will ignore that sedentary chunter from the hon. Gentleman, which is unworthy of someone of his normal generosity of spirit.

  • Last week the Justice Committee produced an excellent report highlighting some of the issues around virtual courts. We might have a virtual Foreign Secretary today, but the Committee raised some important issues, so why is the Secretary of State rushing to close courts such as that in Cambridge when we are yet to have a wider discussion about virtual courts?

  • As I said in reply to the very first question of this session, it is important that we make progress in using the court estate as sensibly as possible. It is underused, and when resources are scarce, it is important that we use them more efficiently. It is also right that we make advances in using digital technology so that access to justice becomes easier.

  • Last weekend a prison officer at HMP Bedford was rushed to hospital with a serious brain injury inflicted by a prisoner. Other serious incidents occurred over the weekend, such as prison officers running for their lives to hide from an out-of-control prisoner. The weekend before, five prison officers were taken to A&E due to injuries inflicted by prisoners. Will a prison officer have to die before this Government act to keep prison staff safe in the line of duty?

  • The events in Bedford at the weekend were deeply disturbing and the sympathy of the whole House goes out to that prison officer and his family. Violence against prison officers is at an unacceptable level. There were 8,000 incidents last year and, as I set out in a speech this morning, we must take this incredibly seriously. We must recognise that the driver of a lot of this violence is drugs, and that the driver of a lot of drugs in prison is serious organised crime. I want to ensure we do everything we can to address that, because prison officers do a great job and it is far too dangerous for them.

  • With the support of Co-op Funeralcare, Dignity plc, the National Association of Funeral Directors, the bereavement charity Cruse and the all-party group on baby loss, 50 bereaved parents in Hull are still seeking an independent inquiry into what happened to their babies’ ashes. Does the Minister still stand by Hull City Council, which has refused to have that independent inquiry?

  • This situation was truly appalling—the hon. Lady knows that I think that. The review was comprehensive, so I will not be changing any decisions any time soon. My heart goes out to all those involved, as clearly this was very traumatic, but the review was comprehensive.

  • Instead of carrying out their in-house review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, should Ministers not follow the excellent example of the Scottish Government by having an independent review of legal aid, and perhaps looking at how the Scottish scheme has managed to achieve greater scope and eligibility but with lower costs?

  • The review of legal aid will be important. We will be inviting a number of independent experts to give evidence so that we can make the necessary decisions.

  • The Secretary of State will know that even in the best justice systems there are miscarriages of justice. Will he therefore pay attention to the fact that so many people who are later found to be innocent and have their sentences quashed, having spent years in prison, never get any compensation?

  • The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If he wants to raise a specific case, I am happy to meet him to discuss it.

  • Government Policy on Russia

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Her Majesty’s Government’s policy towards Russia.

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for raising this important matter. Although he asks a general question about Russia, let me immediately say that there is much speculation about the disturbing incident in Salisbury, where a 66-year-old man, Sergei Skripal, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious outside The Maltings shopping centre on Sunday afternoon. Police, together with partner agencies, are now investigating.

    Hon. Members will note the echoes of the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Although it would be wrong to prejudge the investigation, I can reassure the House that, should evidence emerge that implies state responsibility, Her Majesty’s Government will respond appropriately and robustly, although I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate that it would not be right for me to give further details of the investigation now, for fear of prejudicing the outcome.

    This House has profound differences with Russia, which I outlined in the clearest terms when I visited Moscow in December. By annexing Crimea in 2014, igniting the flames of conflict in eastern Ukraine and threatening western democracies, including by interfering in their elections, Russia has challenged the fundamental basis of international order.

    The United Kingdom, under successive Governments, has responded with strength and determination, first by taking unilateral measures after the death of Litvinenko, expelling four Russian diplomats in 2007 and suspending security co-operation between our respective agencies, and then by leading the EU’s response to the annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Ukraine by securing tough sanctions, co-ordinated with the United States and other allies, targeting Russian state-owned banks and defence companies, restricting the energy industry that serves as the central pillar of the Russian economy, and constraining the export of oil exploration and production equipment.

    Whenever those sanctions have come up for renewal, Britain has consistently argued for their extension, and we shall continue to do so until and unless the cause for them is removed. These measures have inflicted significant damage on the Russian economy. Indeed, they help to explain why it endured two years of recession in 2015 and 2016.

    As the House has heard repeatedly, the UK Government have been in the lead at the UN in holding the Russians to account for their support of the barbaric regime of Bashar al-Assad. The UK has been instrumental in supporting Montenegro’s accession to NATO and in helping that country to identify the perpetrators of the Russian-backed attempted coup. This country has exposed the Russian military as cyber-criminals in its attacks on Ukraine and elsewhere.

    As I said, it is too early to speculate about the precise nature of the crime or attempted crime that took place in Salisbury on Sunday, but Members will have their suspicions. If those suspicions prove to be well founded, this Government will take whatever measures we deem necessary to protect the lives of the people in this country, our values and our freedoms. Though I am not now pointing fingers, because we cannot do so, I say to Governments around the world that no attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go either unsanctioned or unpunished. It may be that this country will continue to pay a price for our continued principles in standing up to Russia, but I hope that the Government will have the support of Members on both sides of the House in continuing to do so. We must await the outcome of the investigation, but in the meantime I should like to express my deep gratitude to the emergency services for the professionalism of their response to the incident in Salisbury.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. Unfortunately, the Foreign Secretary arrived slightly later than scheduled and addressed the House for slightly longer than the time limit allows, but by virtue of my generosity of spirit, he has thus far escaped unsanctioned in respect of either offence. His acknowledgement of same would of course be appreciated by the House.

  • I must now make some allowance for the shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry—[Interruption.] Oh, only once we have heard from Mr Tugendhat; I am ahead of myself.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is good of you to have accorded this urgent question.

    I welcome my right hon. Friend’s tour of the world and of the various abuses from Russia that we are dealing with at the moment. Though it is, as he rightly says, too soon to point fingers at Moscow regarding what happened in Salisbury, it is quite clear that we are seeing a pattern in Russian behaviour. Indeed, BuzzFeed’s Heidi Blake, a journalist who has been researching this subject intensively over a number of years, has come up with 14 deaths that she attributes to Russian elements, and there are others who have pointed this out. Only today, Shashank Joshi, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, indicated that murder is a matter of public policy in Russia today. My right hon. Friend’s ministerial colleague, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, was also absolutely right to criticise the murder of Boris Nemtsov only recently.

    We are seeing a pattern of what the KGB would refer to as “demoralise, destabilise, bring to crisis and normalise”, so does my right hon. Friend agree that Russia is now conducting a form of soft war against the west, that its use of so-called fake news—more often known as propaganda and information warfare—is part of that, and that this requires a whole-of-Government response, which his Department is best placed to lead?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is indeed correct that Russia is engaged in a host of malign activities that stretch from the abuse and murder of journalists to the mysterious assassination of politicians. I am glad that he mentioned Mr Nemtsov, as in December I was privileged to pay tribute to his memory at the site of his murder on a bridge in Moscow.

    It is clear that Russia is, I am afraid, in many respects now a malign and disruptive force, and the UK is in the lead across the world in trying to counteract that activity. I must say to the House that that is sometimes difficult, given the strong economic pressures that are exerted by Russia’s hydrocarbons on other European economies, and we sometimes have difficulty in trying to get our points across, but we do get our points across. There has been no wavering on the sanctions regimes that has been imposed by European countries, and nor indeed will there be such wavering as long as the UK has a say in this.

    A cross-Government review is an interesting idea that I will take away and consider. As my hon. Friend knows, the National Security Council has repeatedly looked at our relations with Russia, which are among the most difficult that we face in the world. I assure him that we will be looking at it again. We must be very careful in what we say because it is too early to prejudge the investigation, but if the suspicions on both sides of the House about the events in Salisbury prove to be well founded, we may well be forced to look again at our sanctions regime and at other measures that we may seek to put in place.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for securing it.

    We are all extremely concerned about the incident in Salisbury yesterday, and I am sure we all hope for the recovery of Mr Skripal and his daughter. I am sure both sides of the House will join me in praising the professionalism and frankly, given the nature of previous poisonings, the bravery of the emergency services that dealt with this incident.

    As the Secretary of State says, the incident has disturbing echoes of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko 12 years ago, and it comes after the exposure last June by BuzzFeed News of the fact that, since 2012, 14 individuals considered hostile to the Putin regime have died in mysterious circumstances on British soil. However, the investigation of this particular incident in Salisbury has only just begun, and I do not believe it is appropriate for us to indulge in speculation while the investigating authorities are still doing their job, so I will not ask the Secretary of State any specific questions about the incident or the Government’s response, although I am sure the time for those questions will come soon.

    I have two related questions for the Secretary of State. He talks about working across Europe in relation to sanctions. As we leave the European Union, how will we continue to work with our European allies on sanctions?

    Secondly, on the issue of Russian human rights abuses, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill is currently upstairs in Committee where, right now, the Government are resisting an amendment that would enable Britain to sanction individuals who perpetrate gross human rights abuses, such as those who tortured Sergei Magnitsky to death in a Moscow jail in 2009. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government are taking such a negative stance against our Magnitsky amendment? Surely they should be supporting it.

    Thirdly, the Secretary of State will, like me, surely have heard President Putin’s speech and have been disturbed to hear Putin boasting about the proficiency of Russia’s new nuclear weapons systems, all in response to Donald Trump’s planned expansion of America’s nuclear arsenal. Both are driving a coach and horses through the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. What are the Government doing to urge all parties to renew their compliance with that vital international treaty?

  • The right hon. Lady is right to place that emphasis on the breaches of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty that we are now seeing and on the risk to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is one of the great achievements of the post-war order. The UK is active in New York, and, with our American friends, we are making the case that it is time to bring the Russians firmly to heel. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of anxiety about what is now happening. Fundamentally, it is not in Russia’s interest.

    The right hon. Lady makes an interesting point about so-called Magnitsky amendments. Members on both sides of the House are interested in tabling such amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, which, as she rightly says, is now in Committee. We will look at all such proposals with an open mind. We are very interested in trying to address the issue of those who grossly abuse human rights, which is what everybody wants to achieve. As currently framed, the Bill, a fortiori, tackles such gross abuses because it tackles all those who abuse human rights. I am conscious that the House wishes to go further, and we are happy to look at that.

  • I follow the example of the shadow Foreign Secretary by saying that, as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I do not intend to ask the Foreign Secretary for details of the recent incident, but does he agree that, after more than a decade now, we can see the direction of travel of the Putin regime? Its ability to murder people it regards as traitors is in the finest traditions of the KGB, the NKVD, et cetera. Are the measures taken by the British Government having any effect whatsoever on Putin?

  • As I have told the House, we believe the sanctions that we have been instrumental in implementing have had an effect, and it is certainly the case that the Russian economy took a serious hit as a result of those sanctions—more than 100 individuals have been listed, and the sectoral measures cover energy, art, the arms trade and financial services. The sanctions are having an effect. If I may say so, it is a measure of the UK’s leading role in enforcing those sanctions and in calling Russia out that Russian rhetoric towards the UK is quite as hostile as it is.

  • First of all, my thoughts go to Mr Skripal and his daughter, who we hope recover. Does this not demonstrate the different types of threat that we face? The threats are not always obvious or traceable. This is not a classic article 5 scenario, but this type of scenario is not unknown to our allies in the Baltic states. Does this not cut to the heart of the modernising defence programme in terms of how we protect human assets like Mr Skripal in this country? Can the Foreign Secretary tell us whether this type of scenario will lead to a review of how we best protect these people across the United Kingdom?

  • The hon. Gentleman makes a very perceptive point about the way in which such attacks affect not only the UK but many of our NATO allies. If what happened in Salisbury turns out to be as many suspect, we will co-ordinate our response with our NATO allies.

    The hon. Gentleman asks how we protect such individuals, which is obviously not something on which he would expect me to comment in the House of Commons. We do our best to give such individuals the protection we can.

  • I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, which highlights the very real problems that we are now encountering in our relations with Russia. He will be aware that when the Intelligence and Security Committee was reformed, we immediately announced that one of our priorities is to carry out an inquiry into Russia’s covert activities and whether we have the appropriate responses to them. He may agree that that matter perhaps now requires a greater degree of urgency. I therefore ask him to do everything possible to facilitate that inquiry and ensure that it can get under way as soon as possible.

  • From his vantage point as Chair of the ISC, my right hon. and learned Friend has been following this very closely. I undertake to get back to him on that matter as soon as possible.

  • The Foreign Secretary rightly says that no attempt on an innocent life on our soil should go uninvestigated or unpunished. I would not expect him to comment on the investigation that is currently under way—obviously we all have concerns for the welfare of the two individuals—but what about the 14 suspicious deaths that several Members have now raised?

    In many of those cases, UK authorities concluded that the deaths were suicides, despite the fact that there has now been considerable reported evidence, including in the BuzzFeed report, casting serious doubt on those conclusions. There are also claims that US intelligence may have provided further evidence to the contrary in those 14 individual cases, and there are serious questions about whether the police investigations were thorough enough. As a result of what he has said, will the Foreign Secretary now discuss urgently with the Home Secretary whether a National Crime Agency investigation, or other form of police investigation, and review of all 14 cases should now take place?

  • The right hon. Lady is perfectly right to say that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) pointed out, there are a number of deeply troubling cases, such as that of Mr Perepilichnyy. To the best of our knowledge at present, there is no further evidence that points in the direction of criminality, but what she says is very important. We will certainly follow it up and I will certainly have that discussion with the Home Secretary.

  • It is almost exactly four years since the annexation of the sovereign territory of Ukraine in Crimea by Russia. It is two years since the public inquiry concluded that President Putin almost certainly approved the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Is it not clear therefore that existing sanctions are failing to deter Russia, possibly even from carrying out further assassinations on British soil, and that the time has come to impose far tougher sanctions against targeted individuals associated with President Putin’s regime?

  • I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. Obviously, we cannot prejudge the outcome of this investigation, as that would not be right. As I have said repeatedly, in the formula I have used, if the suspicions of Members on both sides of the House are confirmed, such sanctions are going to have to be one of the options we look at.

  • These developments are clearly deeply concerning—not only those in Salisbury but the Heidi Blake reports about the potential of a multiple, wider pattern of assassinations on UK soil by the Russian regime. I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary, in response to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said he is going to look into those cases further. I want to press him on this point about assets, because other countries have taken a tougher line on the assets of Russian nationals than we do here in the UK, particularly in London, where there is a higher concentration of these assets. Will he look again at what can be done, not only on cases where we are yet to have further investigation, but on past cases where we already know many of the facts, such as that of Magnitsky?

  • I will certainly look at what the hon. Lady proposes, but I have to say that the UK leads the world in cracking down on money laundering and those—[Interruption.] We do. We lead the world in cracking down on money laundering and we are trying to expose the beneficial ownership of accounts across the world. If it is possible to expose further such illicit activity in London, or indeed anywhere in the UK, in order to hold people to account, of course we will do this.

  • I recognise that the Foreign Secretary will be constrained in what he can say, but at a time when the focus has understandably been directed at confronting terrorism, will he reassure us that he and other Cabinet colleagues will see that the Security Service and our other intelligence agencies devote appropriate resources and attention to the activities of Russia and other foreign Governments within the UK, and the potential threats they pose?

  • My right hon. Friend speaks for many, on both sides of the House, in wanting to see our intelligence services, which are one of the great global assets of this country, properly funded, particularly now, not just in the war against terror but in the struggle against malign Russian activity.

  • I do not think the Government have been robust or consistent enough over these past few years, and I have said that for a long time. Putin’s violent record is a matter for all to see—Beslan, the Moscow theatre, Crimea and Ukraine, Anna Politkovskaya and many other journalists, Sergei Magnitsky, Boris Nemtsov and so on. The truth is that this Government have repeatedly just shrugged their shoulders. After the Litvinenko inquiry found that Putin was personally responsible, the Government did absolutely nothing in response. What happens when a murdering dictator is told that nothing is going to happen? They just do it all over again. I urge the Foreign Secretary to think long and hard about a proper Magnitsky Act, which many other countries have adopted already. Let us make it absolutely clear to Russia: you cannot kill people on our soil with impunity.

  • I agree with the last sentiment the hon. Gentleman expressed, but I do not agree that the UK stood by and did nothing after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. On the contrary, we have led the world in tough action against Russia: both at the United Nations and in the European Union we have been in the forefront of those calling for tough measures against Putin’s Russia. I made exactly those points in Moscow when I saw Sergei Lavrov, as some hon. Members may recall. As for the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about a Magnitsky Act or a Magnitsky amendment, as I said in an earlier answer to an Opposition Member we are certainly willing to look at sensible proposals.

  • Is the Foreign Secretary concerned, as I am, about future Russian attacks on critical infrastructure in the UK? I am conscious that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is probably here more as the Member of Parliament for Salisbury, but is the Foreign Secretary particularly concerned about financial services infrastructure? As we carry less cash and cheque books, we are reliant on our electronic cards.

  • Absolutely. It is clear from the NotPetya attack and others that Russia is certainly prepared to attack our infrastructure, and we should guard against that possibility with every preparation we can.

  • I may have misinterpreted the question from the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, but it left me with the worrying impression that the Government are resisting the Committee’s attempts to hold an investigation into Russian interference. I would therefore be grateful if the Foreign Secretary could reassure the House on that point. The BuzzFeed investigation was published last June, so perhaps he could tell the House what the Government did then.

  • I have a couple of points to make on that. No attempt is being made to resist any investigation. On the contrary, as I have told the House repeatedly, this Government have mounted the strongest possible resistance across the world to Russian aggression and interference. I think hon. Members will readily concede that plenty of other Governments trade freely with Russia, oppose sanctions and are massively dependent on Russian hydrocarbons, and it is up to the UK to stand up for decency and to resist what Russia is doing.

  • As someone who has campaigned for some time on the so-called “Magnitsky campaign”, may I say that the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill offers an opportunity for us to have the full Magnitsky, as opposed to Magnitsky-lite which we got last year in another piece of legislation? The Opposition’s amendments were well intended but can be improved on. May I tell my right hon. Friend that on Report there will be an opportunity for the whole House to come together to give a clear message? I urge him, with all the measures I can, to listen to all sides, because this issue concerns people right across this House.

  • My right hon. Friend is right to say that this issue greatly exercises Members on both sides of the House. As I have said repeatedly, we will certainly address the issue and we will try to find a way forward that addresses Members’ concerns.

  • The Government’s response to Sir Robert Owen’s findings on Alexander Litvinenko was criticised at the time for not providing a sufficient deterrent effect. Whatever the Foreign Secretary’s view on whether the Government have taken action so far and no matter what findings in relation to Mr Skripal come through in time, does not this increasingly comprehensive picture show that the deterrent effect that the Government have desired is not working and that much more is needed?

  • I think all Members would concede that, in the case of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, we need to await the outcome of the investigation. Let us wish them every possible good fortune in their recovery. The Government are obviously going to look very carefully at whatever we can do to stop such a thing happening again. If things are as suspected by Members on both sides of the Chamber, we may have to come forward with much tougher measures, but we obviously cannot prejudge the investigation. The most important point is that the UK is in the lead around the world in standing up against Russia. It may well be that that explains the particular hostility we are currently having to endure. All I will say to the House is that it is worth it for this country to carry on with what it is doing to stand up to Russia, even if it exposes us to this kind of threat and challenge.

  • Over the years, I have tried to understand the Russian position, and particularly the Russian attitude to the right of self-determination of the Russian majority in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but the way to preserve peace with Russia is by having peace through strength. There is no point in giving commitments to the Baltic states without hardware and men on the ground. Will the Foreign Secretary echo the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is sitting next to him and who said in the estimates debate last week that spending 2% on defence was not enough?

  • I am not going to join my hon. Friend in calling for an increase in another Department’s budget right now, although it is absolutely right that we should be spending at least 2%. I should say, though, that out of that 2% we are able to fund—[Interruption.] The shadow Foreign Secretary says that we should spend it properly; we are, for instance, spending it on the 800 UK serving men and women in Tapa in Estonia, on the frontline with Russia, who are giving reassurance to a vital NATO ally. That is what the UK is doing. Believe me, the Russians know that we are doing that and that we are in the lead in calling for France and other EU countries to step up to the plate and deploy in the Baltics. The Russians know that we are in the lead in standing up for our friends in that part of the world. Yes, it may be that we in this country are paying a price for that, but we are not going to resile from that commitment.

  • Following the apparent poisoning of Mr Skripal and his daughter, will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether the toxicology report will be made public, and if so, when?

  • I must respectfully tell the hon. Lady that, as I said right at the beginning of my response to the urgent question, I am not going to give a commentary on the investigation.

  • Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work that Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre does to resist Russian cyber-attacks on the UK’s critical infrastructure? How does he categorise such attacks—are they just nuisances that we have to learn to live with and deal with, or are they, as some would say, acts of war?

  • That is a very perceptive question. I increasingly think that we have to categorise them as acts of war, which means that we need to elaborate a new doctrine of response and a new doctrine of deterrence. We certainly are doing that—it was one of the conclusions that we reached in the National Security Council a few months ago.

  • The Foreign Secretary speaks of the UK leading the way on EU sanctions on Russia. When we leave the EU, we will lose our seat at the table. In the six-monthly review of the sanctions, we have continued to push for their renewal. How will we exert influence when we have left the EU? What will be the legal status of the sanctions during the transition period?

  • I think the hon. Lady may have been in the House when we introduced the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, when I explained that although we may be leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe, and we will be intimately involved in the development of sanctions and other foreign policy. That is the intention of not only the UK but all our European partners. Fully half of EU sanctions listings depend on UK intelligence. We are an integral part of the European sanctions environment and will continue to be so.

  • We could speak softly if we carried a big stick, so was not the peace dividend at the end of the cold war utterly misconceived?

  • I respectfully disagree with my right hon. Friend, in the sense that, appalling though recent events have been—as I say, we do not know exactly what has taken place in Salisbury, but if it is as bad as it looks, it is another crime in the litany of crimes that we can lay at Russia’s door—as somebody who grew up during the cold war, I resist the comparison between events today and the misery and horror of the gulags and the suffering of the peoples of eastern Europe that I remember. I do not think we should necessarily equate the conflict and difficulties that we have with Russia today with the existential threats that we faced during the 1970s and 1980s.

  • The Foreign Secretary is right to say that the current situation is not the same as it was during the cold war, but is it not time to have an open and honest dialogue with the British people about how Russia uses instability, uncertainty and violence across the continent as part of its hybrid warfare, which is not peace but not war? That is the situation we are in and that conversation needs to be had. Will the Foreign Secretary lead it?

  • As the hon. Lady will know, the Prime Minister herself spoke in her Mansion House speech about this very matter and set out clearly her deep anxieties about how Russia is behaving. What we need to do is to concert international activity, sanction individuals who are part of Putin’s regime and keep the international community focused on exactly the points that the hon. Lady makes. Believe me, there is growing support around the world for what she says.

  • Having listened closely to today’s exchanges, I am sadly struggling to avoid the conclusion that Russia has now reached the point where it has little or no respect for Britain’s foreign, defence and security policy. If I am wrong, will the Foreign Secretary tell me why?

  • I have to disagree with my hon. Friend, because I believe that the UK is in the frontline of a struggle between two value systems. As the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, Russia is determined to impose its own way of thinking, particularly on the peoples of central and eastern Europe—the countries of the former Soviet Union. Russia is effectively revanchist, and it is the UK that is in the lead in standing up to it. Many other countries would prefer to turn a blind eye. Many other countries would prefer to go to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, step up their trade in hydrocarbons and ignore what is going on. Believe me, there are many countries around the table in the European Union that would like to do that, and there are many countries around the world that believe that it is wrong and misguided to stand up to Russia.

    We do not take that view; we take a principled view. We have been in the lead in the imposition of sanctions. We have been in the lead in standing up against Russian-supported aggression in Syria and in calling out Russia for what it did in the western Balkans and Montenegro. We are having a summit in this country in July on the defence of the western Balkans and all those countries against Russian encroachment. It is the UK that is resisting. As I have said to Members repeatedly, it may very well be that Russia will behave towards us in a way that is notably aggressive, but we will not be bowed and we will not allow such action to go unpunished.

  • The Skripal case has disturbing parallels not only with the Litvinenko case, but with the BBC drama “McMafia”, as does the report leaked to The Guardian and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project last month, which found that millions of pounds linked to the Putin family and the FSB—Russia’s federal security service—spy network had been laundered through the London property network. Does not the Foreign Secretary appreciate how simply patting himself on the back and saying that we are leading the world looks complacent? We simply must do more to promote financial transparency.

  • I certainly agree that more can be done to promote financial transparency, but across the world the UK is second to none in doing that.

  • Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the basing of Sputnik in Edinburgh from where it spreads misinformation and peddles conspiracy theories to foment division in the UK? Does he also agree that it is incredibly disappointing that current MPs and former First Ministers give Russia Today and Sputnik a pretence of credibility that they do not deserve?

  • My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Members from all sides of the House should think long and hard before they appear on Russia Today, which is clearly a vehicle for Kremlin propaganda.

  • The Foreign Secretary, like many other people, has spoken powerfully about the extent to which Russia—while not at war with us—can be seen only as an enemy of the best interests of the United Kingdom. On that basis, is it not time to review whether we should continue to sit on the UN Security Council and have Russia in a position where it is able to decide whether the actions that we take with our military are lawful?

  • If things turn out as many Members on both sides of the House suspect they will—to return to that formula—we will have to have a serious conversation about our engagement with Russia. Thinking ahead to the World Cup this summer, it is very difficult to imagine how UK representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way, and we will certainly have to consider that.

  • The southern gas corridor, which is currently under construction by BP, stretches from Azerbaijan to Italy, with spurs across Europe. It will end the reliance on Russian gas, which makes it a threat to Russia’s potential finances. Will the Foreign Secretary undertake a review of the security of that pipeline to ensure that Russia cannot interfere with it, so that Europe can then get its proper gas supplies in an appropriate way?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on gas supplies and the political strategic use that Russia makes of those supplies. I will certainly look at the point that he raises about the Azerbaijan pipeline.

  • International arrest warrants are still outstanding for the two people alleged to have killed Litvinenko. There is no chance of extraditing them to this country. Yesterday, whether it was poisonous gases or substances that we saw on the streets of Britain, they could have caused harm to our citizens. If the Foreign Secretary cannot bring Litvinenko’s killers to justice, how can he guarantee that those who perpetuated yesterday’s crime will equally be brought to justice?

  • Obviously, we must leave it to the police and the security services to do what they can to bring the perpetrators of yesterday’s crime, or attempted crime, to justice.

  • Here in the UK, we often say that pride comes before a fall. In Russia, it is rather different. They say that if you have no pride, you will surely fall. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, in the dealings of the Foreign Office and other Departments with Russia, full account is taken of the Russian psychology, which respects only strength?

  • My hon. Friend is entirely right, which is why the UK has been at the forefront of those calling for a robust approach to Russia both in the Baltics and in the western Balkans.

  • Given the various concerns expressed in this Chamber about both today’s events and the demonstration of Russian power, which we saw earlier in the week, can the Foreign Secretary reassure us that discussions on how to counter this are taking place with current EU member states and other allies?

  • If the hon. Lady will forgive me, she makes a good point, but we must really await the outcome of the investigation before we begin to draw conclusions with our friends.

  • Russia has conducted cyber-attacks against European countries, invaded the sovereign territory of Ukraine, abducted an Estonian border guard, and murdered people on British soil. Given Putin’s strategy of divide and rule, does the Foreign Secretary not agree that the UK response to Russian aggression needs to be robust, but, to be most effective, should it not also command the support not just of his party and the Government, but the whole of this Parliament?

  • I very much agree with both the manner and the content of what the hon. Lady has said, and I know that she speaks for the vast majority of people in both Houses of Parliament.

  • I urge the Foreign Secretary to think not of the 1950s and the cold war, but of the 1930s. Personally, I believe that the period we are passing through now is probably as dangerous as the 1930s. Russia is the new Germany, with a leader who is also very unpredictable and very determined to take on America and the free world. Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that, at a time when we have a fragmented Europe and when America has, in many respects, distanced itself from the world stadium, he takes this issue seriously, because colleagues on both sides of the House are absolutely right: the Russians will listen only to force and challenge.

  • The hon. Gentleman is completely right that the Russians only respect force, which is why the UK has been so absolutely insistent on the enhanced forward presence in Estonia, in supporting the Baltic countries, in resisting Russian aggression in the western Balkans, and in imposing sanctions for what Russia did in Ukraine. There are plenty of other Governments who do not believe that we should take this line—that do not believe that the international community should be taking this line. It is the UK that has been in the lead and will continue to be in the lead.

  • Much as I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s strong condemnation of Russia and his reassertion of state sanctions, it is clear that they not working. I am concerned that there is a lack of political will to take the matter further, perhaps because there is an awful lot of Russian money sloshing around the City of London, driving the London property market and, dare I say it, being donated on some occasions to political parties. Could we not put further pressure on Putin by targeting those members of the Russian community over here who have perhaps brought over some of those large amounts of money?

  • Let us await the outcome of the investigation. Let us get to the bottom of what has happened to Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and then we can consider what more we can do.

  • Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre

  • To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the detention centre at Yarl’s Wood.

  • Ensuring that individuals abide by immigration rules is an essential part of an effective immigration system. This includes individuals leaving the UK if they have no lawful basis to remain. Of course, we all hope that those with no right to remain in the UK will leave voluntarily, and we have measures in place to assist those who wish to do so. However, this is not always the case, and detention is therefore an important tool.

    The dignity and welfare of all individuals detained is of upmost importance, and any decision to detain is made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account individual circumstances. But let me be clear: Home Office officials work with any individual with no right to be in the UK, both detained—including those at Yarl’s Wood—and in the community, to assist with their return at any time, if they decide to leave the UK. In fact, 95% of people without the right to be here are managed in the community and most people detained under immigration powers spend only very short periods in detention.

    In 2017, 92% of people were detained for four months or less, and nearly two thirds were detained for less than a month. As well as regular reviews of detention, individuals can apply for bail at any time. I visited Yarl’s Wood on 8 February to see that all detainees were being treated in a safe and dignified manner, and I understand that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is meeting the Home Secretary to discuss this issue very shortly.

    The provision of 24-hour, seven-day-a-week healthcare in all immigration removal centres ensures that detainees have ready access to medical professionals and levels of primary care in line with individuals in the community. Any detainees who choose to refuse food or fluid, including the reducing number of residents at Yarl’s Wood who are currently refusing food, are closely monitored by on-site healthcare professionals. Home Office staff will not only ensure that detainees are informed about how their actions may impact on their health, but make it clear that we will continue to seek to progress their case. The Government are committed to protecting the welfare and dignity of those in detention and we will always set the highest standards to ensure the safety and well-being of detainees.

  • The shadow Attorney General and I travelled to Yarl’s Wood detention centre on Friday 23 February to inspect conditions and speak to some of the people detained there. The Minister will be aware that I have been pressing for such access to the centre since the autumn of 2016. The timing of our visit coincided with a hunger strike by some of the detainees, who were protesting at what they described as the inhumane conditions there. But in response to my repeated inquiries, the authorities at the detention centre, the Home Office, Serco and G4S said categorically that there was no hunger strike. It now seems that we were misled.

    Is the Minister aware that newspaper reports show a letter that has been sent to these women by the Home Office? The letter has been reproduced in some media outlets. It is a signed letter, on Home Office headed paper, which begins by stating that

    “the fact that you are currently refusing food and/or fluid…may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated”.

    To some Opposition Members, this sounds like punitive deportations for women who have dared to go on hunger strike. Furthermore, I was contacted at the weekend by lawyers and others attempting to prevent the deportation of a young woman and her mother. This is wrong. The personnel at Yarl’s Wood are paid for from the public purse, yet Members of Parliament seem to have been misled by officials. Now we learn that the Home Office is apparently threatening these women with accelerated deportation.

    The Minister has a series of questions to answer. When did she first know about the hunger strike? When did she know of the existence of the threatening letters, implying that deportation would be accelerated for those continuing on hunger strike? Did she or her officials approve these letters? How is it possible to accelerate deportations and conform to natural justice, as surely all cases are expedited in any event? Does the decision for removal supersede any health concerns that a detainee may have? Is the Minister aware that the primary demand of the hunger strike is the inhumanity of what, in practice, is indefinite detention? Finally, will the Government, in line with their own policy, stop detaining women who have been trafficked or sexually abused and stop misleading this House about their detention of these most vulnerable women?

  • Nobody would intentionally mislead the House. I am sure that the shadow Home Secretary was not suggesting that. I think that the allegation was of what the Clerk would consider to be a collective, rather than an individual, character.

  • The right hon. Lady has raised some very important points. I will first clarify the circumstances in which a letter is given to individuals who may be refusing food or fluid while in detention. A letter will only be handed to people after an extensive welfare interview, which happens with a medical professional, and is used to explain to individuals the very real risk that they are putting themselves at by refusing food and fluid. We want nobody in detention to be in that situation and it is important that we explain to them the risks involved.

    The letter is, in fact, part of official Home Office guidance and was published on the website in November last year. It was agreed after consultation with NHS England, Medical Justice, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and a range of non-governmental organisations, because it is important that we get the correct information to detainees who are choosing to refuse food and fluid.

    I was first aware that individuals at Yarl’s Wood were refusing food and fluid at about the same time that the right hon. Lady undertook her visit. Of course I regard it as very serious. Nobody wants detainees to be at any risk, but it is important that they should not regard this as a route to preventing their removal from this country. As I said clearly in my opening statement, ensuring that individuals abide by immigration rules is an essential part of our immigration system. I wish to do nothing that encourages them to put their own health at risk by suggesting that doing so might prevent their removal from this country.

    Indeed, there are some circumstances whereby people could be prioritised, such as if we anticipated that somebody needed escorts to be removed from the country, because there is always a long wait for that service. We can also talk to embassies to understand whether there is a problem with papers from someone’s home country, and get those expedited, so that the individual can be returned to their home country as swiftly as possible.

  • Accelerated processing would only be a threat if the judicial process was not seen to be fair and independent. Is it?

  • My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is an extensive judicial process, whereby individuals seeking to stay in this country may apply to the first tier and, indeed, the upper tier tribunal at any stage in the process that they may apply for judicial review. We are determined to make the immigration system as fair as we possibly can, but also to uphold our rules.

  • The large-scale, routine detention of thousands of human beings in private prisons for an indeterminate period simply at the discretion of immigration officers is, frankly, a stain on our democracy and an affront to the rule of law. This most recent horrible episode in a detention facility is far from the first, as hon. Members know, and it will not be the last unless there is radical change. Why does the UK detain more than other European countries? Why can every other EU country manage with a time limit on immigration detention, but not the UK? Why do the Government continue to detain vulnerable people, including victims of torture, to the serious detriment of their health and wellbeing? It is very welcome that the shadow Home Secretary has brought this issue to the House, but will the Government have the courage to allow this House a binding vote and the chance to make it clear that it is time for radical reform of the UK immigration detention regime and that it is time for a limit?

  • Immigration officials always consider individuals in detention on a case-by-case basis and put their welfare absolutely at the forefront. Some 95% of people with no right to be in this country are managed within the community. Only 5% will be within the immigration removal centres at any one time. They are only there when there is a realistic chance of removal, and we always seek to ensure that they are removed as soon as possible.

  • I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the superb job that she is doing as Immigration Minister. My constituents in Kettering want to see firm but fair border controls, and the detention centre is absolutely part of that. Will the Minister assure me that the 5% of applicants who end up in a detention centre are there because there is a very real risk that they will abscond and we will not be able to deport them?

  • There are several reasons why an individual might be in immigration detention. First and foremost, those for whom there is a realistic chance of removal from the UK may be there for a short period, as we seek to get them to removal as soon as possible. There are also those in immigration detention who are foreign national offenders and those who pose a risk to our society.

  • I welcome the work that the shadow Home Secretary has done to pursue this issue. I share her concern about the state of Yarl’s Wood and some of the policies that underpin it. I understand that the Immigration Minister this weekend responded to calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) to prevent the deportation of two of her constituents from being accelerated as a result of one of them being on hunger strike. But as well as that individual case, will the Minister address the wider issue and confirm that no individual should have their case or their deportation accelerated or prioritised simply because they have gone on hunger strike or made some kind of protest in response to the very difficult conditions that they face? I am sure that she would not want that kind of punitive action to be taken in response to protest.

  • We take the issue of individuals refusing food and fluid very seriously indeed. We do not want any individual to put their own health and wellbeing at risk. It is important that we have an immigration policy that includes detention, but that we administer it in as fair a way as possible, always seeking to use detention as a last resort. The right hon. Lady referred to a specific case. I am not going to comment on individual people’s immigration status on a case-by-case basis. However, it is important that I am always prepared to listen when Members ask me to review their cases.

  • I thank the Minister for her statement and for the assurances that she has given the House. It is right that we have to have detention centres. Nobody likes them, but they have to exist as part of a policy that is the right policy to pursue. But will she be absolutely clear and give us all an assurance that the welfare of anybody—whatever their status may be—is always the primary concern?

  • Of course the welfare of individuals at any of our immigration centres is of paramount importance. I assure my right hon. Friend that Yarl’s Wood was inspected by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons between 5 and 16 June last year, and the report was published on 15 November. In addition, Yarl’s Wood was subject to a review by Stephen Shaw, who reported in 2016. He is currently looking at the recommendations that he made and the progress that the Government—and Serco, our operative there—have made in implementing them.

  • My constituency has already said no to a part of the UK Government’s immoral immigration policy—a short-term holding facility near Glasgow airport. One of the main reasons cited for that refusal was the UK’s indefinite detention policy. The UK is the only country in the EU that has indefinite detention. Is the Minister proud of that policy?

  • There is an automatic review of detention after a month and at every recurring month. Individuals may apply for bail at any time. It is important to reflect on the fact that only 5% of the immigration offender population will be found in detention at any one time. We seek to manage them in the community wherever we possibly can. They will be held in detention only when there is a real risk of absconding or of public harm, or where we are seeking to move somebody to removal as soon as possible.

  • I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister, but her statement that this happens only when people are at risk of absconding is not one that I recognise from immigration casework that I do every single day. A woman in my constituency rang the police because of a threat to kill her from a violent ex-husband. She was taken to Yarl’s Wood, not to a place of safety. We detained a woman who was a victim. She has now been given indefinite leave to remain because her case was going through the process. This is not an isolated case. Does the Home Office think that it keeps vulnerable women who are at risk of rape, sexual violence or domestic abuse safe by basically deterring them from calling the police because they will be sent to a detention centre?

  • The hon. Lady will be aware that we have a very clear policy on adults at risk in immigration detention. I do not want any woman to be at risk of harm from either a current partner or a former partner. She raised a particular case. I urge her and all Members to bear in mind that if such cases occur in their constituencies, I will always want to look at them personally. We must remember, however, that we have in this country an immigration policy that seeks to implement the rules as they are set out, and it is important that we are able to uphold those rules at all times.

  • In the Minister’s answer to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), she mentioned Stephen Shaw’s second review of the detention of people in immigration centres, particularly the experience of vulnerable people, and said that he is looking at the Home Office’s implementation of his first review. Has the second review been concluded, and has she received the report on it? If not, when does she expect to receive it, and when does the Home Office expect to publish it?

  • The honest answer is no, I have not yet received it, but we anticipate it very shortly indeed.

  • My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) is travelling with the Defence Committee, but as Opelo and her mother are her constituents, she has asked me to put on record her thanks to the Minister for her intervention at the weekend. She also asked me to put on record her thanks to the Rev. Ashley Cooper and all those at Swan Bank church for the welfare support they have been giving to the immediate friends and family. Does the Minister agree that the fact that Members of Parliament have to resort to weekend telephone calls directly to Ministers to try to stop individuals from being deported before they have had their due process is a sign that the immigration system in this country is simply failing?

  • I said very clearly that I was not going to comment on individual cases, but we do follow due process very closely indeed. I put on record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), to whom I spoke over the weekend and with whom I am in regular contact. It is quite right that she should be able to make those representations to me at, quite frankly, whatever time of day.

  • I am very proud to be the son of immigrants and proud of this country’s record on supporting refugees and immigrants. Does the Minister understand that at the heart of her answer is an indifference, first, to indefinite detention and, secondly, to the fact that many women at Yarl’s Wood have been there for months and months, running into years? That is why many of them are refusing food. The possibility that the Government will accelerate deportation on that basis must be contrary to human rights. Can she satisfy the House that this satisfies all the obligations that the Government have to meet in their human rights record and that it is not cruel and unusual punishment?

  • It is important to reflect on the fact that detention plays an important part in our immigration system and will continue to do so. Of course we put the welfare and wellbeing of individuals who are in detention at Yarl’s Wood, and at every other centre in this country, at the forefront of our policies. It is important to remember, however, that some people in detention, including foreign national offenders, are there because if they were in the community they would have very high potential to do harm.

  • A constituent of mine was detained in Yarl’s Wood last summer. She was at risk of losing her eyesight due to a serious eye condition that had already left her blind in one eye and, if left untreated for a short time, risked her going blind in the other. Despite people being made aware of this information, she was left for some time before being seen by a nurse. In the end, my office had to intervene directly to ensure that urgent medical assistance was provided to my constituent, to avoid her losing her sight. This appalling case is one of many. Will the Minister make an assessment and overall review of the conditions that women in Yarl’s Wood are subject to?

  • Upon detention, individuals at Yarl’s Wood are given access to a healthcare professional within two hours and then have the ability to make an appointment with a general practitioner within 24 hours. It is really important that we provide healthcare to all those in detention. That is why it is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and referral onwards to external healthcare services is also available. The hon. Lady asked whether I would review welfare at Yarl’s Wood. In fact, that is the job of the independent monitoring board, the independent inspector, and of course Stephen Shaw, whom we have asked to go back to review the recommendations that he made two years ago and provide us with an update on progress.

  • How can the Minister say that the justification for detention is severe risk of harm or women absconding when so many of them are very quickly, or ultimately, released back into the community and sometimes go round the loop of “detention and release, detention and release” on a number of occasions?

  • In upholding our immigration rules, we seek to assist those who have no right to be here to return home, whether on a voluntary basis or indeed, on occasion, by force. It is really important that we have an immigration system that is robust. We do not have indefinite detention. The hon. Lady will have heard me say that 92% of those held are released within four months and 63% are released within a month. It is important that we have a system where we can be confident that when we are able move people to removal, we have the capacity to do so.

  • I want to put on record my support for the work that the shadow Home Secretary has been doing on this issue and for the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), who has fought tirelessly for her constituents. I am grateful that the Minister has listened and agreed to review the case. For many of us, the trouble with this is that we are talking about an environment where we know that two thirds of the women in Yarl’s Wood have experienced rape or sexual torture and that 85% of them are then released back, not deported. Does the Minister recognise that, rather than continuing to keep Yarl’s Wood open, there may be not only cheaper but much more compassionate and humane ways in which we can manage our immigration system that would speak to the best of British values?

  • The hon. Lady will have heard me say that 95% of immigration offenders are in the community and only a very small proportion—5%—are in detention. However, detention does play an important part. We will keep people in detention where there is a realistic prospect of removal and where they might cause harm out in the community. It is important that we retain that facility.

  • At Yarl’s Wood and many institutions like it, vulnerable people are being held for long periods, despite the fact that the majority of them have committed no crime. Does the Minister agree that there must be an urgent review of the UK’s detention system?

  • I think that I have been very clear this afternoon that, although we regard detention as a last resort, it is an important part of our suite of immigration policies. We use detention to enable us to remove people from this country, to make sure that those who might cause harm in our communities are kept away from society and on occasions when we are seeking to remove foreign national offenders as quickly as we can.

  • How many people in Yarl’s Wood are currently on suicide watch?

  • We keep the welfare of detainees under very close supervision, and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that a reducing number of people are choosing to refuse food and fluid. Of course, where people have mental health issues or there are concerns about their health, it is absolutely right that we keep them under very close supervision.

  • Water Supply Disruption

  • We now turn to the statement—what might be described as “Coffey on water”—from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Dr Thérèse Coffey.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. I promise my response will not be diluted.

    I would like to take this opportunity to update the House on the water supply situation following the severe weather experienced last week. The exceptionally cold spell and the rapid thaw that followed has caused widespread water supply issues in the country. Over the weekend, and at the start of this week, tens of thousands of people across southern England have experienced loss of water supply in their homes, and even more have had to cope with low water pressure following leaks from burst pipes. I entirely recognise that it has been a stressful and difficult time for many residents and businesses.

    The immediate priority is to get water back up and running for those who have been affected, particularly vulnerable people, businesses, hospitals and care homes. Water companies have been following standard practice, including isolating bursts and redirecting water to mitigate the problem. Bottled water has been provided in the areas most badly affected, and water has been provided by tanker to keep hospitals open.

    This morning I chaired a meeting with water company chief executives, Ofwat and Water UK to make sure that water companies in England are working to restore supplies as quickly as possible and that water companies in other parts of the country are preparing for the thaw as it spreads across the country. That will include learning any lessons from places that have already experienced thawing through higher temperatures. The challenge the sector faces is the sheer number of bursts following the rapid change in weather across multiple companies’ networks.  Many of them have been relatively small and difficult to detect, and some of the loss of pressure is due to leaks in private homes and businesses.

    As of 10.30 am today, based on the information provided by the chief executives on the phone call, we are aware of 5,000 properties still affected in Streatham. The principal source of the problem is airlocks in the water network, which Thames Water is acting to remove, and we expect that to be completed today. Southern Water reconnected supply to more than 10,000 properties overnight, and 867 properties in Hastings are still experiencing problems. We expect everyone there to be reconnected by this afternoon. South East Water has identified approximately 2,000 properties spread across Kent and Sussex that are still without supply, and we expect that they will be reconnected today. South West Water has approximately 1,500 properties affected, but that is changing on a rolling basis as the thaw progresses west. Yorkshire Water has identified 13 affected properties.

    Some water companies have identified higher demand than usual on service reservoirs, which indicates that there are burst pipes that need to be dealt with. I want to encourage householders and businesses to report leaks and burst pipes, including those on their property, not just those on public highways.

    Water companies have been working hard to address the issues for customers, though I recognise the frustration that many have had in contacting their water companies. I have been assured that companies have increased their staff on the ground who are out identifying where bursts have occurred and repairing them, as well as moving water across their networks to balance supply across the areas they serve. We should recognise the efforts of the hard-working engineers and all involved in working through the night to fix these problems.

    Once the situation is restored to normal, we expect Ofwat to formally review the performance of the companies during this period. That will be a thorough review. As well as problems being identified, I want to see excellent examples of practice and preparation shared across the sector. The Government will consider any recommendations from the review and act decisively to address any short- comings exposed. As part of that review, Ofwat will decide whether statutory compensation should be paid. Of course, water companies will want to consider how they compensate customers on a discretionary basis, and I discussed that with the chief executives this morning.

    This Government actively support a properly regulated water sector. We have high expectations of water companies increasing their investment in their water and sewerage networks. That was laid out clearly in the strategic policy statement issued to Ofwat last September and reinforced by my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary when he addressed the water industry last week and said that he expects the industry to increase investment and improve services by maintaining a resilient network, fixing leaks promptly where they occur and preparing for severe weather.

    As my right hon. Friend has said, we want a water industry that works for everyone, is fit for the future, improves performance and makes sure that bill payers are getting the best possible value for money. Ofwat will be given any powers it needs, and we will back it in action that it needs to take to ensure that water companies up their game.

  • I am grateful to the Minister for that statement.

    While last week’s freezing temperatures presented serious challenges all over the country, the failure of water companies to supply water to customers as the weather has improved has now descended into chaos. The aftermath of the “beast from the east” and Storm Emma meant that yesterday, 5,000 homes were without water in Kent, with thousands of properties across Wales, parts of the midlands and Scotland also affected by intermittent water supply.

    In London, Thames Water battled to re-establish supply to around 12,000 homes and several schools. Two of the country’s flagship businesses, Jaguar Land Rover and Cadbury, were among several forced to cease production at the request of Severn Trent Water, as it sought to prioritise household supplies. Even today, as we heard from the Minister, South East Water says that around 12,000 of its customers still have no supply, and companies continue to struggle to reconnect homes and businesses across London, Kent, Sussex and Wales, leaving some homes without water for up to three days.

    While we all accept that last week’s weather conditions were incredibly challenging, the reality in London is that although freezing temperatures persisted over several days, temperatures did fluctuate and only fell as low as minus 6°C on one occasion overnight. Where is the resilience in the system, and why have we seen such systemic failure?

    The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a speech just last week outlining that in many areas, water companies were failing to deliver. Six companies missed their leakage targets for 2016-17, with Thames Water’s performance data showing that 677 million litres are being lost to leakages every single day. To put that in context, the entire city of Cape Town uses 631 million litres a day.

    Despite those failings on leakage, water bills have increased by more than 40% since privatisation, with many consumers set to see another rise in a few weeks’ time. Further to that, analysis by the House of Commons Library shows that executives at the top nine water and sewerage companies operating in England earned a combined total of nearly £23 million in 2017. The highest paid executive, the CEO of Severn Trent—the same water company that yesterday asked Cadbury and Jaguar Land Rover to cease production—took home a total of £2.45 million last year, or 16 times the Prime Minister’s salary. That is on top of the billions paid to shareholders—the owners of those same nine water companies paid out £18.1 billion in dividends in the 10 years to 2016. In addition, six water companies have offshore finance structures registered in the Cayman Islands.

    We have had tough words from both the Secretary of State and Ofwat, but where is the governance, and where is the action? In his recent speech, the Secretary of State said:

    “Some companies have been playing the system for the benefit of wealthy managers and owners”

    and stressed that he would give Ofwat “whatever powers are necessary” to get all the water companies to “up their game”. Rachel Fletcher, Ofwat’s chief exec, has been tough on water companies in the past 72 hours, saying that

    “we won’t hesitate to intervene if we find that companies have not had the right structures and mechanisms in place to be resilient enough.”

    However, just last month, Fletcher confirmed to the BBC that a dividend cap was not in Ofwat’s current thinking, nor was direct action on executive pay or tax structures. Instead, she said, Ofwat would require water companies to provide more public information on each of the areas of concern. If the Secretary of State’s plan is to empower Ofwat to intervene, I am afraid that based on what we have seen, there is no appetite from Ofwat to do so.

    That regulatory failure on this Government’s watch has contributed to a situation where exec pay is out of control, and the failure to invest in resilience has left households and businesses picking up the cost. With that in mind, I would be grateful if the Minister could answer this question: if Ofwat lacks either the appetite or the powers to tackle exec pay and rebalance profits so that less is pocketed by executives and more is invested in improving the service and resilience, what action will the Government take to make that happen? Will the Government respond to calls for a public inquiry into the handling of the crisis, and can the Minister outline whether that will involve the role of Ofwat leading up to where we are today?

    Finally, can the Minister outline what compensation packages will be made available to customers, some of whom have had to seek temporary alternative accommodation or pay for childcare because schools have been closed? How will businesses that have lost a day’s trade be both compensated and reassured that this will not happen again?

  • The hon. Lady asked a number of questions, mostly about company structures, but she will understand that we have been focused on customer experiences in the past 48 hours in particular. That said, however, my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary read the riot act to the water industry last week.

    We recognise that over £140 billion has been invested in infrastructure since privatisation, but we still believe that more needs to be done. The hon. Lady will also recognise that, on average, water bills have fallen in real terms in the past five years—over the price review period. It is important that we get an appropriate balance between investment, recognising that people expect to be able to turn on the tap and get water—I fully accept that many households in London are still not receiving water—and customer bills. It is important to have a regulated water industry to achieve such a balance.

    I think Jonson Cox has been an active chairman of Ofwat in challenging the water companies. In particular, he has taken on Thames Water about its financing arrangements. Again, the Department and Ministers have made it clear to the water companies that we expect them to accelerate the changes to their financial structures. I recognise that those structures were put in place some time ago, but we have said that we expect them to change more rapidly than some of their current plans suggest.

    Overall, we need to recognise that the review—I have asked Ofwat to report back to me by the end of the month—may be only an interim one, with the initial lessons about what has happened. In the short term, however, I am conscious that we must continue to put pressure on Thames Water in particular to make sure that it reconnects households as quickly as possible.

  • The Environment Secretary highlighted to the industry last week that, on a normal day, 3 billion litres of water is lost to leaks. What can be done to ensure better regulation, particularly in tackling such a huge yearly water loss?

  • My hon. Friend is right to talk about leaks; the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) did so, too. We know that, as has been pointed out, companies are missing their leakage target. That is why we have tasked the companies to come up with plans for how they will put more investment into their infrastructure, including the sewerage network.

  • I thank the Minister for her statement. First, I pay tribute to all those who have worked on behalf of local authorities and other services over the past week—and even more so now —to deal with the unprecedented weather difficulties in Scotland and much of England. In Scotland, we had a red alert for snow for the first time since the current alert system was devised.

    While there are still water supply difficulties in Scotland, there does not seem to have been the degree of systemic failure that we have seen in many authorities in England and Wales. Right here in London—one of the world’s greatest cities; many would argue that it is the world’s greatest city—in the 21st century, it is beyond the wit of the Government and the water authorities to provide one of the most basic essentials of human existence to tens of thousands of citizens.

    I hope that the Minister will respond positively to demands for a public inquiry to find out what went wrong. It might also find out what lessons can be learned from the water service in Scotland, which has faced the same weather difficulties. There have been supply interruptions, but nothing on the scale or to the extent of what we have seen elsewhere.

    When I checked the Scottish Water site immediately before the Minister stood up, the areas still affected were parts of EH10 in Edinburgh, as well as Dalwhinnie, South Ronaldsay, Burray and Lybster. If Members check those places on a map, they will see that all four of them have very substantial remoteness issues, so we would expect it to take longer to fix any problems there.

    As the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) pointed out from the Opposition Front Bench, there are problems in England with poor customer service in an industry that has paid out £18 billion to shareholders and pays out between £2.5 million and £3 million each to some chief executives. Customers in parts of England are paying £150 a year more for their water than those in Scotland, and the service is not being provided to them. The reason for that may be that the service in England is profit-driven and shareholder-driven, whereas in Scotland—thanks to the foresight of successive Governments of all parties in the Scottish Parliament—we have retained a Scottish water supply under public ownership and public control.

    Will the Minister undertake, in the public inquiry that she must surely now accept, that nothing will be off the table, and that part of the remit will be to examine whether the ownership model that applies in Scotland would be beneficial to customers in the rest of the United Kingdom?

  • We have a well-established pattern of water provision in England. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am not responsible for Scotland. I do not know how much has been invested in the Scottish water industry in a comparable timeframe, but I would point to the fact that the £140 billion figure is considerably higher than the amount invested prior to privatisation. There is no doubt that there have been a lot of benefits not only in service to customers, but—dare I say it?—to the environment. We will not allow that progress to stall. On other matters, I stress that I do not pretend to be a water engineer; it is the job of Ofwat, working with my officials, to come back to me on them.

    I understand that Mr Jonson Cox, the chairman of Ofwat, is a constituent of yours, Mr Speaker. You will know, I am sure, that he is a fine fellow, and he will not be taking any rubbish. I am sure he has taken some lessons from you.

  • That is very gracious of the Minister. Jonson Cox is in fact an estimable fellow. I have met him on many occasions, including at the Great Brickhill cricket club. I hope he recalls that, because I certainly do.

  • We have too much water in the lower Avon. When is the Minister coming to have a look?

  • As I said to my right hon. Friend at the last Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, I am sure I will find time to visit his wonderful constituency in due course, but he will recognise that my priorities at the moment are the people who do not have enough water.

  • Speaking of which, I call Helen Hayes.

  • In my constituency, we have had a Thames Water leak or burst every single week of the winter. The pipe network is crumbling and causes constant problems, but it is not a surprise. The unforgivable thing about this week’s water supply problems has been the total lack of a robust emergency plan for a situation that anyone could have predicted would occur sooner or later.

    Thames Water customers, faced with no water supply, have been unable to contact the company by phone or via the website, and have not had access to up-to-date detailed information, while the distribution of emergency supplies has been delayed, patchy and chaotic. There has been no plan for getting water to customers not already registered as vulnerable, but who are nevertheless unable to carry bottles of water long distances.

    Thames Water made pre-tax profits of £638 million last year. There is simply no excuse for not having robust emergency plans in place. The failings this week have been appalling, and they have exposed an organisation that is not fit for purpose. Will the Minister now commit to ensuring automatic compensation for all Thames Water customers who have been without water this week, and to reforming our water industry to ensure its resilience for future emergencies?

  • I fully understand why the hon. Lady is so angry on behalf of her constituents. It is right that Thames Water is very much under the spotlight, and I am angry with it, too. This is a recurring pattern, but we should recognise that there has been a change of ownership and a change of leadership. I am absolutely determined that Thames Water customers should receive a far better service than they are now receiving.

    It is not in my power to compel the water companies to give compensation. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that Thames Water is proactively going around to her constituents door to door in the 5,000 properties affected. It has been working through the problems with the airlocks. [Interruption.] I am just flagging up to the hon. Lady the information that I have received. I know that there was a particular problem with one of its service reservoirs, which it has now fixed, but that has caused further problems along the way.

    I will of course make sure that we keep pressing Thames Water because, frankly, it has not delivered what it should be doing. I expect a full review from Ofwat that will particularly focus on its performance.

  • Will the Minister confirm that record amounts are being invested in our water supply system? It is far more than was ever invested when the industry was state-owned, and our water supply is actually among the best and cleanest in the world. Having said that, in this case—given that the weather was well predicted—the water supply companies have been caught on the hop, and automatic compensation ought to be paid. Does she agree that Ofwat, the water industry regulator, really needs to set a new leakage target? If, on a normal day, we are losing a fifth of the water in the system, most of my constituents in Kettering would say that that is far too much.

  • It is important that we also recognise those companies and parts of the country that have had no interruption of supply to customers. I thank companies such as Anglian Water, Essex and Suffolk, Wessex—I could go on. Yorkshire Water, for example, has seen an increase in demand and is proactively trying to identify where the leaks are before they become a problem for its customers. I want to zone in on the companies that are failing to help their customers and, meanwhile, I want to learn from the companies that are doing their best to protect customers.

  • Water engineers and others providing emergency support to customers around the country deserve our thanks and praise today, but there is no excuse for water companies that make huge profits being unable to provide the resilience that would have protected businesses and residents. While I am grateful for the Minister’s announcement of an Ofwat review, we do not need that to tell us that the water companies are held to half the standard on resilience and capacity that the Environment Agency is. Will she act and ensure that the water companies have to meet the once-in-100-years event criterion that the Environment Agency is held to?

  • The hon. Gentleman is confusing two levels of protection standards. I am more than happy to write to him with the full details but, in essence, when we did the national resilience review of critical national infrastructure, water companies were expected to be held to a higher standard. I think that he is referring to other parts of the water infrastructure network that do not have the same comparison to the Environment Agency.

  • I have come here straight from Henry Cavendish Primary School in St Leonard’s ward in Streatham, which you used to represent, Mr Speaker. It is closed today because of the water issues. Not only has that caused huge practical inconvenience to the school, but parents have not been able to find childcare in such a short timeframe, and are losing at least a day’s wages—the school was also shut yesterday.

    Under the water industry guaranteed standards scheme, most of my constituents will get compensation of only £20 if they have been without water for 48 hours. They will get a further £10 per 24 hours after that point. Frankly, that is an insult. Does the Minister agree that proper compensation should be given to my constituents, and that £20 is derisory?

  • The hon. Gentleman will recognise that those are the minimum requirements, and I made that clear in my phone call to the chief executive today. The areas where people have been particularly affected include the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and I believe that the issue is now isolated to SW16 and SW17. I expect Thames Water to go far beyond that figure to make sure that it redresses the balance.

  • The town of Blaenau Ffestiniog lost its water supply on Friday, and many people had to cope for three days or more without mains water, with some of them boiling snow. Will the Minister join me in commending the community of Ffestiniog, which has helped out neighbours and family, and the water company workforce who have worked day and night in horrendous conditions to restore supplies? Will she also join me in commending Dŵr Cymru’s not-for-profit business model, which directs all profits to supporting the vulnerable and a rolling investment in infrastructure?

  • The hon. Lady will recognise that I do not regulate the water companies in Wales, but I pay tribute to the community coming together to look after each other. That is something that we have seen across the country—people helping their neighbours. It is worth pointing out that each company has a vulnerable user register. At the moment, people are required to register for that, but there are other ways in which people can be proactively highlighted as potentially needing support. Thanks to the Digital Economy Act 2017, we have data sharing provisions and, when the secondary legislation comes forward in the near future, water companies will have the capacity to proactively identify vulnerable people so that they do not need to ask for help, but get that automatically.

  • The dreadful and unacceptable situation faced by thousands of water consumers needs urgent action and certainly would not be addressed by blunt tools such as nationalisation. Rather it begs questions about whether Ofwat has the powers and duties required to regulate the industry effectively and in the public interest. Will the Minister therefore commit the Government to the reform of Ofwat to ensure that it is fit for purpose?

  • The hon. Lady will recognise the proactivity of her water company as it affects her constituents. By and large, Ofwat is doing a good job. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked Jonson Cox and Rachel Fletcher, who is the new chief executive, what powers they need to further improve the performance of water companies and to help consumers and businesses. We are prepared to give them those powers and back the actions they take to make sure that the water industry is fit for purpose.

  • The reality for many thousands of people, including hundreds in my constituency in Arnold, Nottingham, was 24 hours without water and, in some circumstances, no access to bottled water. In particular, people had concerns about vulnerable customers. Can the Minister assure us that companies such as Severn Trent will now review their emergency plans so that such things cannot happen again? It is simply unacceptable that we cannot even get bottled water to everyone who needs it.

  • I would be happy to hear a bit more detail from the hon. Gentleman on his local situation. I know that Severn Trent has been working throughout the night over the past few days to fix the issues. Part of the review will look into that, and I have already outlined how we want to do more to help our vulnerable customers.

  • Over the past four days, thousands of Balham and Tooting residents have been without water. The response from the local community in coming together has been superb, and I have been communicating with more than 1,000 residents each night on Twitter. Not every resident is on social media such as Twitter or Facebook, however, so does the Minister agree that a drastic rethink is needed of how Thames Water communicates in a time of crisis?

  • Social media can be a useful way to communicate, but I recognise that it is not the only way. Part of Ofwat’s review will look at communications, and that might be a role for Ofwat or other media sources, such as broadcast. We recently introduced the 105 number for electricity disruptions, and I have asked officials and Water UK whether we could perhaps do the same for water disruptions so that reporting leaks or getting help are less complicated. We need to make sure that help comes more quickly than perhaps the hon. Lady’s residents have experienced in the last few days.

  • The N8 and N4 areas have also been badly affected. Not a week goes by without a large flood and now we do not have enough water. Will the Minister please make representations to Thames Water? The regulator is toothless: £20 compensation will not cut it for most of my constituents, many of whom have had to miss work, incur extra childcare costs and so on.

  • The hon. Lady describes difficult issues that are affecting her constituents as well as other parts of the country. That is why I have made the point to the water companies that they have the opportunity to offer discretionary compensation. I would welcome their doing that, especially in areas where the issue has been prolonged, in recognition of the frustrations in daily life that are caused by the lack of this basic service.

  • Lest anyone think these major bursts and leaks are solely the product of the recent snow and ice, let me say that in the last week of January, two major mains burst in Hammersmith, flooding residential and business premises, cutting off thousands of people in west London and closing two major east-west routes—King Street and Goldhawk Road. The latter is still closed almost six weeks later. The problem is that private monopoly utilities such as Thames have neither the carrot nor the stick so that they undertake the necessary repair and replacement of their pipework. My constituents want the Government to force them to do that, but I have heard nothing about it. Is not the Minister just washing her hands?

  • I recognise the description of the issue on Goldhawk Road. It is perhaps worth explaining that the problems being experienced at the moment are quite different from a mains burst. This is what is happening when pipes are dotted all around, whether in people’s properties or on the highway, so it is a different experience to the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints on behalf of his constituents in Goldhawk Road. Investment has been increasing, but the Government are not satisfied. That is why Ofwat has set a stringent price review, and we look forward to making sure that the plans on which water companies will shortly consult will lead to a significant increase in investment to tackle some of the challenges that have been outlined today.

  • Points of Order

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the Foreign Secretary’s response to an urgent question a few minutes ago, he said: “Thinking ahead to the World cup this summer, it is very difficult to imagine how UK representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way”. If the Foreign Secretary is saying that England should pull out of the World cup, the consequences would be absolutely massive for the travel industry and other businesses, as well as the media and the tens of thousands of supporters who intend to travel. Have you heard, Mr Speaker, whether there will be a statement to that effect? If not, we should ask the Foreign Secretary to come back very quickly to explain such an important claim.

  • I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his attempted point of order—a description I use advisedly. I understand the very strong concern he feels about this matter, not least in view of his passion for sport which, as he knows, he shares with me and with a great many right hon. and hon. Members across the House. To be fair to the Foreign Secretary, whom the hon. Gentleman briefly quoted, he used the conditional tense. I think it would be correct to say that he was ruminating on the possibilities in the event of no improvement in the situation. I do not think it would be right to say that he made a statement of policy. It is, however, a matter of concern and one which, knowing the insistence of the hon. Gentleman in the pursuit of his quarry, I think he will be minded again to raise in the days ahead.

  • Order. I am not sure that there is a “further”, as I gave a pretty comprehensive response to the hon. Gentleman, but I am in such good spirit that I am inclined to indulge him, as he seems curiously and fetishistically attached to his device.

  • Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. To be fair, the Foreign Secretary qualified his comments by saying: “If things turn out to be as many Members…suspect they will”. He did not say, “If there is no improvement in relations,” so he was very specific. He is saying that if things are as we suspect they are, he will call into question whether we should appear at the World cup. That is a fairly substantial policy declaration, so I wonder whether we should ask him to make a statement to the House to that effect.

  • The whole point about this situation is that there is an urgency and a topicality associated with it. The reason why I granted the urgent question to the Foreign Secretary was precisely that I thought the matter warranted the urgent attention of the House today. There had been no offer of a Government statement, but I decided that a Minister should come to respond to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). There is a police investigation into a particular set of circumstances, which will cause grave disquiet to colleagues —the incident, rather than the police investigation—and the matter is ongoing. If, in the days ahead, the hon. Gentleman wishes to assume his place in the Chamber, there will be an opportunity for him to put questions. If the situation were to prove as bad as some fear, I have no doubt that a Minister would volunteer a statement. If, however, such a statement is not volunteered when it is warranted, the use of the urgent question is now very commonplace. On my recollection, since I took the Chair of this House, we have had 441 urgent questions over the past eight and a half years. The hon. Gentleman should not despair. He need not fear that his legitimate concerns will not have a chance to be aired in this Chamber, for they will have such a chance. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman, at least for now.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to draw attention to the fact that at the end of last week the US Administration gave notice of potential punitive tariffs—about 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium. Since then, they have suggested that there will be further punitive action against car imports. I am surprised, Mr Speaker, that we have not already had a statement from a Minister about trade policy and the trade action that the UK Government are taking. I seek your guidance on whether you have been given notice that one will be forthcoming.

  • I have been given no indication that a statement on the matter is forthcoming. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is with us in the Chamber, and he will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think it is fair to say—I make this point for the benefit of those who were not present yesterday during the Prime Minister’s statement but who are listening to our proceedings—that the matter was touched upon in the course of the questioning of the Prime Minister. However, that is very different from a full-blooded treatment of what is a very important discrete issue in and of itself. If the issue remains urgent in the mind of the hon. Gentleman and is objectively urgent, it may well have an opportunity to be aired in the course of this week.

    Bills Presented

    Hospital Patients (Transport)

    Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

    Tim Farron, supported by Tom Brake, Layla Moran, Stephen Lloyd, Norman Lamb, Grahame Morris and Gillian Keegan, presented a Bill to make provision about transport services for patients travelling to and from hospital appointments, including requiring the Government to review the current provision of public and private transport services for such purposes; and for connected purposes.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 July 2018, and to be printed (Bill 173).

    Voyeurism (Offences)

    Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

    Wera Hobhouse, supported by Sir Vince Cable, Jo Swinson, Christine Jardine, Layla Moran, Caroline Lucas, Anna Soubry, Jeremy Lefroy, Catherine West, Grahame Morris, Tonia Antoniazzi and Ben Lake, presented a Bill to make certain acts of voyeurism an offence.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 May 2018, and to be printed (Bill 174).

  • Wild Animals in Circuses

    Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

  • I beg to move,

    That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to prohibit the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.

    In recent years, Members of Parliament have worked hard on this issue in an attempt to prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses and I want to pay tribute to their efforts. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Colchester (Will Quince), and, most recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). I am also grateful to colleagues from right across the House for their support for the Bill.

    As a child I remember my Grandad’s often repeated account of the travelling circus that visited our small village of Bootle in 1936. As a 14-year-old young farmer, it was his job to ensure that the performing animals had feed, water and bedding. The highlight of the tale was the mad elephant that escaped and ran riot up Bootle Main Street. As Members can imagine, in a small village this story, told by many across the generations, captured the imagination, but it also highlights how times have changed. What was acceptable in 1936 is no longer the case. Thanks to the likes of David Attenborough and documentaries about African elephants, I now think about how unhappy and frightened that magnificent creature must have been, and not about the excitement of a circus rolling into a small village.

    More recently, in 2009, while visiting a Spanish town, my family and I saw big cats and monkeys contained in small beast wagons in a large car park occupied by a travelling circus. That experience instilled in me a desire to put an end to the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. My opinion is shared by the vast majority of the British public, and by my daughters who witnessed the animals’ cramped conditions. Thankfully, that region of Spain, Murcia, has now banned wild animals in circuses, as have many countries in Europe, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus and Greece. More recently, Italy, Ireland and Scotland have followed.

    In the UK, going to the circus to see wild animals being used for the public’s entertainment is no longer viewed as morally or ethically acceptable in our modern society. In 2009, the then Labour Government launched a consultation which revealed that a ban on wild animals in circuses was supported by 94.5% of those who responded to the consultation, and I am pleased that Members from right across the House are supportive of a ban. In years gone by, animal performances, when the travelling circus came to town, were hugely popular. They provided perhaps the only opportunity to see incredible creatures, such as elephants, big cats and bears, in close proximity. Today, though, we know better, and we can recognise that the needs of wild animals are not best served by a life in the circus. In fact, the use of wild animals in travelling circuses is not necessary for people to experience the joys of a circus performance. Animal-free circuses have all the thrills and excitement that people would hope to find inside the mystical big-top tent, but without a single wild-animal performance.

    The success of Cirque du Soleil in London, Las Vegas and around the world—nearly 150 million people have paid to be amazed by acrobats and daring high-wire stunts without wild animals being involved—demonstrates the change in public opinion. Furthermore, wild animals are not naturally suited to the travelling circus life and may suffer as a result of not being able to fulfil their instinctive natural behaviour. In modern Britain, is it right that we allow wild animals to travel around the country from temporary enclosures to circus tent and back to a lorry for a journey on to the next town? What sort of a life is that for animals such as zebras and camels? Without space to forage and interact with animals of their own kind in the way that they would naturally, these wild animals cannot truly be said to be wild.

    I do not doubt that the vast majority of circus keepers licensed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs care for their animals and rightly adhere to strict animal welfare standards. However, if wild animals are to be kept in captivity, they require the environment, care, facilities and cohabitation to exhibit their natural behaviour as they would in the wild, which is simply not possible on the road with a circus. This stance is supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association and many other animal health and welfare organisations that I have spoken to. As recently as 2011, with the case of Anne the Asian elephant, who was badly mistreated at her circus winter quarters, we have seen that homes for retired circus animals can be found. Longleat safari park took on the care of Anne and she is now living out her days there without having to perform or travel the length and breadth of the country.

    Eighteen wild animals are currently owned by the two remaining circuses who use wild animals in their performances. This includes zebras, camels, reindeer and racoons, but the species and number of animals used by circuses change routinely. That highlights the problem with the reliance on the current regulations: if licensing conditions are met, there is nothing to stop more animals and different types of animals returning to the circus.

    The House of Commons Library reported that in 2014, one circus in the UK borrowed three elephants from Germany to use in performances here. Without an explicit ban brought into law, there is nothing to stop elephants, lions and tigers coming back to the circuses in our local towns. Although people may have their own opinions about the ethics and morality of keeping animals in zoos and wildlife safari parks here in the UK, they contribute to educational research, breeding programmes and conservation efforts around the world. Most UK zoos have special links to national parks in Africa and South America to increase awareness of species protection and to sponsor anti-poaching efforts. Circuses that use wild animals in their performances add nothing to the understanding and conservation of wild animals and their natural environment.

    Wild animals deserve our respect and should not to be in circuses, trained solely for the entertainment of crowds to perform tricks and acts that have no correlation to their natural behaviour. The British public over- whelmingly support a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, and bringing the law up to date is long overdue. I commend the Bill to the House.

    Question put and agreed to.


    That Trudy Harrison, Sir Roger Gale, Will Quince, Sue Hayman, Mark Pritchard, Dr Matthew Offord, Jim Shannon, Sir David Amess, Theresa Villiers, Zac Goldsmith Kerry McCarthy and Neil Parish present the Bill.

    Trudy Harrison accordingly presented the Bill.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 March, and to be printed (Bill 175).

  • Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill

    [Relevant Documents: Fourth Report of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill, HC 517; Fifth Special Report of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill: Government Response to the Committee’s Fourth Report, HC 865.]

    Second Reading

  • I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

    Virtually every household in the country depends on gas or electricity, or both. They are essential services on which we rely. On average, each household spends around £1,250 a year on energy at home—it is one of our biggest household bills—and for the poorest 10% of households, energy is 10% of their annual household expenditure.

    Since the early 1980s, when the industry was privatised, consumers have benefited from a more reliable service. Power cuts are at half the level that they were before privatisation and prices have been among the lowest in Europe. Last year, household electricity prices were 13% below the EU average. In recent years, more than 60 new energy suppliers have entered the market, selling direct to consumers. One in five consumers are now with small and medium-sized suppliers and save significant sums.

  • Is not the problem with the Bill the fact that it locks the stable door after the horse has bolted? Energy companies have jacked up their prices ever since whispers of an energy cap surfaced, such that there is a nice cushion that they can continue to benefit from enormously over the coming months.

  • I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. As I will go on to explain, part of the problem that we are addressing is that the competition authorities have for some time identified this tendency on the part of companies, and the Bill’s proposals will give Ofgem the power to correct that. He brings me to my next point: for all the progress that has been made since privatisation, it is clear that the market is not perfect. That is indeed why the coalition Government referred the industry to the Competition and Markets Authority to assess how competitive the retail market was.

    In 2016, the CMA concluded, following a two-year investigation, that

    “our view is that the overarching feature of weak customer response gives suppliers a position of unilateral market power concerning their inactive customer base and that suppliers have the ability to exploit such a position through their pricing policies…by pricing their standard variable tariffs materially above a level that can be justified by cost differences from their nonstandard tariffs; and/or by pricing above a level that is justified by the costs incurred in operating an efficient domestic retail supply business.”

    The CMA identified the detriment to consumers—that is, how much consumers are overpaying compared with a fully competitive market—at an average of £1.4 billion a year. This comes from the approach to pricing that is practised by the biggest six energy companies, which for the most part, inherited their customers from previous monopolies. Their approach is to charge their customers on default tariffs much more than those who engage in the competitive part of the market. Currently, the differential for the big six stands at around £300 a year. Those paying the default tariff are much more likely to be in reduced circumstances; 80% of households with an income of less than £18,000 did not switch supplier in the past three years.

    From the outset, the UK’s energy market has had a regulator whose responsibility is to act in the interests of consumers. Indeed, if we look back, we can see that Britain has long been a pioneer in not only the privatisation and liberalisation of industries but the regulation of these utility industries, too. Indeed, the British model of privatising state-owned monopolies is to liberalise the market to allow new competitors in and to protect consumers against the power of incumbents—from BT to British Gas—which enjoy an advantage of inertia and loyalty. That has always been recognised in our regulatory arrangements.

  • My right hon. Friend is making a very important point about regulation, but is not part of the context of the Bill the fact that the regulator, Ofgem, was far too slow to respond to the pressures on people, particularly those on low incomes and in vulnerable households?

  • I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I was making the point that we have long been a pioneer in regulation, which has meant adapting regulation to the changing circumstances. We started with RPI minus X, and that evolved into different models, including looking at the regulated asset base. In my view, it is necessary to keep up with our traditions of acting boldly to protect consumers’ interests, and we should be agile in response to new behaviours, especially those brought on by new technologies.

  • I find myself in agreement with the Secretary of State and shall support the Bill. Indeed, I am in agreement with the Prime Minister that the energy market is broken and that customers are being ripped off. The importance of this legislation will be that Governments of whatever colour and the regulator cannot blame each other when something happens in future. There will be a framework that the Government, the regulator and the energy companies understand, and that is why we need legislation.

  • I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I was saying in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) that I think the regulator should be more agile in responding to the behaviour that had come about. In fact, the energy companies themselves should have recognised this, and one thing that they said to me was that none of them wanted to act individually and that they would prefer to have a consistent approach.

  • The Secretary of State is making a valid case for the Bill, which, after all, is all about fairness for the consumer, but will he comment on the fact that we do not want the Bill to reduce competitiveness in the industry—I am sure that it will not—and is that not key? Competitiveness has already done so much for the industry, and we want to encourage it, not reduce it.

  • I quite agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, the Competition and Markets Authority found that, in effect, two markets were operating. There is a vigorous and highly competitive market, but among those consumers who, for whatever reason, trust the company of which they may have been customers for some time to award them for that loyalty, there is an absence of competition. We need to change that, but, as I shall go on to say, the analysis shows that the market is not fully competitive at the moment and will take some time to get to that stage.

  • As someone who has benefited significantly from changing my supplier a number of occasions, my concern is that by placing a cap we will diminish the competition from which I have benefited in the same way that the provision of a cap on university fees has led to everyone charging the maximum. Can the Secretary of State persuade me that that will not be the case?

  • My right hon. Friend personifies engagement and activity, so it does not surprise me that he has a good deal. His point is very important, and, as I shall go on to explain, the minority report from the Competition and Markets Authority recommends, and the Bill requires, that the cap should be set at a such a level that competition can take place for active consumers such as him. There should still be an advantage in shopping around, but customers should be protected from an ever-increasing differential that particularly penalises those who are vulnerable.

  • Several hon. Members rose—