House of Commons
Monday 16 April 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Police and Fire Service Collaboration
This Government firmly support collaboration between emergency services and have invested more than £88 million in projects to support that since 2013. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 introduced a host of measures to enable collaboration to go further and faster, which include a statutory duty to collaborate and allow elected police and crime commissioners to take on fire and rescue governance.
I welcome the recent Government investment of £24 million, following the Manchester bombing last May. The package includes almost £10 million to cover the cost of extra staffing and other pressures on Greater Manchester police. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is much we can learn from the response to the Manchester Arena terrorist atrocity and that we should continue to work to try to improve further how our excellent emergency services respond to such tragic events?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Of course, the important report highlights the acts of bravery and compassion that took place on the night of 22 May and in the following days. As Lord Kerslake noted, the response was “overwhelmingly positive”, but the report also shows a need for improvement in some areas. As she points out, it makes certain recommendations, which I know the local emergency services and the Home Office will follow up.
Is my right hon. Friend as pleased as I am to hear that Staffordshire fire service is now not going to take to judicial review her decision to merge the governance of Staffordshire’s police and fire services? Does she agree with me—and, more importantly, with Matthew Ellis, our excellent PCC—that this merger will mean that an additional £10 million a year will be saved, which can go into frontline services?
Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for his local leadership in achieving this. It was not uncontroversial for a while, so I am grateful that it has been able to go through, and that he accepts and the local authorities have accepted the independent advice we have received. I hope he and Matthew Ellis, and all the other organisations involved, will make a great success of it.
Clearly, when we are looking at these reforms, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will suit every part of the UK. Will the Home Secretary confirm that the Government are going to be driven by a pragmatic approach, which will ensure that cross-service collaboration will be driven by what is best in terms of delivering results for communities up and down the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right to say that this is not a case where one size fits all, but it is the case that collaboration will lead to efficiencies, cost savings and a better service for all. I hope that the leadership we have seen across the country from some PCCs will be taken forward by others.
Collaboration between all the emergency services is vital, not least because these workers face some of the same threats, including a large and increasing number of assaults on them. Will the Home Secretary support my amendment to my own private Member’s Bill, which we will be discussing next week, to make sure that sexual assault on emergency workers is also an aggravated offence? It is wrong that these emergency workers are facing these abuses.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do more to protect emergency service workers, which is why we are working closely with him on the Bill. I hope we will arrive at an accommodation in order to get it through.
There is a lot to be gained from the police and fire services working closer together, but this cannot be used as an excuse for cuts. Efficiencies could come from it, but does the Home Secretary acknowledge that both the police and fire services are significantly underfunded at the moment and we cannot have more cuts coming in as a result of closer working?
One way of avoiding the impact of cuts that the hon. Lady highlights would be by having greater efficiencies, and having collaboration between the emergency services is an excellent way of doing that. That is what we have seen up and down the country, and I urge her to see more of it in her own area.
The PCC takeover of fire services will change the perception of firefighters from “public safety” to “law enforcement”. My question is: when are the Government going to provide adequate funding so that councils are not forced into hostile PCC and fire service mergers? I am looking for a meaningful response on central Government funding, not another brush-off about earmarked reserves.
The hon. Lady underestimates the high regard in which firefighters are held right across this country. The public know the difference, and are able to distinguish between firefighters and policemen and women, but they want to see better working of emergency services together.
The Government have put tackling domestic abuse at the heart of their agenda. We have introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour; rolled out new tools, such as domestic violence protection orders; and committed £100 million to support victims of violence against women and girls. Furthermore, on 8 March, we launched a wide-ranging consultation, and we will introduce a groundbreaking domestic abuse Bill, which will offer further support.
Domestic violence harms victims mentally as well as physically. Women who have experienced domestic abuse are far more likely to suffer from a mental health condition, as are children who have witnessed violence at home. I urge my hon. Friend to use the forthcoming domestic abuse Bill to make sure that victims of abuse and their families get the mental health support that they need.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question; she is a long-standing campaigner on mental health. We recognise that mental health can be a theme in domestic abuse situations. We are already funding a number of projects through the VAWG transformation fund. For example, we have given £377,000 to the London Borough of Southwark for therapeutic support for victims and their children with complex needs. We want to use the consultation to get the best possible deal for victims of domestic abuse and to stop the cycle of violence.
As well as putting the offences of psychological abuse and coercive control on the statute book, the Scottish Government have allocated funding to train 14,000 Police Scotland officers and staff to spot those offences in domestic abuse settings. Will the Minister commit to following that example in England and Wales?
I am delighted to hear that Scotland is doing that. New police training has been developed by the voluntary sector in England and Wales. It is called Domestic Abuse Matters and focuses on the recognition of controlling and coercive behaviour, and it is being rolled out to forces throughout the country.
The Government’s domestic abuse consultation proposes the tagging of perpetrators. The Victims’ Rights Campaign is calling for best use to be made of GPS tracking technology to warn police and victims when an offender enters a court-imposed exclusion zone. Does the Minister agree that such an alert system would provide vital security for victims and reduce reoffending?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue. She does a great deal of work in this area. It is an interesting idea, and I know that she and others will submit it to the consultation.
The Government remain committed to stamping out the abhorrent crime of modern slavery, both at home and overseas. We have strengthened the operational law enforcement response and introduced new requirements for victims to report on slavery in their supply chains, and we are now transforming the support that we provide to victims. Internationally, we continue to work with partners to build capacity and consensus to prevent modern slavery, wherever it occurs.
I welcome the Minister’s answer and the extensive work that she and the Government are doing to tackle this horror in our society. Will she expand on what steps the Government are taking to provide ongoing support to victims of modern slavery?
The Government’s comprehensive reforms of the national referral mechanism will significantly improve support for victims of modern slavery. Move-on support for confirmed victims will be trebled to 45 days, giving a minimum of 90 days of support. During that period, victims can access accommodation, financial assistance, counselling, health services and signposting to legal support. In addition, confirmed victims will be entitled to a further six months of post-NRM support.
My hon. Friend will know that section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 stipulates that companies and organisations with a turnover greater than £36 million must monitor their supply chains. What progress has been made in the implementation of section 54 across the public sector?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that interesting question. Section 54 of the Act does not cover the public sector, but the Government are committed to taking action against modern slavery in our supply chains. The Home Office and other Departments are piloting a new detailed questionnaire to get more information about modern slavery risks in our supply chains. In addition, we are learning from the leading large businesses that make up our Business Against Slavery forum, so that we can apply the best business practice to our own supply chains.
I talk to many people from the police who do not think they have sufficient resources to tackle the evil gangs in most of our towns and cities that exploit people—women, normally, although not just women—whether from this country or brought in, and force them into prostitution. This is happening in every one of our towns and cities. When are we going to get more action?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. Local police forces work with the National Crime Agency so that we have a nationwide response to modern slavery. Let us be clear that trafficking, particularly if it involves women and victims of sexual trafficking, is completely unacceptable. I encourage local police forces to work with the NCA to investigate and prosecute those offences when they can.
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. Nail bars can be a particular source of exploitation, which is why they are the focus of the anti-slavery commissioner and of the director of labour market exploitation. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further.
What steps has the Minister taken to report on slaves being retraded in the UK and recorded in the national referral mechanism more than once?
One reason why we are improving the national referral mechanism is precisely to build resilience during that vital period. We are trebling the period once a person has been found to be a victim of modern slavery in order to build resilience in respect of those people, so that they are not prone to becoming victims of modern slavery or trafficking again.
The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration recently found no evidence that the Home Office is actively monitoring the link between the use of right to rent and victims of modern slavery, despite concerns that the scheme makes it difficult for victims of modern slavery to come forward. The inspector also found that the Home Office is failing to measure the scheme effectively, and yet it has refused to fully implement the inspector’s recommendations for a proper evaluation. Will the Minister do so now?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have looked at the national referral mechanism because we are conscious that criminal gangs, as they find out what law enforcement and others are up to and as crime develops, change their modus operandi. If there are particular issues that he wishes to raise with me, I will be happy to meet him to discuss them further.
Does the Minister agree that modern slavery is not simply a national problem, but an international problem with international gangs? When we leave the European Union, will we continue to work very closely with our European colleagues and co-operate with them to deal with this evil trade?
Very much so. Public safety will always be part of the Government’s priorities both in the EU negotiations and beyond. We already work very closely with our EU partners and with other partners because, sadly, victims are brought from all over the world. It is a programme that has the personal commitment of the Prime Minister and I know that that will continue to be the case.
At the weekend, I attended an event in Edinburgh organised by the Faculty of Advocates’ Tumbling Lassie Committee to commemorate the Scottish judiciary’s rejection of slavery in the 17th century and, more importantly, to raise funds for charities working in Scotland at the moment, such as Community Safety Glasgow’s TARA service—the trafficking awareness raising alliance—which provides a wonderful service for trafficked women who have been sexually exploited. Does the Minister agree that Governments should do everything they can to support the victims of modern slavery and human trafficking?
I agree. Indeed, when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, she undertook the massive piece of work that became the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which is universally recognised. When I have the opportunity to discuss this with our international partners, I find that the Act is universally recognised as being world-leading. The issue will very much continue to be a priority for the Government and we will continue to give victims the support they need.
The problem with the Modern Slavery Act is that it does not actually place a duty on the UK Government—unlike the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015, passed by the Scottish Parliament, which places a specific duty on Scottish Ministers to provide the sort of support and assistance that we are talking about. I am aware that there is a private Member’s Bill going forward in the other place at the moment, but can the Minister tell us whether her Government have any plans to amend the Modern Slavery Act to bring it up to the standard of the Scottish Government’s Act?
The hon. and learned Lady is referring to section 50 of the Act, which provides for regulations. Those regulations are being reviewed at the moment—indeed, we have been in contact with the noble Lord who brought that private Member’s Bill before the other place. The regulations are very much under review. We are conscious that, as crime and criminal gangs change, we must keep up to date with our response, too.
Policing of Gangs
Last week, the Home Secretary launched the Government’s serious violence strategy, which contains a commitment to ensure that independent police inspections have a focus on serious violence and include thematic inspection of police forces’ response to county lines in 2018-19.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) is still celebrating the triumph of her beloved club, of which we will doubtless hear more anon, although not for too long.
I certainly am, Mr Speaker.
Does the Minister agree that prevention is an absolutely key aspect of policing youth violence, and that part of that prevention is a more sophisticated approach to how we police? Young people from certain neighbourhoods —especially if they are black or ethnic minority—are too often wrongly labelled as gang criminals when, in fact, they are groups of youths. Will he look at this issue?
I could not agree more with the emphasis that the hon. Lady places on the balance needed between robust law enforcement and early intervention and prevention, to steer young people away from violent crime. That is exactly the balance that we are setting out in the serious violence strategy.
I also agree with the hon. Lady’s second point. In fact, I heard it directly from youth workers in north Manchester, when I visited a factory there recently. They said, “Don’t pin all this on gangs in large parts of Manchester.” This is not about gangs; it is about very serious work to steer young people away from a path that can have devastating consequences for them.
Does the Minister accept that changes to stop-and-search laws have led to an increase in the number of deaths through knife crime? Will he give a commitment that he will let our excellent police forces get on with doing their job, without having one or both hands tied behind their backs by politicians who are flexing their politically correct muscles and sticking their noses in where they are not needed?
With respect to my hon. Friend, with whom I go back a long way, there is absolutely no evidence to support his first assertion. In fact, the last big decline in knife attacks and violent crime coincided with a fall in stop and search. I will say, quite categorically, that we see stop and search emphatically as a vital tool in the police armoury as part of the robust law enforcement that we want. However, we have been clear that it needs to be used legally, targeted, intelligence-led and, ideally, increasingly supported by body-worn video.
I would call the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) to pose a supplementary question, given that her own question is not entirely dissimilar. She is not standing, so I will not call her; but if she does, I will.
I call Jo Swinson.
I am happy to say that the Minister for Security has muttered his acceptance of that invitation to me. We are increasingly aware of the need to better align national, cross-national, regional and local capability to bear down on serious organised crime as it becomes more complex and affects more of our constituents.
There is widespread support for what the Minister has said—that we need both a policing response and a response based on intervention to prevent young people from being involved in gang violence—but what is he doing to deliver on the crucial task of assessing which interventions are the most effective and deliver the best results?
As my right hon. Friend says, the serious violence strategy balances the need for robust law enforcement with really effective work to support prevention and early intervention. That needs to be evidence-led, otherwise we will waste money. Part of the Home Office’s responsibility is to ensure that commissioners have the best evidence about what works.
The serious violence strategy made no reference at all to falling police numbers, but we have the document that was put together by Home Office officials, which clearly says that rises in serious violence are
“likely to be facilitated by…a shift in police resources meaning less proactive policing…and falls in arrests/charges relating to serious violence”.
So will the Minister explain on what evidential basis he or the Home Secretary removed that reference from the serious violence strategy? Was it a purely political decision to airbrush the strategy and risk our communities in the process?
I am disappointed that the hon. Lady should focus on that, not least because she was more sensible on the “Today” programme when she said, “We do not say that there is a direct causal factor between the number of officers on the ground and the number of crimes.” In saying that, she joined the Met Commissioner, who was also quite clear that causes of violent crime are complex and cannot simply be reduced down to resourcing. I give the hon. Lady credit for her interview on the “Today” programme because it was a lot more sensible than her question, which was partisan and party political at a time, frankly, when I think the public are sick and tired of politicians chipping away at each other on this issue and want to see us work together to put an end to this dreadful cycle of violence.
Human Trafficking: 45-Day Recovery and Reflection Period
The Government exceed their international obligations by providing a 45-day period of reflection and recovery for potential victims of modern slavery. That is not a maximum but a minimum period. The reforms of the national referral mechanism were focused on extending support at the point where stakeholders tell us victims need it most as they move on from support and reintegrate into their longer-term communities. We are trebling that support to 45 days, giving people a minimum of 90 days’ support plus up to six months of post-NRM support.
What data is now being kept regarding outcomes for people who have been through the national referral mechanism, and what does this data tell us about levels of re-trafficking?
If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that. We are very conscious, having listened to stakeholders, that the period in which they tell us victims most need support is after a decision has been made, and that is why we have trebled it.
EU Nationals: Citizenship Applications
I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Lady, from whom we have already heard—we may have another dose of her later, but not in substantive questions, because that is in contravention of the procedures of the House.
“Good try,” says the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), chuntering from a sedentary position to what he will regard as an obvious purpose.
The Home Secretary may remember that in November last year I raised the case of a constituent she met at the TARA—trafficking awareness raising alliance—project in Glasgow. My constituent has been granted one year’s discretionary leave to remain, not the asylum that she was seeking, and the Home Office continues to mishandle the case. Will the Home Secretary please look into this issue further? I am very concerned that this woman is not getting the support that she needs.
The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot answer that question on the Floor of the House, but if she writes to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, we will look into it.
The Home Office continually reviews its capabilities to ensure effective delivery of the Government’s agenda, which includes assessing how our priorities will impact on the workforce and capabilities required. We are on track to increase European casework staffing levels at UK Visas and Immigration to 1,500 ahead of the settlement scheme’s launch later this year.
I thank the Home Secretary for her response. The already socially excluded are likely to have the most difficulty in completing settled status applications in time. According to the Migration Observatory, 64,000 non-Irish EU citizens said that they had never used the internet. How will the Home Office ensure that those people can complete their online settled status applications in time?
I am glad to have the opportunity to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The settled status application process will be very straightforward and very swift, with an assumption that people will get their status when they apply for it. We need to recruit many people and expend money to get this right, precisely because we need to make sure that we have the resources and facilities available for people who are not comfortable going online. We are aware of that and will be getting advice, and we will make sure that we have a system that works for everybody.
EU citizens have a clear pathway to British citizenship, but British Indian Ocean Territory nationals, many of whom were exiled and denied citizenship, do not. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary could consider my private Member’s Bill, to ensure that justice is restored to those British nationals, for whom we are responsible.
I know that my hon. Friend has taken a particular interest in that. We spoke about it when I saw him in his constituency, and of course I will engage with him carefully on his private Member’s Bill.
The Home Secretary will be aware of the Law Society’s new evidence that the Government are losing 50% of immigration appeals. Given that the workload of this flawed immigration system is about to have the biggest increase in its history, with EU citizens applying for citizenship and then settled status after Brexit, what is she doing to sort out the complete mess of the immigration system?
I think that in the core of that question there was an inquiry about the settled status of EU citizens, which I know is the right hon. Gentleman’s particular concern. As I said in response to a previous question, we are making sure that the new system will be completely online and straightforward to use, and the default position will be to accept.
I am pleased to hear that the Home Secretary is confident about EU citizens, but there is widespread concern as to whether her Department has enough resources, and we now learn that the Windrush generation are going through what seems to be a nightmare system. What assurances can she give us, especially in relation to the Windrush generation, who, after all, are British citizens in the eyes of many of us?
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. I know that there will be an opportunity for me to answer questions on that later. I am very concerned about how the Windrush generation have been treated, and I will be making some further statements about what we are going to do about that. She is right to identify that they have the right to be here, and I will make sure that the Home Office delivers on that.
Cannabis Oil Prescription: Epilepsy
The World Health Organisation has committed to reviewing the scheduling of cannabis under the 1961 United Nations convention. It is due to consider the therapeutic use, dependence on and potential to abuse constituent parts of cannabis. The Government will await the outcome of that report before considering next steps.
I thank the Minister for his response. With special reference to Dravet syndrome, the seizures associated with which are aided incredibly by cannabis oil in a larger dose, can he confirm whether his Department will legislate for specific uses, to allow doctors to prescribe it to the likes of little Sophia Gibson in my constituency, whose parents Darren and Danielle are at this moment in Holland, where Sophia is receiving medical treatment?
The hon. Gentleman has raised his constituent’s case with me in writing, and we have a huge amount of sympathy for Sophia Gibson and her family. He will know that we need to ensure that doctors and patients are assured of the quality, safety and efficacy of medicines before they come to market, but I have written to the hon. Gentleman to arrange a meeting to discuss his constituent’s case.
The Minister, who met Alfie Dingley and his family, will know the pain and anxiety caused by the cumbersome licensing process. Does he accept that a wider range of cases than this very rare form of epilepsy involve the use of cannabis oil in palliative care and pain relief, and that they also need to be investigated?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman completely; it is hard not to feel a huge amount of sympathy for Hannah Deacon and Drew Dingley, not least having met them with Alfie. We have said that we want to explore every option within the existing law. The right hon. Gentleman talks about a cumbersome licensing process. In fact, we are waiting for someone to make an application. We cannot process a licence application until we receive one, and we are waiting for that.
National Crime Agency
We have made significant progress in the fight against serious and organised crime since the National Crime Agency was established in 2013. Capabilities have improved, partnership working is better and we intervene earlier to prevent criminal activity. The agency has been instrumental to that progress and has gone from strength to strength, with an impressive and sustained track record of disruption across the full range of serious and organised crime threats.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to recent media speculation, politicians from within the European Union can be subject to unexplained wealth orders, and that this will continue to be the case after we leave the European Union?
I am sure my hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that no one is above the law when it comes to unexplained wealth orders—whether a Member of the European Parliament, a European politician or even, indeed, a Member of this House.
Young people who have in effect been groomed into county lines are themselves victims of serious and organised crime, but so too are their families indirect victims. One thing that all the families affected by this issue in my constituency have in common is that they provide loving homes for their children, but they feel they have very little support from agencies in going through what must be a very traumatic process. What do Ministers plan to do not just to tackle the causes and symptoms of county lines and this kind of organised crime, but to provide adequate support to families who suffer enormous distress as a result?
I recommend that the hon. Gentleman looks at examples in other parts of the country of how county lines are dealt with using other agencies. I think his local authority is Ilford. Many local authorities and police forces work together on county lines in a pan-agency group, including social services and other local authorities. I saw one recently in Merseyside, which is doing exactly what he urges. If he thinks Ilford is not doing that, I would be very happy to meet him and the council to see what it can do to improve.
A wave of organised crime burglaries is happening in the Wellingborough constituency. In one case, two 60-year-olds—a man and a woman—were taken into separate rooms and threatened with all sorts of things that would happen to their other half. This was in the early evening, and the burglars just smashed in the front door. Those people said to me, “What would happen if we’d defended ourselves? If we’d protected ourselves, would we have ended up in prison?” We need to look at that issue again.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about self-defence and the rights of homeowners. He will obviously have seen the recent events—I cannot of course refer to that case because it is sub judice, or certainly an issue in hand—but there is clear guidance about this from the Ministry of Justice. It is important that people understand they have a right to self-defence, but they should sometimes be careful not to take the law into their own hands. If the organised criminals are well armed and dangerous, people should rely on the help of the blue light services.
I am grateful to the Minister for facilitating my further visit to the National Crime Agency this morning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) referred to the increasing threat posed by county lines. Will the £3.6 million allocated to the new national co-ordinating centre come from elsewhere in the Home Office budget, and if the National Crime Agency needs additional resources, will they be provided?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, that will be part of the overall funding package from the Home Office through either normal police transformation funding or existing National Crime Agency funding. However, county lines are developing more and more across the country, and that is why the Home Office—internally, with the National Crime Agency—has put together a strategy to look at what intelligence can be learned. If the lessons are that we require more resource or better inter-agency working, we will obviously reflect that in the serious and organised crime strategy that is due to come before the House soon.
We still have a lot to get through, and I am keen that we should do so.
Biometric Residence Permits
Since August 2015, all non-EU nationals with a UK visa of more than six months have been issued with a UK biometric residence permit. We have no current estimate of the number of non-EU nationals born outside the UK who have leave to remain in the UK but have not obtained a biometric residence permit.
Constituents of mine from Commonwealth countries who have lived here on paper visas for many decades have now been refused universal credit because they do not have biometric residence permits, which they have never been told they need. This is causing real hardship—not least to those with no papers, with the immigration issues that that brings—and the BRP process is costly and lengthy. What are the Government going to do urgently to address this for those who have contributed so much to our country?
I share the hon. Lady’s view that they have contributed so much to this country. I am today announcing that I am setting up a new taskforce across the Department to ensure a swift response. I am also introducing a waiver for the fees involved and a number of other measures that I hope will go a long way to assisting the Commonwealth citizens who should have their rights confirmed without charge.
The Home Secretary will know there are people who came here 50 years ago who have now lost their jobs, lost their homes and lost their healthcare as a result of Home Office decisions. Now we discover that some of them have been locked up as a result of Home Office decisions and may even have been deported—wrongly—as a result of Home Office decisions. Can she tell us how many of the Windrush generation have wrongly been deported away from their family and friends, and what action is being taken now to urgently bring them back home?
I have agreed, and I have volunteered, to meet this week the high commissioners who would like to meet me, to find out whether there are any such people who have been removed. If they want to bring me situations such as that, I will certainly look at them.
The Home Secretary will be aware that one of her ministerial colleagues will apparently say tonight that some of these people were deported in error, so can she tell the House how many and how she plans to rectify the situation?
As I say, I will find out from the high commissioners whether there have been any situations where such people have been removed. I would respectfully remind the Labour party that the workplace checks were introduced by Labour in 2008. What is happening now is part of the pattern of making sure that people are here legally. I do not want any Commonwealth citizens who are here legally to be impacted in the way they have been. Frankly, some of how they have been treated has been wrong—has been appalling—and I am sorry. That is why I am setting up a new area in my Department to ensure that we have a completely new approach to how their situation is regularised.
This Government have been clear there should be no safe space online for terrorists and their supporters to radicalise or inspire people. We are working closely with industry, including through the Global Internet Forum, to counter terrorism and to encourage industry to develop innovative solutions to tackle online radicalisation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the world’s leading internet companies need to do much more to take down violent and terrorist material online, and that if they do not, we should make them?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. It was the Home Office that took the initiative to set up the counter-terrorism internet referral unit, which has seen 300,000 pieces of terrorist propaganda taken down—voluntarily, but taken down none the less. It was the Home Office that worked with ASI Data Science to develop an automatic model, which has a 99.9% accuracy rate. If we can do it, why can those companies not?
I recently held a community meeting to contribute to Mayor Andy Burnham’s consultation on community integration and preventing radical hate speech. One issue that came up was the extent of online hate speech against Islam coming from around the world, and particularly from the United States. Will the Minister say what discussions he is having internationally to ensure that this kind of derogatory and offensive material is taken down as quickly as possible?
The hon. Lady makes a really valid point. One of the challenges is that, while broadcast is obviously covered by Ofcom and so on, some individuals move online and broadcast speeches that would be illegal if they were broadcast under Ofcom’s responsibility. I am due to visit the United States this week, and that is exactly one of the points that I shall be raising, so her question was very timely.
If a relative suspects that a vulnerable family member is being radicalised online, what advice would the Minister give that relative about what would happen to that vulnerable person if they were reported?
First of all, the relative could make a report to the police, the local authority, local safeguarding officers or safeguarding officers at school. That report would then be looked at in conjunction with a Prevent panel. People’s names would not be logged; they would not be part of a deep surveillance operation. They would simply be looked at, and the case would be discussed at a multi-agency level. Over 30% of cases are referred to other safeguarding—it might be domestic abuse or sexual abuse—and about half see no further action taken. So it is all done delicately, with respect for the individual and respect for the community. At the end, we get a good outcome, whereby a significant number of people are given assistance and are no longer radicalised or a threat.
The Minister knows that, with the invention of the internet, radicalisation is now global and crosses international boundaries, so how is he working with our international partners? He will be aware that last week a Labour delegation visited Etidal in Riyadh, which has extraordinary technology to counteract online radicalisation.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, and the question from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), there is no doubt that the only way to curtail such radicalisation is by working with all our international partners, whether in the middle east, Europe or the United States. We have to act together, which is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary sits on the Global Internet Forum to ensure that we push those countries together. The United Kingdom’s lead has raised awareness and proved that solid solutions can be delivered.
Vulnerable Syrian Families
It is important that we focus our support on the most vulnerable refugees in the region who are fleeing the atrocities in Syria, whatever their nationality. We are more than halfway towards reaching our commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees. As of December, 10,538 refugees had been welcomed in the UK under the scheme. We will continue to work closely with local authorities and devolved Administrations to ensure that we meet our commitments.
Northumberland County Council is providing homes and resettlement family support for 28 Syrian adults and their 41 children, but we currently have no Syrian refugee children as we are short of foster carers to provide the necessary support. Does the Minister agree that we must encourage people who want to support those Syrian children to apply to be foster carers?
I am very grateful to all the local authorities, including Northumberland County Council, that have participated in both the resettlement scheme and the national transfer scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Northumberland County Council recently received funding through the controlling migration fund to boost its capacity to look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Government are reviewing funding arrangements for local authorities that look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. In last year’s safeguarding strategy, the Government committed to further boosting fostering capacity, including by commissioning 1,000 training places for foster carers and support workers who are caring for unaccompanied children.
Is my right hon. Friend continuing to work closely with local authorities? She mentioned a figure of 10,500, but how is she doing at meeting the 20,000 target within a couple of years?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of working collaboratively with local authorities. We also work hard with charities, housing associations and civic society to help refugees on the road to integration. During the recess, I was fortunate to visit World Jewish Relief, Coventry City Council and Horton Housing, among others, which are working with resettled families who are being helped into work as part of their integration. He is right to mention the 20,000 target and I am absolutely confident that we will reach it by 2020.
Families belong together, and vulnerable refugee families from Syria in particular belong together. Will the Minister use the opportunity of the current attention on Syria to commit the Government to standing by Members on both sides of the House who support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)?
What wonderful pronunciation, upon which the House will want to congratulate the hon. Lady.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question; I am conscious of her keen interest in this subject. She will of course know that, since 2010, 24,000 family reunion visas have been issued, but I will look very carefully at the Bill from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), which has received cross-party support. We will continue to look at what we can do to help the most vulnerable families from the region. They should, quite rightly, be our priority.
Police and Law Enforcement: Recruitment
As crime and society change, so must the police. That was why we established the College of Policing to raise standards and the quality of training, and why we funded innovative schemes such as Direct Entry and Police Now, which are bringing in fresh skills and talent.
Will my right hon. Friend outline the specific measures that are being taken to recruit cyber and technical experts to crack down on the vile crimes taking place on the dark web?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that fundamental point, because more and more of our constituents are vulnerable to crime online—crime enabled by the internet—and it is absolutely vital that our police forces have the right skills to tackle crime. That is why, as part of our £1.9 billion cyber programme, we are investing in awareness programmes such as CyberFirst and creating the cyber digital career pathways project to ensure that officers have the skills that they need to face modern crime.
Following the publication of the Government’s race disparity audit, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to build on the work that has already been done to make sure that our police reflect the society that we all live in?
The Home Secretary and I attach great importance to this because we have policing by consent, and it is incredibly important that our police forces represent better the communities that they serve. They are more representative than ever, but are nowhere near where they need to be, and that is why the college, the police chiefs and the superintendents are working together to develop a national diversity strategy, which is being presented to chiefs this week. We attach huge importance to the strategy’s implementation so that our police forces can become increasingly representative of the communities they serve.
Will we be members of Europol next April, or will we have to recruit to fill the skills that will be lost without our membership?
We have said clearly that we want to preserve the capabilities that we have worked hard over many years to develop with our European partners. That is why we have proposed a comprehensive new security treaty, in the mutual interests of our European partners, who recognise—this relates to the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Europol, and I think we are its second biggest contributor—that our continued active presence in that agency, along with the other tools that we have developed over many years, are absolutely critical to our security going forward.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, recently said that the police need to be better trained to tackle and prosecute upskirting, but police and crime commissioners have argued that a change in the law is needed. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Justice Minister or with police and crime commissioners?
I think that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) colleague, who is responsible for crime and safeguarding, has agreed to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this important point further.
The Government’s focus remains on protecting those selling sex from harm and enabling the police to target those who exploit vulnerable people involved in prostitution. We recognise the need for research on the nature and prevalence of prostitution before we consider any changes to legislation and policy. We have commissioned research by the University of Bristol to achieve this aim.
Article 6 of the 1979 United Nations convention on gender equality and the empowerment of women positions prostitution as symbolic of women’s continued discrimination and inequality. What is being done to address that and to prevent inequality and discrimination happening to women who find themselves in that vulnerable position?
We are very clear that we want to tackle the harm and exploitation that may result from prostitution. We want a strong evidence base to inform any changes that may or may not be made in future, and that is why we have commissioned this research. However, we are clear about the harm from prostitution and that enabling people who want to leave it must be accommodated.
Many young girls are forced into selling their body as a result of being in coercive and controlling relationships. Prostitution is a form of violence against women and girls. What more can the Government do to protect victims from the harsh reality of this form of abuse?
We are very clear that any such abuse is against the law. Indeed—this follows on from the previous question—we have awarded £650,000 to Merseyside police from the VAWG service transformation fund to provide services for sex workers who are the victims of, or at risk of, sexual and domestic violence and abuse, exploitation or human trafficking. We have provided £389,000 to organisations that help those who want to leave prostitution and sex work.
We now come to topical questions, and it is a top of the league day for Lucy Powell.
Still champions, Mr Speaker.
I am deeply concerned about the recent experiences of people from the Windrush generation in terms of the appeal for their documentation and any confusion that has caused. This is a unique cohort of people who have automatic leave under our legislation and therefore are entitled to reside here lawfully. The vast majority will already have documentation that proves their right to be here. For those who do not, I am today announcing a new dedicated team to help them evidence their right to be in this country and access services.
The team will be tasked with helping applicants to demonstrate that they are entitled to live in the UK, and with resolving cases within two weeks of the evidence being provided. The team will work across Government to help applicants to prove they have been living or working in the UK. Of course, no one should be left out of pocket as they go through this process. Given the uniqueness of the situation in which the group find themselves, I therefore intend to ensure that they will not pay for this documentation.
We have already set up a webpage and dedicated contact point for people with concerns, and I have been engaging with charities, community groups and high commissioners to reassure people. The Prime Minister will meet Heads of Government tomorrow, and I will be meeting high commissioners later this week.
I thank the Home Secretary for that response and put on record my gratitude for the fantastic leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). However, is this not a case of too little, too late for many? Is not what has happened to the Windrush generation a broader reflection of the over-pernicious nature of the Home Office, which is going after the soft targets instead of those who are much more difficult to identify—those who are here illegally and should be deported?
There is no question of going after any soft targets or of our trying to single out a particular cohort—and, yes, we do go after the illegal cohort. It is because we do that that some of these people have been caught up in the process. As I referenced earlier, it was the Labour party that put in place the labour market tests in 2008, meaning that people had to evidence their right to work here, but because the Windrush cohort has been caught up in this, I am making that sure we put in place particular arrangements to support them.
I think that my hon. Friend might have got lost in the dark web just then.
Our dark web programme is investing in specialist capability to disrupt and bring to justice those who use online anonymity to trade in illegal goods and services, including personal data. Much of the risk to families and businesses can be defeated by simple best practice. The Cyber Aware campaign encourages small businesses and individuals to adopt simple, secure online behaviours to protect themselves and their data from cyber-criminals.
This was a fair and open competitive process. It is right to have a tendering process that looks after taxpayers’ money and of course ensures that British companies can compete. I wish that a British company had won the contract, but the process has to be carried out fairly, on the basis of quality and cost, and on that basis we saved the country £120 million. I wonder how the right hon. Gentleman would choose to spend that; I know that we can put it to good use.
I welcome the action of my hon. Friend’s police and crime commissioner. PCCs have been given powers to raise additional funds, if they want to do so, to provide extra policemen and women on the frontline, and most are choosing to do that.
I note that someone on the left-hand side of the Opposition Benches wants me to spend another £120 million while a Member on the right-hand side has asked me where more money is to come from.
We have made it very clear that we will run an efficient Government, particularly in respect of public procurement, to ensure that we have the funds to support our public services. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not just about police numbers. Last year I commissioned a new serious violence strategy, which has come up with new information and a new approach to stopping the sort of crime to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I hope that our new serious violence taskforce will be able to do that.
May I answer the question on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary?
I read about the incident in The Stow, which must have been extremely unsettling for my right hon. Friend’s constituents. He is tireless in acting on behalf of Harlow, and he was one of a number of Essex Members who lobbied me asking that the police and crime commissioner be allowed to increase the precept. That increase is enabling the commissioner to invest in providing 150 additional police officers across the county. I will of course join my right hon. Friend in speaking to the police and crime commissioner to reassure his constituents that the area is being policed.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the training available to Welsh police officers. I have been very clear about the importance of ensuring that our police officers have the right skills, but there is currently an impasse, as Welsh police forces are paying tax to the Welsh Government and getting nothing in return. There is a difference of view on the issue, but we are trying to resolve it. A meeting is imminent, and I hope that we shall be able to make some progress then.
Yes, I strongly believe that the approach has a very important role to play. As I have said before, it is a vital tool, and we expect it to be used vigorously as part of a robust law enforcement approach to the terrible cycle of violence that we are seeing. We welcome the news that the Metropolitan police, for example, has increased its use significantly in the most affected areas. However, as we have made clear for some time, it must be used legally, and be proportionately targeted and intelligence-led, and the use of body-worn video must increase. We must not go back to the old days when more than a million people a year were stopped and only 9% were arrested.
Two and a half weeks ago, I telephoned 999 after witnessing a prolonged and serious fight in a petrol station in Chesterfield. I have not been contacted by the police since then. Although I have been unable to establish this for certain, I believe that the incident was not recorded as a crime because none of the protagonists considered themselves to be victims of crime, although it was also reported by the people who run the petrol station. Is this part of a wider policy? Are the Government encouraging police forces not to record as crimes incidents that would clearly be seen as crimes? What guidance do the Government give police forces in such circumstances?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration about that particular incident, and one hears similar anecdotes, but the Government’s policy is, in fact, completely the reverse. We have pressed the police, with the help of the independent inspectorate, to get better at recording crime. Back in 2014, an independent inspection showed that only about 81% of reported crime was recorded. That has improved, and the improvement is feeding into increased pleaded recorded crime. The truth is therefore completely the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman has asserted.
Order. Time is very much against us, but we must hear the voice of Shipley. Mr Philip Davies.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will, of course, be bringing forward a White Paper later this year and an immigration Bill as soon as possible after that.
When will the Home Office fix the disastrous mess that is being caused by the tier 2 work visa cap being exceeded for four months on the trot? Is it not time to scrap the cap?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we keep the tier 2 visa route constantly under review. We are looking very carefully at the issue that he raises.
Yes, I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We know the importance of working closely with our European Union friends on matters of security. In conversations with my opposite numbers, I have received much reassurance from them that that is what they want as well.
Mr Speaker, you will remember that on 29 March, the Leader of the House said that we would have a debate in Parliament on the Government’s serious violence strategy when it was published. It was published on 9 April, so my question is simple: when will we have that debate?
I will take that very good question to the Leader of the House. I would relish such a debate. I thank the hon. Lady for the leadership she has given in this area, and I hope to have more progress to report regarding the taskforce in due course.
The drug commonly known as Spice has as strong an impact on its users as any class A drug, yet its categorisation as class B means that its dealers receive much lesser sentences than others. Will the Minister commit to looking again at this drug’s classification so that that reflects its impact more accurately?
My hon. Friend has long expressed concern about the impact of Spice, not least on Torquay town centre, and I have seen at first hand the terrible effect it has. I hope he welcomes the progress that we have made in relation to the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and the fact that over 300 retailers across the UK have either been closed down or are no longer selling these substances. We are making arrests and a great deal of progress, and usage is falling. On changing the classification, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that any decision has to be led and guided by advice from the advisory council, and its position at the moment is not to reclassify.
My constituent Charles Mukerjee has special educational needs. He and his family were recently detained in Yarl’s Wood. In detention, his medication was taken away, and he had a number of seizures and stopped eating. A doctor who saw him there said that he was traumatised. Will the Home Secretary urgently look at this family’s experience and see what changes need to be made to ensure that we treat all people who are detained humanely and in a dignified way, especially those with learning disabilities and mental ill health?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. The answer to her question is yes, I will, and I ask her to send me the information, which I will take a look at personally.
Will the Home Secretary welcome the additional 200 police officers who are being recruited and deployed by Sussex police in her Hastings and Rye constituency and mine of Bexhill and Battle?
Yes, this is good news. The police and crime commissioner for Sussex, the excellent Katy Bourne, has told us that she will be recruiting 200 officers this year and 200 the following year. Kent has said the same, and I understand there will be another 1,000 officers in London.
Online radicalisation and cyber-crime are no respecters of boundaries, yet policing in Scotland is devolved. Will the Minister assure me that there will be maximum co-operation and co-ordination between Police Scotland and the UK police forces to stamp out these terrible and terrifying crimes?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and that is why at Gartcosh, just outside Glasgow, we have put together the National Crime Agency and Police Scotland to tackle, through cyber-crime units, that very problem. It is absolutely true that the best thing to do is to make sure we work in solid partnership, whether that involves the agency, local police or regional organised crime units.
Has my right hon. Friend made any assessment of the ease with which users can remove unacceptable online content and how quickly that content is then taken down?
The biggest challenge in that space is often that when we make a referral to internet companies, the speed at which they take content down is not as rapid as it should be. We often identify it quickly. By working with a technology company, we have managed to produce a system that is 99.95% accurate. Let us see what the internet companies can do, but there is still more to be done.
Fear stalks many streets in Erdington with gang crime, gun crime, knife crime and attacks with machetes on the rise. The police are doing a magnificent job in very difficult circumstances, but does not the Policing Minister accept that cutting 2,000 police officers from West Midlands police, the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing and huge cuts to youth services are making it so much more difficult for them to keep the public safe?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have always recognised that our police system is stretched. That was why I personally led the demand review and why we took through the House a funding settlement that will see another £460 million going into our police system this year. That will mean that we are investing £1 billion more this year than we were two years ago. That is additional money for the west midlands that I would have hoped that he would support, but he voted against it.
Mr Clarke—get in there, man!
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, there were some serious incidents of antisocial behaviour in Saltburn in my constituency. Will Ministers assure the public in Saltburn that they will work with me and the PCC to give the best advice on how to deal with youth gang violence, and will they commend the officers of Cleveland police for their response?
First, I am of course pleased to commend the officers for their response. I am sorry to hear about the example that my hon. Friend has given. I urge him to work with us in terms of looking at the serious violence strategy, because there is a lot of new work on, and new approaches to, how we handle gang violence, which is often the driver not just of serious violence but of antisocial behaviour.
Order. Listening to colleagues is endlessly inspiring, and my appetite for doing so is usually insatiable, but we must now move on because we have other important business to address.
Windrush Children (Immigration Status)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make an urgent statement on the status of Windrush children in this country.
I should like to thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for raising this question and for giving me the chance to build on what I have already told the House this afternoon. I recognise the concerns of some people in the Windrush generation, and I would not want anyone who has made their life in the UK to feel unwelcome or to be in any doubt of their right to remain here. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already made clear, there is absolutely no question about their right to remain, and I am very sorry for any confusion or anxiety felt.
While the vast majority of people who came here before 1973 will already have documentation that proves their right to be in the UK, I know that some do not. I know that there are those who have never applied for a passport in their own name or had their immigration status formalised. That is why today I am announcing that a new dedicated team will be set up to help those people to evidence their right to be here and to access the necessary services. The team will help the applicants to demonstrate that they are entitled to live in the UK, and it will be tasked with resolving cases within two weeks when the evidence has been provided.
Of course no one should be left out of pocket as they go through this process, so, given the uniqueness of the situation this group finds itself in, I intend to ensure that the group will not pay for this documentation. We have set up a webpage and we have been speaking to charities, community groups and high commissioners about providing advice and reassurance to those affected, and we will set up a dedicated contact point as well. Tomorrow, the Prime Minister will meet the Heads of Government, and I will be meeting high commissioners this week to discuss this issue as a matter of urgency. I hope that this will provide people with the reassurance that they need.
The relationship between this country and the West Indies and the Caribbean is inextricable. The first British ships arrived in the Caribbean in 1623, and despite slavery and colonisation, 25,000 Caribbeans served in the first and second world wars alongside British troops. When my parents and others of their generation arrived in this country under the British Nationality Act 1948, they arrived here as British citizens. It is inhumane and cruel for so many of that Windrush generation to have suffered for so long in this condition and for the Secretary of State to be making a statement on the issue only today.
Can the Secretary of State tell us how many people have been deported? She suggested earlier that she would ask the high commissioners, but it is her Department that has deported those people. She should know the number. Can she tell the House how many have been detained as prisoners in their own country? Can she tell us how many have been denied healthcare under the national health service, how many have been denied pensions and how many have lost their jobs? This is a day of national shame, and it has come about because of a “hostile environment” and a policy that was begun under her Prime Minister. Let us call it as it is: if you lay down with dogs, you get fleas, and that is what has happened with the far right rhetoric in this country. Will the Secretary of State apologise properly? Will she explain how quickly the team will act to ensure that the thousands of British men and women who have been denied their rights in this country on her watch in the Home Office are satisfied?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s admiration for the people who came here from the Caribbean and contributed so much to our society in many different ways, and that admiration remains in place. I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual. This is about individuals, and we have heard the individual stories, some of which have been terrible to hear. That is why I have acted. That is why I have put a clear limit on the amount of time it will take to correct the situation. That is why I am so committed to ensuring that there is no cost involved. That is why I am so committed to making sure that we can work across Departments. We hope to be able to get the necessary information ourselves in the same way that we are looking ahead to the EU settled status, when we will be able to engage with other Departments to look at national insurance numbers. We will share things and will take the responsibility for finding the evidence, so that we can get the documents for those who need them.
Finally, on one other point that the right hon. Gentleman raised, I am not aware of any specific cases of a person being removed in these circumstances. That is why I have asked the high commissioners if they know of any cases, and they should bring them to me. If anyone here knows of any such circumstances, they should bring them to the Home Office.
The Home Secretary is right to have set up a special unit so that the necessary reassurance can be provided as soon as possible. With that in mind, will she tell the House what the minimum level of evidence that the new Home Office unit will accept is, so that people will be able to demonstrate quickly and easily that they are genuine Windrush-generation citizens of this country?
My right hon. Friend, who has some experience in this area, will be aware that we cannot have a situation in which anybody can perhaps falsely declare anything—that would not assist the Windrush generation, whom we are trying to help. We are going to work with them in a cross-Government way, so if they come to us with their address and date of birth, we will start from that point and try to build a picture to evidence the circumstances and, within two weeks, get them the permits that they need to be able to access services.
In the week of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, is the Home Secretary aware of how shameful it appears that we are treating the Windrush generation of Commonwealth citizens in this way? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said, they came here after the second world war to help rebuild this country, and they worked hard and paid their taxes. There are few more patriotic groups of British citizens than the generation from the West Indies that we are talking about.
The Home Secretary mentioned her special team. Is she aware that hundreds of these people have been trying to get their situations sorted out with their lawyers, presenting what information they have? Months later, however, things have not been resolved. How much confidence can people have in the special team when people with lawyers have been unable to resolve their situations? Why does she not simply issue an instruction to her officials today that no one in such a position can be deported until the case is clarified? There must also be an apology to any who were wrongfully deported, and the Government must consider compensation.
Is the Home Secretary aware that in 2014 the Government removed the immigration protection that existed for the Commonwealth citizens who had come here previously? Theresa May was the then Home Secretary, and there was no parliamentary debate or scrutiny at the time. Theresa May could simply—
Order. [Interruption.] I do not need any advice from people chuntering from a sedentary position for their own satisfaction but to no wider benefit at all. The position is that Members should not refer to other Members by name—[Interruption.] The hon. Members who are wittering away from a sedentary position probably feel better for doing so, but it does not advance the interests of the House.
I apologise for naming the former Home Secretary in that way, but we are talking about a very serious matter. I believe the Home Secretary could now simply table a statutory instrument restoring the protections, which were removed without debate in 2014; there would be no objection from this side of the House.
Finally, this policy and this scandal did not fall from the sky. It is a product of the bent of Government policy: the “hostile environment” for migrants generally. We now hear warm words about the contribution of Commonwealth migrants who have given their lives to this country, but warm words are not enough. We have to establish the facts on the deportations; we have to make apologies where necessary; and as the Commonwealth Heads of Government are gathered in London, we have to acknowledge what a disgrace it is that this Government have treated Commonwealth migrants in this way.
Nobody disputes that the people who came here as part of the Windrush cohort are highly valued here and have the legal right to stay. In this week in which we celebrate the Commonwealth, I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to acknowledge the changes that we as a Government are making today to ensure that this cannot happen again and that the new processes in place will indeed reach out and protect all Commonwealth citizens who need additional help to get their documentation in place.
The right hon. Lady asks particularly about removals and detention, and I reassure her and the House that I have given an explicit instruction. In accordance with my wishes today, there will be no removals or detention as part of any assistance to help former Commonwealth citizens get their proper documentation in place.
I welcome what the Home Secretary has set out today—I also welcome the detail given by the Minister for Immigration in her media interviews today—and the calm and measured tone in which she set it out.
Given that many people will not be aware that they are in this position until they run into difficulties, can the Home Secretary say any more about what steps the Government could take proactively to communicate what they are doing to some of those who might be affected, so that they are never actually put in this position in the first place and can have their status regularised?
My right hon. Friend is right. I really do want people who are in this position to realise that we have made the changes and have set up a system that will be easy to use and accommodating to them. There will be no charge for it, and I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to pass that on to their constituents, so that people have the confidence to approach us so the situation can be addressed. Of course, the Home Office will be doing its own media work to ensure that is the case.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this urgent question. The Scottish National party shares his outrage, on behalf of the Windrush generation, at how some of these now quite elderly people have been treated by the Home Office.
The Home Secretary is wrong. This is not just about individuals; it is about a systemic policy put out by her Department. It is symptomatic of the politically driven “hostile environment” policy, and it is a sign that that has to stop. I hope that, in what she has said this afternoon, there is a big chink of optimism that she will review this “hostile environment” policy.
On the Mall this morning, I saw all the flags out for the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, but all the Government’s warm words about the Commonwealth will be seen as weasel words unless they take proper steps to address what is happening to these people, who are as much part of our country as the Home Secretary and myself.
I have heard what the Home Secretary has to say about the procedures she is putting in place, but the Migration Observatory at Oxford University says there are up to 50,000 Commonwealth-born people in this situation. What will she do to recognise the almost impossible nature of the task those people face in evidencing their right to be here, and will she give them access to legal advice to help them combat the Home Office’s often unfair procedures?
The hon. and learned Lady has raised a number of important points. I would just say that it is right we have a policy that distinguishes between legal and illegal migrants, and the Commonwealth group—the so-called Windrush cohort—are legal. That is why I have put in place these measures to protect them. That is a clear difference between them and other groups, where we have a compliant environment, to ensure that people who are here legally are looked after but people who are here illegally should not be here and we have the information that we can collect to remove them lawfully and correctly.
My right hon. Friend’s assurance that the costs will be borne by the state will be most welcome; it is clear that this may have acted as a deterrent to some in the past when seeking to regularise their position. Will she make certain that it is made very clear, very publicly, that there is no need to hire an expensive lawyer to put this right—we can do it?
The important point for my hon. Friend is that the system I will now put in place will not require people to go to their lawyers. I hope that it will be sufficiently constructive, sympathetic and helpful that it will not require people who are seeking to regularise their position to have lawyers.
The Home Office has been warned repeatedly about failings in its decision-making processes and weaknesses in the “hostile environment” operation. The Home Secretary’s response to this problem now is far too passive: just a taskforce that relies on the Windrush generation raising their problems with her. That is not good enough. She should now be instituting a huge review, right across the Home Office, of all Windrush-generation cases, and not just suspending deportations and detention, but working urgently with the Department for Work and Pensions and the NHS to make sure that nobody from that generation loses their benefits, their homes or their healthcare, while this is being sorted out.
I respectfully say to the right hon. Lady, who usually has such careful knowledge in this area, that of course we do not have individual numbers for the Windrush generation, because they were not identified as such when they came here. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) referred to the assessment of 50,000, but we do not know whether that is the case, because, obviously, we do not have identification cards in this country; we do not know until people approach us. The point I am trying to convey here, which I hope will go out from this House, is that we will help anybody who would like to have their position regularised and there will be no cost to it.
Order. There is intense interest in this matter, and that is to be expected. I am keen to accommodate it, as far as is possible, but I remind the House that there is important businesses to which we must proceed and therefore there is a premium on brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike. Put bluntly, if people ask long questions, they will do so knowing that they are preventing other colleagues from contributing, and that is not something they would want to do, I feel sure.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was sickened to read these stories and I am reassured by what my right hon. Friend has had to say today. However, will she ask her officials to review all cases where there is a possibility that people from the Windrush generation have been deported?
As I have said, I do not have any evidence to suggest that anybody has been removed in that way. Some people are talking as though this has taken place and it has been suggested in some media companies that it has, so I invite people who have any such evidence to bring it to the Home Office so that we can take a look.
May I say to the Home Secretary that the way this trailblazing generation and their families have been treated in this year, the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush on our shores, is a complete and utter disgrace? So many are my constituents. She has talked about individual cases. A well-publicised one involves someone who has not been able to get access to cancer treatment that he needs from the NHS because of his immigration status. She has said that these cases will be processed quickly. Okay, that is welcome. She says her Department will help individuals in this situation to identify the evidence, but what happens if the evidence does not exist? On healthcare, will she commit to ensuring that indefinite leave to remain is granted—
We are immensely grateful. We have a lot to get through and it is very self-indulgent if people spend ages. I understand the importance, but colleagues have to do this pithily—it is as simple as that.
I completely understand the urgent need to get this issue addressed so that people can access the NHS when they need it. I am going to make sure that we do it in such a speedy manner that we will address people’s particular needs. It should not interfere with their treatment. The fact is that hospitals are increasingly asking for evidence of residence; we will help people to get the evidence. The hon. Gentleman asked what will happen if there is none; there is always going to be evidence of people living in a country. My taskforce will make sure that we find that evidence so that we can get it to people.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the Windrush generation for coming to this country’s aid. Will my right hon. Friend enable all MPs to access an appropriate means of communicating to the Home Office the cases that come to us, so that they are dealt with speedily and in a way that ensures that people are thanked for their service?
Yes; my hon. Friend makes a good point. I will ensure that everybody in the House has the details of the taskforce contact point and that we are able to communicate to everybody who has assisted this country—the people from the Windrush generation—our thanks and support.
What assurances will the Home Secretary give to people who settled here from parts of the Commonwealth other than the West Indies, including the many in my constituency who came from Bangladesh and Pakistan? Will she commit to the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) about a statutory instrument to restore the protections for people from Commonwealth countries?
Respectfully, I will have to come back to the hon. Lady on that point about a statutory instrument. My purpose today is to reassure this particular cohort and to make sure that we have in place the right systems so that we can act swiftly and efficiently, as they would expect.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s absolute clarity that the Windrush generation’s right to remain here is unchallenged. As constituency MPs, we want to do all that we can to help them, so will she confirm that there will be an MPs’ hotline, through which we can help our constituents who are most unable to help themselves?
Yes. I am of course aware that as leaders in their own areas, Members of Parliament will need to be able to access that hotline and to access all the information so that we can act fairly, efficiently and effectively for the Windrush generation, which is so valued in this country.
A number of my constituents have been caught up in the Government’s hostile environment policy, including Paul, who has been here for four decades. He was removed from his home and detained at one of the Croydon detention centres. Will the Home Secretary commit to introducing a statutory instrument that will reverse and restore the rights that the Windrush generation had secured?
Unfortunately, I cannot comment on individual cases in the Chamber, but if the hon. Lady would like to write to the Home Office or bring to me that particular case, I will make sure that it is looked at.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said, but urge her to consider whether, if applicants who ultimately prove successful have already incurred legal fees in trying to make their case, those fees could be compensated.
I am happy to take that away and come back to my hon. Friend on it. Going forward, it is my strong commitment to ensure that the system that we put in place will not require legal advice. It will be straightforward and effective to use. My team in the taskforce will work with individuals to deliver that.
I have previously written to the Home Secretary about my constituent, Bill Samuel, who as a six-year-old came to the UK with his grandmother from St Vincent back in the ’60s. He has worked and paid taxes since 1973. He was told by the Home Office that he would have to pay £273 to apply for no-time-limit status; will the Home Secretary confirm that he will not have to pay that amount of money or to apply for no-time-limit status in order to apply for a British passport?
I can confirm that we are not going to charge for the no-time-limit status to which the hon. Gentleman refers. In respect of the individual journey to a passport, I am afraid that we will have to take that away and look at the individual case.
I commend the Home Secretary for her statement, but say to her that this is not only about the Windrush generation but about all those for whom, certainly in my experience as a Member of Parliament, her officials unfortunately have a default position of no. Does she agree that it is at moments such as this that Government and Opposition Members need to accept the need for a proper, open and honest debate about immigration? If we did that, we might come to the proper conclusion that not just the Windrush generation but generations of immigrants over centuries have contributed in a positive way to all aspects of life in our country.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the value of immigration in this country. I share her views on our approach. I need to ensure that the Home Office is more focused on individuals than on policy, so that individuals do not receive the type of treatment that we have seen over the past few weeks, but instead have a Home Office that leans in and tries to assist them.
Will the Home Secretary clarify definitively whether this new dedicated team helping the Windrush generation will be accessible to all Commonwealth citizens facing similar problems?
Yes, we will make sure that the team can assist others as well.
On that note, I very much welcome the Government’s assurances today that they will help these Commonwealth citizens. I particularly wish to cite the case of a constituent of mine from Uganda who came here after he was thrown out by Idi Amin. Will the new systems help him? He has lived in my constituency for 40 years and has had a heartrending experience with people wanting to throw him out.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend’s constituent is having such a challenging time. I urge her to ask the Immigration Minister to take a look at his particular case.
Following her statement, could the Home Secretary clarify whether her Department is still expecting people to prove their rights while they have no recourse to public funds and no right to work? What is her message to those who may need legal advice, but cannot afford it?
It is my firm belief that the individuals who will be able to access this group in the Home Office will not need legal advice, because the process will be simple and one in which my team will try to assist. We will be able to use information across Government, so that we can help prove their national insurance number or their school records without calling on them to send in so much detail. It will be a shared responsibility, which I think will make a big difference.
I thank the Home Secretary for her clear message today that the Windrush generation not only have the legal right to stay, but are welcome here and we want them to stay, if that is their desire. Will she reassure us that her Department will provide every sensitive assistance possible to help the affected people produce the documentation that is required?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to reinforce that point. We value immigrants in this country, and we value the contribution that the Windrush community has made. I will ensure, going forward, that that value is conveyed to them.
Is the Home Secretary aware that there is real fear spreading through some of our diverse communities? One impact of that is that people who are entirely legitimately entitled to make use of public services are being deterred from doing so. Will she be speaking to other departmental heads in order to ensure that the message goes out, particularly in respect of the health service, that nobody should avoid accessing services because they are frightened of what the “hostile environment” will do?
Of course I do not want people who have health issues not to be able to contact the national health service. One of the saddest things in some of these stories is hearing about people not being able to do that. That is one reason why I feel so much urgency in addressing this matter, so that such a thing happens to fewer people.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of a special taskforce. Will she confirm precisely how quickly cases will be processed and, crucially, when she envisages the backlog of cases will ultimately be dealt with, as people need this shadow removed from their lives?
The most important thing that we can convey from today’s statement is that the Home Office is going out of its way to ensure that we can reassure people that they will be able to get that information. I do not expect there to be a great rush of people who will want to apply, but whenever people need to do so, I will ensure that the process is done quickly, effectively and efficiently.
Order. I understand the sense of anticipation in the Chamber about subsequent business, but I gently point out that we are discussing the rights and the futures of residents of this country. This is an extremely serious matter and the issue, and the people speaking about it, should be treated with respect. It really should not be necessary for me to say that again.
Is not the key point in all this that the pernicious and “hostile environment” has an impact on everybody, whether they are here legally or otherwise? People can hardly get out of bed these days without somebody asking to see their passport. Is it not time to scrap the “hostile environment”?
I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. He is not correct to say that people have to show their passport at every step. It is important to make a clear distinction between people who are here legally and people who are here illegally. The point of today’s statement is that the people who came with the Windrush group are here legally, and we will look after them.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for his work and leadership on this issue. Today’s decision will cost all people from the Windrush generation, including those who are my constituents, huge amounts of money in legal fees. Will the Home Secretary set up a unit within the Home Office to deal with the cases, and refer them back to Members of Parliament to deal with?
We are setting up a team of about 20 people who will be able to engage with the generation, who need to have their situation regularised. I hope that people will not need legal advice. Of course, if that is the case—the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point—I will take a look at whether we need to assist.
Will my right hon. Friend outline what engagements she will have with charities and community groups to ensure that people do not need to go to expensive lawyers to find out about the procedures that she has outlined today?
I share my hon. Friend’s view about expensive lawyers. We have begun engagement with charities, non-governmental organisations and the high commissioners who have been in touch with us. I will ensure that we have thorough public engagement to ensure that people are aware of the process that we have set up, and that it will not cost them money.
May I emphasise to the Home Secretary that some of the problems faced by the Windrush generation go well beyond people who came here from the Caribbean? For example, a constituent of mine was born in a Commonwealth country to Polish refugees from Nazism, has lived in this country since 1951 and has served in the Grenadier Guards, but he was turned down for a UK passport. Will people in his situation be subject to the fast-track procedure that the Home Secretary outlined today?
I would fully expect them to be subject to it. I find the hon. Gentleman’s statement very surprising and ask him to write to me about it. The default position of the team that I am setting up will be to get the information and to accept people. The only situation where people would not be accepted is on grounds of serious criminality.
I very much welcome the sentiment expressed by my right hon. Friend. Those affected may well approach local advice services, such as the citizens advice bureaux in our constituencies, seeking support. Will she undertake to disseminate comprehensive guidance to them as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful suggestion. Of course, I will engage with Citizens Advice to ensure that it has the information. I also urge Members of Parliament to tell their constituents about the positive arrangements that this Government have now put in place so that the people from that cohort can be looked after and can stop fearing for their situation.
I would be grateful if the Home Secretary would tell me how I should explain to the elders of the Afro-Caribbean community in my constituency why they are being expected to prove that they have a right to be in the country to which they have paid taxes and national insurance, and contributed so much—rather than the other way around, with the onus being on the Home Office to prove that they do not have such a right.
The dedicated team that I am setting up will work with individuals from the hon. Lady’s community to ensure that we look for the information and that they engage with us in that. We cannot look in isolation, if people do not engage with us and do not give us the information that we need. We are going to work across Government to ensure that we try to get information such as national insurance numbers or schools. Will the hon. Lady please tell her community that the Home Office is here to help it?
Will the Home Secretary tell me whether there was previously an exemption for leave to remain for Commonwealth citizens who arrived in the UK before 1973? Will she also confirm if and when this was removed from the legislation and, if so, when that was debated by Parliament?
I think that what the hon. Lady’s constituents really want to know is whether they have a legal right to be here. The purpose of my standing here today is to confirm to them and to all Members here that they do have the legal right. We want them to take it up, if that is what they want. My unit in the Home Office will be leaning in to ensure that we make the process as simple and effective as possible.
As the proud Member of Parliament for Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, where many Windrush passengers came to look for work and make their homes, I can tell the Home Secretary that it is entirely wrong for her to present this as a new problem that has suddenly arisen. It has been going on for years, and it is a consequence of Government policy which lacks any grace or compassion and which, in its intolerance, looks for any possible reason why people who have come here from overseas should not be allowed to stay. Will she now commit to looking at the systemic problems with UKVI and reform the immigration system so that people who have made their lives in this country and contributed so much can live with security and dignity in their old age?
That is exactly what I want this country to look like—the sort of country where the hon. Lady’s constituents can have confidence here. I point out to her that it was of course Labour who, in 2008, introduced the labour market test so that people had to evidence their status, so this has not started entirely with us. But if we want to live in a country where there is a difference between legal and illegal residence, then it is absolutely right to have a system that addresses that.
If the Secretary of State is saying that there is no way of checking whether someone has been wrongly deported, does that mean that it is the same for asylum seekers as well?
I only heard part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I can tell him that I do not know of any cases where people have been removed. However, I have said to Members here, as I have said to the high commissioners, that if they know of any cases, they should bring them to us.
My constituent Paulette Wilson came here from Jamaica in 1968 aged 10. She worked in the UK all her life, including here in Parliament. Last October, she was detained at Yarl’s Wood and threatened with being deported. The Home Secretary says that she does not know the extent of this problem or the numbers, but surely a simple search by date of birth and origin would give her that data. Will she go away and have a look at that?
If the hon. Lady wants to write to me about a particular case, I will certainly look at it. I have put out an instruction today that there will be no detention or removals of anybody in this cohort who raises any questions, so I have removed that fear. But I am much more ambitious than that. I want to make sure that our new dedicated unit really addresses this and sorts out, to the satisfaction of everybody involved, the individual status of the people who have come here and contributed so much.
Will the Home Secretary instruct the Home Office to be supportive to individuals who apply under this scheme rather than leaving already traumatised individuals having to meet very, very difficult requirements when they are already in such distress?
Yes. The default position will be to accept. The only real change to that will be if there is serious criminality. We will need to work with the individuals to ensure that the information is collected. I want to make sure that this works for the individuals. As I said earlier, this is about individuals whose lives have been upset and who need reassurance, and I want to make sure that they get it.
I offer Conservative Members who may not understand what it is like to work with the Home Office every single day the chance, if they would like, to come and work in my constituency office. As somebody who works with the Home Office every single day, can I ask how many people will be in this team and how long it will last for, because this is not a problem that is going to go away overnight?
I work with the Home Office every day, and I am aware of some of the challenges. The team will have 20 people in it, it will deliver what I have set out today, and we will see how long it is needed for. What I am interested in is outcomes—effective, sympathetic outcomes for the people who need it and who are so valued by this country.
Before I come to the substance of my statement, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Matt Tonroe from the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who was killed by an improvised explosive device on 29 March. Sergeant Tonroe was embedded with US forces on a counter-Daesh operation. He served his country with great distinction, and it is clear he was a gifted and intelligent instructor who was respected by everyone he served with. Sergeant Tonroe fought to protect British values, our freedoms and to keep this country safe.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the actions that we have taken, together with our American and French allies, to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capabilities and to deter their future use.
On Saturday 7 April, up to 75 people, including young children, were killed in a horrific attack in Douma, with as many as 500 further casualties. All indications are that this was a chemical weapons attack. UK medical and scientific experts have analysed open-source reports, images and video footage from the incident and concluded that the victims were exposed to a toxic chemical. That is corroborated by first-hand accounts from NGOs and aid workers, while the World Health Organisation received reports that hundreds of patients arrived at Syrian health facilities on Saturday night with
“signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.
Based on our assessment, we do not think that those reports could be falsified on that scale. Furthermore, the Syrian regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from the area, and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians.
The images of this suffering are utterly haunting: innocent families seeking shelter in underground bunkers found dead with foam in their mouths, burns to their eyes and their bodies surrounded by a chlorine-like odour, and children gasping for life as chemicals choked their lungs. The fact that such an atrocity can take place in our world today is a stain on our humanity, and we are clear about who is responsible.
A significant body of information, including intelligence, indicates that the Syrian regime is responsible for this latest attack. Open-source accounts state that barrel bombs were used to deliver the chemicals. Barrel bombs are usually delivered by helicopters. Multiple open-source reports and intelligence indicate that regime helicopters operated over Douma on the evening of 7 April, shortly before reports emerged in social media of a chemical attack, and that Syrian military officials co-ordinated what appears to be the use of chlorine weapons. No other group could have carried out this attack. The opposition do not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs. Daesh does not even have a presence in Douma.
The reports of this attack are consistent with previous regime attacks. Those include the attack on 21 August 2013, where over 800 people were killed and thousands more injured in a chemical attack also in Ghouta; 14 further smaller-scale chemical attacks reported prior to that summer; three further chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015, which the independent UN Security Council-mandated investigation attributed to the regime; and the attack at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April last year, where the Syrian regime used sarin against its people, killing around 100, with a further 500 casualties.
Based on the regime’s persistent pattern of behaviour and the cumulative analysis of specific incidents, we judged it highly likely that the Syrian regime had continued to use chemical weapons on at least four occasions since the attack in Khan Shaykhun and we judged that it would have continued to do so, so we needed to intervene rapidly to alleviate further indiscriminate humanitarian suffering. We have explored every possible diplomatic channel to do so, but our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted.
Following the sarin attack in eastern Damascus back in August 2013, the Syrian regime committed to dismantle its chemical weapons programme, and Russia promised to ensure that Syria did that, overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. At the weekend, the Leader of the Opposition cited that diplomatic agreement as a
“precedent that this process can work”,
but this process did not work. It did not eradicate the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime, with the OPCW finding only last month that Syria’s declaration of its former chemical weapons programme is incomplete. And, as I have already set out, it did not stop the Syrian regime carrying out the most abhorrent atrocities using these weapons.
Furthermore, on each occasion when we have seen every sign of chemical weapons being used, Russia has blocked any attempt to hold the perpetrators to account at the UN Security Council, with six such vetoes since the start of 2017. Just last week, Russia blocked a UN resolution that would have established an independent investigation able to determine responsibility for this latest attack. Regrettably, we had no choice but to conclude that diplomatic action on its own is not going to work. The Leader of the Opposition has said that he can
“only countenance involvement in Syria if there is UN authority behind it”.
The House should be clear that that would mean a Russian veto on our foreign policy.
When the Cabinet met on Thursday, we considered the advice of the Attorney General. Based on this advice, we agreed that it was not just morally right but legally right to take military action, together with our closest allies, to alleviate further humanitarian suffering. This was not about intervening in a civil war and it was not about regime change: it was about a limited, targeted and effective strike that sought to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.
We have published the legal basis for this action. It required three conditions to be met. First, there must be convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief. Secondly, it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved. Thirdly, the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian suffering, and must be strictly limited in time and in scope to this aim.
These are the same three criteria used as the legal justification for the UK’s role in the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Our intervention in 1991 with the US and France, and in 1992 with the US, to create safe havens and enforce the no-fly zones in Iraq following the Gulf war were also justified on the basis of humanitarian intervention. So Governments of all colours have long considered that military action on an exceptional basis—where necessary and proportionate, and as a last resort to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe—is permissible under international law.
I have set out why we are convinced by the evidence and why there was no practicable alternative. Let me set out how this military response was also proportionate. This was a limited, targeted and effective strike that would significantly degrade Syrian chemical weapons capabilities and deter their future use, and with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.
As a result, the co-ordinated actions of the US, UK and France were successfully and specifically targeted at three sites. Contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition said at the weekend, these were not “empty buildings”. The first was the Barzeh branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in northern Damascus. This was a centre for the research and development of Syria’s chemical and biological programme. It was hit by 57 American TLAMs and 19 American JASSMs. The second site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons bunkers, 15 miles west of the city of Homs, which contained both a chemical weapons equipment and storage facility and an important command post. These were successfully hit by seven French SCALP cruise missiles.
The third site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage site and former missile base, which is now a military facility. This was assessed to be a location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment, whose destruction would degrade Syria’s ability to deliver sarin in the future. This was hit by nine US TLAMs, five naval and two SCALP cruise missiles from France and eight Storm Shadow missiles launched by our four RAF Tornado GR4s. Very careful scientific analysis was used to determine where best to target these missiles to maximise the destruction of stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks to the surrounding area. The facility that we targeted is located some distance from any known population centres, reducing yet further any such risk of civilian casualties.
While targeted and limited, these strikes by the US, UK and France were significantly larger than the US action a year ago after the attack at Khan Shaykhun, and specifically designed to have a greater impact on the regime’s capability and willingness to use chemical weapons. We also minimised the chances of wider escalation through our carefully targeted approach, and the House will note that Russia has not reported any losses of personnel or equipment as a result of the strikes. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to all the British servicemen and women, and their American and French allies, who successfully carried out this mission with such courage and professionalism.
Let me deal specifically with three important questions. First, why did we not wait for the investigation from the OPCW? UNSC-mandated inspectors have investigated previous attacks and, on four occasions, decided that the regime was indeed responsible. We are confident in our own assessment that the Syrian regime was highly likely responsible for this attack and that its persistent pattern of behaviour meant that it was highly likely to continue using chemical weapons. Furthermore, there were clearly attempts to block any proper investigation, as we saw with the Russian veto at the UN earlier in the week.
And let me set this out in detail: we support strongly the work of the OPCW fact-finding mission that is currently in Damascus, but that mission is only able to make an assessment of whether chemical weapons were used. Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment—and it is currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians—it cannot attribute responsibility. This is because Russia vetoed, in November 2017, an extension of the joint investigatory mechanism set up to do this, and last week, in the wake of the Douma attack, it again vetoed a new UNSC resolution to re-establish such a mechanism. Even if we had the OPCW’s findings and a mechanism to attribute, for as long as Russia continued to veto the UN Security Council would still not be able to act. So we cannot wait to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks.
Secondly, were we not just following orders from America? Let me be absolutely clear: we have acted because it is in our national interest to do so. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used, for we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised—within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.
So we have not done this because President Trump asked us to; we have done it because we believed it was the right thing to do. And we are not alone. There is broad-based international support for the action we have taken. NATO has issued a statement setting out its support, as have the Gulf Co-operation Council and a number of countries in the region. Over the weekend I have spoken to a range of world leaders, including Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Gentiloni, Prime Minister Trudeau, Prime Minister Turnbull and European Union Council President Donald Tusk. All have expressed their support for the actions that Britain, France and America have taken.
Thirdly, why did we not recall Parliament? The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations. This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before. And it was a decision that required the evaluation of intelligence and information, much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with Parliament. We have always been clear that the Government have the right to act quickly in the national interest. I am absolutely clear, Mr Speaker, that it is Parliament’s responsibility to hold me to account for such decisions, and Parliament will do so. But it is my responsibility as Prime Minster to make these decisions—and I will make them. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
As I have been clear, this military action was not about intervening in the civil war in Syria or about regime change, but we are determined to do our utmost to help resolve the conflict in Syria. That means concluding the fight against Daesh, which still holds pockets of territory in Syria. It means working to enable humanitarian access and continuing our efforts at the forefront of global response, where the UK has already committed almost £2.5 billion—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis.
Next week, we will attend the second Brussels conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, which will focus on humanitarian support, bolstering the UN-led political process in Geneva and ensuring continued international support to refugees and host countries, driving forward the legacy of our own London conference held in 2016. And it means supporting international efforts to reinvigorate the process to deliver a political solution, for this is the best long-term hope for the Syrian people. The UK will do all of these things. But as I have also been clear, that is not what these military strikes were about.
As I have set out, the military action we have taken this weekend was specifically focused on degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their future use. In order to achieve this, there must also be a wider diplomatic effort, including the full range of political and economic levers, to strengthen the global norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, which have stood for nearly a century. So we will continue to work with our international partners on tough economic action against those involved with the production or dissemination of chemical weapons.
I welcome the conclusions of today’s European Foreign Affairs Council, attended by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, which confirmed that the Council is willing to consider further restrictive measures on those involved in the development and use of chemical weapons in Syria. We will continue to push for the re-establishment of an international investigative mechanism that can attribute responsibility for chemical weapons use in Syria. We will advance with our French allies the new International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, which will meet in the coming weeks. We will continue to strengthen the international coalition we have built since the attack on Salisbury.
Last Thursday’s report from the OPCW has confirmed our findings that it was indeed a Novichok in Salisbury. I have placed a copy of that report’s executive summary in the House of Commons Library. While of a much lower order of magnitude, the use of a nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury is part of a pattern of disregard for the global norms that prohibit the use of chemical weapons. So while the action was taken to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Syria by degrading the regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring its use of these weapons, it will also send a clear message to anyone who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity. We cannot go back to a world where the use of chemical weapons becomes normalised.
I am deeply conscious of the gravity of these decisions. They affect all Members of this House and me personally. I understand the questions that, rightly, will be asked about British military action, particularly in such a complex region, but I am clear that the way we protect our national interest is to stand up for the global rules and standards that keep us safe. That is what we have done and what we will continue to do. I commend this statement to the House.
I want to start by thanking the Prime Minister for our phone conversation in advance of the bombing raids on Friday night and for the advance copy of her statement today. I also join her in paying tribute to Sergeant Matt Tonroe, the SAS sniper from Manchester who was killed on 28 March with US forces in northern Syria, and Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar from Texas, who was killed in the same attack.
I welcome the fact that all British military personnel involved have returned home safely from this mission. The attack in Douma was an horrific attack on civilians using chemical weapons—part of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
This statement serves as a reminder that the Prime Minister is accountable to this Parliament, not to the whims of the US President. We clearly need a war powers Act in this country to transform a now broken convention into a legal obligation. Her predecessor came to this House to seek authority for military action in Libya, and in Syria in 2015, and the House had a vote on Iraq in 2003. There is no more serious issue than the life-and-death matters of military action. It is right that Parliament has the power to support or stop the Government taking planned military action. The BBC reports that the Prime Minister argued for the bombing to be brought forward to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. Will she today confirm or deny those reports?
I believe the action was legally questionable. On Saturday—[Interruption.]
Order. I urge Members to calm down. In my experience, some Members who shout from a sedentary position also entertain the fanciful idea that they might be called to ask a question. I wish to disabuse them of that idea. The Prime Minister was heard in an atmosphere of respectful quiet. That will happen for the Leader of the Opposition as well: no ifs, no buts, no sneers, no exceptions. That is the position.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I believe that the action was legally questionable, and on Saturday, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, said as much, reiterating that all countries must act in line with the United Nations charter, which states that action must be in self-defence or be authorised by the United Nations Security Council. The Prime Minister has assured us that the Attorney General had given clear legal advice approving the action. I hope the Prime Minister will now publish this advice in full today.
The summary note references the disputed humanitarian intervention doctrine, but even against this, the Government fail their own tests. The overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe due to the civil war in Syria is absolutely indisputable, but the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that these strikes would have no bearing on the civil war. The Prime Minister has reiterated that today by saying that this is not what these military strikes were about.
Does, for example, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi airfields or its positions in Yemen, especially given its use of banned cluster bombs and white phosphorus? Three United Nations agencies said in January that Yemen was the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, so will the Prime Minister today commit to ending support to the Saudi bombing campaign and arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
On the mission itself, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of bombing related military facilities, where the regime is assessed as storing chemical weapons? What about the impact on local people of chemicals being released into the local environment? News footage shows both journalists and local people in the rubble without any protective clothing. Why does the Prime Minister believe that these missile strikes will deter future chemical attacks?
As the Prime Minister will be aware, there were US strikes in 2017 in the wake of the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun, for which the UN OPCW team held the Assad regime to be responsible. In relation to the air strikes against the Barzeh and Him Shinsar facilities, the Prime Minister will be aware that the OPCW carried out inspections on both those facilities in 2017 and concluded that
“the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations”
under the chemical weapons convention. Can the Prime Minister advise the House whether she believes that the OPCW was wrong in that assessment, or does she have separate intelligence that the nature of those activities has changed within the last five months? In the light of the Chilcot inquiry, does she agree with a key recommendation about the importance of strengthening the checks and assessments on intelligence information when it is used to make the case for Government policies? Given that neither the UN nor the OPCW has yet investigated the Douma attack, it is clear that diplomatic and non-military means have not been fully exhausted.
While much suspicion rightly points to the Assad Government, chemical weapons have been used by other groups in the conflict—for example, Jaish al-Islam, which was reported to have used gas in Aleppo in 2016, among other groups. It is now vital that the OPCW inspectors, who arrived in Damascus on Saturday, are allowed to do their work and publish their report on their findings, and report to the United Nations Security Council. They must be allowed to complete their inspections without hindrance, and I hope the UK will put all diplomatic pressure on Russia and Syria, and other influential states, to ensure that they are able to access the site in Douma.
There is a bigger question. More than 400,000 Syrians are estimated to have died in the Syrian conflict—the vast majority as a result of conventional weapons, as the Prime Minister indicated—and the UN estimates that 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and that there are more than 5 million refugees. It is more important than ever that we take concrete steps to halt and finally end the suffering. Acting through the UN, she should now take a diplomatic lead to negotiate a pause in this abhorrent conflict. This means engaging with all parties involved, including Iran, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, to ensure an immediate ceasefire.
We have the grotesque spectacle of a wider geopolitical battle being waged by proxy, with the Syrian people being used as pawns by all sides. Our first priority must be the safety and security of the Syrian people, which is best served by de-escalating this conflict so that aid can get in. Will the Prime Minister now embark, therefore, as I hope she will, on a renewed diplomatic effort to try to bring an end to this conflict, as she indicated she would in the latter part of her statement? She stated that diplomatic processes did not work. This is not exactly true. The initiative negotiated by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov led to the destruction of 600 tonnes of chemical weapons, overseen by the OPCW. No one disputes that such diplomatic processes are difficult and imperfect, but that should not stop us continuing diplomatic efforts.
The refugee crisis places a responsibility on all countries. Hundreds of unaccompanied children remain in Europe, but the UK has yet to take in even the small numbers it was committed to through the Dubs amendment. I hope that today the Government will increase their commitment to take additional Syrian refugees. Will the Prime Minister make that commitment today?
I will start by responding to the Leader of the Opposition’s comments on the Syrian conflict more generally. I think that everybody in the House recognises the nature of the conflict and the impact it has had on the Syrian people, including on the millions of people displaced either within Syria or to countries in the surrounding region. As I said in my statement, the UK, having given almost £2.5 billion, is now the second biggest bilateral donor for Syrian refugees in the region. We have been clear that we believe we can help more people by giving aid in the region, and we have been able to support hundreds of thousands of children in the region through the aid we have given to them. We will continue to provide that support, and we continue to be grateful for all that is being done, particularly by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, to support refugees in the region. It is a significant task for those countries, and we are supporting them in their effort.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me to launch a new diplomatic effort. As I said in my statement, we will indeed be continuing the work in relation to the wider issue of the conflict in Syria. As I said, that means continuing and concluding the fight against Daesh; it means our humanitarian work, as I have said, and continuing to press for humanitarian access; and it means supporting the international efforts to reinvigorate the process to deliver a long-term political solution in Syria. It is necessary for all parties, however, to be willing to come together to discuss and develop that long-term solution.
I come now to the strikes at the weekend and the issue of chemical weapons. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the legal basis. We have published the legal basis for our action, and I have been very clear—I went through the arguments in my statement—that this is about the alleviation of humanitarian suffering. That is a legal basis that has been used by Governments of all colours. As I said, it was used in 1991 and 1992. It was also used by the Labour Government to justify intervention in Kosovo as part of the NATO intervention.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to other areas of conflict in the world. Let me say to him that what sets this apart particularly is the use of chemical weapons. This is about alleviating the suffering that would come from the use of such weapons, but I believe it is also important, and in this country’s interest and the interests of other countries around the world, for us to re-establish the international norm that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited. We cannot allow a situation to develop in which countries and people think that their use has been allowed to become normalised. That is important for us all.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and about its investigation in Douma. As I said in my statement, the problem is that the investigation is being stopped. The regime and the Russians are preventing the OPCW from investigating. Moreover, again, the regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure that they are not taking out of the region samples that could be tested elsewhere, and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the possibility of chemical weapons being used by other groups. As I pointed out in my statement, it is understood that these chemical weapons were delivered by barrel bombs, which are normally dropped from helicopters. There is the evidence that I cited in relation to regime helicopter activity in Douma on the date in question, and it is not the case that the groups to which the right hon. Gentleman referred have access to the helicopters and barrel bombs that would be able to deliver such a chemical weapons attack.
I think that that is clear, and it was on that basis that the Government decided to act, together with the United States and France. I think it important that this was a joint international effort. The strikes were carefully targeted, and proper analysis was carried out to ensure that they were targeted at sites that were relevant to the chemical weapons capability of the regime. We did this to alleviate further human suffering. We targeted the strikes at the chemical weapons capability of the regime to degrade and deter its willingness to use chemical weapons in future, and I continue to believe that it was the right thing to do.
I fully support the proportionate, targeted action that we have taken against these sites, and I hope that the Government will consider similar action in future if anyone is so foolish as to repeat chemical weapons attacks. We can all debate these matters, but it takes a real Prime Minister to actually face up to the grave responsibility.
As for the question of the parliamentary role, I think that the Prime Minister was not relying on the archaic narrow interpretation of the royal prerogative, which no Government have invoked in this country for more than 50 years. Governments will always come to Parliament for debate, and votes if possible, on any military action. The Prime Minister said that there was a problem of time, but surely once President Trump had announced to the world what he was proposing, a widespread debate was taking place everywhere—including among many Members of Parliament in the media. However, there was no debate in Parliament.
Would the Prime Minister consider establishing, once the immediate issues are over, a cross-party commission of some kind to set out precisely what the role of Parliament is in modern times in the use of military power against another state, and what exceptions, if any, there can be to the usual rule that the Government need parliamentary approval before taking grave actions of this kind?
Let me first thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments about the action that was taken in Syria by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. He referred to the parliamentary position. The decision to act was made on this basis: first of all, obviously, an effort was made in the United Nations Security Council to propose and pass a resolution that would have enabled investigation and enabled accountability for the chemical weapons to be determined. That was vetoed by the Russians, so it was not possible to follow that diplomatic route, but the timing enabled proper planning to take place so that this was a targeted and effective set of strikes, it was done in a timely fashion and it maintained the operational security of our armed forces. Any Prime Minister who commits any of our armed forces into action of this sort must have a care for their safety and security in doing so.
I also refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the written ministerial statement in 2016 on the war powers convention, which concluded:
“After careful consideration, the Government has decided that it will not be codifying the convention in law or by resolution of the House in order to retain the ability of this and future Governments and the armed forces to protect the security and interests of the UK in circumstances that we cannot predict, and to avoid such decisions becoming subject to legal action.
We will continue to ensure that Parliament is kept informed of significant major operations and deployments of the Armed Forces.”—[Official Report, 18 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 11WS.]
That is what I have done today: I have come to Parliament with a statement on the action that took place. As I said in my statement, Parliament will hold me to account for the decision that has been taken.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the sad demise of Sergeant Matt Tonroe and pass on condolences to his family and friends? May I also thank the Prime Minister for the phone call ahead of the engagement at the weekend, as well as for advance sight of her statement today?
All of us in this House have an absolute revulsion for the use of chemical weapons, and we need to work here and internationally to make sure that we remove the scourge of chemical weapons from the landscape in Syria and elsewhere.
The Government now seem to have accepted that this House needed time to debate Syria, but why have we had to wait for today? When the Prime Minister called a Cabinet meeting last week, she should have recalled Parliament. The Prime Minister leads a minority Government. As was the case with the action against Daesh in 2015, this should only have happened with parliamentary approval. It was perfectly possible for the House to have been recalled in advance of the Saturday morning airstrikes. Why was that not done? And what does this mean for the Prime Minister’s position if there are further chemical attacks in Syria? Will she continue to authorise military action without consulting and without the authorisation of Parliament?
I am glad to hear the Leader of the Opposition support our calls for a war powers Act, because that is the best way to protect us from getting into this situation again. Have the Government learned nothing from the Chilcot review? Once again we have been dragged into military action with little regard for the humanitarian situation on the ground and no long-term strategic plan. The human suffering in Syria knows no bounds: hundreds of thousands dead; millions fleeing for their lives and 400,000 civilians still trapped in appalling conditions, deprived of food, medicine and basic aid; and over 13 million civilians in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Will the Prime Minister revisit the issue of refugees, particularly child refugees? We must do more than we have been doing.
Why was action taken before international weapons inspectors completed their investigation? In February the Prime Minister told me in this House that she was committed to
“finding a political solution for Syria.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 153.]
Why, then, did the UK not support Sweden’s draft UN resolution calling for an international investigation into chemical stockpiles reportedly held by the Syrian regime?
Is the Prime Minister as surprised and concerned as I am at the US President’s language that the situation in Syria was “mission accomplished”? Who does she agree with, the US President or the UN Secretary-General, who like most of us is clear:
“There is no military solution to the crisis. The solution must be political”?
The right hon. Gentleman has raised a number of issues.
I recognise that the issue of refugees, particularly child refugees, has been of concern to Members across this House for some time, and has been raised in this Chamber on a number of occasions. We took the decision that we could help and support more children and more refugees in general—men and women, as well as children —by acting in the region, and, as I have said, we have become the second biggest bilateral donor to the region. But we also took the decision that there were a number of refugees who were particularly vulnerable and who perhaps required particular medical support, and that it was right to bring them to the United Kingdom under our commitment to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which we have been putting in place and continue to put in place. We are operating a number of other schemes to bring refugees—children in particular—here to the United Kingdom, but we continue to ensure that we are supporting the greatest possible number of refugees by acting in region, and that continues to be what we should be doing.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the issue of Parliament. I am sure he would recognise that it is always necessary for the Government to be able to act when decisions need to be taken, but to ensure that if a decision is taken that has not been discussed by Parliament, an opportunity for Parliament to discuss it and ask questions on it should be given at the first opportunity. That is exactly what we have done in this particular circumstance. We have also been as open as possible in terms of publishing the legal basis on which we have taken this decision, making information available to a number of parliamentarians on a Privy Council basis, and trying to ensure that we provide the maximum possible briefing, commensurate with the fact that some of the intelligence on which we are operating cannot be shared with Parliament. We will be as open as possible with this Parliament and, as I have said, I will continue to answer questions from this Parliament on this issue.
Given my right hon. Friend’s narrow target of stopping the Syrians using chemical weapons further and given the need to take swift action, I commend her for taking that action, notwithstanding the fact that others have criticised her for not coming to Parliament. Coming to Parliament is a must, and the Prime Minister has done that today and will do it later on as well. I also want to raise the issue that the Russians and the Syrians are blocking the OPCW from going into the target area, and I understand that a lot of clean-up and change is happening while that block is in place. I therefore have a simple question for my right hon. Friend: given the confusion among some about who is the greatest threat to world peace, does she think it is Russia or America?
I think that people are seeing the actions that Russia has taken in support of the Syrian regime. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, efforts are being made in Syria to ensure that it is not possible for OPCW inspectors to go in to ascertain the truth about what happened in Douma. We took a decision, and we made an assessment, together with our allies. The three parties that took part in the strikes agreed that all the evidence we had seen—from open-source reporting, and from the reporting of non-governmental organisations and the World Health Organisation—suggested that this was a chemical weapons attack. As I have indicated, a number of pieces of information and intelligence showed that it was highly likely that that was undertaken by the Syrian regime.
My right hon. Friend is right that more could have been done by the OPCW if Russia had not vetoed the resolution in the United Nations Security Council, and it would be possible to make greater efforts on the ground now to establish what happened in Douma if Russia and the regime were not blocking the opportunity for the OPCW to go to the site and if efforts were not being made by the regime to ensure that material from the site was not available for analysis. It is quite clear that every effort is being made. As I pointed out in my response to the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, it is perfectly clear that Russia is preventing, stopping and blocking our opportunities to ensure that we can properly hold to account those responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
I also regret the fact that the Prime Minister did not seek the prior approval of Parliament, especially as at least some of her arguments are compelling. Further to a question from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that the Prime Minister did not answer, if the Syrian regime is now foolish enough to use its residual stocks to attack other holdouts, such as Idlib, does the Prime Minister intend to order fresh strikes, or was this, in the words of President Trump, a one-off operation and “mission accomplished”?
This was a limited, targeted set of strikes by the United Kingdom, the United States and France. The targets were carefully chosen, and the intention was to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and to deter its willingness to use those weapons. Nobody should be in any doubt about our resolve to ensure that we do not see a situation in which the use of chemical weapons is normalised.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the public well understand that when our forces need to act quickly, decisively and safely, in concert with our allies, it must be right to authorise strikes without giving notice? Is it not also clear that if the use of chemical weapons goes completely unchallenged, dictators in other countries will use these awful weapons to suppress opposition?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comment. In fact, the 2016 written ministerial statement from which I quoted earlier was made in my right hon. Friend’s name. It states:
“In observing the convention, we must ensure that the ability of our armed forces to act quickly and decisively, and to maintain the security of their operations, is not compromised.”
It is important that we are able to do that, and I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend.
This was clearly a vile attack by Assad on his own people, and we have a responsibility to consider how to respond while also not escalating global conflict. However, Parliament has considered these kinds of complex issues before. We have voted for and against military action. We have got things right and got things wrong, and so too have the Executive. The Prime Minister and her Cabinet appear today not just to be arguing about the circumstances of last week, but to be rejecting the entire principle of consulting, debating and voting in Parliament in advance of military action. Given the importance of us pioneering democratic values across the world, will she clarify her position on that and say how important she thinks it is for Parliament to decide on issues of war and peace?
It is not a question of the Government rejecting that principle. If I can return again to the written ministerial statement, it observes:
“The Cabinet Manual states, ‘In 2011, the Government acknowledged that a Convention had developed in Parliament that before troops were committed the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter and said that it proposed to observe that Convention except where there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate.’”
It subsequently goes on to make other references and, as I just said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), states:
“In observing the convention, we must ensure that the ability of our armed forces to act quickly and decisively, and to maintain the security of their operations, is not compromised.”—[Official Report, 18 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 10WS.]
When the Government take a decision and act without a debate in Parliament, as has happened on this occasion, it is right that I come to Parliament at the first opportunity to explain that decision and to give Members an opportunity to question it, and to hold me and the Government to account.
I can only imagine the burden on the Prime Minister’s shoulders as she took this onerous decision. From the other side, I can say that when such orders are received, they are about the most sobering thing that one can ever get. I congratulate her on taking action that I believe to be not only legitimate, but right and, indeed, urgent. I also congratulate her, her colleagues and our international partners on standing together on this matter. However, will she reinforce the efforts of the Foreign Office? Few have been shouldering the burden as heavily as Karen Pierce at the United Nations, although others in our diplomatic network have done so. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Foreign Office’s role is to promote the aims and interests of our Government and our people whom we are here to represent, not to wait for a veto and the news that Moscow says no?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it must be the UK Government who determine UK foreign policy. We must not hand over our foreign policy to a Russian veto. It is absolutely essential that we determine our foreign policy; the Foreign Office, of course, is a key part of delivering that.
There are many who support the principle of humanitarian protection and what it achieved in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and who recognise what its absence cost in Rwanda and, indeed, Syria. Of course we must uphold the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons but, as someone who supported military action against Daesh in Syria in the vote in December 2015, I say gently to the Prime Minister that she should have come first to the House before committing our forces to action. Therefore, may I ask her to give us an assurance that in the event—heaven forbid—that President Assad chooses to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians once again, she will come to Parliament first, she will share such evidence as she can with us, as she has done today, and she will trust Parliament to decide what is to be done?
I set out in my statement the basis on which we took this decision. I recognise the importance and significance of Parliament and of Parliament being able to make its views known on these issues, but it is also important that the Government are able to act. There will always be circumstances in which it is important for the Government to be able to act and, for the operational security of our armed forces, to be able to do so without a debate having taken place in Parliament. There will be circumstances where that is the case, and the Government have consistently set that out. If those are the circumstances, as I have said, it is right that the Prime Minister comes to Parliament at the earliest opportunity.
In relation to potential future action, as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), this was a targeted attack. It was targeted at degrading the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime. We now look, alongside that, to undertake international work through diplomatic and political channels to ensure that we reinforce the international norm of not using chemical weapons. Nobody should be in any doubt about our resolve to ensure that we do not see a situation developing in which the use of chemical weapons is normalised.
If the Leader of the Opposition persists in changing the Labour party’s previous adherence to the rule that international law justifies taking unilateral action in the event of humanitarian necessity, does my right hon. Friend agree that the consequence will be that any tyrant, megalomaniac or other person intent on carrying out genocide, if they have the support of an amoral state on the Security Council will be able to conduct that genocide with total impunity, even if it were within our power to act to prevent it? Does she agree that in those circumstances, far from upholding the international rules-based system, the reality is that it would be dead?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. If we were to say that we are prepared to act only when we have the support of the United Nations—given that, as we have seen in this circumstance, a member of the UN Security Council is willing repeatedly to veto the ability to investigate these issues—any tyrant could determine that they can act and use these weapons with impunity. We must not allow that. The use of these chemical weapons must be stopped.
May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the passing of Sergeant Tonroe? His courage and valour is another example of the courage and valour of all our servicemen and women, as was exemplified in Syria at the weekend. I thank the Prime Minister for her call with me prior to the action on Saturday morning and for her statement today. Its cogent and well-argued nature in addressing the challenges of these difficult times stands in stark contrast to today’s contribution made by the Leader of the Opposition in this House. Given that this is limited and targeted action, and that diplomacy was tried and, sadly, was unable to succeed, the Prime Minister is utterly justified in the action that she has taken. She should have the support of every right-thinking Member of the House in upholding international law and defending the national interests of the United Kingdom.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right: we undertook this action because we believed it was the right thing to do and it was in our national interest. I believe it is important that all of us across this House recognise the need to uphold the international rules-based order and do what we can to ensure that we maintain it.
I welcome the calm and measured assessment of the Prime Minister, as I suspect do a considerable number of Opposition Members. She mentioned the year 2011. Bearing in mind what happened in Libya after the House retrospectively approved air action in 2011—namely the toppling of the regime—will she give us an absolute and unequivocal guarantee that the use of airstrikes now, specifically, as she says, to degrade and to deter chemical atrocities, will absolutely not be allowed to lead to the Royal Air Force becoming, in effect, the air arm of the jihadist-led rebel forces in Syria? The two roles are and should be held to be entirely separate.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—they are separate. This was about the degrading of chemical weapons capability; it was not about regime change and it was not about an intervention in the civil war in Syria. It was about the use of chemical weapons and the prevention of future humanitarian suffering.
There are no easy solutions to the appalling humanitarian crisis and civil war in Syria, but Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons against his own people, in violation of international law, cannot go unanswered. What is the Prime Minister’s assessment of Assad’s chemical weapons capability after these strikes, and what further and urgent humanitarian action is she planning to protect Syrian civilians?
I thank the hon. Lady for her words. We, of course, continue to complete assessments of the action, but the assessment of the strikes that took place in the early hours of Saturday morning is that they were successful and that they will have degraded the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime. But we will continue to ensure that we are encouraging humanitarian access to those people in Syria who require it. Again, attempts have been made, through the United Nations, to encourage that access and so forth. Sometimes those have not been successful, but we will continue to press, because we believe it is important that we can ensure that support is available to those people in Syria who need it.
As a former Secretary of State for International Development, I can say that the harrowing stories I heard from Syrian refugees—men, women and children—will stay with me for the rest of my life. Does the Prime Minister agree that, on their behalf, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to this breach of international law and that there will be times when action is urgent and must be taken? Does she also agree that we cannot also allow countries such as Russia and Syria to simply dictate our foreign policy through barring action?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. As she said, she had the opportunity in her former role to speak to and hear from Syrian refugees about their experiences. Nobody who has seen the pictures or read the descriptions of what happened in Douma can think anything other than that this was an absolutely barbaric act that took place, and that it is right that we act in response to that and to the continued use of chemical weapons, because this was about the continued use of chemical weapons and the potential for those weapons to be used in future.
The sight of children and adults suffering from the effects of chemical weapons cries out to all humanity for a humane response, but planning for war without equally robust planning for peace is anything but humane. Conventional and chemical weapons are indiscriminately horrific. In what way will this weekend’s strikes protect children from future monstrous attacks?
We have undertaken a limited and targeted set of strikes, alongside our allies in the United States and France. The purpose of those strikes—as I just indicated in response to a previous question, our assessment is that they were successful—was to degrade the Syrian regime’s capability to use chemical weapons. They were also intended to deter the regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons. It is that degrading of the regime’s capability that we believe will have an impact and will help to alleviate the situation and ensure that we do not see the same humanitarian suffering in future.
My right hon. Friend will agree that the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances, is illegal, contrary to all the laws of war and utterly reprehensible. Will she therefore confirm that the Government will at a later date seek the arraignment at an international court of those who instigate these vile acts, whoever they may be?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the illegality of the use of chemical weapons and the impact of their use. We believe that those who are responsible should be held to account.
The pinpointing and degrading of Assad’s chemical weapons was necessary and appropriate. Intervening to save civilians from future gas attacks was, although not without risks, absolutely the right thing to do. Does the Prime Minister agree that a policy of inaction would also have severe consequences and that those who would turn a blind eye—who would do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground—should today also be held accountable for once?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and agree with him. Many people focus on the impact of action, but inaction would have given a message that these chemical weapons could continue to be used by the Syrian regime and, indeed, by others, with impunity. We cannot allow that to happen. The use of these weapons must be stopped.
There are no words to describe the appalling nature of the humanitarian disaster that confronts Syria, which is why I commend my right hon. Friend for the strong action that she has taken and the support she is giving to the Syrian people. Will she assure the House that in the face of the abhorrent abuses perpetrated by the Assad regime, hers will continue to be a strong voice in favour of the international rules-based system, and will she show that Britain will not stand idly by when cruel weapons are used to murder innocent children and families?