House of Commons
Wednesday 5 September 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU
May I start by paying tribute to Lord Melchett who, when he was in the House of Commons, was Peter Melchett? He did outstanding service to the nation when he was here. Indeed, he was a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office in 1976.
May I also say, Mr Speaker, that in the past 36 hours or so in Northern Ireland there have been three car crashes, which have taken the lives of four people? I am sure the whole House sends our sympathies and condolences to the loved ones of all those who have died.
The UK Government are determined to deliver the best deal for the whole of our United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. We are committed to avoiding a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls, while maintaining the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. We have proposed a comprehensive future partnership between the UK and the EU that would meet these commitments.
I thank the Minister for that response and for his tribute to Peter Melchett who, as well as serving in the Northern Ireland Office, was a good friend of mine, a lovely man and a passionate environmentalist.
Is it not the case that the backstop proposal is now just dead in the water? The Government are not going to get anywhere with it. A poll this week said that people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland if a hard border was put in place. Are not the Government sacrificing the Union on this altar? Would not the best solution be to move forward with plans to stay in the single market, stay in the customs union, avoid a hard border, and protect the people of Northern Ireland from Brexit?
I make it absolutely clear to the hon. Lady that it is our intention that there will be no hard border and no physical infrastructure. The people of this country voted in the referendum, and this Government’s intention is to make sure that we are not part of the single market or the customs union. The whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will be leaving those two institutions.
One of the reasons why a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain was because they understood the consequences of leaving the European Union on jobs, livelihoods, communities and cross-border relationships—not simply economic relationships, but personal ones. Given the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, and given that the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland are evidently not understood by leading figures in the governing party in Westminster, what are the Government doing to ensure that the concerns and interests of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland are properly heard and represented at the negotiating table?
As far as the referendum is concerned, it was not a regional referendum but a national referendum, and the people of the United Kingdom took a decision to leave. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, let me make it absolutely clear that we are committed to ensuring that the devolved Administration is up and running again. We are working very hard to ensure that that happens. He should remember that the last time Northern Ireland went into direct rule, that lasted for five years, and the period before that lasted for 25 years. It is very easy to slip down the road to direct rule, but we want to avoid that because it is important that local people have local representation that can be accountable locally.
On 27 June, Mr George Hamilton, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee:
“We do not know who is leading the multiagency response to the land border”.
What has been done to give clarity in the weeks since he made that statement? In particular, what proportion of the uplift to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Force, as announced by the Government, will be assigned to Northern Ireland?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are in regular contact with all stakeholders in Northern Ireland, including the police. There is detailed planning for a no-deal scenario, but we very much hope that that will not be the case.
May I remind the Minister that in the December joint report on article 50, the EU agreed that the United Kingdom would make sure there was unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom in all circumstances? Reports over the summer suggest that Mr Barnier appears to be devising creative solutions to try to get around the commitment that he made. May I ask the Minister and the Secretary of State to remind him that he signed up to those words and that we expect him to deliver on the commitments that he has made?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for putting that point at the forefront of our proceedings following the recess. He is absolutely right: Michel Barnier made the commitment; and the European Union and Britain signed up to the joint report in December. We intend to hold him to it.
May I bring the Minister back to the question asked by the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which he did not answer? The issue highlighted by the Chief Constable of the PSNI, which we have raised directly with the Prime Minister, is what extra resources are being given to prepare for Brexit. Those resources have been requested by the Chief Constable, since he has made it very, very clear that he has not had a fair allocation.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will issue guidance in the future. We are working on it at the moment and working with all the stakeholders. It will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future, I hope.
With the greatest respect, we are not asking about issuing guidance; we are asking about the allocation of resources. I really want to press the Minister on this issue, since it will have a very big impact on the resourcing of policing in Northern Ireland more widely. What are he and the Government going to do—this has been on their table for many months now—to allocate to the Chief Constable the resources that he needs and that he fairly has asked for?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Constable this morning. We are in regular dialogue and we are considering the proposals that he has put forward. That is what I can say. We hope to come up with a solution in due course.
The Government are right to reject the EU’s proposals for a customs border in the Irish sea. Will the Minister remind the House of the balance of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the Republic and Great Britain?
It is important to remember that 58% of the external sales of Northern Ireland—over £14 billion—are with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is four times more than its trade with Ireland.
Two weeks ago, the Government published advice for UK businesses on the potential impact of a Brexit no deal. Unbelievably, businesses in Northern Ireland were asked to
“consider whether you need advice from the Irish Government about preparations you need to make.”
That is a quite extraordinary abdication of responsibility. Will the Minister confirm what involvement his Department had in the preparation of the advice, and will he commit to giving further assistance to businesses in Northern Ireland?
Clearly we have a responsibility as a Government to business people in respect of what we will do or what we intend to do, but we cannot speak for other countries. It therefore of course makes eminent sense for businesses in Northern Ireland that do deals across the border to consult so that they find out what is happening with other EU countries. The UK Government cannot speak for the Irish Government, so that dialogue is important.
How do the Government plan to ensure that our departure from the European Union is used as an opportunity to strengthen the Union?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are leaving the European Union as four nations. It is absolutely clear that the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not in any way be compromised. In our negotiations with the European Union, we speak as the United Kingdom, not as any specific one of the four nations.
May I share the Minister’s sentiments about Peter Melchett and the recent loss of life due to the car crashes?
Tourism has been a success story in the years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, helping to transform the image of Northern Ireland throughout the world. It is therefore worrying that figures released in August show a 6% drop in visitors between January and March. The Prime Minister and most of her current and past Cabinets have barely set foot in Northern Ireland over the past two years, so may I suggest a group booking? Such a visit would help to end the drip of uninformed, unhelpful comments about Northern Ireland from the Government Benches that has become dispiritingly regular.
First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment to the shadow Northern Ireland Office team. We look forward to working with her in a constructive way.
It is important that we speak up for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom as we leave the European Union. The hon. Lady talks about tourism. More people visit Northern Ireland now than before. They are spending more money and staying longer. The “Lonely Planet” guide has recommended Belfast and the Causeway coast as the No. 1 region in the world to visit. It is important to recognise the strengths of Northern Ireland and to build on them.
Leaving the EU: Backstop Proposal
The December joint report commits us to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and to no new borders within the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister has been very clear that elements of the EU’s backstop proposal are unacceptable. It would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in her discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic she has emphasised that Irish insistence on a backstop that would force Northern Ireland, or indeed the whole of the UK, to remain in parts of the EU or its customs union are unacceptable and the surest way to deliver a no deal?
I can assure my hon. Friend that in my discussions with all parties and Governments in the European Union I am very clear that the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom must be respected, and that means no border down the Irish sea and that all businesses in Northern Ireland must have unfettered access to UK markets, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) indicated earlier.
I appreciate what the Secretary of State has said, but does she fully understand the magnitude of the situation were there to be any move to impose a backstop, divergence or anything else that would separate us from the rest of the United Kingdom?
We have been absolutely clear—the Prime Minister has been clear; I have been clear—that we respect the fact that the backstop has to be put into legal text, but that legal text has to be clear that the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is sacrosanct.
For two years I operated a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I see no reason whatsoever why technology cannot make it very soft—indeed, invisible. Does the Secretary of State agree?
My hon. and gallant Friend has great experience from his time in Northern Ireland, and I am sure he knows how difficult it was to police that border. Some 30,000 military and police personnel were unable to close the border, so I do not think that anybody should expect us to see a hard border today. However, I would be very happy to have a conversation with him about technology so that we can really explore all that.
May I, from the bottom of my heart, congratulate the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) on his long-deserved and well-merited elevation to the dizzy heights of Minister of State? I look forward to working with him.
There is, however, a cloud on the horizon. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill contains a proposal unique in the United Kingdom for unfettered, unqualified stop-and-search along the border. We must never forget that there are those who have to police the border. Will the Secretary of State or Minister of State speak with their opposite numbers about the implications of this piece of ill-thought-out legislation, because I see trouble brewing on the border if it goes ahead?
Conservative Members are delighted that the hon. Gentleman is still in his place. When we saw the very welcome appointment of his colleague over the summer, we had concerns that that might have an impact on his position; we are grateful that it has not.
We are aware of concerns raised in Northern Ireland about that Bill, which deals specifically with the threat elsewhere, and we are having discussions and conversations to give assurances to those in Northern Ireland about the concerns that they have raised.
The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) is personal testimony to the survival of rare breeds. The whole House is grateful for that important fact.
Northern Ireland has proved itself to be a top destination for inward investment from companies from the rest of the UK and also from overseas. Over 900 companies worldwide have invested in Northern Ireland, and I welcome this week’s announcement that PA Consulting will be creating 400 new jobs in Belfast. I firmly believe, however, that Northern Ireland can do even better, and we continue to work to restore stable, devolved government so that Northern Ireland can maximise its potential as a place to invest and do business.
I share the Minister’s enthusiasm. Northern Ireland is clearly a key driver of United Kingdom exports and will be even more important as we leave the European Union, so what steps is the Department taking to foster further investment and also to sell the opportunity of Northern Ireland as a top exporter around the world?
One of the fastest routes to a strong economy is through a healthy, growing export economy. The Northern Ireland Office is working with Departments across Whitehall, including the Department for International Trade, to maximise UK Government initiatives such as the GREAT campaign and the recently launched export strategy to promote exporters and help them to realise their potential. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly champion new investment announcements in Northern Ireland and promote Northern Ireland as a great place in which to invest and do business. That is something that was referred to in the Budget as well.
How on earth does the Minister expect to attract inward investment into Northern Ireland when we have not had a functioning Assembly for 18 months? We have a Secretary of State who said some months ago that she was “minded” to cut the salaries of the MLAs, but she has done absolutely nothing about doing so, so can the Minister give us some very good news today and announce a cut in MLAs’ salaries?
I am delighted to be able to give some very good news to the hon. Lady: in July US company Allstate, which is one of the many companies that are investing in Northern Ireland, opened Northern Ireland’s largest single office development for 15 years, investing £30 million. Allstate employs around 2,200 people in sites in Belfast, Derry and Strabane so, notwithstanding the present circumstances of not having a devolved Administration, the economy is looking up, business is coming in and we continue to try to get that devolved Administration up and running.
I am acutely aware of the deep frustration and difficulties faced by the people of Northern Ireland and the urgent need to re-establish a locally elected, democratically accountable devolved Government. I remain in close contact with the five main political parties and the Irish Government where appropriate.
The roles of the Northern Irish parties and their Assembly should be respected. Will the Minister confirm that the legality of taking Misoprostol, the second pill in medical abortions, at home in Northern Ireland is something for the people of Northern Ireland and their locally elected representatives to determine?
Yes, I can confirm that. Abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and it is only right that questions of law and policy on abortion, including the legality of any medicines, are decided by a devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
Given that it is now more than 18 months since the Assembly was suspended, will the Prime Minister now become more involved in the process, along with the Taoiseach?
I can assure the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister is very involved in the conversations and discussions that we have with all the main political parties. On her visit to Northern Ireland at the beginning of the summer, she met all five main parties and had discussions with them about that. Again, I continue to hold discussions with the Irish Government, including with the Taoiseach, whom I saw on Sunday.
With very important decisions on matters such as NHS pay and planning now held up by legal uncertainty, is it not time that this House considered legislating to give civil servants the powers that they need to take such decisions?
My right hon. Friend, who has considerable experience of this matter—experience beyond that of many people in this House—is quite right that there are very many decisions. I am looking carefully at the court judgments and determining the best course of action to ensure that we have the best chance of re-establishing devolved government in Stormont, and of making sure that there is good governance for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State will know that four out of the five political parties eligible to be in the Executive would join the Executive tomorrow. It is one party—Sinn Féin—that is holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom. Is it not therefore time for the Secretary of State to start ensuring that decisions affecting my constituents and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends are made so that the people of Northern Ireland have some form of government?
The right hon. Gentleman has made many representations to me on this point, and I know how passionately he stands up for his constituents in Lagan Valley, many of whom I met yesterday at the Hillsborough garden party, when they were very complimentary about their Member of Parliament. I continue to have discussions with all five main parties, because the important point is that we get devolved government up and running as soon as possible, but we ensure that there is good governance in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State will know that it is 600 days this weekend since Northern Ireland had a functioning Assembly or Executive. Will she tell the House very clearly what urgent steps she will take to bring the five parties together, to reconvene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, to cut the pay of MLAs—as has been asked for already—and of course, importantly, to make sure that real urgency is now put into this? We will support legislation where appropriate, but that legislation has to be brought forward urgently now.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s offer of support for legislation, and I am looking at the options available to us. There are court cases that have hampered decision making and are making things more uncertain; we are acutely aware of that, and I want to make sure that we do something that is coherent, that works for the people of Northern Ireland and that does not prevent the politicians in Northern Ireland from going back into devolved government.
This Government have a strong track record of promoting and supporting LGBT rights across the United Kingdom, including equal marriage. I was proud to demonstrate this support by having the rainbow flag flown from Stormont House last month to mark Belfast Pride.
But flags are not enough. On everything from mental health to civil rights, LGBT people in Northern Ireland are worse off than those in the rest of the UK, but groups I met recently say they get no funding from the Assembly or from Westminster, and there was nothing in the Government’s LGBT action plan. Will the Secretary of State consider the creation of a discretionary fund to ensure these groups get the support they need, particularly while there is no functioning Assembly?
I will look at the hon. Gentleman’s point. I have met many groups representing LGBT interests in Northern Ireland, but many of these matters are devolved and they should quite rightly be resolved by the devolved Government in Stormont.
We are all looking forward to the day, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I voted for same-sex marriage to be legal in my own constituency, and I am very proud that I did that, but it is right that these matters are dealt with by the devolved Government. [Interruption.] That is why we need a devolved Government in Stormont—so that we can resolve these issues. [Interruption.]
Order. Members are making far too much noise in the Chamber. I am quite sure it is not something I would ever have done as a Back-Bench Member, and I am sure the House wishes to hear the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—and that is what it is going to do anyway.
Sporting Events: Representation
The people of Northern Ireland have a proud history of sporting achievements gained while representing both the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is for individual athletes, subject to the rules of their respective sport’s governing body, to decide which country they wish to represent. This Government are wholly supportive of this choice being maintained.
The Minister is, as he knows, quite wrong. A young Northern Ireland sportsperson who wishes to, for example, box for the United Kingdom has to move to Great Britain; otherwise, they have to box for Ireland. That is the case in other sports, too. The Belfast agreement said that everyone had the right to choose to be British or Irish. Surely this must apply to sport, and the Minister must do more about this because it is just not fair.
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who I know has taken a passionate interest in this subject; we have talked about it before. She will of course be aware that Northern Ireland has won serious medals at the Commonwealth games for boxing. The issue itself is a devolved matter, and is also an issue for individual athletes and their governing sporting bodies to take up. As far as the boxing association of Northern Ireland is concerned, I suggest that it continues its dialogue with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Does the Minister agree that all sportsmen and women should have the right to represent the country they choose to, as long as they meet the eligibility criteria for that country?
As I say, if people have the merit to represent their country, there is no reason why they should not, subject to the rules of the governing body of their sport.
The Government’s commitments in respect of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland have been consistently clear. There will be no physical infrastructure on the border or related checks and controls. This commitment is also reflected in the December joint report text, which we have committed to translate into legally binding text in the withdrawal agreement.
In nine months, all that the Government have done by way of proposals for an open border in Ireland is to demand that 27 other sovereign states change their customs systems in order to collect customs duties on behalf of this Government. Why do the Government expect every other country in the European Union to sort out the mess that they have created?
With all due respect, I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing our proposals in the White Paper on the future relationship with our proposals for the legal, binding text for the protocols in paragraph 49 of the joint report, which we have committed to making into a legal text. We are working with the European Union on coming up with a text that we can all live with, but we will not accept the text that was put forward by the European Commission.
The Secretary of State talks with no hint of irony about consistency from this Government. The reality is that their obsession with ending the free movement of people is going to require some form of border control. How does she square ending the free movement of people with her obligations under the Belfast agreement?
The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and that means that we will regain control of our laws, our borders and our money. We will also ensure that we will meet the commitments that we made in the joint report in December to ensuring that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland and no border in the Irish sea.
Collecting duties on trade across the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic currently happens and does not present any problems. The real damage to Northern Ireland and to the integrity of the United Kingdom would be to have regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic, giving the EU, rather than London, control over our laws in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that in no circumstances will she agree to the backstop arrangement demanded by the EU, which would split the United Kingdom by having laws—
Order. We are immensely grateful, but that was far too long.
I refer the right hon. Gentleman back to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she said that no Prime Minister of the United Kingdom could accept the text put forward by the European Commission.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that Members from all sides of the House would like to join me in congratulating both the English and the Scottish women’s football teams on their excellent performance in qualifying for next year’s World Cup.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
My constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released temporarily for three days last month before being hauled back to prison in Iran. Worse still, when she was on furlough, she was contacted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and told that if she attempted to contact the British Embassy, her family would be harmed. I find it deeply troubling that a British citizen was threatened against contacting her own embassy. Does the Prime Minister share my concern, and will she raise this specific issue with President Rouhani when she next speaks to him, perhaps in New York later this month?
I share the concerns that the hon. Lady has expressed, and I know that during this difficult time the thoughts of everyone across the whole House remain with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and with her family and friends who have been campaigning tirelessly for release. The hon. Lady will know, as this is her constituent, that one of the difficulties is the question of whether the Iranian Government recognise dual nationality, which they do not. They are not obliged to do so under international law. She asks me to raise this matter with President Rouhani. I regularly do so whenever I speak to him. It is an issue that the Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Office and other Ministers also consistently raise with the Iranian Government, and we will continue to do so.
Jewish people living in this country should feel safe and secure, and should not have to worry about their future in their own country. There is no place for racial hatred in our society, and it is important that we take every step to tackle it. That is why we were the first country in the world to adopt the definition of antisemitism set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; we have been taking steps to provide funding to ensure that security measures can be taken in Jewish faith schools and synagogues, and we have provided funding to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to run events for Holocaust Memorial Day. We should all be united in our determination to tackle antisemitism, so when the leader of the Labour party stands up he should apologise for saying that Jewish people who have lived in this country their whole lives do not understand English irony.
There is no place for racism in any form within our society—on that we are all agreed—and we should tackle it wherever it arises, in our parties as well, and that includes the Conservative party.
I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the English and Scottish women’s football teams on their qualification for the World cup, and I look forward to them doing extremely well.
The International Trade Secretary said that the likelihood of no deal is now 60:40, which in betting parlance means that there is a pretty good chance that there will not be a deal—it is more likely than not. Is he right?
We are continuing to do what we have always been doing, which is working to get a good deal with the European Union for our future relationship once we have left the EU, but it is entirely right and proper that we should prepare for all eventualities, because we have not yet come to the end of the negotiations. That means that it is right that we are preparing for no deal, as indeed the EU has been doing, sending out notices in relation to no deal. We have also been publishing technical notices, so that businesses and citizens would know where they stand and how to prepare in the event of no deal. We have published over 20 such notices so far, and the final total is likely to be around 70. We are making those preparations, but, crucially, this Government are working for a good deal, preparing for every eventuality and preparing to ensure that this country makes a success of leaving the EU, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.
The International Trade Secretary has said that he is unfazed by no deal; the new Foreign Secretary, who is here today, said over the summer that no deal would be a “huge geostrategic mistake”; and the Chancellor, who is sitting next to the Prime Minister, wrote to the Treasury Committee stating that a no deal Brexit would slash GDP by almost 8%, which is comparable with the global financial crash. Which assessment does she agree with?
The director of the World Trade Organisation said that no deal would not be a “walk in the park” but it would not be the “end of the world”. The Government are right to make the necessary preparations for no deal while working for a good deal to ensure that we deliver on the vote of the British people, that we come out of the European Union on 29 March 2019, and that we do so in a way that protects jobs and livelihoods, ensures no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and maintains the precious Union of our United Kingdom. On one thing I am clear: we are working for that outcome and we will not have a second referendum. The right hon. Gentleman should stand up and rule out a second referendum.
The Prime Minister says that no deal is better than a bad deal, the Chancellor says that no deal would cause a catastrophic collapse of our economy, and the Brexit Secretary waded in yesterday to say that there were “countervailing opportunities” to a no deal Brexit. Will the Prime Minister enlighten us as to what these “countervailing opportunities” actually are?
As I said to the right hon. Gentleman in answer to his first question, this Government are working to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, this country makes a success of coming out of the European Union and that we see a global Britain and a brighter future for people here in this country.
Interestingly, I yet again suggested to the right hon. Gentleman that he stand up and categorically rule out a second referendum, and he refused to do so. I will give him another opportunity to do it now.
A majority of people might have voted to leave but they expected the negotiations to be handled competently, and they certainly are not. I did not hear a single one of those countervailing opportunities. I simply say to the Prime Minister that she cannot keep dancing around all the issues. It seems that Panasonic has taken the cue and decided to dance off altogether—it is relocating out of this country. Could the Prime Minister tell the House how many other companies have been in touch with her or her ministerial team and told her privately that they intend to relocate in the absence of a serious, sensible deal with the European Union?
What we have seen is businesses showing confidence in our economy. In August, Dyson announced £200 million of investment in its electric vehicle testing facility in Wiltshire, and 2 Sisters Food Group—Bernard Matthews—has won major new contracts with supermarkets, underpinning 600 new jobs. The Hut Group has announced 200 new tech jobs in Salford. We welcomed £130 million of foreign direct investment in our automotive sector from four companies in July, generating around 500 new jobs.
What we are doing is negotiating a Brexit deal that will deliver for this country and deliver on the vote of the British people, and will ensure that we do so while protecting jobs, maintaining our Union and ensuring no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. And what do we get from the right hon. Gentleman? He said that he wants to do new trade deals, and now he wants to be in the customs union. At one stage he was asked about his view on free movement, and he said:
“Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but…nor do we rule it out.”
So he cannot even agree with himself on his own position.
I am not quite sure who the Prime Minister is listening to, but she may have heard from the National Farmers Union, which says it will be an “Armageddon scenario”. The TUC says that a no deal Brexit
“would be devastating for working people.”
The EU’s chief negotiator and President Macron both seem to have categorically ruled out the Prime Minister’s Chequers proposals. We are now at a critical point. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether she believes a deal will be reached by the agreed deadline of October? That is October 2018, not any other one.
We are working for a good deal. We are still working, as are the European Union, to the timetable of October, because we are leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019. We will need to pass legislation in this House prior to our leaving the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman talks about no deal, and he talks about a deal. I will tell him what would be bad for this country: signing up to a deal at any price whatsoever, which is the position of the Labour party. That would destroy jobs and that would be bad for the British people.
Yesterday the Brexit Secretary admitted there had been “some slippage”. Today Lord King condemned the “incompetence of the preparation”, saying that it “beggared belief” that the sixth biggest economy in the world should get itself into this position.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that no deal is better than a bad deal, but no deal is a bad deal, and everyone from the CBI to the TUC to her own Chancellor is telling her the same thing. The Chequers proposal is dead, already ripped apart by her own MPs. When will the Prime Minister publish a real plan that survives contact with her Cabinet and with reality? Those are, of course, two very separate concepts. When will we get proposals that put jobs and the economy ahead of her survival and that of her own Government?
We have published a plan, which we are discussing with the European Union, that ensures that we deliver on the vote of the British people; that we bring an end to free movement; that we come out of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy; that we no longer send vast amounts of money to the EU every year; that we no longer have the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice here in this country; and that we do not have a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and do not have a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. What I am doing is negotiating a Brexit deal for Britain. I am making sure that the economy works for everyone. I am building a stronger, fairer country. What is the right hon. Gentleman doing? He is trying to change his party so that antisemites can call the creation of Israel racist, and he should be ashamed of himself.
I understand the importance to partners across the region of the campaign and proposal to which my hon. Friend refers. I am sure he understands that this is a devolved transport issue, but I encourage all parties involved to come to a workable solution and to ensure the best outcome for the entire region, because this can bring great benefits. On his point about the Borderlands growth deal, may I assure him that the UK and Scottish Governments will continue to work in partnership to deliver that deal?
I congratulate Scotland and England on qualifying for the World cup. All of us in Scotland are immensely proud of our Scottish women’s team.
When the Tories introduced Thatcher’s poll tax in the 1980s, Scotland was used as a guinea pig and the Scottish Tories paid the price for their folly—they were wiped off the political map of Scotland. The Prime Minister’s Chequers plan is even more unpopular than the poll tax. Why is the Prime Minister gambling with Scotland’s future by taking us out of the EU against our will with her disastrous Chequers plan?
The only people gambling with Scotland’s future are those in the Scottish National party, who want to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.
That was no answer to the question—I should remind the Prime Minister that this is Prime Minister’s questions. Michel Barnier has said that the Chequers plan is “not acceptable”. Mervyn King has called the Government’s preparations “incompetent”. Prime Minister, your Chequers plan is as dead as a dodo. With the clock ticking down, will the Prime Minister finally concede that backing the single market and customs union is the only option to protect jobs, the economy and the Good Friday agreement?
We have put forward a proposal, under the Chequers plan, that protects jobs and livelihoods, that ensures that we deliver on the vote of the British people and that ensures that we deliver on no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and maintain the Union of the United Kingdom. Michel Barnier has put forward another proposal, which keeps Northern Ireland in the customs union and the single market, is a free trade agreement only for Great Britain and creates a border down the Irish sea. I have said that it is unacceptable to me as Prime Minister. I believe that no British Prime Minister would find that deal acceptable. We are negotiating on the Chequers deal. It delivers for the United Kingdom—it delivers for the people of the whole United Kingdom.
We are committed to providing the local NHS with the funding it needs. As my hon. Friend knows, we have announced more than £3.9 billion of new additional capital funding for the NHS up to 2022-23. We announced that last year. The majority is to support the implementation of plans from local communities. I understand that the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust has resubmitted an application for the £36.2 million of funding in July for the Walsall Manor Hospital emergency department. The Department of Health and Social Care expects the successful schemes to be announced in the autumn, but my right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary will be pleased to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his campaign.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman asking a question at PMQs, but he has asked about a regional immigration policy, an issue that the Migration Advisory Committee looked at a while back. It made it very clear that that was not a situation that the Government should accept, partly because of the practical problems in implementing it. When we put forward our proposals for the immigration policy for people coming from the European Union, we will ensure that they are right for the whole United Kingdom.
SIS II, Prüm and PNR are all EU-wide databases, many of which the UK helped to shape and which keep us safe. While there is much debate here about the type of trading arrangement we will have with the EU, may I ask the Prime Minister for reassurance that there will still be the highest level of security arrangement with the EU as we leave the European Union, because any reduction would be completely unacceptable to the people of the UK?
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of our security relationship with the EU. I remember the discussions and debates that led to the establishment of the PNR directive. The White Paper provides a comprehensive and ambitious vision for that future security relationship, and that is why we propose that security partnership to protect our shared law enforcement and criminal justice capabilities, facilitate continued co-operation and support our joint working on security issues, such as counter-terrorism. Michel Barnier has recognised the progress made in our discussions on security, so our focus should be on trying to obtain and define that ambitious and unprecedented partnership that will help to keep people safe, not just here but across the whole EU.
The hon. Gentleman is right to bring to the attention of the House both that deal and the opening of the V&A in Dundee. These are important ways in which the UK Government are working to ensure support for Scotland and those opportunities for the Scottish economy. Another one of those is the fact that this Government have taken the decision to enable the third runway to go ahead at Heathrow, and we expect that when that happens we will see better connectivity within the United Kingdom.
This September is blood cancer awareness month, and I am therefore delighted that it was announced yesterday that the NHS will provide innovative CAR-T cell immune therapy to under-25s—the first health system in Europe to do so. I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that a focus on blood cancer awareness, diagnosis and prevention will continue into the future.
I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he has done to champion the cause of blood cancer and raise a much greater awareness of the issue. I can assure him that we will continue to press on and raise awareness of the issue, and I, too, am pleased that the decision that was announced yesterday was able to be made. I congratulate him, because he has personally campaigned on this and championed this cause.
The hon. Lady makes an ingenious attempt to raise the Brexit issue. This Parliament overwhelmingly gave the British the decision on whether to remain in or leave the European Union. The British people voted. It is now up to this Government and politicians across the whole House to show our faith with the British people and deliver on their vote.
At a time when this House will inevitably be spending a lot of time discussing Brexit, it is important that we also concentrate on other issues. For many families, their children’s future is a very immediate concern. With that in mind, does the Prime Minister agree that ensuring that as many children as possible grow up in a household where someone is working is the best way not only to provide a secure economic background for children, but to ensure that future generations are prepared to play a full and productive role in society?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that work is the best route out of poverty. It is also important for the example that it gives to children in households when they see a parent or parents working. I am pleased to say that the number of children being brought up in workless households is at the lowest level that we have seen. This is very important. We know that three quarters of children move out of poverty when their parents go into full-time work. Being in work sets an example and brings benefits to children, families and our whole society, and it is important to ensure that jobs are provided so that people can be in work for the future of their children.
I believe that the responsible Minister has made an announcement about the fact that the pensions dashboard will be going ahead, and I think that there will some piloting and consultations.
The Prime Minister appreciates the plight of the poorest Britons, who, when they have loved and lost, struggle to afford to provide a dignified and decent funeral, as she established the children’s funeral fund. Nevertheless, the grant available to the poorest people for this purpose has been frozen at £700 since 2003 and 30% of people get nothing at all. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, chaired by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), recommended changes in 2016. Will the Prime Minister meet me, him and others to discuss this matter? It is not just our task or our duty; it is our mission to help to heal the broken-hearted.
My right hon. Friend raises an important and sensitive issue. None of us wants to see a situation where people are not able to afford to do what is a terrible task, given that they have seen a loved one die, and it is important to families and individuals to be able to give their loved one a proper funeral. As he will know, the funeral expenses payments do continue to cover the necessary costs involved with funerals and cremations and up to £700 for other funeral expenses. Some changes have been made to ensure that other contributions are not deducted from the funeral expenses payment so that there is no change to that. My right hon. Friend’s position sounds like a Budget submission, which I suggest he might wish to put forward to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
First, I think we should all pay tribute to the work that our teachers and headteachers do across the country. I am pleased that 1.9 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools. We are backing schools with an extra £1.3 billion over the next two years. Per-pupil funding is being protected in real terms. But we are doing more than that. The Department for Education is working with schools to help reduce their non-staffing costs—that includes up to £1 billion through better procurement—so teachers will be able to do what they do best, which is carry on teaching.
Last Monday in Solihull, the lives of a mother and daughter, Khaola Saleem and Raneem Oudeh, were brought to an end after a double stabbing outside their home. I have met Khaola and Raneem’s family and seen first-hand their quiet dignity, clear love for one another and desire to see something good come from their loss. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending our thoughts and prayers to Khaola and Raneem’s family and thanking our emergency services, police liaison officers and the wider community of Solihull, which has shown great stoicism and heartfelt concern as this tragedy has unfolded?
I think that the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of Khaola Saleem and Raneem Oudeh. This is a terrible tragedy. I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that I cannot comment on the ongoing investigation that is taking place, but he is right to draw attention to the work of the emergency services. Indeed, I join him in paying tribute not only to our emergency services but to the local community for the support that they have shown at this very difficult time.
First, I offer deepest sympathies to those who are suffering severe conditions where other treatments have not been effective and these cannabis-based medicinal products have the potential to help. That is why the Home Secretary has announced that the law will be changed so that specialist clinicians will be able to prescribe—legally prescribe—cannabis-based medicinal products to patients with an exceptional clinical need. While that change is taking place, an expert panel of clinicians has been established, as an interim, to ensure that treatment is safe and effective. So we are not just waiting for the legislation to change. We will change the law, but we have also put in place a procedure to ensure that those cases can be considered properly.
On Monday, right hon. and hon. Members from across the House will join the people of Gibraltar in celebrating their national day on 10 September. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is Her Majesty’s Government’s full resolve that Gibraltar and its people will be fully included in all aspects of the withdrawal negotiations and future arrangements and that no other party will have any veto on that?
I am very happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance and that commitment on behalf of this Government. I send best wishes to the people of Gibraltar for their celebrations on 10 September.
I simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that health funding in his area will be £1.5 billion this year, and thanks to our funding commitments, this is an increase of over £60 million on the previous year—a cash increase of 4.2%. The Bedfordshire clinical commissioning group will receive a cash increase of 4.34% on last year. We are putting extra money into the national health service. But more than that, we have committed future funding—a five-year funding programme —and a 10-year plan for the national health service to deliver the services that patients need.
With exit day fast approaching, will my right hon. Friend now give instructions to the whole of Government that the first priority of every Department must be domestic preparedness, whether we leave the EU with a deal or without one?
First, I commend my hon. Friend for the work he did on this issue when he was a Minister. I assure him that the Department for Exiting the European Union has indeed stepped up the work on preparations. We have 6,400 civil servants working on EU exit. There are an additional 1,850 recruits in the pipeline so that we can accelerate preparations as necessary. We have passed necessary laws in this House such as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018—an historic Act. Obviously, there are other pieces of legislation, like the sanctions Act and the Nuclear Safeguards Bill. We are publishing the technical notices on no deal preparations. We are ensuring that our preparations are being made, and they are being made for every eventuality. We are working for a good deal; we prepare for every eventuality.
Obviously, we understand that the demand on policing is changing and becoming increasingly complex. That is why, after speaking to forces in England and Wales, we provided a comprehensive funding settlement that will increase total investment in the police system by over £460 million in this year, 2018-19. The hon. Gentleman might like to note that the force has a higher number of officers per head of population than the England and Wales average.
Earlier this morning, my daughter Sophie—on her own merit, along with thousands of other schoolchildren—attended her first day at grammar school. What message does the Prime Minister have for my daughter Sophie and the thousands of other children who, on their own merit, secured a place at grammar school?
First, I would say well done to my hon. Friend’s daughter Sophie and those other children. Secondly, I would say to Sophie and others that this is a country where how far you get on in life should depend on how hard you work and your talents and abilities. A good education is crucial to that, so I would say: enjoy your time at school and make the best of it, because education is the key that unlocks the door to your future.
Not only are we of course making sure that the arrangements in relation to aviation will be what they should be when we leave the European Union, but we have been working with the aerospace sector generally and with aviation to ensure that as we put in place our modern industrial strategy, we see jobs being not just maintained but created across the country, with high-skilled and well-paid jobs for people in these important sectors. Aviation is an important sector for the UK.
In this year’s local election, we elected the first Conservative councillor in my constituency—a wonderful lady called Nic—but since her election, she has been subjected to the most awful abuse by Labour and Momentum activists. Police have been called to her home several times. People have hung around her home late at night, and one has allegedly trolled her via his dead wife’s social media account. Her special needs son is now too scared to leave the house. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning that abhorrent intimidation of elected officials? Is that supposed to be the kinder, gentler politics of the Labour party?
May I first say to my hon. Friend that I congratulate Nic, who fought the election, and that I am sorry she has been subjected to this appalling series of attacks of various sorts since that election? Across our democracy, we have different opinions about what we want to achieve and sometimes about how we achieve what we want to achieve, but it is right that we are able to put those opinions forward. The democratic process means we put our views to the public and the public choose, as they have chosen my hon. Friend’s constituent to represent them on the council. She should be able to get on with the job of representing her constituents free of hatred and free of the abuse that she appears to be getting, and I say that this should be condemned on all sides of this House.
We are keen to support tenants to access longer, more secure tenancies, while also obviously ensuring that landlords are able to recover their property when needed. The consultation on overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector closed on 26 August. It considered the various barriers to longer tenancies and how to overcome them, and it did propose a new three-year tenancy model with a six-month break clause. We asked for views on the viability of that and how it could be implemented. We are now analysing those responses, and we will provide information on the next steps once we have done that.
I know my right hon. Friend will be as concerned as me, and I am sure the whole House, to hear of and see the carcases of nearly 90 elephants near a wildlife sanctuary in Botswana. This coincides with Botswana’s anti-poaching unit being disarmed. Will she do more to tackle this scourge, including through our aid budget by funding more rangers and more training through the Ministry of Defence?
The whole issue of the illegal wildlife trade is a very important one. It was an issue that I touched on when I was in South Africa, in fact, and there was a Minister from Botswana there at the time. We are holding a major conference later this year on the illegal wildlife trade, because we see it as an important issue, and we are bringing people together across the international community to consider how we can further deal with this.
First, the hon. Gentleman says “should” the UK leave the EU. The UK is leaving the European Union, and that will happen on 29 March next year. What we will be doing—what we are doing—is reassessing and looking at the structural funds that have come from the European Union in the past. We are setting up the shared prosperity fund, which will ensure that we are looking at disparities within regions and within and between the nations of the United Kingdom. We are working to ensure that we have a system, and a deal with the European Union for the future, that works for the whole of the United Kingdom.
Like my right hon. Friend, I have recently returned from Africa, where I visited a refugee camp in Tanzania with Plan, witnessing the transformative impact of UK aid in protecting women from sexual violence and giving children access to education. With the UN General Assembly fast approaching, will the Prime Minister outline what preparations she has made for the global compact on refugees?
Yes, we are looking at this. We are not just looking at what has been proposed for the global compact for refugees; we have actually been part of the discussions about what should be in that global compact. This partly reflects one of the speeches I gave when I was at UNGA in 2016, shortly after I became Prime Minister, about the need to look internationally at how we deal with migration and refugees. I want to see a better ability to differentiate between illegal economic migrants and refugees, because I think by doing that we will be able to ensure that we are providing the support necessary for refugees.
Can the Prime Minister explain why the process by which European nationals acquire settled status requires 59 pages of guidance? Is not this simply providing 59 ways of saying no in a continued hostile environment?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the system was launched not that long ago. It is very clear; it is an online system, and it is a simple system. We guaranteed that that would be what we provided, and it is what we have delivered.
Wilkies is a central Scotland department store. Over the years, it has become something of an institution in Stirling, and it recently announced that it was to close. While the Scottish Government continue to delay any changes to the business rate system in Scotland, which is killing our high streets, can the Prime Minister assure me that there will be some action to level the playing field between high street businesses and online sellers?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of using the tax system in a responsible way. It is right that businesses make a contribution to their local area through the business rates, but this should be as fair as possible. That is why we have improved the system and made changes worth over £10 billion to businesses, including taking 600,000 small businesses out of paying business rates altogether. Britain’s retailers, be they high street shops or independent traders, are a crucial part of our economy. They create jobs, and they inject billions into our economy. All those responsible for the tax system should deal with our retailers responsibly and recognise the impact of the decisions they make.
I think we should wrap up with a new, young Member seeking to make an early mark—Mr Geoffrey Robinson.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker.
Is the Prime Minister aware that next Wednesday, 12 September, we have the Committee stage of my private Member’s Bill, the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill? I wish to thank her personally for her tremendous support, and of course I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister’s support, the Government time and the Minister’s support have been vital. Can the Prime Minister assure us that she will sustain that support through Committee stage? If that is the case, we can get the Bill through the Commons procedures by the end of the year and have it on the statute book early in the new year. I think the whole House would be pleased to see the Bill become an Act, because its sole purpose is to save, preserve and enhance lives.
This is an important piece of legislation and, as the hon. Gentleman says, it will make a difference to people’s lives. We have, as he says, given this legislation our backing, and we will continue to give it our backing precisely because of its importance and the impact it will have on people.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Well, we are coming now to a statement by the Prime Minister. If the point of order relates to something that has happened during Prime Minister’s questions, I will hear it. But if it is simply that it is convenient for the hon. Lady, I am afraid that she will have to wait till later.
The point of order is about an urgent matter that is happening and was developing during Prime Minister’s questions.
Very well. I will give the hon. Lady the benefit of the doubt while the Prime Minister consumes some water.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. My constituent Kweku Adoboli is facing imminent deportation to Ghana, where he has not lived since he was four years old. Despite my constituent’s rehabilitation and reform since his release from prison, and his work for a number of UK universities and the special forces, the Prime Minister has not responded directly to the letters I have written to her and the points I have made. What can I do to ensure that she responds directly and reviews this decision?
The short and honest answer is that the hon. Lady can wait patiently and in an egalitarian spirit, like every other Member, for the opportunity to put a question to the Prime Minister at the appropriate time, rather than using the bogus device of a contrived point of order inappropriately to try to put her point on the record. Being as I am a decent and charitable soul, I am happy to admire her ingenuity on this occasion, but I would not encourage her to use this ruse too frequently.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the investigation into the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and the subsequent poisoning of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley earlier this year. This was a sickening and despicable act in which a devastatingly toxic nerve agent, known as Novichok, was used to attack our country. It left four people fighting for their lives and one innocent woman dead. I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the family of Dawn Sturgess in particular, following their tragic loss.
In March, I set out for the House why the Government concluded that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter. I also said that, while we all share a sense of impatience to bring those responsible to justice, as a nation that believes in the rule of law, we would give the police the space and time to carry out their investigation properly. Since then, about 250 detectives have trawled through more than 11,000 hours of CCTV and taken more than 1,400 statements. Working around the clock, they have carried out painstaking and methodical work to ascertain exactly which individuals were responsible and the methods they used to carry out this attack.
This forensic investigation has now produced sufficient evidence for the independent Director of Public Prosecutions to bring charges against two Russian nationals for the conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal; the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey; the use and possession of Novichok; and causing grievous bodily harm with intent to Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey. This morning, the police set out how the two Russian nationals travelled under the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, names the police believe to be aliases. They arrived at Gatwick airport at 3 pm on Friday 2 March, having flown from Moscow on flight SU2588. They travelled by train to London Victoria, then on to Waterloo before going to the City Stay Hotel in Bow Road, east London. They stayed there on both Friday and Saturday evenings, and traces of Novichok were found in their hotel room. On Saturday 3 March, they visited Salisbury, arriving at approximately 2.25 pm and leaving less than two hours later, at 4.10 pm. The police are confident this was for reconnaissance of the Salisbury area. On Sunday 4 March, they made the same journey, travelling by underground from Bow to Waterloo station at approximately 8.5 am, before continuing by train to Salisbury.
The police have today released CCTV footage of the two men which clearly places them in the immediate vicinity of the Skripals’ house at 11.58 am, which the police say was moments before the attack. They left Salisbury and returned to Waterloo, arriving at approximately 4.45 pm and boarded the underground at approximately 6.30 pm to Heathrow, from where they returned to Moscow on flight SU2585, departing at 10.30 pm.
This hard evidence has enabled the independent Crown Prosecution Service to conclude it has a sufficient basis on which to bring charges against these two men for the attack in Salisbury. The same two men are now also the prime suspects in the case of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, too. There is no other line of inquiry beyond this. The police have today formally linked the attack on the Skripals and the events in Amesbury such that it now forms one investigation. There are good reasons for doing so.
Our own analysis, together with yesterday’s report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has confirmed that the exact same chemical nerve agent was used in both cases. There is no evidence to suggest that Dawn and Charlie may have been deliberately targeted, but rather they were victims of the reckless disposal of this agent. The police have today released further details of the small glass counterfeit perfume bottle and box discovered in Charlie Rowley’s house which was found to contain this nerve agent. The manner in which the bottle was modified leaves no doubt it was a cover for smuggling the weapon into the country and for the delivery method for the attack against the Skripals’ front door. The police investigation into the poisoning of Dawn and Charlie is ongoing, and the police are today appealing for further information. But were these two suspects within our jurisdiction there would be a clear basis in law for their arrest for murder.
We repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March, and they have replied with obfuscation and lies. This has included trying to pass the blame for the attack on to terrorists, on to our international partners, and even on to the future mother-in-law of Yulia Skripal. They even claimed that I, myself, invented Novichok. Their attempts to hide the truth by pushing out a deluge of disinformation simply reinforces their culpability. As we made clear in March, only Russia had the technical means, operational experience and motive to carry out the attack.
Novichok nerve agents were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s under a programme codenamed Foliant. Within the past decade Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of these agents, long after it signed the chemical weapons convention. During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering nerve agents including by application to door handles. We were right to say in March that the Russian state was responsible. Now we have identified the individuals involved, we can go even further.
Just as the police investigation has enabled the CPS to bring charges against the two suspects, so the security and intelligence agencies have carried out their own investigations into the organisation behind this attack. Based on this work, I can today tell the House that, based on a body of intelligence, the Government have concluded that the two individuals named by the police and CPS are officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU. The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command, so this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.
The House will appreciate that I cannot go into details about the work of our security and intelligence agencies, but we will be briefing Opposition leaders and others on Privy Council terms, and also giving further detail to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Let me turn to our response to this appalling attack and the further knowledge we now have about those responsible. First, with respect to the two individuals, as the Crown Prosecution Service and police announced earlier today, we have obtained a European arrest warrant and will shortly issue an Interpol red notice. Of course, Russia has repeatedly refused to allow its nationals to stand trial overseas, citing a bar on extradition in its constitution. So, as we found following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, any formal extradition request in this case would be futile. But should either of these individuals ever again travel outside Russia, we will take every possible step to detain them, to extradite them and to bring them to face justice here in the United Kingdom.
This chemical weapons attack on our soil was part of a wider pattern of Russian behaviour that persistently seeks to undermine our security and that of our allies around the world. The Russian Government have fomented conflict in the Donbas, illegally annexed Crimea, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and election interference. They were behind a violent attempted coup in Montenegro, and a Russian-made missile, launched from territory held by Russian-backed separatists, brought down MH17.
We must step up our collective effort to protect ourselves in response to this threat and that is exactly what we have done since the attack in March, both domestically and collectively with our allies. We have introduced a new power to detain people at the UK border to determine whether they are engaged in hostile state activity. We have introduced the Magnitsky amendment to the Sanctions and Money Laundering Act 2018 in response to the violation of human rights. And we have radically stepped up our activity against illicit finance entering our country. We also expelled 23 Russian diplomats who had been identified as undeclared Russian intelligence officers, fundamentally degrading Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come. In collective solidarity, and in recognition of the shared threat posed to our allies, 28 other countries as well as NATO joined us in expelling over 150 Russian intelligence officers: the largest collective expulsion ever.
Since then, the EU has agreed a comprehensive package to tackle hybrid threats; the G7 has agreed a rapid response mechanism to share intelligence on hostile state activity; NATO has substantially strengthened its collective deterrence, including through a new cyber operations centre; and the US has announced additional sanctions against Russia for the Salisbury attack. Our allies acted in good faith, and the painstaking work of our police and intelligence agencies over the last six months further reinforces that they were right to do so.
Together, we will continue to show that those who attempt to undermine the international rules-based system cannot act with impunity. We will continue to press for all of the measures agreed so far to be fully implemented, including the creation of a new EU chemical weapons sanctions regime, but we will not stop there. We will also push for new EU sanctions regimes against those responsible for cyber-attacks and gross human rights violations, and for new listings under the existing regime against Russia. We will work with our partners to empower the OPCW to attribute chemical weapons attacks to other states beyond Syria.
Most significantly, what we have learnt from today’s announcement is the specific nature of the threat from the Russian GRU. We know that the GRU has played a key part in malign Russian activity in recent years. Today, we have exposed its role behind the despicable chemical weapons attack on the streets of Salisbury. The actions of the GRU are a threat to all our allies and to all our citizens. On the basis of what we have learnt in the Salisbury investigation and what we know about this organisation more broadly, we must now step up our collective efforts, specifically against the GRU. We are increasing our understanding of what the GRU is doing in our countries, shining a light on its activities, and exposing its methods and sharing them with our allies, just as we have done with Salisbury. While the House will appreciate that I cannot go into details, together with our allies we will deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus to counter the threat posed by the GRU.
I have said before, and I say again now, that the UK has no quarrel with the Russian people. We continue to hold out hope that we will one day once again enjoy a strong partnership with the Government of this great nation. As a fellow permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, we will continue to engage Russia on topics of international peace and security, but we will also use those channels of communication to make it clear that there can be no place in any civilised international order for the kind of barbaric activity we saw in Salisbury in March.
I pay tribute to the fortitude of the people of Salisbury, Amesbury and the surrounding areas, who have faced such disruption to their daily lives over the past six months, and I again thank the emergency services and the national health service for their outstanding efforts in responding to these incidents. I also thank all those involved in the police and intelligence community for their tireless and painstaking work, which has led to today’s announcement.
In March, Russia sought to sow doubt and uncertainty about the evidence we presented to this House, and some were minded to believe it. Today’s announcement shows that we were right. We were right to act against the Russian state in the way we did, and we are right now to step up our efforts against the GRU. We will not tolerate such barbaric attacks against our country. Together with our allies, this Government will continue to do whatever is necessary to keep our people safe. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement and for the security briefings that we have received.
Our thoughts today are with the family of Dawn Sturgess and with Charlie Rowley, who is still recovering from his ordeal. We are obviously very sad at the death of Dawn and we send condolences to her partner and her family. We also send our best wishes to Sergei and Yulia Skripal for a full recovery.
The use of military nerve agents on the streets of Britain is an outrage and beyond reckless. Six months after the attack, Salisbury and its people are still suffering the after-effects, as I found when I visited the city earlier this summer. An eerie calm hung over the city on that summer’s evening. A large part of it is cordoned off for security purposes, so that the police can continue their investigations, creating a very strange and eerie atmosphere. We should show some sympathy for the people of Salisbury, given what they have gone through. I know that the Prime Minister did that in her statement.
I commend the police for their superhuman efforts in forensically trawling through hours and hours of information in helping to identify the suspects. Given today’s announcement on the decision to charge two Russian citizens with responsibility for this appalling attack, what steps is the Prime Minister taking to secure co-operation from the Russian Government in bringing them to trial? [Interruption.] This is a serious matter, Mr Speaker, and I think they should be brought to trial.
The OPCW’s finding that there is evidence that Novichok was used in Salisbury is a stark reminder that the international community must strengthen its resolve to take effective action against the possession, spread or use of chemical weapons in any circumstances. No Government anywhere can or should put itself above international law. The Prime Minister previously outlined that the type of nerve agent used was identified as having been manufactured in Russia. The use of this nerve agent is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and, therefore, a breach of international law.
Based on the OPCW’s findings, the Russian Government must give a full account of how this nerve agent came to be used in the UK. Will the Prime Minister continue to pursue a formal request for evidence from the Russian Government under article IX, paragraph 2? It is in the interests of the peace and security of all people and all countries that no Government play fast and loose with the international human rights rules-based system. Will the Prime Minister update the House on what contacts, if any, she has had with the Russian Government more recently to hold them to account?
Our response as a country must be guided by the rule of law, support for international agreements and respect for human rights, even—and perhaps especially—when other countries do not respect those agreements. I will say more on that in a moment, but I want to assure the Prime Minister and the House that we will back any further reasonable and effective actions, whether against Russia as a state or the GRU as an organisation. I encourage the Prime Minister to seek the widest possible European and international consensus for that to maximise its impact.
In 2015, the United Nations set up the OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism, but due to there being no agreement in the UN Security Council, there is no international mechanism that is responsible for attributing chemical weapons attacks to specific perpetrators. Will the Prime Minister outline what efforts the UK has made at the UN Security Council to overcome this impasse, so that the OPCW will be allowed to provide clarity and attribution as to the violators of international chemical weapons law?
While we all hope that our country will never suffer such an attack again, can the Prime Minister outline what lessons have been learned by police and health service staff, and what training they have been given in dealing with a nerve agent attack? That is in no way a criticism of them—indeed, I congratulate them on the way they performed after the attack in Salisbury.
In conclusion, we utterly condemn the appalling attacks. We commend the police and security services for their diligence in investigating this appalling crime, and we will support any reasonable action to bring those responsible to justice and to take further action against Russia for its failure to co-operate with this investigation.
I say first to the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said in my statement, I am sure all Members of the House join both of us in saying to the people of Salisbury, Amesbury and the surrounding area that they have been through terrible disruption in recent months and that we commend the dignity and calm with which they have dealt with it.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what we have done to approach the Russian Government on the question of bringing the two individuals to justice.
As I said in my statement, we are issuing an Interpol red notice and have issued a European arrest warrant but, as we saw in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, Russia does not allow its citizens to be extradited to face justice in other countries. I think the phrase I used in my statement was that an extradition request would be “futile”.
What we have done is to repeatedly ask Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March, and it has responded with obfuscation and lies. We want Russia to act as a responsible member of the international community. That means that it must account for the reckless and outrageous actions of the GRU, which is part of the Russian state. This is a decision that would have been taken outside the GRU and at a high level in the Russian state. It must rein in the activities of the GRU and recognise that there can be no place in any civilised international order for the kind of barbaric activity that we saw in Salisbury in March.
The right hon. Gentleman asks me about the OPCW and the United Nations Security Council. We have been working through the OPCW. I am pleased to say that we had an overwhelming vote on the proposal that we and others put forward earlier in the summer on strengthening the OPCW’s ability to attribute responsibility for the use of chemical weapons. Further discussions are to take place within the OPCW on that issue, but I hope that the whole international community—and, I would hope, some of those who previously were cautious about accepting what we said in March about responsibility for the attack—will now see the clear responsibility that lies at Russia’s door and act accordingly.
It is right that the United Nations Security Council has not been able to come together to agree an arrangement for the attribution of responsibility for the use of chemical weapons. Why is that? It is because Russia vetoes any attempt to do so. We will work through the OPCW and continue to give the very clear message that states and people cannot use chemical weapons with impunity. We will maintain, and do all that we can to reinforce, the international rules-based order in relation to the use of chemical weapons. I and the Government—and, I am sure, other Members of the House—will be very clear about the culpability of the Russian state for the attack on Salisbury.
I thank the Prime Minister for her statement. The whole House will have noted what I am afraid was the somewhat weasely language of the Leader of the Opposition in failing to condemn what is now incontrovertible in the eyes of all right-thinking people—the involvement of the Russian state at the highest level in the Salisbury poisonings. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we will be asking that these two individuals be produced for justice by Russia? Will she be stepping up our diplomatic activity, our counter-measures and our targeted sanctions so that the whole international community can show its repugnance at what Russia has done in a way I am afraid that Leader of the Opposition signally failed to do today?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. Obviously he was Foreign Secretary when the attack took place and worked, as I did, with the international community on its response.
The CPS does not have a policy of requesting extradition from states whose constitutions bar the possibility of extradition. That is why we have issued the notices available to us—the Interpol red notice and the European arrest warrant. As I said in my statement, if these two individuals step outside Russia, we will take every step possible to ensure that they are detained and brought to face justice here in the United Kingdom.
On the other points that my right hon. Friend makes, we will indeed be stepping up our activity across the broad range of our capabilities and what is available to us across our national security apparatus to ensure that we make every effort to deal with malign state activity and, in particular, as I said in my statement, the activity of the GRU.
Scottish National party Members welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and the news that we have now been able to identify the suspects in the Salisbury attack. The attack on Mr Skripal and his daughter was an unlawful use of force by the Russian state on the streets of Salisbury, and we now have evidence that absolutely and unequivocally confirms that. Of course, while our thoughts are with the Skripals in their recovery, we ought today to remember Dawn Sturgess, who sadly died, and Charlie Rowley, who is recovering from the attack he suffered.
The news of the arrest warrants today will send a clear message that all of us here will not tolerate the behaviour from the Russians that took place in Salisbury. While I agree with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the actions open to us and the fact that should these two individuals ever leave Russia they will face the threat of arrest, we ought to put the maximum pressure on Russia, working with our international partners, to turn those individuals over. They must face trial here in the United Kingdom.
There must always be a robust response to the use of terror on our streets. Let me reassure the Prime Minister that the Scottish National party is fully committed to working constructively with the Government to ensure that we do all that we can to protect the public. I am sure that others across the House will join me in extending our gratitude to the members of the security services and the police who worked to ensure that today’s announcements could be made. Their dedication and commitment to rooting out these criminals are critical to securing the safety of citizens and, on behalf of the Scottish National party, I send my sincerest thanks for all their efforts.
The threat from Russia must always be met by a united front from all of us together standing in solidarity against the abuse of power. Only together will we take on the abuse of state power by the Kremlin, and only then can we ensure that we work towards a peaceful future for citizens across the United Kingdom and beyond. It is right that the Prime Minister has made this statement, and I am grateful for that. I look forward to justice being done—it must be done.
Will the Prime Minister also provide us with an update on the Government’s actions to tackle Russia’s abuse of Scottish limited partnerships? SLPs have been used to move more than $80 billion from Russia in just four years, according to our own Government. All action must be taken to stand up to this abuse of power and to show that we are prepared to take on Russia over human rights abuses and money laundering. We will and we must take effective action together.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tone of his response and his support for the Government’s work. He mentioned the emergency services. As I said, and he also said, we send our immense thanks to all those in the emergency services, the police, our security and intelligence agencies and the national health service who responded to these incidents, and for the work of the police and the intelligence agencies that has enabled us to identify these two individuals and to issue the Interpol red notice and the European arrest warrant. The armed forces were also present in the clean-up and made their expertise available. We are grateful to them, too.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about Scottish limited partnerships. The Home Office has been looking at this issue with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We intend to introduce legislation to cover a range of abuses, and I am sure that the Security Minister would be happy to speak to him about that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his understanding and acceptance of what I said in my statement about the role of the GRU and the culpability of the Russian state. I also thank him for his clear condemnation of the Russian state. I only wish that such a clear condemnation might be possible from the leaders of all parties in the House.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in her identification of the Russian state. What we are is the victim of state terrorism by a state that is run as a gangster organisation, that threatens us all and has done so repeatedly on the international stage, and that is wholly outside the international rules-based system. I greatly agree with her in commending the work of our police and security services in elucidating the surrounding circumstances around this appalling act.
On behalf of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I look forward to further details relating to the background. In the meantime, does my right hon. Friend agree that we will have to look carefully at the ease with which Russian nationals on Russian passports can come in and out of this country? Obviously, as a free country, we wish to facilitate the exchange of people, but that will clearly become a pertinent issue when it becomes so apparent that the system is being abused by the Russian state for the purpose of sending hoods and murderers into our country to kill our citizens and those who are protected by us.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments. As I said in my statement, we will indeed ensure that further detail is available for the Intelligence and Security Committee. As I understand it, the individuals came into the United Kingdom under valid passports that were issued by the Russian Government. We have already stepped up our powers by introducing an ability to stop people at ports to consider and investigate whether they are involved in hostile state activity. Of course, we look continually to ensure that we have all the powers necessary to deal with these issues, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will continue to do that.
I give strong support to the Prime Minister for her condemnation of the Russian state, but since our seriousness will be judged by actions rather than words, will she explain how many of the Russian oligarchs whom we know to be cronies of the Russian regime and who have wealth in the UK have had their assets seized under unexplained wealth orders following the powerful example of the United States?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks on this issue and for his reference to the role of the Russian state in what happened in Salisbury. The National Crime Agency has stepped up its activity in relation to illicit finance. A considerable amount of work is being undertaken in relation to that. Of course these are operational matters for the NCA. As he will know, we do not comment on individual cases, but I can assure him that the work that is going on in relation to these matters has been stepped up considerably since what happened in March.
I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the security and police services on their brilliant work in arriving at these conclusions. Two named Russian intelligence officers—nothing could be more conclusive. The nature of the Russian propaganda machine is that it will always try to throw up smoke to confuse us, but does she share my hope that the evidence here will make it clear to all people who doubted what we said before—particularly Opposition Front Benchers—that when the security services lead us in this direction, they know what they are doing?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the role that she played as Home Secretary and for the visits that she made to Salisbury on this issue. She is absolutely right that when I first presented what had happened in Salisbury in March to this House, there were those who questioned my statement about the involvement of the Russian state. Now we have clearly seen what happened. The police have identified two individuals. The independent CPS has laid charges against those two individuals. We have clearly identified a link with the Russian military intelligence agency—the GRU—and it is clear that permission for an act of this sort would have been taken outside the GRU and at a senior level within the Russian state. It is incumbent on all those who were sceptical back in March to see the evidence that has been laid before this House and before the public, and to recognise the involvement of the Russian state and condemn it wholeheartedly.
I thank the Prime Minister for her immensely serious statement and pay tribute to the impressive forensic work of our police and intelligence agencies. They and the Government have support from across the House for their work in the face of this vile chemical attack, this threat from the GRU and the operations of the Russian state, which we must unreservedly condemn not only for this chemical attack, but for the wider propaganda and for the online spread to undermine democracy and truth.
Alexander Litvinenko was murdered 12 years ago and the Prime Minister will know that there were then long delays in setting up an inquiry, and in taking action against the assets of suspects who were identified and those who were linked to them. Has she considered the lessons from the Litvinenko case, and what further measures is she ensuring are put in place now around those suspects and those who may be linked to them so that we learn those lessons, too?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments and for her support for the police, the intelligence agencies and the work that the Government have been doing in relation to this particular issue. Yes, we did look at the Alexander Litvinenko case and at the lessons that we as a Government needed to learn from the response to that and the action that was taken, and we acted accordingly. One key difference from the Litvinenko case that we saw in March was the very strong international response to what had happened here in Salisbury. As I have said, we saw the biggest single number of expulsions that has ever taken place of Russian personnel of this sort. Obviously we will continue to look at this matter. We will be looking at what further action can be taken. As I have said, we will be using all the tools in our national security apparatus to do that. It is not possible for me to go into detail on some of those matters, but I am sure that it will be possible to give the right hon. Lady a briefing on Privy Council terms.
May I urge the Prime Minister to make more of the passage of a law in July 2006 by the Russian Federation Parliament specifically enabling and empowering its President to order the assassination of Russia’s enemies abroad? As we know, this happened only weeks before the killing of Litvinenko. If she really wants to send a strong message to the Russian Government, will she have a quiet word with the Chancellor about enabling defence to get the uplift in its budget that it needs if further cuts in our ability to deter Russia are not to be inflicted by the Budget?
My right hon. Friend is of course right to highlight the law that was passed in Russia in 2006 that gives that ability to order assassinations outside the Russian state. He is right to point that out; it is an important fact for people to recognise. That is the background against which Russia is operating and we see that happening today. May I also say to him—I suspect that he will not be surprised by the response that I am giving him in relation to this matter—that, of course, we are looking at the modernising defence programme? As we look at the threat that is posed by Russia and at those that we also see from a whole variety of other sources, what is important is that we not only look at the conventional way in which we have dealt with those threats, but recognise the diverse and varied way in which malign state activity is undertaken today. As I referenced in my statement, we see a lot of propaganda and cyber-activity taking place by the Russian state. We need to make sure that we have all the tools at our disposal, and that will run across a number of parts of Government and not simply the Ministry of Defence.
The first duty of anyone occupying the Prime Minister’s office is to protect the public and to be clear-eyed about the threats that the country faces. I thank her for her statement today and echo the praise that she and other Members have given to the police and intelligence services for the tremendous work that has been done to enable her to come to the conclusions that she has shared with the House today. Given her responsibilities, may I ask her why she thinks that the Russian state authorised such a barbaric operation—this state-sanctioned attempted murder—on the streets of the UK?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his opening comments and his praise for the police and intelligence agencies. As I have said, there were 250 detectives trawling through 11,000 hours of CCTV and over 1,400 statements; this was a very significant investigation, and there has also of course been the work of the intelligence agencies, which I referred to in my statement as well.
It is not for me to ascribe the motivation of the Russian state in relation to this issue. I suspect it wanted to give a message to Russians living elsewhere who had been involved in matters relating to the Russian state; that is the only reason that I can assume lay behind what it wanted to do. But it is up to the Russians to explain what happened in Salisbury. I have said consistently—I did so in March, we have done so since, and I have said it again this afternoon—that the Russian state needs to explain what happened in Salisbury; all we have had are obfuscation and lies.
In the light of my right hon. Friend’s statement, does she agree that for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to change its rules at the behest of the secretary general in order to facilitate the readmission of the delegation of the Russian Federation would make an absolute nonsense of the convention on human rights? Does he also agree that it is incumbent on the Council of Europe and all other international bodies to send a clear message to the Russian Federation that human rights are not an à la carte menu?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very real issue. Of course the Government will be looking to raise it in the international forums where we are able to do so. My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. This information will be provided to the Council of Europe, and I hope it will make it think again about the steps it is proposing. As my hon. Friend says, human rights are not an à la carte menu from which we can pick and choose.
May I too commend the police and security services for all their work on this very serious issue? This morning my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I were assured that local people do not face a threat and that the local hotel in Bow where the perpetrators stayed has been checked and is safe, but can the Prime Minister assure us that further reassurance will be provided, that lessons will be learned, and that local police who have to work in partnership with security and counter-terrorism officers will be supported in dealing with this new kind of threat that cuts across different boroughs and different parts of the country?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue and it is right that we are able to give that reassurance. On the hotel that the individuals stayed in, the situation is clear: the chief medical officer has also given a statement this morning about issues relating to public health and makes very clear in that statement the low risk that pertains there. Samples were taken from the hotel room as a precautionary measure; when that first happened, at the initial stage when that hotel room was identified, the contamination with Novichok was identified as being below the level to cause concern to public health; further samples were then taken and have come back negative. Following these tests, the experts deemed that the room was safe and posed no risk to the public. I believe the chief medical officer has indicated that anybody who stayed in the room between 4 March and 4 May would, had they been affected, have been affected by now, and there have been no reports of any health effect on anybody during that period. But reference has been made to this, and people may wish to get in touch with the investigatory team to be reassured on the matter.
The hon. Lady also mentioned other elements. The chief medical officer has made it clear that staff who operated, maintained and cleaned the transport systems are safe, and that there is no risk to members of the public who travelled alongside the individuals between 2 March and 4 March or those who used the transport system afterwards.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned the 2006 Russian law, which would surely logically assume that the man who allowed this assassination attempt to happen was the head of the Russian state, Vladimir Putin. But the GRU is not a new organisation. Is the Prime Minister aware of its involvement as the lead agency in the Crimean annexation and as a critical agency, but not the only one, in the east Ukrainian war; of GRU General “Orion” who was the senior man at the time of the shooting down of the MH17; and of the very close and short command chain that allegedly exists between the GRU and the Russian presidency?
My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly on ensuring that we are all aware of the activities of the Russian state and the threat they pose. We have specifically identified these two individuals in relation to the GRU, but, as I have said and as my hon. Friend acknowledged, the GRU has had involvement elsewhere, and other parts of the Russian state have been involved in malign state activity elsewhere as well. As I said in my statement, it is almost certain that a decision of this sort will have been taken outside the GRU and at a senior level.
The Prime Minister referred in her comprehensive and detailed statement to co-operation with our European Union partners and the EU chemical weapons sanction regime. Can she assure me and the whole country that we will continue to work closely with our EU partners, as the closest possible security and intelligence and sanctions co-operation will be necessary whatever happens in March next year?
I give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. We recognise the importance of working with our European partners on these matters of security. It is why we have set out proposals for an ambitious and comprehensive security partnership in our future relationship, covering co-operation across a range of areas and continued access for the UK to certain instruments that can be helpful in dealing with these matters, such as the European arrest warrant; and, indeed, where we have taken our own powers such that after March next year we will be able to have our own individual sanctions regime, we would want to continue to co-operate with our European partners on those issues, too.
The GRU is Russian military intelligence. Its operatives are recruited almost exclusively from the Russian military; it reports to the Russian general staff, via them to the Defence Ministry; and it is on a very short leash to the Kremlin. We should therefore understand the enormity of what has happened here: British citizens have been murdered or almost murdered on British soil by two highly trained Russian soldiers. May I suggest that in responding to this heinous attack we should now target the GRU both in our country and again among our allies, and seek specific expulsions of GRU officers from around NATO and our friends around the world in order to disrupt the networks of this vile organisation?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that we now specifically look at the actions of the GRU and take action in relation to the GRU. That is about sharing our experience and understanding of the GRU with our allies, and it is about the threat potentially posed to other countries. It is not just about what happened here, heinous though that crime was, as my right hon. Friend has said; it is about ensuring a level of protection and security for everybody across Europe.
Global Witness has found that 43% of Scottish limited partnerships are controlled by persons with either a correspondence address in or citizenship of a former Soviet state. However, there are still huge issues with compliance, and many SLPs have not even provided a person of significant control. Will the Prime Minister give more detail on future legislation to combat dirty money laundered through SLPs, and say whether resources and priority will be given to enforcing existing laws through Companies House, which remains a huge loophole in all of this?
As I said in response to the question this afternoon from the hon. Lady’s party leader, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Home Office and the Business Department have been working on this issue in relation to SLPs; they have been looking at some of these areas of abuse. We have as a general point stepped up our ability to deal with economic crime through the establishment within the National Crime Agency of the national economic crime centre, and we are continuing to build up that ability to deal with economic crime. I am sure the Minister for Security and Economic Crime will be happy to speak to the right hon. Gentleman as leader of the Scottish National party here about the action being taken and the work being done. There is an intention to legislate in this area, but obviously we need to ensure we get this right; SLPs are not the only issue raised in this regard and we need to look at a range of abuses.
My right hon. Friend has set out very powerful evidence that a British citizen died on British soil as a direct result of a Russian assassination, but she will be aware that there have been a number of other deaths in Britain in the past few years of Russian citizens or of people with close connections with Russia. Can she say whether those cases are now being actively re-examined?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. There have been a number of cases—the number of 13 or 14 comes into my head—and they have indeed been reconsidered by the police, who have looked at all the evidence in relation to those matters. I understand that a letter will shortly be going to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee setting out the outcome of that, but I understand that there is no cause for further consideration of those cases.
I do not doubt for a single instant that the bloody trail goes all the way to the Kremlin and to President Putin himself personally. I do not think that anybody acting for the GRU would go it alone. I think that that is what the Prime Minister meant when she said that this was not rogue activity. The cynicism of the Russian state is phenomenal. It is not only that laws are being passed to allow impunity for murderers when they go overseas; it is also the fact that the Russian embassy’s response yesterday was to ask for access to the Skripals—presumably to finish the job. If we cannot bring these people into a court in this country, as seems likely, is it not important to ensure that we have a proper judicial process in this country, such as the judge-led inquiry that was able to come to proper legal conclusions after Litvinenko?
As I said in my statement, this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state. The hon. Gentleman raises the possibility of an inquiry to look into this. Obviously, the police investigation into what happened at Amesbury is ongoing. As I said, this is now a single investigation, and there is no further line of inquiry beyond the two individuals who have been named in relation to the attack on the Skripals and on Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was affected by that as well. Obviously, we will want to take steps to ensure that we learn appropriate lessons from this. In relation to bringing the individuals to justice, I repeat that if they do step outside Russia, we will strain every sinew and do everything we can to bring them to justice in this country.
The revolting regime of President Putin that has so impoverished and abused the Russian people has many fellow travellers and useful idiots in the Parliaments of those we assume to be our allies, including the European Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the very professional diplomatic efforts by her Government that took place after the attacks need to be continued with full vigour to ensure that our allies remain onside and understand what a terrible crime has been committed against one of their allies?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would also say that this confirms that those of our allies who stood by us and took action after March were right to do so. There were those who were sceptical, internationally as well as within this Chamber, about the role of the Russian state at the time, but the evidence that has now been produced shows absolutely the culpability of the Russian state. I hope that in the international arena we will now see countries that have exercised a degree of restraint in their approach recognising the role that Russia has played in this and acting accordingly.
Given the extraordinary trail of evidence that the Prime Minister has shared with the House today, and the number of communities affected, is it not all the more important that everyone in all corners of the Chamber should express their total faith and confidence in the police and the security forces? We do not do that simply so that we can pay lip service to them or thank them; expressing that confidence is important so that communities or witnesses with evidence can come forward and feel that it is legitimate to provide that evidence to the security services. May I urge the Prime Minister to ignore the cranks and ideological extremists whose first instinct seems to be to sow mistrust in our security professionals?
I absolutely support what the hon. Gentleman has said. Our security professionals do an amazing job for us on a daily basis. We have seen the painstaking professionalism that they have shown in this particular investigation, which has led us to the position where we can make the statements that the Metropolitan police and I have made today in relation to these two individuals and to what happened in Salisbury. It is incumbent on all of us across the whole House unequivocally to give our support to the security services in the job that they do. We face a range of threats in this country, and the people of this country need the reassurance of knowing that their politicians are giving the necessary support to the security services.
A decision outside the GRU by the Russian state at a senior level—she means President Putin, doesn’t she?
I mean a decision outside the GRU at a senior level in the Russian state.
The public need to see that their elected representatives accept the forensically reached conclusions of the police and the British security services over the lies and propaganda that will be pumped out by our enemies, so it is heartening that the overwhelming majority of speakers in this session have accepted that. The Prime Minister mentioned NATO. Does she agree that an attack by the Russian state on British soil using chemical weapons was sufficient to invoke article 5, had she wished to do so? Does she reserve the right to do that in future, if there is another act of aggression by the Russians?
The interpretation of matters in relation to article 5 obviously rests on matters of law, apart from anything else. The hon. Gentleman’s earlier point was important. It was about the ability of this House to show the public, the emergency services and our security services our support and to reassure them of our determination to get to the bottom of what happened in Salisbury. He is right to say that it has been forensic, painstaking work that has led to the police having the ability to identify these two individuals, and to making it possible for me to be clear that they were members of the GRU and linked to the Russian state. We should be eternally grateful to them for the service that they provide for us. We will continue to talk with NATO about the ways in which we can enhance NATO’s ability to deal with malign state activity of the variety of sorts that we now see today. When NATO was established, it was very much on the basis of what would now be seen as conventional warfare. Looking at the propaganda and the cyber-attacks that we see today—I understand that the propaganda has already started from the Russian state in relation to today’s statements—we need to ensure that NATO has the necessary capability to deal with them.
The character of espionage is changing as the methods by which it is conducted alter, partly as a result of technology. At the Home Office, my right hon. Friend and I worked to ensure that the necessary legislation was in place, but given these events and others, will she look again at whether our excellent security and intelligence services need any further powers in order to do their work to keep us safe?
My right hon. Friend speaks from his experience as a Security Minister, and I am grateful to him for the point he makes. We have already taken steps such as enhancing the power to stop people at ports when there is a suspicion that they might be involved in hostile state activity. Legislation is also going through the House in relation to enhancing our powers in certain areas relating to counter-terrorism. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already said, we will look at the issue of espionage legislation to see whether there is anything further that we need to do.
After the attacks earlier in the year, our friends and partners abroad came together in a fantastic way to bring pressure to bear against Russia in response to what happened on our soil. In the light of today’s conclusions, that action should be seen as the start, not the end, of international pressure, because Vladimir Putin responds only to strength, and internationally co-ordinated strength works best. Where next for that partnership?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we saw an important international coalition come together. Since then, we have seen some further action being taken by individual countries, such as the United States, in relation to sanctions against Russia. We have also seen a coming together at the European Union level in relation to a sanctions regime for chemical weapons use, and we will continue to push that matter. We will also continue to push on sanctions in relation to Russia in several other areas. That activity will be continuing, and we will continue to step up pressure among our international allies. As I said earlier, I hope that the evidence that has been presented today will clearly show why this is so important.
I thank the Prime Minister for the Government support that has been given to Wiltshire in its recovery phase. It continues to be much needed. The apparent ease with which two GRU operatives were able to enter this country will fill people with alarm and suggests continued vulnerability. Accepting the difficulty of detecting agents such as Novichok at our ports and airports, what can be done to reduce the chances not just of individuals but of substances entering the country and permitting a repetition of what we have seen?
I reiterate that these individuals travelled on valid passports that were issued by the Russian Government. We have looked at what is necessary at the ports, which is why we have responded by giving the police the power, as they have had in other circumstances, to stop people and interview them at ports should there be a concern that they may be involved in hostile state activity.
The Prime Minister highlighted the fact that the US has imposed additional sanctions on Russia. However, that has been partly counterbalanced by the fact that, just a few weeks ago, Steven Mnuchin spoke about lifting sanctions on a Russian company with links to Putin’s inner circle, and the reality is that Congress has actually forced President Trump’s hand a lot of the time. We saw in Helsinki that Putin clearly ran rings around President Trump, so what direct discussions has the Prime Minister had with the President to reinforce the importance of keeping sanctions on Russia? What is she going to do to gain support for additional sanctions going forward?
We have been talking to several allies and partners in relation to the information that we now have about what happened in Salisbury. As I have said, we will continue to talk, particularly in the forums where we have already generated activity in relation to a future sanctions regime, such as in the European Union in relation to the crucial chemical weapons sanctions regime. We will continue to press our allies on that.
Given that the Russian state will deny that Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov even exist, will my right hon. Friend confirm whether sufficient evidence from our excellent agencies will be shared with others who did not feel able to support the Government in March, so that they can now join the 28 nations who acted in solidarity with us against a state that uses military intelligence officers and nerve agents to murder abroad?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We will obviously share the information to ensure that those to whom he refers are now aware of the further evidence that has been made available. Of course, this is not just about the names, because the police have today released CCTV images of the two individuals.
The Prime Minister’s comprehensive statement highlights that the Russian state effectively put hundreds of British citizens in mortal danger, not least those in our NHS who so expertly treated the victims. Will she therefore outline what measures she is putting in place to enhance the resilience of our chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training, so that personnel across civilian and military services are able to deal with such threats? Will she also review the 2011 decision to disband the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and gives me a further opportunity to commend the excellent work done by the national health service when faced with the attack in Salisbury. Many people would have found it difficult to deal with such a difficult case, so the fact that they did is a huge commendation for the professionalism of our national health service.
A decontamination review took place a couple of years ago. The Home Office will also be looking at a review of protective measures, as the hon. Gentleman would expect.
In joining the Prime Minister and the whole House in warmly congratulating and thanking our armed services, intelligence services and police on all they have done, I hope that she will understand if I pay particular tribute to the Wiltshire constabulary, which has played an extraordinarily important role in this operation, and the NHS staff at Salisbury hospital. She will also forgive me if I ask two rather local questions. First, will she confirm that the costs borne by the Wiltshire constabulary will be given to the Home Office rather than the people of Wiltshire? Secondly, will she reconfirm to my constituents and people across Wiltshire that there is now no risk of any kind whatsoever from any remnants of the Novichok poisoning?
I understand that the Home Office is indeed assisting the Wiltshire constabulary with the costs and that some payments have already been made. My hon. Friend is right to commend the actions of the police officers, ambulance personnel and fire service personnel who were early on the scenes and faced situations in which they did not know exactly what was happening, but they dealt with things professionally and we should commend them for their professionalism.
As for the situation in the surrounding area, the message continues to be that there is a low risk. The police have put out a public appeal today, which includes CCTV footage, so if anybody has any information about having seen the individuals in any particular place, they can bring that information forward. Of course, the police have conducted fingertip searches of all the areas of concern, and, as I say, the risk to the public is low.
I add my congratulations to the police on their excellent detective work. The Opposition were pleased that the Government added Magnitsky provisions to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. Section 31 of that Act provides for the appointment of an independent reviewer of counter-terrorism regulations. Has that appointment been made?
I will write to the hon. Lady about that particular question.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out earlier, during the summer the United States increased its sanctions against Russia specifically as a result of this heinous crime. To what extent are we intending to replicate the sanctions that the US has put in place? Are we are intending to get our EU allies to do the same?
Obviously, we have worked closely with our EU allies and others in relation to sanctions on Russia, for which there are various reasons at the moment due to the various aspects of malign state activity. I have referenced the chemical weapons sanctions regime that the EU has agreed in principle, and we will be working with our allies on that. Of course, after 29 March next year, we will have our own sanctions powers in place as an independent state, but we will want to continue to work with allies and others on that.
To clarify a point I made in response to other questions about the new power to stop at the border those concerned with hostile state activity, that matter is contained within the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which is currently before the House. I may have given the impression that the measure had already been passed, but it is currently before the House.
A regime that is intent on committing murder around the world will inevitably make mistakes, and the extraordinary work of the police and security services that the Prime Minister has outlined has only punctured the myth of Putin’s omnipotence. I have two specific questions. First, without having to go into the detail, will the Prime Minister assure the House that the Government are pulling out all the stops to provide security to UK assets, such as Mr Skripal, who is a former Russian intelligence agent? Secondly, will she provide an assurance that full co-ordination is also being undertaken with agencies such as Police Scotland?
I am happy to give reassurance on both those points that proper and full co-ordination is taking place with agencies such as Police Scotland. There is a very good working relationship between law enforcement across the United Kingdom, and that continues on this particular matter.
The protection of individuals here in the UK was, obviously, looked at with urgency after what happened in Salisbury. My right hon. Friend the Security Minister has chaired a number of meetings in relation to this matter and receives regular updates on it.
The evidence is compelling: the Russian state was involved. Will my right hon. Friend condemn the Kremlin apologists and the false-flag conspiracy theorists who have argued with those facts? Further, will she make it clear that our response, in whatever form is necessary, will be robust, decisive and unwavering?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend the reassurance that our response will be robust, decisive and unwavering, and it will be ongoing, because this is a matter we need to continue working on. I condemn those who see fit to defend the Russian state where it is clear that it is culpable for this action, this heinous crime committed on UK soil against citizens here in the United Kingdom.
Given the sheer weight of evidence that has been disclosed today regarding the Salisbury attack, can we expect the UK Government, along with their allies, to ensure further sanctions, including deportations of Russian state actors?
As I have indicated, we will be looking at these issues on sanctioning, including some aspects of new sanctions regimes, such as I referred to on the EU chemical weapons use regime. Of course, the deportation of individuals relies on there being the required evidence to enable the Home Secretary to take such a decision.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the very cool way in which she has handled this bellicose threat. Particularly, does she agree that we should remind our constituents, and indeed the Russian people, that this state-sponsored GRU mission was a complete and abject failure, as the Skripals are still alive?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously, the Skripals are still alive but, sadly, we have seen the death of Dawn Sturgess. There was an impact not just on the Skripals but on Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and Charlie Rowley as well. Through what I have shown today, I think that we can reassure people across the UK on the excellent professionalism that our security services and our police service have shown in response to this, in bringing us to the point where we are able to identify two individuals.
I thank the Prime Minister for the way in which she has delivered this statement and for the work being done on this issue. I was a member of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill Committee, and this situation clearly shows exactly why we need these powers to be brought into law. Will she therefore confirm that the Government will quickly seek to bring the Bill to the Floor of the House for Report and Third Reading so it can continue its progress?
Yes. We fully recognise the importance of this legislation and of bringing it through. I thank my hon. Friend for his work on that Committee and for his recognition of the significance of this legislation. Of course, the timing of legislation depends on the business managers and on other legislation, but we understand the importance of this Bill and the need to get it on the statute book.
A deadly chemical attack on a British cathedral city is a truly shocking event, yet the residents of Salisbury have shown great strength since the attack. What assurances can the Prime Minister give local residents and visitors to the Salisbury area that they can now carry out their activities safely? What further support can the Government give so that the local environment can recover from the attack?
The Government worked with the local authority and others in the Salisbury and Wiltshire area more generally to ensure that support was in place to help those communities through the disruption and difficulties they had as a result of these incidents. I was very pleased to visit Salisbury shortly after the attack. As I said, the then Home Secretary made two visits to Salisbury, and others have also visited. I want people to go to Salisbury, and I want people to enjoy Salisbury as a city and Wiltshire as a great part of the UK to visit.
I have thanked the police and security services, and I would like to thank the local authority and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for their work.
I commend my right hon. Friend for her statement. She referred to Russia’s response of extraordinary obfuscation and lies. Will she update the House on the actions she will be taking to counter propaganda and the dissemination of disinformation from Russia?
I hope that my hon. Friend will take the reassurance that we will be acting on this. I cannot go into detail on everything we will be doing, but we will be ensuring that we bring the full panoply of the national security apparatus to deal with the issues we face in terms of this malign state activity.
Widowed Parent’s Allowance
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on widowed parent’s allowance.
Widowed parent’s allowance is paid to families in receipt of child benefit where one parent’s husband, wife or civil partner died prior to 6 April 2017. It was replaced after that date by bereavement support payments, which are now paid by the Government to families who find themselves in the same unfortunate circumstances. New claimants have no eligibility for widowed parent’s allowance.
Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the primary legislation that governs widowed parent’s allowance is incompatible with the principles of European human rights law, as the benefit precludes any entitlement to widowed parent’s allowance for a surviving unmarried partner. We are in the very earliest stages of carefully considering the full implications of that ruling. Officials at the Department are working closely with their counterparts in Northern Ireland to examine the judgment and what our next steps should be.
However, as the House will be aware, only Parliament is able to change primary legislation. Lady Hale ruled:
“A declaration of incompatibility does not change the law: it is then for the relevant legislature to decide whether or how it should be changed.”
The Court’s ruling therefore does not change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits.
I remind the House that the question of opening up bereavement benefits to cohabitees was debated and decided against in this place during the passage of the Pensions Act 2014, which introduced bereavement support payments, the successor to widowed parent’s allowance. It is worth noting that restricting bereavement payments to claimants who were in a legal union with the deceased has been a consistent feature of bereavement support in order to protect and clarify the entitlement. Other contributory benefits linked to national insurance contributions also contain special rules for claimants in a legal union.
A legal union gives the surviving spouse the right to claim state benefits derived from their deceased partner’s national insurance contributions. This principle provides a clear threshold for determining who can be provided for from a deceased person’s NI accumulation, and it serves to promote the institutions of marriage and civil partnership.
As I have stated, we are carefully considering the Court’s judgment and how the Department should proceed in light of it. When we have looked at all the options, I will come before the House to update Parliament further.
Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the denial of widowed parent’s allowance to surviving unmarried partners with children is incompatible with the law, in upholding the appeal of Siobhan McLaughlin, who lived with her partner, John Adams, and their four children for 23 years until John died in January 2014. I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, and I pay tribute to Siobhan McLaughlin and her family for their courage in pursuing this important case. Unmarried bereaved parents should not be subject to discrimination because of their marital status; to put it simply, their children’s needs are the same. The Supreme Court said:
“The financial loss caused to families with children by the death of a parent...is the same whether or not the parents are married or in a civil partnership.”
The financial support provided by the state can be vital to a family who are already grieving for their loss and who may also be facing financial hardship because of diminished income.
The judgment relates to legislation in Northern Ireland, but unmarried couples are ineligible for widowed parent’s allowance in the rest of the UK as well, so the principle established by the Supreme Court has wider implications. Bereaved parents are already contacting support organisations, such as the Childhood Bereavement Network, to ask for guidance in the light of the judgment.
The Minister said that the Government are considering the Court’s judgment and how the Department should proceed, but this judgment did not come out of the blue. In March 2016, the Work and Pensions Committee warned the Government that they could be forced to change their policy as a result of this specific case. The Select Committee’s “Support for the bereaved” report, published in March 2016, clearly expressed the view that excluding unmarried couples was wrong. It said:
“Penalising children on the grounds of the marital status of their parents is unjust.”
So what assessment has the Department made of the cost of bringing the legislation on eligibility for widowed parent’s allowance into line with the Supreme Court judgment in the whole of the UK? What assessment has the Department made of the number of families who made a claim for widowed parent’s allowance that was denied because the parents were not married?
The Minister said that restricting eligibility to those in a legal union has been a consistent feature of bereavement support in order to protect and clarify the entitlement. However, although unmarried couples were treated differently when it came to making a claim for widowed parent’s allowance, that does not apply when it comes to the Department ending their claim, because if the surviving partner cohabits with a new partner their claim is ended, just as it would be if they remarried or entered a civil partnership. The Minister said that it was for Parliament to change the law, and he referred to the vote in 2014. That led to the Government introducing the bereavement support payment in April 2017 to replace widowed parent’s allowance and two other bereavement benefits. Yet they decided to continue to exclude unmarried couples, even though both Members in this place and voluntary organisations working in the field called for eligibility to be extended to them. The Department for Work and Pensions itself estimated that 75% of bereaved families with children would receive less support under the new system.
The Government claimed that they were motivated not by the desire to save money but by the need to “modernise” financial support for bereaved families in order to better reflect society. According to the Office for National Statistics, cohabiting couples are the second largest family type and the fastest growing. The number of cohabiting couples has more than doubled, from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017, and the percentage of dependent children living in cohabiting couple families increased from 7% in 1996 to 15% by 2017. When the Government introduced the bereavement support payment to “modernise” support, why did they not extend eligibility to unmarried couples? What message does that send to those children about how they are valued by this Government?
Will the Government now act to bring bereavement support payment into line with the principle established by the Supreme Court that bereaved children should not be disadvantaged because of their parents’ marital status? The purpose of financial support by the state for bereaved families is to try to ensure that, as far as possible, families struggling with grief at the loss of a parent or partner should not have to face the additional worry of how they will manage financially. That should surely apply to families regardless of whether the parents were married or not, as the Supreme Court said last week.
I thank the hon. Lady for her response. As I said in my statement, the Court cannot change primary legislation, and many of the points she raises are the very ones we will be considering, including the potential impacts of any changes that could happen. I will happily update the House on those once we have had the chance to consider them fully.
Many of the other points raised were at the heart of the principles of why we brought forward the new bereavement payments process: it is far simpler and it is a quicker process. We did consider the point about cohabitation, but this is not straightforward, as was extensively debated during the discussions around the time of the Pensions Act 2014, particularly as the regulations were brought forward. That makes this a complex process, because it can be open to interpretation, leading to delays and additional burdens for claimants, particularly at a time of distress. Any extension could trigger multiple claims; a bereaved person may have been legally married to one person but living with a new partner, who would therefore become eligible.
The hon. Lady talked about the new proposals for families with children, but I will challenge her back on that, because the new system is easier and quicker, and the payment is in addition to other household income. It is not taxed or means-tested, and it is not applied to the benefit cap. These are all keys areas that help those with the lowest income, as the principle was based on fairness. We also widened support so that anyone of working age would qualify and younger spouses and civil partners without children would get support. Specifically for those bereaved with children, an additional £1,500 was paid as the first lump sum. In some cases, those families could be eligible for additional benefits, whether through universal credit, child benefit, tax credits or the funeral expenses payment.
Whatever the decision of the Court, will the Minister give consideration in his deliberations to the fact that many on these Benches have a preference for our own law made in this House over the provisions of European human rights law?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Let me reassure him that that has always been the founding principle of contributory benefits, and to our mind it should continue to be so.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. He said that the Department was only consulting Northern Ireland on the implications of this Court ruling, but this is a UK reserved benefit, so why is that consultation not extending further? He also said that the Supreme Court ruling does not change the law, but the ruling does say that the law as it stands is flawed, so not updating the eligibility rules has the potential to store up further challenge to the new as well as the legacy benefit, given the precedent that has now been set by Siobhan McLaughlin’s significant win. It would be grossly unfair, and surely open to further challenge, if the Minister did not come back to the House to explain how this decision was to be applied across the board, so can he confirm that the work he is now undertaking with the Department is with that end destination in mind, and is not seeking to limit this significant win to just one family?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The Court ruling specifically applied to Northern Ireland, but I understand the point he has made and I would be happy to meet him to discuss wider implications across the UK. On the other points he raised, those are the very things we are considering, and I will update the House once we have the chance to assess them fully.
I am no fan of the European courts and I am extremely pro-marriage, but we have to live in the modern world that we live in now, and when the Government consider how to respond to this Court ruling, will they look at something called fairness and natural justice? Many people who will have been able to go to work because their partner stayed at home with the children will have then lost their loved one when they were not married. We need to show compassion, while understanding the benefits system.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that and he raises a fair point. As with any of the benefits we provide for those in need, this is always underpinned by the principle of fairness.
May I welcome the Minister back to the Treasury Bench, after a very short period with the Work and Pensions Committee? Might I say that there is some disappointment at the fact that more progress has not been made for him to report to the House today. In other areas of social security the cohabitation rule applies and evidence of cohabitation can be male slippers in the home, but in this case we are talking about evidence of children. There is no doubt that this was a stable union. As the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said, surely in such cases fairness is not operating.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. I enjoyed my brief four or five weeks as part of his Select Committee, where he was a formidable, excellent and well-respected Chair. Fairness is the key. In my defence, this judgment was made only last week and it would have been churlish of me to make a rushed decision, as this has very serious implications and we need to consider it carefully. I will return to update the House as quickly but as sensibly as possible.
When I served on the Work and Pensions Committee, under the chairmanship of the excellent right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), whose party no longer seems to find room for him, although he remains Chairman of the Committee, we looked at various issues to do with the widowed parent’s allowance. I hope the Minister will look carefully at the recommendations in that report, which tackled the issue of partners and of how income would be treated under universal credit, because there is a question of fairness to address in how widowed parent’s allowance is currently treated.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and that is why under the new benefit payments any income that is gained is not means-tested and the benefit cap does not apply to it, to make sure that people are not given money on the one hand that is taken away on the other, and that the most vulnerable people get the support that they need.
I have to tell the Minister that I met his predecessors about this issue, because it is clear that legislation written in 1958 should not mean that children in 2018 live in poverty. We have cases of parents having to get married in intensive care units to avoid the humiliation that this legislation entails. Will he learn from Germany, where the money follows the child through orphan pensions and parenting is the requirement, not marriage? Telling parents that they have only 18 months to grieve is hurtful. Telling them that their family does not exist because they did not put a ring on it is unforgivable. I hope that he will take up my offer of a meeting with the campaigners from Walthamstow—women who have been directly affected by this—and I hope we will finally bring the legislation up to 2018.
I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues. I have worked with her before on several issues, and I am happy to extend that invitation. It is a balance: contributory benefits have always followed the principle that inheritable benefits are based on the concept of legal marriage or civil partnership because that provides legal certainty. I understand the points that have been raised, and we are considering them following the judgment.
I know that the Minister recognises that all such cases involve distressing circumstances as someone has lost a parent, and that legal niceties are therefore not their first thought. When the Government look at this, will they consider carefully a system that is compassionate but also brings clarity, so that people know exactly when they will qualify?
As I have said, fairness must underpin this. We do not want to have a complex benefit, because it is a very distressing time for people. We want it to be simple and quick and to provide support to those most in need.
It seems clear that the will of the House is that a child who has lost a parent should not be penalised because of the marital status of the parents. Does the Minister intend to carry out an equality impact assessment of this benefit?
Actually, as part of the commitment to bringing in the new bereavement payments, we will do a full impact assessment, which will be shared with the House. One of the key changes is the additional £1,500 in the initial payment for those in a marriage or civil partnership who had children. We understand the importance of making sure that those with children get additional support.[Official Report, 13 September 2018, Vol. 646, c. 6MC.]
I echo the calls for compassion and fairness when dealing with children affected in this way. I also gently remind the Minister that this is the seventh ruling in the last 18 months against different aspects of the Government’s social security policy. It would be appropriate for the Government to show some humility and listen.
I thank the hon. Lady, but those are the principles that govern us. The new system that we have brought in provides immediate support; it prioritises help for those on the lowest incomes; and it recognises that those with children, regardless of age, need additional immediate support. We will continue to assess both the ruling of the Court in relation to Northern Ireland and the wider implications of the new benefit.
I urge the Government to accept the ruling by the Court. Several hon. Members have talked about fairness, and it is a basic issue of right or wrong. Why does the Department take account of cohabiting couples when determining eligibility for universal credit, but deny those same households bereavement support if one of them passes away?
I would gently remind the hon. Gentleman that it was his former colleague Steve Webb who steered through the Pensions Act 2014, when this issue was extensively debated. The principle of the new benefit is about fairness and delivering quick and immediate support for those most in need.
I too thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement.
My constituent Donna McClelland died on 20 May, leaving two sons, Cian and Danial, and her partner of 24 years, Arwel Pritchard. They were engaged, but they had prioritised buying a house over the cost of getting married. Arwel and Donna put their children’s home first. When will the Government bring forward a review that will console Mr Pritchard and admit that a legal contract is not a precondition for supporting a grieving family?
May I first express my personal condolences to the family at this distressing time? I understand the points that the hon. Lady makes, and they are being considered. In the short term, I urge hon. Members to look at the other potential benefits that could be offered to support families, including universal credit and tax credits. I will return to update the House fully as soon as I can following the ruling by the Court last week.
In a debate on 2 March 2017 on bereavement support benefit, I pressed the then Minister on the issue of cohabiting couples. I pointed out that they are treated as couples for other benefits such as tax credits, but I was told that extending eligibility to cohabitees would “increase spend” and be “complex to administer”. Despite what the Minister has said about legal certainties, we know that many bereaved cohabitees and their children have lost out because of the UK Government’s reluctance to recognise them as families. In the light of the Court judgment and the hardship caused to bereaved cohabitees and their children, does he agree that the Government should apologise for their inaction and that, as soon as can possibly be arranged, this needs to be corrected retrospectively so that justice is obtained for the people affected?
This issue was considered at great length in debates on the Pensions Act 2014 and the subsequent regulations. It is not straightforward. How do the Government act as judge and jury in situations in which someone could be living with a different partner? At a time of great distress, the emphasis has to be on providing appropriate and quick support particularly targeted at those in the most need. Following the ruling in the Supreme Court, the points raised will be considered and I will come back as quickly as is appropriate to provide an update to the House.
It is an important principle that social security should be a safety net for us all, because we cannot predict circumstances such as the death of a partner or parent, which could happen at any time. Children should not lose out regardless of the marital status of their parents. How much has the Department spent on fighting the decision in the courts, and can the Minister confirm that it has ruled out appealing the decision?
It is right to highlight that we should provide support, and that is why in the new benefit we have widened the support available to anyone of a working age and to younger spouses and civil partners without children. They will now get support, and it will not be lost when someone moves into a new relationship. We will continue to review the situation following the Court decision last week, and I will fully update the House.
The Minister’s statement did not contain the word “sorry”. Following on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I will give the Minister an opportunity to say sorry to the individuals affected. Can he also tell us how many of the Government’s welfare and benefit policies have been found to be illegal since 2010?
As I have previously said, we are considering the Supreme Court ruling. As we have demonstrated, with the introduction of the new bereavement payments we have made it easier to claim, it is paid in addition to other household income, it is not taxed, it is not means-tested and is not included in the benefit cap. We have extended access to it and targeted those most in need. It is that principle of fairness that underlies not just these reforms but all our benefit reforms.
Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age)
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to raise the minimum age of consent to marriage or civil partnership to eighteen; and for connected purposes.
Young people in this country have to stay in education or training until they are 18, although they can marry before that, at the age of 16, but only with parental consent. UNICEF believes that marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. I agree, and believe that it should be banned in this country. Following the first Girl Summit in 2014, the Department for International Development allocated up to £39 million over five years to support global efforts in preventing child marriages. By its proactive contribution, the UK recognised that child marriages resulted in early pregnancy and girls facing social isolation, interrupted schooling, limited career and vocational opportunities, as well as the increased risk of domestic violence. So why are we not leading the way by increasing the legal age of marriage in this country from 16 to 18—the recognised age of adulthood?
Under the United Nations sustainable development goals, states around the world pledged to end by 2030 marriages in which one or both spouses are under 18, but many Commonwealth countries still follow the legal lead of the UK. In Bangladesh, for instance, the official minimum age of matrimony is 18 for women and 21 for men, but a new provision allows child marriage to take place under special circumstances—that is, with parental consent and with permission from the courts. Lobbyists for this provision cited the current UK law as an example of why the legal age of marriage in Bangladesh should be lowered. Changes to laws in the UK reverberate around the world but this is not the only reason that fresh impetus should be given to increasing the minimum age for marriage from 16 to 18. It should be our priority to protect children, and that may mean from themselves as well as from potential dangers from others.
As we celebrate the centenary of the suffragette movement this year, we should recall that it was pressure from magnificent campaigners that brought about the Age of Marriage Act 1929. Until then, there was no defined minimum age, and making it 16 was seen as protecting children. However, 90 years ago, most young people would have been wage earners, unlike now when, in England, they must stay in full-time education, training or start an apprenticeship. None of these is compatible with a married environment. In fact, my own mother—along with very many others—began her working life after leaving school at 14. Life was very different in those days.
In the United Kingdom, children of 16 and 17 need the consent of their parents to be married. Surely this shows that they are not mature enough to make the decision themselves. But this is not the safeguard that it may once have been because it opens the door for forced marriages, or at least for pressure to be exerted on young people to marry to fulfil family demands. We have outlawed forced marriages here, due to a campaign by Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, which started in Derby. I would like the Minister for Women and Equalities to meet her at some point.
Marriage is a major life decision for which children are not emotionally and physically ready. Setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 provides an objective, rather than subjective, standard of maturity, which safeguards a child from being married when they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready. Many argue that there should be a minimum level of maturity, and free and full consent about whether, whom and when to marry.
The international human rights conventions on the rights of women and children say that countries should end the practice of enabling child marriage below 18; thus the UK is violating these same commitments. International law is very specific about who should be allowed to marry. If a country wants to permit exceptions to the minimum marriage age of 18, “mature, capable” children are allowed to marry only “in exceptional circumstances” at age 16 or older, when
“such decisions are made by a judge based on legitimate exceptional grounds defined by law…without deference to culture and tradition.”
By allowing 16-year-olds to marry without consent from a judge, the UK is breaking international law, but that has not stopped the UK from telling other countries to follow the same rules that it is flouting. It is important to realise that the UK has a duty to live by the very standards that it is keen to advocate for in the developing world. It is crucial that, as well as trying to eradicate child marriage around the world, the UK meets international human rights standards at home to end this harmful practice.
In 1951, Pugh v. Pugh set legal precedent in handling a case relating to the capacity for the young to be married. In his conclusion, Mr Justice Pearce said: “According to modern thought”—this is 1951, remember—
“it is considered socially and morally wrong that persons of an age, at which we now believe them to be immature and provide for their education, should have the stresses, responsibilities and sexual freedom of marriage and the physical strain of childbirth. Child marriages by common consent are bad for the participants and bad for the institution of marriage.”
His words are as relevant today as they were 70 years ago.
We have an outdated system that we need to change. There are all sorts of things that people can do at different ages, but I believe that we should be looking at moving all, or most, of those things to 18. In most people’s view, 16-year-olds are still children. We should be giving them the opportunity to get married when they are more mature, more sensible and more settled in their lives than they are when they are still at school. Can anybody imagine sustaining a married life while at school, with the strains of exams such as GCSEs and A-levels, and education in college? There are so many pressures at that age, and a marriage intruding on that will cause young people, who think they are mature, to face huge strains and will prevent them from fulfilling their potential. We should now show the world how seriously we take this issue, and increase the minimum age of marriage in England and Wales to 18.
To be clear, I do not propose to divide the House on this matter, but I thought that it would be right to offer my observations and concerns about the motion.
I recognise that getting married at 16 is not the right life choice for many people, particularly if there is any form of coercion, which there should never be in marriage. Marriage should be something that is unique and special, entered into by two loving people of their own free will and free choice. It should not be the case that either side feels a particular obligation to get married. However, the proposal to bring forward this Bill raised quite a number of questions in my mind. The obvious starting point is whether making the age for marriage 18 would mean that we should also make the age of sexual consent 18. Now, that could be a separate debate. Within the last 20 years—in the time of some Members sat in the Chamber this afternoon—there have been quite impassioned debates in this House about the equalisation of the age of consent at 16. Some of the arguments used against that seem rather odd now, even only 20 years later. This Bill raises the question: are we going to reopen the issue of whether the age of consent should be set at 18 or 16?
What would the implications be for those who are currently married? I presume that such a Bill would exempt those who had freely married at 16 or 17. It would be quite onerous suddenly to have a situation where someone who was 16 had legally married after the data law was introduced, yet someone aged 17 now had to wait until their 18th birthday.
I accept the points made, and it is obvious that there is a strong point around the idea that people cannot get married at 16 or 17 without an element of consent, but this is a very long-standing legal age. For me, there are all sorts of arguments about what should be allowed at 16 and what should be allowed at 18. We have just talked about the benefits of the widowed parent’s allowance and the impact of being married or not being married as parents. Under this proposal, someone who decided at 16—legally, if we did not change the age of consent—to make the life-changing decision to have children could not get married until they were 18. That would be a bit of an oddity in our law.
I appreciate the position with regard to the message that this might send internationally, but most countries have similar provisions to the United Kingdom on the age of consent. At the moment, the minimum age of 16 is shared between ourselves and Scotland. If the age in England and Wales were 18, what would be the position if there were a run to Gretna, as was very popular in previous generations when the laws of marriage in Scotland were different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom? What would be the position in terms of recognising marriage certificates? Likewise, Northern Ireland has a separate jurisdiction but is still part of the United Kingdom. How would we recognise that? [Interruption.] I know that it is disappointing for the Scottish National party that Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom, but we would miss the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) too much if it were not. It would a significant moment for me in the UK if there were different ages at which people could get married in the UK. Particularly at a time when some are arguing very powerfully in this Chamber that the situation in Northern Ireland, where those of the same sex cannot get married, should be brought to an end and that equal marriage should be spread across the UK, it would be strange to have a different age threshold for doing that.
Those concerns brought me on to whether it is right that this proposal is in a private Member’s Bill. I accept that private Members’ Bills can be good vehicles for looking at faults in the law, looking at changing things, and looking at areas that may not necessarily be significant but where there is a need to bring in a piece of primary legislation. I passed my own private Member’s Bill about small-scale digital radio through this House. I see one or two Members who participated in those debates sitting in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who is in her place, has brought up the issue of upskirting—a fault in the law that needed to be resolved to give the law its actual intention.
However, this is a much more significant change. If we were to do it, it should follow a more significant consultation process, and it should be debated in Government time, where we would have the time available to make proper and informed observations. As a regular attender on Fridays, I see this all too often, particularly at this stage of the Session. A ten-minute rule Bill would almost certainly not get any debate on Second Reading or on Report, given the number of remaining stages already listed for the remaining two Fridays of this Session. This Bill would make a significant change to our law and it could have wider implications, so it would be odd to go down that route.
There is clearly an argument around the ages at which we can do things. It is odd, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) said, that such a life-changing commitment can be made at 16, yet someone cannot drive a truck or a steam-powered road roller until they are 21. Certain products can be bought only at 18. Someone can drive a car at 17. There is a whole area to look at. That tempts me towards the view that this is something that should be looked at following a proper review of our law, perhaps through a Government Bill or a Law Commission examination of the knock-on effects if we decided to make such a significant change.
I do not disagree with some of the thrust of the arguments that have been advanced. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is a very diligent listener, in his place. I am sure that he will look at how we make sure that provisions around parental consent are meaningful, in a way that they perhaps would have been in the past, but today may not be. In fact, the parents may be the source of the pressure rather than, as the law sees them, a safeguard. That provision is based on an old patriarchal view of society—it would not be the parents; it would be, in effect, the male head of the household who would give consent for the daughter to get married. That is clearly a view from the past that we would not look to codify into law today.
How can we make that more meaningful? Yes, we should look to target forced marriage. However, making such a significant change to a very long-standing provision of law that has a knock-on effect for many other aspects of our legislation should not be done via a ten-minute rule Bill that will potentially receive next to no debate when, in reality, these matters should be more properly considered. That could be done, first, via the Government looking into it—I am sure there will be constructive engagement—and secondly, via consultation. Following that, we could have a Bill via a process that would give us the time for appropriate discussion on the Floor of the House, with the ability to examine in more depth and to have, to be blunt, more than two speakers. Sadly, given the procedures under which we have debated private Members’ Bills for a long time, these are likely to be the only two speeches on this Bill and this issue in the current Session.
As I said, I do not intend to divide the House. I appreciate many of the sentiments that have been expressed. I have written articles myself about the debate about 16 and 17-year-olds and the law with regard to people much older than themselves who are relations. I take the view that once someone is 18 they are an adult and it is up to them who their partner should be, what sex they should be, and any other factors. The only determinant should be that it is a loving and consenting relationship. While it is right that this issue has been brought to the Floor of the House today, my concern is about doing this via a ten-minute rule Bill. Although I will not divide the House, I think it is right that some concerns were expressed about the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mrs Pauline Latham, Priti Patel, Stephen Twigg, Jeremy Lefroy, Chris Philp, Sarah Champion, James Duddridge, Sir Graham Brady, Mr Virendra Sharma, Henry Smith, Philip Davies and Sir Roger Gale present the Bill.
Mrs Pauline Latham accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October and to be printed (Bill 261).
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance and clarification on the business ahead of us today. We have two very important Bills—the Tenant Fees Bill and the Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill. Will motion 6, which proposes that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) be discharged from the Selection Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) be added, still be reached even if we go past the moment of interruption?
Yes, that item can still be reached and can still be moved. It is properly on the Order Paper and the time will come for the House properly to address it. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to clarify the matter.
Tenant Fees Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
That the Order of 21 May 2018 (Tenant Fees Bill: Programme) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration and proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(Rishi Sunak.)
Tenant Fees Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
Prohibitions applying to landlords
I beg to move amendment 5, page 2, line 17, after “(c),” insert—
“() requires the person to do any of those things—
(i) as a result of an act or default of the person relating to such a tenancy or housing let under it, and
(ii) otherwise than pursuant to, or for the breach of, a provision of a tenancy agreement,”
This amendment means that Clause 1 prohibits a landlord from requiring a tenant or other relevant person to make a prohibited payment or take other action within the clause in the event of an act or default of the tenant where the requirement is imposed otherwise than by the tenancy agreement.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments 6 and 7.
Amendment 1, in clause 8, page 5, line 13 leave out “£5,000” and insert “£30,000”.
Amendment 2, page 5, line 16, leave out from “exceed” to end of line 17 and insert “£30,000”.
Government amendments 8 to 23.
Amendment 4, in schedule 1, page 23, line 29, at end insert—
“Letting agent charges
3A (1) A payment to a letting agent or third party for the establishment or renewal of a tenancy is a permitted payment.
(2) In this section, a payment for the establishment or renewal of a tenancy may include, but is not limited to, fees for—
(a) administrative costs,
(b) credit checks,
(c) tenancy renewal fees, and
(d) inventory charges.
(3) The total payment under this section must not exceed £300.”
This amendment would allow letting agents to charge fees for various services connected with the establishment or renewal of a tenancy but would cap such fees at £300.
Amendment 3, page 23, line 30, leave out paragraph 4 and insert—
“Payment of Landlord or Agent expenses
4 (1) A payment that a tenant is required to make to cover a landlord’s or agent’s reasonable loss arising from a breach of a fair condition of the tenancy agreement by the tenant is a permitted payment.
(2) In this paragraph a “fair condition” is one that relates to—
(a) the replacement cost of a lost key or security device, or
(b) payment of the amount of late rent payments and interest relating to those payments
arising under or in connection with the tenancy.
(3) Paragraph 4(2)(a) does not apply if the payment required—
(a) pertains to rent that was paid within 14 days of the date due under the tenancy agreement, or
(b) exceeds the interest at Bank of England base rate on the rent from the day the rent was due to the day it was paid.
(4) Paragraph 4(2)(b) does not apply if the condition in the tenancy agreement prescribes a fixed fee to be paid for each breach of this term.”
This amendment would remove default fees as a permitted payment and permit the payment of landlord and agent expenses where there is a clear cost due to a tenant fault.
Government amendments 24 to 48.
I will speak to all the Government amendments but, for ease, I will take them in a slightly different order from the one in which they have been set out.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), back to her place on the Front Bench. Everything we are discussing today is built on the foundations of her incredible diligence in preparing the Bill for us to consider in Committee, where I enjoyed constructive discussions with my opposite number, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). I am delighted that my hon. Friend is back with us to help us to move the Bill through its final stages.
Amendments 5 and 6 will ensure that landlords and agents cannot charge any fees to tenants in the event of default, except under those circumstances set out in paragraph 4 of schedule 1. That now specifically includes prohibiting default fees that may have been set out in a separate agreement between the agent and the tenant, rather than in the tenancy agreement.
More generally, our provision on default fees in paragraph 4 of schedule 1 has been the source of much discussion and debate. Indeed, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has tabled an amendment to the provision. Members from across the House, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and those who provided evidence to the Bill Committee have agreed with the principle that it is not fair for landlords to pay fees that arise due to the fault of the tenant. However, we have listened to concerns expressed by Members on Second Reading and in Committee, including the hon. Members for Great Grimsby and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), and by tenant groups and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute that the default fees provisions as currently constructed may be open to abuse.
May I mention a case involving my constituent, which is not uncommon in my constituency or in constituencies throughout the country? A young mother paid a deposit of £595 to her landlord for a wet, mildewed house in Rock Ferry in Birkenhead. When she was driven out by the mould, the landlord claimed that the bins were not emptied by the local authority, so she lost her £595 deposit. She wished to pay the rent for her new property on a day that coincided with her universal credit payments, but the landlord said, “Well, there’s no repayment of your previous deposit, and I want £900 up front if I’m changing the rent day.” In the meantime, during all that stress, my constituent lost her triplets. Will she be covered by the Bill, as amended?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Without going into the specific details or knowing the full facts, I can say that the example he gives is exactly the kind of bad practice that the Bill is designed to stamp out. It is not just this piece of legislation, which tackles the specific issue of tenant fees, that is relevant, because across the piece, the Government are examining the private rented sector to ensure that there is balance and fairness between tenants and landlords. He touched on the issue of health and whether properties are fit for habitation. The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has proposed a Bill to tackle that exact issue, and the Government are delighted to be supporting its passage through the House.
The issue of transferring deposits from one tenancy to another is out of this Bill’s scope, but the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Government have convened a working group to examine deposit passporting. The group has already met, and the findings will be published in the spring of next year.
I am grateful to the Minister, and I will not intervene again, but there is no transporting of the deposit in my constituent’s case. She loses the deposit and then faces paying another deposit of £900 to get her rent payment day in line with her universal credit payments.
The specific issue of one tenancy ending, and the process for recovering part or all of the deposit and starting a new tenancy, is out of scope for this piece of legislation, but it will be a subject for the working group set up by the Government with the sector. There are some interesting ideas about how to solve the problem that the right hon. Gentleman outlines.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) has quite rightly raised a horror story on behalf of his constituent, but will the Minister acknowledge that there are many highly professional letting agents throughout the country who seek to provide the very best service for their customers under the difficult circumstances that they sometimes face?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I entirely agree. The Bill is not about driving letting agents out of business, but about levelling the playing field so that the small minority of bad actors in the industry are not able to continue to the disadvantage of the vast majority of agents who do a terrific and valuable job, which we want to see continue.
It is precisely the sort of case that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) raises that gives all landlords a bad name. Most landlords are actually trying to do their best to provide a service to their tenants and hope to have long-standing tenants.
Under the current legislation, for a deposit to be retained by the landlord, there has to be agreement on both sides, otherwise there is an arbitration process. If it is just a case of someone not emptying the bins, there is no way that the landlord would be able to keep all the deposit.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The abuse that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead highlights is exactly why we are all here today to discuss this important subject.
I will return to the topic of default fees. The Bill as drafted already partly mitigates the risk of such abuse by limiting default fees to the landlord’s loss and permitting such fees only if they are expressly set out in the tenancy agreement, which the tenant will obviously have sight of before agreeing to the tenancy. But we acknowledge that more can be done, which is why the Government have tabled a series of amendments to tighten the default fee provision.
As I have said, amendments 5 and 6 will ensure that landlords and agents cannot charge fees to the tenant in the event of default, except under those circumstances set out under paragraph 4 of schedule 1. Secondly, amendment 27 will extend the limitation on what can be charged to incorporate the agent’s costs. We want to ensure that an agent cannot bill a landlord a significant amount only for that to be passed on to the tenant as the landlord’s incurred costs.
Thirdly—and similarly to amendment 3, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby—we introducing a provision to specify that any fees charged must be reasonable in respect of the works undertaken, rather than simply tied to actual loss or costs incurred. This will ensure that landlords and agents cannot make claims for charges that exceed the reasonable commercial value of goods or services.
Will my hon. Friend clarify how this would affect fees charged at the end of a tenancy, such as cleaning fees, which we know people will be expected to pay, although they may not have been aware of them at the start of the contract?
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the fees he mentions are specifically banned under this piece of legislation. The Bill has been drafted tightly to ban all fees in connection with a tenancy. It is specifically drafted to capture fees such as the ones he raises, so those fees will no longer be in place once the Bill is enacted.
Could the Minister expand on who will be monitoring what happens with default fees? Some charities, including Shelter and Citizens Advice, have concerns that this might be used as a loophole for additional costs. Who will monitor the Bill and the default fees arrangements after the Bill is passed?
If you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will expand a little to answer that question. The great thing about the Bill and the simplicity of a ban is that tenants’ ability to self-enforce will be greatly enhanced, which is something that was recognised by various people in the industry who gave evidence to our Bill Committee. Attached to any tenancy agreement is a consumer guide on how to rent and how to let, which provides straightforward advice for a tenant on what is and is not permissible. That will enable them to know whether something they are being charged is not appropriate.
At that stage, there are several avenues for redress that the tenant can pursue. It is mandatory for letting agents to be a member of a redress scheme, and we are consulting on extending that to landlords, but in the first instance there are redress schemes that the tenant can go to. Obviously they can talk directly to the agent and the landlord themselves. If the tenant does not get satisfaction in those conversations, the next step would be to go to the first-tier tribunal. That was recommended by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and the Government were happy to introduce it into the Bill as an accessible place for our constituents to go and seek redress.
If the tenant is not happy at that level, they can go further—to the county courts, where further redress can be sought. The body enforcing all this at local level will be the local trading standards authority, which in most cases is the upper-tier authority. Sitting on top of all that will be a lead enforcement authority, which the Government will nominate—this is similar to the role that Powys County Council plays for the estate agency industry in Wales—that will also have the ability to enforce.
The Minister is being generous with his time. I absolutely understand what he is saying, and the arrangement seems very comprehensive. My concern, given the emaciated state of trading standards and other local authority enforcement agencies, is that this will not be an effective way of monitoring the situation. Tenants in such a position are still vulnerable, with potentially little legal redress other than by themselves. Is there no opportunity for the Government to monitor what is happening with default fees?
I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that it would not be appropriate for the Government to monitor every single rental transaction that takes place, but the job of the lead enforcement agency is to have exactly that oversight for the industry. I would point out that the Government will fund the first year’s cost for trading standards and enforcement authorities to the tune of about £500,000. Thereafter, the fines under the legislation will enable enforcement authorities to recoup some of the costs, and indeed to invest some of that money in better enforcement. To go back to the heart of the hon. Lady’s question—
Before the Minister does so, will he give way?
I am happy to do so.
In my area, the good agents are beginning to say that those who are already exploiting the situation are trying to push up rent levels. Will the Government at least look at what has happened since the Bill was introduced to make sure that rents are not pushed up by landlords artificially to overcome this loss of money?
On that relatively unrelated point, it is worth pointing out that when similar legislation was introduced in Scotland, we did not see any greater increase in rents than we would have anticipated.
On the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) about tenants’ ability to enforce and the ease of their doing so, it is worth bearing in mind that default fees are specifically required to be identified in the tenancy agreement. Up front, at the outset of a new tenancy agreement, the new tenant’s contract has to say exactly what default fees may be relevant under that contract—for example involving the loss of keys, late rent or the loss of an alarm fob. That has to be there in black and white; it is not as though the landlord can come up later on with something that they want to charge the tenant for. That will also be spelled out in the guidance, so it will be very easy for tenants to know whether the default fees they are being charged are appropriate.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?