House of Commons
Tuesday 20 November 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government and my Department remain enthusiastic about the role of solar generation and its role in decarbonisng power in the UK. However, as the market matures and installation is now possible without Government subsidy, we believe that it is the right time to close the feed-in tariff scheme. We already have 13 GW of solar capacity supported under current schemes. Indeed, at one point in May this year, solar provided more power generation than any other source.
Rooftop solar is set to lose support from the feed-in tariff and the export tariff, which help to pay for clean power to the grid. Does my right hon. Friend agree that householders should expect some form of payment rather than simply subsidising large energy companies?
My hon. Friend will know that the FIT scheme has been a huge success, supporting over 800,000 installations nationally, including almost 3,000 in his constituency. It has cost consumers over £4.5 billion to date and is scheduled to cost more than £2 billion a year for at least the next decade. It is therefore right that we consider a new scheme, as the cost has fallen. However, I do completely agree that solar power should not be provided to the grid for free, and that is why I will shortly be announcing the next steps for small-scale renewables.
I call Daniel Kawczynski. He is not here. Mr Richard Graham. Not here. I hope that neither of the Members concerned is indisposed. It is most unlike them not to be present, but they were informed of the grouping, I am sure, by the Government. [Interruption.] Okay—thank you. Well, never mind—they are not here and we cannot take them, but other Members are here, and we are delighted to see it. Mr David Hanson.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The number of installations under solar has fallen by 90% in the past two years. Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), what steps is the Minister taking to ensure, first, that providers are still in place next year to continue to grow this sector; and secondly, that customers are not subsidising large energy companies?
The good news, as I mentioned, is that we have moved from a position of heavy—very expensive—subsidy for many of these small-scale schemes. Because the cost of solar installations has dropped by more than two thirds, we think it is right to change that. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to welcome the news that a string of private sector subsidy-free solar funds is set to open this year, particularly with business premises now taking advantage of the benefits that solar can provide in balancing their own systems. We are going through that transition with the expectation that we will see more solar deployed next year than we have previously.
If we are really serious about rooftop solar, why do we not insist that it is fitted on all new build properties?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for all forms of renewable energy in Kettering, and he is right. There are many ways to bring forward better low-carbon generation—but, equally, better energy efficiency measures—in new builds. We have set out plans under the clean growth strategy to try to achieve those ends, and I am looking forward to delivering them.
I invite the Minister to be far more ambitious for rooftop solar as PV prices continue to fall and as batteries to store surplus solar power become ever more competitively priced. The opportunity for many homes to become their own power station has arrived. Should we not therefore be planning and encouraging such an exciting outcome?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, whose activities in coalition contributed to a boom in some of the cheapest forms of renewable energy, including offshore wind. We are now able to generate over 30% of our energy supply from renewables, which is much cheaper than putting it on individual rooftops. He raises a really important point. As our energy system migrates to a much more decentralised, much more intelligent system—helped, I might add, by the roll-out of smart meters—there is real value in that micro-generation, and that is what I am hoping to support when I bring proposals to the House shortly.
It is very heartwarming to see that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has now beetled into the Chamber. I am sure that the House and an expectant nation wish to hear him.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.
I think my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has done a lot to support renewable energy, may have covered my key point. However, does she agree that there are hundreds of churches, schools, local authorities and co-operative groups around the country, not least in my own constituency of Gloucester, that will benefit hugely from her announcement of what will replace the current system, and that it would be totally wrong for energy companies to benefit from free energy were there not to be a replacement system?
I hope my hon. Friend caught my point that I agree it would be wrong to have power provided to the grid for free. In his constituency, there are now more than 1,300 feed-in tariff installations, and he should be proud of that. He is right; there are many such organisations. I was lucky to meet a group of people from all different faiths who were really committed to a zero-carbon future in many places of worship. That is happening right across the country. There is value in that, and we want to see it continue.
Scotland is the home of energy innovation, and a lot of that is down to EU funding for the innovation and research that is taking place. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that funding for the Scottish renewables sector is protected after Brexit?
I encourage the hon. Lady to move away from defining success as the amount of subsidy that renewable energy receives. In fact, thanks to incredible policy work and innovation by the suppliers, Scotland, like other areas, has benefited from a rapid decline in energy costs. We will continue to invest in clean growth—more than £2.5 billion over the course of this Parliament—and we will all benefit from those jobs and the renewable energy that those installations provide.
Before I call the shadow Minister, I know the House will want to join me in welcoming Speaker Elisabetta Casellati of the Italian Senate—a distinguished parliamentarian and the first female holder of that office. Madam Speaker, we wish you and your colleagues well on this visit and in all the important work that you do.
The Government say in their clean growth plan—indeed, the Minister has said it this morning—that they want to see more people investing in solar without Government support. I cannot think of a better way to discourage people who might be thinking of investing in solar than telling them that they will be expected to give away to the national grid half the electricity they generate from their investment. When we talk about the export tariff, we are not talking about a subsidy; we are talking about a payment for goods supplied. The Minister has elided the feed-in tariff and the export tariff. Can she just accept that she has messed things up on this occasion, call off talk of removing the export tariff and get on with using that tariff to support future subsidy-free solar investment?
I am invited to say buongiorno to our visitor in the Gallery.
The hon. Gentleman and I are, as in many cases, in violent agreement. We signalled clearly several years ago the closure of this scheme. It is a very expensive scheme; it was going to cost £2 billion a year for decades to come to bring forward microgeneration. We now have much more energy-efficient and cost-effective ways of generating renewables. As I said, I absolutely agree that people who have gone through the installation process should not be captive takers, should someone want to buy their energy. I look forward to announcing further deliberations on this shortly.
The Government believe that nuclear power has an important role to play in our energy system as part of a diverse range of low-carbon technologies. Our intent is clearly visible in the form of Hinkley Point C—the first new nuclear power station to be built in this country in a generation—as well as in the launch in June of our landmark nuclear sector deal at Trawsfynydd.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. It is reassuring to me to understand this Government’s commitment to new nuclear, but with Toshiba’s recent decision to wind down NuGen, can he assure me that he will meet any developer who is interested in building their reactors at Moorside in Copeland?
I can indeed give that assurance to my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of one of the bastions of skills and innovation in the nuclear sector in this country. The circumstances behind Toshiba’s wind-down of NuGen are well known—it was because of the move to chapter 11 bankruptcy of its subsidiary—but that site is now available for other investors.
The future of nuclear power is not just about building reactors; it is about having people with the skills to work in those reactors as well. As we have a skills gap in defence nuclear, can the Secretary of State set out what actions the Government are taking to support the growth of nuclear skills in both defence nuclear and civil nuclear?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman takes such an interest in this. He will know that the nuclear sector deal provides for training, new institutions and new apprenticeship and scholarship opportunities for nuclear engineers in both the civil and defence sectors. This is all part of an agreement across the industry with Government to ensure that the next generation of nuclear power is supported by new-generation nuclear engineers and technicians.
The Government were very keen to emphasise that the Toshiba-Korea Electric Power Corporation negotiations over NuGen were a commercial matter. If the Chinese nuclear company CGN—China General Nuclear Power Group—agrees to develop Moorside on a commercial basis, with no Government subsidy, would the Government support it?
As my hon. Friend knows, in each case the proposals are developer-led, so it is for proponents to come forward. As I have said to our hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), I am very happy, with my officials, to meet anyone who has an interest in doing so.
The demise of Moorside and NuGen underlines how the Government’s nuclear policy hinges on overseas investment, particularly from energy companies that are owned wholly by other states. Is the Secretary of State having a really good look at the other planned nuclear power stations to make sure that there will be enough nuclear power to maintain energy integrity in the UK in future?
The answer is yes. I am grateful to the hon. Lady’s Public Accounts Committee for examining the model for financing nuclear new build. With her colleagues, she has made some helpful suggestions, which she knows we are committed to taking forward to see whether they can be viable.
National Minimum Wage
We are committed to ensuring all employers pay their workers correctly. As part of our enforcement strategy, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs targets employers with information and advice. In April 2018, we launched a £1.48 million campaign to raise awareness of the national minimum wage rules, particularly in sectors with a high risk of non-compliance. HMRC contacted over 617,000 employers prior to April 2018, reminding them of their responsibilities to pay the higher rate.
The Government are failing thousands of workers who are falling victim to unpaid trial shifts. The law is extremely grey, and despite my efforts to clear it up, the hon. Lady’s Government talked out my Bill. We know that the guidance the Government produce and reminding employers is not enough. As we go into this Christmas period, when this will be another employment epidemic, will she pledge to make this the last Christmas of the unpaid trial shift?
Short unpaid trials as part of a genuine recruitment process can be legal. However, longer trials with no prospect of employment are illegal. Individuals working on illegal trials are workers and they are entitled to the minimum wage. I can inform the hon. Gentleman that, as per the communication I have had with him in recent months, I have indeed, with my Department, just reviewed and finalised new guidance on unpaid work trials and work experience for interns, which will be published in the next few weeks.
Does the Minister agree with me that the payment of a living wage is actually in the best interests of employers because it encourages engagement, loyalty and productivity?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that point, and it is absolutely true. This Government are committed to increasing the rate of pay for the lowest-paid workers. I do agree with him that this of course encourages employee loyalty to employers that do so.
Let me be clear: it is illegal not to pay the national minimum wage to workers who are entitled to it. This Government have been very clear. We are looking at and currently reviewing the Taylor review recommendations—we will be implementing the majority of them—and the Government will be responding soon with what we will do.
Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), last week yet another employment tribunal found in favour of workers getting the minimum wage and other workplace rights—in this instance, at Addison Lee—but too many firms continue to label workers as self-employed when they are not. When will the Government finally bring forward this long overdue legislation and—as the Taylor review, the GMB union and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee have argued—ensure that all workers are paid the minimum wage?
The hon. Lady will remember that it was this Government that set up the Taylor review. We have been very clear. We are committed to enforcement; we have doubled the enforcement budget for the national minimum wage. In fact, the arrears recovered in the last year totalled £15.6 million, affecting more than 200,000 workers. This Government are committed and we will respond in due course. We are committed to making all workplaces fair for all.
If the Minister is very keen on the national minimum wage, what is she saying to Mike Ashley, who has 3,000 workers at Shirebrook, most of them on zero-hours contracts? They do not get the national minimum wage. There are only a handful. Is it not time that this Government, instead of talking about the national minimum wage, did something about it?
I say again: we are committed to enforcing on underpayments of the national minimum wage. We have doubled the enforcement budget. We are delivering for those individuals. And zero-hours contracts do not necessarily mean that there will be a breach of the national minimum wage. We are committed to delivering.
Leaving the EU: Manufacturing Jobs
The declaration on the future relationship with the EU sets out a joint ambition for zero tariffs and restrictions in goods trade, and an ambitious customs arrangement. Our industrial strategy will ensure that the UK remains one of the most competitive locations in the world for manufacturing. We have committed £140 million to the “Made Smarter” industrial digitalisation programme, which will help our manufacturing sector adopt new technologies and skills.
The Minister mentions the declaration, but of course it is seven pages long and offers no reassurance to businesses in Croydon. Recently I visited a Croydon business that is currently looking to move to Amsterdam. What more can the Government provide to ensure that that business and many more stay in the UK?
The hon. Lady’s constituency must contain businesses different from those I heard at the CBI yesterday, where the Prime Minister was applauded for precisely this approach; different from businesses in my constituency; and different from all the business leaders who have supported the Government’s proposed deal with the European Union.
Manufacturing accounts for 11% of jobs in the west midlands, which is one of the highest percentages for any region, and the region has one of the highest shares of goods imports and exports— 47% of its goods go to the EU. Does the Minister agree that Labour’s plan for Brexit, guaranteeing a new, comprehensive and permanent customs union and a strong single market relationship that allows British business continued access to European markets for both goods and services, is the deal that UK manufacturers need to thrive?
As far as I am aware, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and the EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, and all other organisations representing those industries in the midlands, in the hon. Lady’s constituency and surrounding constituencies, are very much in support of the Government’s policy for frictionless trade in the future.
The Secretary of State is aware of the threat to 190 skilled engineering jobs at GE Energy in Rugby. This has nothing to do with Brexit; rather, it is to do with a downturn in activity of the company’s traditional base. What advice can the Minister provide to the workforce and the local management team to secure this manufacturing activity in Rugby?
As ever, my hon. Friend is fully in support of so many businesses in his constituency. As he knows, my door is open to him and the company, to discuss any possibilities of helping them. I have seen many very good businesses in his constituency and I am excited about the prospects there for high-quality employment for his constituents.
The question is really whether we leave the EU at all. Yesterday, on the “Today” programme, the Secretary of State was arguing in favour of a proposal by the EU to extend the implementation period to the end of 2022. Was the Secretary of State doing his usual EU freelancing, or is that now the official policy of the UK Government?
The Government want to finalise the future trading relationship with the EU as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned one alternative to achieve that.
In addition to the threat that leaving the EU poses to skilled manufacturing jobs, the Minister will be aware of the devastating news that Michelin plans to close its factory in Dundee, threatening 850 such jobs. Will the Minister work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure a future for that plant?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have spoken to the company and I have sought assurances about support available to staff. The Secretary of State and I have spoken with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work and with the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Department is playing an active role in the Dundee action group.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but his Government can do one thing right away to give immediate and future help. The UK Government are currently £50 million short on matching the Scottish Government on the Tay cities deal. Is this to be, like Aberdeen, Inverness and Stirling, part of a near £400 million shortage of match funding and a failure of the UK Government on city deals, or will he do the right thing and fight for match funding to support Dundee at this challenging time?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, each deal with each city is an individual one based on the circumstances of that city. I see him regularly, and it would be a pleasure to meet him to discuss his constituency and the proposed city deal.
The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the EEF has warmly accepted the Government’s proposals for a future trading relationship that will provide the kind of frictionless trade essential for his constituents and everyone else who works in the motor vehicle industry and the manufacturing sector.
“High tech manufacturing in every part of the country”—the Secretary of State’s words. General Electric is closing in Rugby and Michelin is closing in Dundee. From Swansea to Copeland to Lowestoft, his energy policies destroy more jobs than they create. By ending the enhanced capital allowance, the Budget took hundreds of millions of pounds from manufacturers, while doling out billions in corporate tax cuts. Manufacturing demand is now dropping at its fastest rate since 2015, yet the Cabinet is in meltdown over whether to walk out on the customs union in four months with no deal or in 24 months with the Prime Minister’s plan. Does the Minister agree that a permanent customs union is essential for British manufacturing and British jobs?
It will come as no surprise to you, Mr Speaker, that I disagree with a lot of what the hon. Lady has said. She says the Cabinet is in meltdown. It is not. [Interruption.] The Cabinet is not in meltdown. On her substantive question about energy, to the best of my knowledge, offshore energy is producing a lot of jobs, including in Tyneside. [Interruption.] It very much is. She must be aware, as far as the customs union part of her question is concerned, of the importance of the Government’s proposals, which provide the benefit of a very close relationship with all the countries in the EU. They also mean that this country will be able to enter into negotiations to sign free trade agreements with countries all over the world.
Sainsbury’s has confirmed that there are no planned store closures as a result of the merger. The independent Competition and Markets Authority is investigating the effects on competition and has until 5 March 2019 to report. The CMA’s investigation is independent of Government and we must not pre-judge the inquiry. The Secretary of State wrote to the CMA in May on this issue and I met with the CEO of Sainsbury’s last month.
Sainsbury’s has indicated that it will look at price cuts of 10% under a merger with Asda, but it has also indicated that it would make efficiency savings of around £500 million. I know from this Government’s record that efficiency savings often mean cuts somewhere down the line, so what discussions has the Minister or the Department had with trade unions to ensure that all jobs—not just in store, but in distribution and warehousing—are safeguarded?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise concerns, because any merger and change will of course concern the workers in the organisations, but I have spoken with Sainsbury’s and it has been clear that the pay and reward structure that is already in place is not affected as part of the merger. We will continue our communications with the stores. As he will know, the CMA is currently looking at the merger and is due to report. We will be monitoring this, as we would in any such circumstances.
The National Farmers Union has expressed disquiet at this proposed merger. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance to me and to the House more generally that the Government will always promote competition both to improve choice for the consumer and to improve options for people in the supply chain, particularly in farming?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right: one of the things that we are committed to is making sure that we continue with our world-renowned competition regime. It is right that, even at a ministerial level, we are independent of the CMA, but we work very closely with the CMA on priorities, and looking at supply chains is a key area for all mergers, as is how we protect consumers and markets in future.
Shared Parental Leave: Self-employed People
My Department and the Department for Work and Pensions recently met Parental Pay Equality, which is campaigning to extend shared parental pay to self-employed parents through changes to maternity allowance. We are exploring ways to support self-employed parents further.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Has she read the recent “Balancing Act” report from Birkbeck University and Parents in Performing Arts, which shows that 72% of freelancers would like to take shared parental leave if they were allowed to? This policy would not cost anything, but it would improve equality and productivity at the same time. Will she—not just officials—undertake to meet the parental pay and leave campaign and listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), who has a ten-minute rule Bill on this issue?
I will always engage with anyone who has a view on this particular issue. We are evaluating shared parental leave and pay to look at the barriers to take-up, including those affecting self-employed people and mothers, particularly, who qualify for maternity allowance. We are currently evaluating that and we will be reporting on that next year. However, I will meet with those people.
I recently met Mike Watkinson from Nottinghamshire’s Federation of Small Businesses to discuss a number of challenges facing business in Mansfield, one of which was support and access to benefits for self-employed people. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the party of business, it is absolutely vital that we help small business owners and support them to keep the show on the road when they need it?
Self-employment does allow the flexibility that some employed workers are unable to take advantage of, but it is right that we work on this and consider the consequences for the self-employed and small businesses. When we are evaluating and looking at how we move forward—as this Government are committed to doing—it is right that we look at this in the round, in the context of tax, benefit and other such things, but particularly, to support small businesses to continue providing the employment that we need.
I thank my colleague and friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), for raising this question. On my ten-minute rule Bill on shared parental leave, the Minister will have heard across the House the frustration with the Taylor review—that it has been a year and a half and we have not had any implementations of those recommendations. This was one of them; it is cost-neutral. Does the Minister agree that this could be the engine of change—it could be the outlier—that actually gets those recommendations put into place?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting this issue through her Bill. We have not yet had the opportunity to debate it, but I know she met Ministers earlier in the year to discuss it. She has mentioned the Taylor review. We are committed in the very near future to doing that, and we are considering self-employment, especially with regard to shared parental leave, how we can benefit and more people taking it up.
Sector deals are part of our industrial strategy and vital in building strategic partnerships with the Government and mutual commitments to boost productivity in specific sectors. We have already concluded seven and we are working on more. Under the auspices of Steve Ridgway, whom I thank for his leadership, we have a lot of interest from the tourism sector in exploring a sector deal and we are doing so.
Could my hon. Friend elaborate on whether there will be a similar deal for the hospitality industry in the new year?
Before I saw the light and went into politics, I spent 25 years in the tourism and hospitality industry, and there is nothing I would like more than to conclude a sector deal with it. I have met with officials and industry leaders, have the full support of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and look forward to concluding a deal in the new year.
Tourists spend a lot of money in this country in tips, yet it is two years since the Government said they would act to stop rogue bosses swiping tips. I raised this at Business questions last week, and it was suggested that I come here, raise it with the Minister and ask when the Government will bring forward primary legislation to stop bosses swiping tips that should be going to hard-working staff.
I am delighted to confirm to the hon. Lady that we are definitely introducing legislation on this subject. We will do so as soon as we possibly can within the parliamentary timetable.
In his first answer, the Minister said that seven sector deals had been concluded. How many are still under negotiation and why are they taking so long?
Actually, I correct my right hon. Friend. I said that six sector deals had been concluded and more are in the pipeline. They are very complex. They involve a lot of industry money and many industrial partners who have never been involved in deals with the Government before. I would be delighted to meet him at any time to discuss how I am pushing these on as quickly as I can.
Is the Minister aware that tourism, just like the manufacturing sector, particularly in Yorkshire, is finding it very difficult to get skilled people, especially as more Europeans go back to their home countries in fear of Brexit? What is he going to do about attracting and retaining skilled workers in tourism and manufacturing?
I am very aware of the hon. Gentleman’s point. Only last week, I met with Hilton Hotels and Resorts, a big employer in this sector, while the Grove, in my own constituency, has raised exactly the same point. The industry has a high turnover of labour and, as he says, has depended for some time on labour from abroad. I hope that more UK people will enter the hotel and hospitality industry, but the fact is that in many areas there is almost full employment.
Post Office Closures
While the Government set the strategic direction for the Post Office, they allow the company the commercial freedom to deliver this strategy as an independent business. The 74 Crown branches are being franchised to WHSmith, either on-site or through relocation to a WHSmith store. There will be no reduction in the number of branches from the franchising with WHSmith.
I am a proud member of the Communication Workers Union and a former postal worker. The Minister has said in written answers to Members that the privatisation of the Post Office is a commercial decision for the Post Office and that the Government only set the strategic direction. Nevertheless, the Post Office has decided to privatise these Crown branches and is using tens of millions of pounds of public money to bankroll it. This is a disgraceful situation. When will the Government start exercising some basic financial oversight?
I am sorry, but I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We have no closure programmes. I should add that under Labour’s management of the Post Office its network shrank by 37%, which resulted in 7,000 closures, and that in the first five years of Labour Government the Post Office went from being in profit to having losses of more than £1 billion.
Let us have another look at this, shall we? Seventy-four of the public’s post offices are being privatised without the permission of the public. WHSmith is already advertising minimum wage part-time roles to take over post office counters, while consultations on those jobs have yet to be completed. Can the Minister imagine what it must feel like for your job to be under consultation and to face possible redundancy, with the job already advertised for someone else? Will she intervene and call this practice out, as a matter of principle?
Let me first highlight the fact that there are no Crown post offices in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Franchising is one of the measures to support and maintain the long-term sustainability of our network of 11,500 post offices throughout the country. As I said, the network was reduced under the last Labour Government, but we are committed to the Post Office and to keeping those branches open.
Restrictive practices are preventing my constituent Mr Avi Bungar from providing various post office services because he runs a sub-post office. Why are the Government giving big business WHSmith a sweetheart deal and preferential Crown post office terms, and preventing sub-postmasters from having the same?
I respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman has experienced issues in his constituency in relation to a particular post office, but to set a long-term sustainability programme for the Post Office against potential postmasters is quite frankly wrong. This is part of a sustainable programme that will enable us—this Government—to keep 11,500 post offices open, to increase, via the Post Office, the pay to which post office workers are entitled, and to give them longer hours and better locations.
Nuclear Power Stations
As the Secretary of State said in his statement to the House on 4 June, in our negotiations with nuclear developers, a key focus of discussions will be achieving value for money and lower electricity costs for consumers.
The National Audit Office has already confirmed that Hinkley Point C was a bad deal. Half the existing nuclear power stations will have closed by 2024 and the rest by 2028, and no nuclear power stations can be built in time to replace them. Why are the UK Government tying up energy policy for the next 50 years in deals that are poor value for money?
As far as I know, the hon. Gentleman and his party are against nuclear power altogether, so his is an interesting question. The Government, on the other hand, are committed to a diverse energy mix in which nuclear power plays a crucial part. Nuclear power is critical to our transmission to a low-carbon society, providing continuous, reliable, low-carbon electricity. We are also leaders in cutting emissions by renewables, and nearly 30% of our electricity comes from renewable sources.
It is always a pleasure to answer a question from my mother-in-law’s MP. As he knows, we have always made it clear that any hydraulic fracturing that takes place under current licences must be consistent with our regulatory regime, including the traffic light system, which is the toughest in the world. The Preston New Road site is the most monitored site for seismic activity, and among the 36 events recorded, the 1.1 local magnitude event was the equivalent at the surface of a bag of flour being dropped to the floor.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is looking after the Minister’s mother-in-law, because I have a feeling that he will hear about it if he is not.
I always do my best for all my constituents, Mr Speaker; I do not have any favourites. On fracking in the Blackpool area, there have been 47 minor earthquakes in that area and Cuadrilla has now ceased operations. Does that signal a change in Government policy?
Not at all. Thanks to the superb seismic monitoring and the work of some excellent students at Liverpool University, it is clear that the most significant of the micro tremors that we are seeing is the equivalent of dropping a kilogram of flour on my mother-in-law’s floor in Earlsdon and feeling the vibration from that.
We are calmly and soberly going through the process of seeing whether this potentially valuable resource that can reduce our energy dependency on imports can be exploited, but it has to be done in a way that is consistent with our world-beating and tough regulatory regime.
How come we have been using exactly the same technology without difficulty, fracking at hundreds of sites, for years for thermal energy?
My right hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is said that fracking is this new thing, but in fact we have been doing it for many years, including using it to extract oil from sites close to both of our constituencies. It is a perfectly safe technology. We have to be clear, however, that we are doing this in an environmentally sensitive way. Of course nobody wants environmental regulations that they cannot defend to their constituents, but we are going through this calmly and soberly; we have excellent science and so far the process is delivering shale gas from these very exploratory fracks, which is something we should all welcome.
On 21 May this year the Minister met a number of renewable energy companies. That meeting was properly recorded on the ministerial register of meetings to ensure transparency. On the same day the Minister also met all the key fracking companies including Cuadrilla, INEOS, iGas and Third Energy. That meeting somehow failed to make it on to the transparency register. Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to apologise for the concealment of that information, and by way of penance would she like to confirm when she will finally visit local residents at Preston New Road to explain why the 36 earthquakes that have occurred since Caudrilla began fracking operations are simply the equivalent of dropping a bag of flour on their kitchen floors?
I am glad the pantomime season is coming up as there is some good auditioning going on. Let me explain. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the ministerial code, and I am told by my officials that when they did not disclose the meeting of 21 May it was because the ministerial code does not require Ministers to disclose meetings that they drop in on, as opposed to host in their office. I have made it clear to my officials that any meeting ever held with anyone related to shale gas should be recorded, whether or not that is in accordance with current guidance. The hon. Gentleman will also know that at that so-called secret meeting with the fracking companies were the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the GMB union, representatives of local government and UK100 chaired by the doughty Polly Billington, former special adviser to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). The idea that I would hold secret meetings with an industry that is so potentially vital is, frankly, ridiculous. I have also appointed a superb former colleague of the hon. Gentleman’s, Natascha Engel, as my commissioner for shale gas, and she has been out there very consistently meeting local groups and residents in all of these fracking areas. I would be delighted to visit Preston New Road. Unfortunately, however, as I was aggressively approached by a protestor who threatened to visit my home because he knew my children were home alone, I have been advised for security reasons to be very careful about engaging with the protestors. Of course when I go, unlike some Opposition Members, I will make sure to visit the protestors and also those exploiting the resource to create jobs. Those of us on the Government Benches believe in jobs, not mobs.
Starting and Growing Businesses
Our business environment is among the best in the world for small businesses. We have 16.3 million people employed in small businesses and the British Business Bank is supporting small businesses with over £5.5 billion of finance—and colleagues on all sides of the House will wish to support small business Saturday on 1 December.
Earlier this year, Ideal Foods, a small business in my constituency, celebrated a huge milestone when it achieved a turnover of £10 million in just one year. Another business, the Cornish Cheese Company, has just been awarded the super gold award for its Cornish blue cheese. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these are shining examples of the importance of embracing global trade after we leave the European Union?
I do indeed, and I congratulate Ideal Foods and the Cornish Cheese Company. Perhaps I can add one of my own: Cornish Charcuterie, based just outside Bude, is one of my favourites, and I know that it has many satisfied customers across the UK and Europe, and increasingly around the world. This shows that, of all the manifold assets that Cornwall has, its food and indeed its drink are something to boast about.
More than 355 new businesses have been started up in my constituency since 2010. Many of them are microbusinesses with only one or two employees, and their needs are very different from those of the larger small and medium-sized businesses. What additional support can the Department give to those microbusinesses to help them to thrive?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that microbusinesses, and indeed start-ups, sometimes face challenges in accessing finance. The British Business Bank has a programme to focus on microbusinesses. Start-up loans, from which 44 businesses in her constituency have benefited, are also important.
Late payments are a real problem for small businesses. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to tackle that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she will know that we are taking steps to reinforce in statute some of the measures that have been good practice across the industry. Indeed, the small business commissioner has been appointed to the prompt payment code compliance board to help with that.
Does the Secretary of State truly believe that what has been negotiated with the European Union will be better for jobs and business than the deal we have now?
If the hon. Lady was at the CBI conference yesterday, and if she has read the responses from businesses small and large up and down the country, she will know that they are very clear that this deal will help to create the confidence that will allow investment to be made and jobs to be created and preserved across the country.
The small businesses and manufacturers in my constituency are telling me that their biggest challenge right now is recruiting skilled labour. That challenge is set to get worse for them as we approach Brexit. Will the Secretary of State explain to them how stopping freedom of movement is going to help them with access to skilled labour for their manufacturing and their research and development?
One of the reasons why companies up and down the country sometimes find it a struggle to recruit people is that we have such a low level of unemployment in this country. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that. He knows that one of the benefits of leaving the European Union is that our migration policy will be set in this country according to the needs of our economy—so it’s over to us.
The Prime Minister’s botched Brexit deal creates uncertainty for business. The lack of any commitment to permanent customs arrangements means that there is no guarantee of tariff-free, frictionless trade. Frankly, I am amazed that any Business Secretary would put their name to this deal. Without any commitments to frictionless trade, how can the Government claim to be helping business?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read the proposed agreement, but business leaders certainly have, and they have been warmly supportive of it. There are good reasons for that. One of the things that businesses have asked for is a transition period leading up to an agreement that we should be able to trade without tariffs, without quotas and without frictions. This agreement provides for that, which is one of the reasons why it has been endorsed by businesses up and down the country.
Last question in this section, very briefly. I call Toby Perkins.
Pubs make a major contribution to the economy and to community life. That is why the Government are supporting pubs through measures such as the beer duty freeze and the business rates retail discount announced in the Budget.
That does not really answer the question of why 7,000 pubs have closed since 2010, so I encourage the Minister to address that when she returns to the Dispatch Box. To be more positive, she will have seen that the all-party parliamentary group on pubs is bringing about a parliamentary pub of the year award, so I encourage her to nominate a pub in her constituency and to join us and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), on 15 January to find out which is Britain’s greatest parliamentary pub.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern and his work in this area over a long period of time. He is a champion for the sector. There are several reasons why there may be pub closures, which is why we are acting to freeze beer duty and address small business rate relief. We estimate that 75% of pubs will benefit from the reductions announced in the Budget. To answer his second point, I will happily attend the event on 15 January, if possible.
Order. We come now to topical questions, and I gently remind the House that topicals are supposed to be much shorter than substantives, so we do not want preambles. Members who start to engage in preambles will be asked to resume their seat. With straightforward questions and straightforward replies, we will rip through as many as we possibly can.
The recent Budget confirmed our unwavering commitment to the technologies of the future. We have set up a national quantum computing centre and five new technology centres in Leeds, Oxford, Coventry, Glasgow and London. At the national level, the Prime Minister joined the first meeting of the Industrial Strategy Council. Internationally, I travelled to Japan to discuss how we can work together on our industrial strategy.
Has any estimate been made of the number of businesses on local high streets that can benefit from the business rate cut announced in the Budget, including businesses in my constituency of Chipping Barnet?
My right hon. Friend will be aware that up to 90% of retail properties in England could be eligible, and I understand that up to around 3,000 properties in her borough could qualify for the relief made available in the Budget.
Brexit cannot result in a race to the bottom for workers’ rights and protections but, sadly, the EU withdrawal agreement does not guarantee that it will not. Thompsons Solicitors says that the non-regression clause will be “ineffective” and the Institute for Public Policy Research states that it is
“not sufficient to maintain current protections”.
Individuals will not even be able to bring about proceedings, and if the EU raises standards, the UK is permitted simply to fall behind. When the Secretary of State called stakeholders after agreeing the deal last week, were trade unions on that call? Will he confirm exactly how he intends to maintain current standards and enforceability and to prevent Britain from falling behind the EU’s standards?
I note that the hon. Lady dismissed the withdrawal agreement on the airwaves before she had even read it, so it does not surprise me that her question is so misplaced. As for the trade unions, I met Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, to discuss the provisions of the agreement in person. When it comes to our record of protecting employees’ rights, the hon. Lady should have more confidence in this country and in this House. We are perfectly capable. We have been leaders in protecting and promoting workplace rights for many generations. We do not need to be required to do so by the European Union; this House can do that itself.
The trade unions were not on that call, which is telling. However, many workers are being treated shamefully even before we leave the EU. There is a bank branch where male workers were expected to urinate in a bucket, and cleaners and security staff are on poverty wages with few rights and protections. The first case was highlighted by Unite yesterday, but the second can be found in the Government’s own Departments under the watch of this Secretary of State, who is responsible for employment rights and protections. Given that the Taylor review was published nearly 500 days ago and yet we still have no update on Government policy and that two months have passed without action since I wrote to the Secretary of State about the treatment of his own staff, how can we trust him to protect workers in the UK now, let alone stop a race to the bottom?
We value highly the colleagues in our Department and across Government who do important work in public service, and I have made a commitment that we will always treat them well, including on pay and conditions. I am glad that the hon. Lady is looking forward with anticipation to the publication of the response to the Taylor review. It was a landmark report to which this Government committed, and I look forward to her endorsing this Government when we enact Taylor’s recommendations in the weeks ahead.
Businesses up and down the country have been very clear: they want an agreement; they want a deal so that they have the certainty to be able to make investments; they want a transition period so that they are able to make the necessary adjustments; and they want frictionless trade. The proposed deal comprises all those qualities, which is why it has had such a warm endorsement. It will give businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere the confidence to invest.
I applaud the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing interest in this important area. It is going better by the day. Over 400,000 smart meters are now being installed every month. As of the end of October, some 97,500 SMETS2 meters, including one in my home in Devizes, have been installed. He will know better than many about the long-term benefits that this brings, both to people’s ability to control and reduce their energy use, and to delivering the most efficient and digitised energy system in the world.
Better late than never.
I will always be delighted to visit Taunton—my hon. Friend is a great champion of her constituency. My Department is now engaging at official level to understand how these prospective developments could fit with the industrial strategy.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a great question, and this is one of the things we are working on. The British Business Bank is working on start-up loans, and there are initiatives that work on enterprise in the school setting. I left school and went into an unofficial apprenticeship, and I think that we should all get behind such schemes and apprenticeships, because getting into work really can deliver the entrepreneurial spirit that people need.
Last week, the first new major hotel to be built on Paignton seafront in decades was approved, bringing with it £40 million of investment. What role does my right hon. Friend see the industrial strategy playing in supporting more high-value investment in Torbay’s tourism industry?
I congratulate Paignton on that new hotel. Through the industrial strategy, we are investing in digital connectivity and transport, which should make areas such as Torbay even more attractive than at present.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which is timely just after fireworks night. The Government do not have any plans to change the legislation, but I am always willing to look at new evidence and to discuss the issue with hon. Members.
Lithium extraction has the potential to make a significant contribution to the aims of our industrial strategy, as well as being a huge boost to the Cornish economy. May I invite the Secretary of State to meet businesses that are seeking to exploit this new opportunity? If he would like to come to Cornwall to do that, he would be very welcome.
My hon. Friend should know that I would be delighted to meet him, and anybody he thinks is suitable, in order to achieve the exploitation of the luxurious resources deep in his constituency.
As I said in response to an earlier question, prompt payment is very important for businesses large and small, and supply chains rely on that. My colleagues across the Government and in the Cabinet Office have close relationships with all the suppliers to the Government so that we can be aware of the prospects, and we have nothing further to report.
The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), has given us a welcome update on progress on the tourism sector deal, and I was wondering whether we could get a similar update on the oil and gas sector deal.
My hon. Friend will know from the recent visit to Aberdeen that these conversations continue, as this is a vital sector. Let me pivot slightly by saying that in this Offshore Wind Week—that sector is equally vital to the Scottish economy—I wanted to announce to the House that we are in the final stages of concluding our offshore wind sector deal. It will include both £60 million for the contract for difference auction next spring and a series of substantial commitments from the operators in the sectors to increase the UK content that will be spent—
I call Dan Carden.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have met the chief executive of Cammell Laird, and I am in discussions with the Ministry of Defence and all other interested parties.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s Green Paper “Modernising consumer markets”. When is a Government response expected? Does he agree that, from mobile phone bills to foreign currency exchange, we should use transparency and competition to end consumer rip-offs?
I agree with my right hon. Friend and I welcome his distinguished contribution to that consultation. We will be responding during the weeks ahead. It is very important that we build on our tradition of being one of the most open markets in the world, in which incumbents should not be protected from competition.
I was worried that the hon. Lady would not be called; I wanted to save the announcement up for her.
The hon. Lady will know, along with her neighbours, the vital role this industry has played in rejuvenating businesses in her constituency and next door. One ask of this sector deal, on which we are in the final stages, is to ensure that the operators, which are benefiting from the Government’s contribution to the auctions, are making substantial commitments to bring back technology and investment, as we see with the Siemens wind turbine factory in her next-door constituency and today’s announcement on the Vestas plant, with another 1,100 jobs being created thanks to the expansion of this industry.
Ministers might have been too busy to see last night’s TV reports about the port of Immingham in my constituency and the opportunities that have been created there. Would the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers care to comment on how we can promote free port status for Immingham post Brexit?
I am familiar with Immingham from numerous dealings with my hon. Friend. It is a very enterprising port that is already doing well, but I am happy to meet him to explore further possibilities.
One-sentence questions not exceeding 20 words, please.
The post office in my home town of Tain was closed and moved into a newsagent. There is not room to swing a cat there, although the staff are excellent. Will Her Majesty’s Government look again at the dimensions and layout of post offices as and when they are amalgamated with retail businesses?
I do not know the particular setting that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter so that I can raise his concerns directly with the Post Office.
We recently heard the disappointing news of the closure of the Michelin factory in Dundee, with the company citing cheaper imports as the reason. It will cause the loss of 845 jobs, many of which will be in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the industrial strategy will look into ways to support traditional industries as well as new technologies?
I can assure my hon. Friend of that.
Order. Just a gentle reminder of the request—the exhortation; the polite appeal—for 20 words. I call Jim Shannon.
What a challenge, Mr Speaker. Small and medium-sized enterprises create lots of employment throughout the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What is the Minister doing to improve broadband so that SMEs can improve and employ even more people?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we need to improve broadband, which is an integral part of delivering our productivity challenge. We are making sure that businesses have in place all the infrastructure they need to thrive and survive.
Will the Minister update the House on recent progress towards a steel sector deal?
I have regular discussions with the steel sector and hope in future to have news that will please my hon. Friend.
It was good to see the Secretary of State in South Yorkshire, where we have a strong advanced manufacturing offer. Will he continue to work with us in future?
I certainly will. It was a delight to be with the hon. Gentleman and others to celebrate the opening of Boeing’s first European manufacturing facility. It is in South Yorkshire because there is a thriving hub of advanced manufacturing there. The industrial strategy is all about reinforcing that.
I welcome the tax on tech giants that was announced at the Budget, but will my right hon. Friend liaise with the Chancellor to ensure that it does not have a wider detrimental impact on investment in our tech start-ups?
I will indeed. It is important that the tech sector maintains the progress that it has made in recent years, and I will do everything I can, with the Chancellor, to secure that.
For 134 years, Wigan Crown post office has been the anchor of our high street and the beating heart of our community. It survived two world wars and one global financial crash; why can it not survive eight years of Tory Government?
As I have said repeatedly during this questions session, we are not closing post offices. If the hon. Lady has a particular problem in her constituency, I am more than happy to hear her concerns about that individual case, but we are not closing post offices. We are taking a sustainable approach to make sure that we achieve and maintain those 11,500 branches throughout the UK.
What action is the Minister taking to promote the development of small-scale modular nuclear reactors so that we can diversify the energy supply?
Nuclear reactors, Mr Speaker.
Not that small, though. I am sure that you could do with a personal one sometimes, Mr Speaker.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that the Government are treating the development of small modular reactors very seriously. A successful conference on the subject was held recently. I am happy to inform the House of future progress.
Finally, I am afraid, I call Mr Gregory Campbell.
Does the Minister think that it would be a good idea to incorporate into the tourism sector deal a fantastic one-off event that occurs next year, after 68 years’ absence, when the Open championship returns to the Royal Portrush golf club?
What a tempting idea!
Order. I am sorry to those colleagues remaining, but exciting though the session was, all good things come to an end.
Interpol Presidency Election
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Interpol presidency election tomorrow.
Interpol is currently holding its general assembly in Dubai, and a UK delegation, led by Lynne Owens, the director general of the National Crime Agency, is there at the moment. Interpol is electing a new president at the general assembly after former Interpol president and Chinese Vice-Minister of Public Security, Meng Hongwei, resigned from the position on Sunday 7 October after Chinese authorities confirmed that he had been detained and is being investigated on anti-corruption charges.
Two candidates have formally declared for the post and remain in the running as candidates. They are current acting president South Korean Kim Jong Yang and Russian vice-president—one of four vice-presidents—Alexander Prokopchuk. Members of Interpol at the general assembly will vote on the next president on Wednesday. We do not speculate on the outcome of the election, but the UK supports the candidacy of acting president Kim Jong Yang.
Can the Minister confirm that the British Government are doing all they can to campaign against the candidacy of Mr Prokopchuk? Will she confirm that, until recently, he was head of the central bureau in Russia and was directly responsible for the issuing of red notices, which have been abused and used against opponents of the Putin regime—such as Mr Bill Browder, the proponent of the Magnitsky sanctions? Does she not agree that if this Russian gentleman were to become head of Interpol, it would be an absolute insult to the victims of the Salisbury incident?
Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to pursue their own pursuit of red notices in Russia with that gentleman in this post? Does she not accept that, if this gentleman were to succeed in his election, this would be a massive propaganda victory for the Putin regime, just ahead of a vote in the European Union on fresh sanctions? Would it, in effect, not amount to accepting that Interpol has become a branch of the Russian mafia? I use my words carefully when I say that. Finally, does this not underline the absolute folly of undermining in any way Europol at a time when Interpol is becoming totally dysfunctional and potentially corrupted?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. The central point is to clarify for the House the role of the secretary general of Interpol, who, of course, is the German Jürgen Stock. He has the executive role of day-to-day responsibility for the conduct of Interpol, and the UK confirms that it has a very good working relationship with him.
The right hon. Gentleman also raises the question about the candidacy of the current vice-president of the organisation. The UK, as I said in my opening remarks, will be supporting the candidacy of the acting vice-president, Kim Yong Yang. We always seek to endorse candidates who have a history of observing standards of international behaviour.
With regard to the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the potential for misuse of Interpol, red notices are a very important point. He will be aware of the systems that are in place to protect individuals’ rights and, indeed, of article 3 of the Interpol constitution, which forbids any organisation to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character. Of course, there need to be safeguards, and this Government take any misuse of Interpol notices very, very seriously.
I very much welcome the statement that my hon. Friend the Minister has made today. This is really quite an extraordinary situation: to find ourselves with the possibility of not just a fox in charge of a hen coup, but the assassin in charge of the murder investigation. This is a man who has corrupted the rule of law through the use of red notices and undermined the international order by trying to subvert Interpol as an arm of his own state’s propaganda network, and now he is trying to run to lead it. This is truly extraordinary. Will she join me in saying that, should this outcome happen, we will have to look very, very seriously at our co-operation with an organisation so discredited and so corrupted?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has very extensive experience of scrutinising these matters, and I very much welcome the scrutiny that his Committee has been giving to them. The UK has, as I have said, a very strong working relationship with the secretary general, who, of course, holds the executive role. I reassure the House that the National Crime Agency’s experience to date is that the processes adopted by Interpol are robust enough to deal with any concerns of misuse. Of course, this is something that needs to remain under scrutiny. I am sure that the Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as the Government, will continue to make sure that that scrutiny continues to take place.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question; I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing it. On this day a fortnight ago, the right hon. Gentleman and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the table at the Cambridge Union in a debate about whether the special relationship with America was dead. I am glad to say that the students sided with me in saying that it was not, but today, on the subject of Interpol, the right hon. Gentleman and I are very much on the same side.
As a matter of principle, I am sure that we would all want to make clear that when an individual is put forward for a leadership role in an international body, the judgment of their fitness for office should always be based on their integrity, their expertise and their record, not on their nationality. Therefore, by itself the fact that Major General Prokopchuk is Russian should not disqualify him from this role any more than the fact that Martin Griffiths and Mark Lowcock are British should disqualify them from their role regarding Yemen. However, the fact that, as the head of Russia’s national central bureau for the last seven years, the major general has directly orchestrated Russia’s abuse of Interpol’s international arrest warrant system to target Putin’s Government’s enemies in both business and politics is in itself enough to disqualify him. It would be extremely concerning for the future functioning of Interpol as a credible international organisation if he were to be elected to the presidency.
The Minister says that Britain will be supporting an alternative candidate, but the question is what diplomatic efforts will she be making in the next 24 hours, particularly in respect of our European and Commonwealth counter- parts, to build a majority against the election of the Russian candidate. In the unfortunate scenario that the major general is elected, will she say what that will mean for the future of Interpol, for the continued abuse of the arrest warrant system and for Britain’s continued participation in Interpol?
I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for a very measured set of questions. She is right that one should look at the qualification of candidates to these different organisations and make one’s judgment accordingly, rather than making a knee-jerk reaction on the basis of nationality. Let me also underline that the special relationship that the right hon. Lady mentioned in the preamble to her questions is obviously extremely strong and is not in any way affected by the matters we are discussing in the House today.
I should clarify for the House again that, as with any international organisation, other factors often need to be taken into account—for example, geographical balance among roles in the organisation. For example, one factor taken into account was the geographical breakdown of the current vice-presidents. As the right hon. Lady will know, Mr Prokopchuk has been in the role of vice-president for some time, and there is a vacancy in terms of representatives from Asia because the previous president has departed. That needs to be taken into account.
The executive responsibility of the day-to-day operation of Interpol falls to Secretary General Jürgen Stock, who is of course a German national. The presidency of Interpol has a range of important roles in terms of presiding at meetings. The previous president had wanted to make some changes to the way in which the organisation runs but was unsuccessful. The right hon. Lady is right that there are a range of different factors to take into account. I have made the UK’s position clear. Of course, between the time that the previous president went back to China and the election tomorrow, the UK has been fully engaged in consulting with our allies on this role through our diplomatic network.
After the Salisbury nerve agent attack and the abuse of red notices by the Kremlin, including in relation to Bill Browder, may I urge the Government to recognise that the election of a Putin-appointed police general would not only weaken the operational effectiveness of Interpol, but undermine our ability to rely on it and shred its credibility as a pillar upholding the international rule of law?
As my right hon. Friend is aware, the Russian candidate is currently a vice-president of Interpol, and the general assembly will make its decision tomorrow. I have made the UK’s position clear. My right hon. Friend should also be aware that the National Crime Agency hosts the UK international crime bureau, which is responsible for handling any Interpol requests into the UK, and the NCA is very supportive of the overall processes of Interpol. In terms of any concerns it might have about requests received, it feels that it has the ability to refer requests to the Commission for the Control of Files, which provides independent oversight and some checks and balances of Interpol’s processes.
Mr Prokopchuk may be the candidate on the ballot paper, but let us be under no illusion that it will be President Putin who calls the shots should Mr Prokopchuk be successful at the general assembly. If Mr Prokopchuk is successful and does become the president of Interpol, does the Minister agree that it will be a slap in the face not just to this country and in particular to the people of Salisbury, but to the people of Georgia, the people of Ukraine—including eastern Ukraine and Crimea—as well as to the civil society activists, opposition politicians and journalists in Russia who have been hunted down by the Putin regime? Will she tell the House what she expects to happen, if the Russian candidate is successful, to the red notices against Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who were responsible for the nerve assault in Salisbury?
Although the Scottish National party holds no candle for this man and no candle for the Russian Government, may I urge the Minister to resist calls to withdraw from Interpol at this stage? Of course we have to monitor what happens if the Russian candidate is successful, but to pull out from Interpol so soon and so quickly would undermine further the rule of law that we all wish to see upheld.
The hon. Gentleman makes a range of very sensible points, but I do not think that he would want me to conflate a range of different issues from the Dispatch Box. As he knows, this particular candidate is currently a vice-president of Interpol. I have mentioned the important role of the secretary general when it comes to executive responsibility within the organisation. I have also mentioned some of the roles of the presidency and the checks and balances that exist regarding this important international organisation.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the importance of Interpol and its work. We do not believe that any possible outcome of this election will have an impact on the issues to which he rightly draws the attention of the House, but since he has raised these issues I reiterate that we continue to want the Russian Government to come clean about their role in Salisbury, to account for their use of Novichok on British soil and to declare their chemical weapons programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I hope that he and the House will be reassured that there are a range of different ways in which we will continue to pursue those ends, while recognising the important role that Interpol can play for our police force here in the UK.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns expressed by a number of organisations campaigning for media freedom, such as Reporters Sans Frontières, that the Interpol wanted person alert system is being abused by countries that are opposed to a free press, to target and silence journalists? Does she agree with these organisations that there needs to be a review of the thousands of alerts currently sitting on that system and that countries that abuse the system should be held to account? Does she also share my concern that this is hardly likely to happen under the Russian candidate for the presidency?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s extensive work in this area and thank him very much for putting those important points before the House today. As he knows, article 3 of Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation to undertake any intervention or activity of a political nature. Any such misuse of Interpol notices is taken very, very seriously by this Government. The UK continues to take a strongly supportive stance in relation to Interpol’s efforts to ensure that systems are in place to protect human rights—indeed, the Home Office has been highly proactive in its engagement with Interpol on this matter. I appreciate the important work that my right hon. Friend mentioned. I assure him that the UK will continue to be a staunch friend of those who are on the side of human rights and media freedom around the world.
It is clearly absurd to put into this position the representative of what has become, under Putin, a criminal enterprise that has looted Russia, impoverished its people, and locks up and murders its opponents at home and abroad. What assurances can the Minister give us about what would happen to the sharing of information, access to databases and all the other arrangements that exist between Britain and Interpol if this man were to be put in charge of the current assembly meeting?
As I tried to explain earlier, two of the current vice-presidents are the declared candidates for the presidency; one of them is acting president and the other is currently a vice-president. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that while the presidency of Interpol is an important role, it is none the less one that has more of a ceremonial aspect with regard to meetings of the general assembly and the executive committee. The executive work of Interpol is led by the secretary-general and his executive committee. Obviously, in an international organisation like this, it is very important to have checks and balances as well as regionally balanced representation. I am reassured by the fact that the National Crime Agency, from its experience so far with the organisation, believes that the right checks and balances are in place, but of course that will continue to be scrutinised by this House.
My hon. Friend knows a lot about Russia—she is, if I am not mistaken, one of the few Members of this House who has a degree in the Russian language, so we know that her approach is not, per se, anti-Russian. Does she agree with the assessment of Fair Trials, the UK-based rights campaign, which says:
“It would not be appropriate for a country with a record of violations of Interpol’s rules to be given a leadership role in a key oversight institution”?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As he rightly points out, there is a distinction to be made here. I have set out the UK Government’s position with regard to tomorrow’s election and our judgment regarding the candidate that we support. He is absolutely right that, in the Prime Minister’s words, we have absolutely no quarrel with the people of Russia. I take this opportunity at the Dispatch Box to reiterate the UK Government’s desire to see Russia behave as a responsible member of the international community and to end its illegal annexation of Crimea, to end the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, and, indeed, to account for the reckless actions of the GRU on British soil and to rein in GRU activities. That, as my right hon. Friend rightly points out, does not mean that the British people cannot, through cultural relations and ongoing diplomatic relations, engage with the Russian Government.
What contingency plan do the Government have, in the event that this Putin stooge is elected, to work with our western democracy allies—who, after all, mainly fund Interpol—to set up an alternative democratic, transparent and non-corrupt organisation?
I hope that I have already set out for the House both the character of the role of the presidency and the checks and balances that exist within this international organisation, Interpol, in terms of geographical balance, the ability to query domestically any particular request that might come through Interpol processes, and the protections of article 3. I expect the matter to remain under scrutiny in this House in the foreseeable future, but I reiterate that the UK Government’s and the National Crime Agency’s view is that the safeguards I outlined earlier, and the ability to question some of the procedures, are checks and processes that we believe are working well. Of course that will be kept continuously under review.
What action has the organisation taken to challenge Russia over its recent abuse of the rules?
Without my right hon. Friend being more specific about the examples to which he alludes, I can only say that I think he will be aware that we are talking about two different processes. There is the one relating to Interpol, where I have outlined the way in which the National Crime Agency is able to invoke checks and balances and to ensure that article 3 is not violated. Separately, as he will also be aware, the UK has very much been leading the international efforts at the OPCW to challenge the egregious use of chemical weapons and violations of the chemical weapons convention, including the use of chemical weapons on UK soil that has been attributed to Russia. We have, as he knows, worked very closely with the OPCW to ensure that a special conference of the state parties has been held and that the state parties can now attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria and, if needed, elsewhere in the future.
Interpol’s reputation for the enforcement of international law is already being undermined by its silence over the disappearance in China of its former president, and it will be undermined further if its new president is someone who in Russia has been involved in also trying to undermine international law and abuse Interpol processes. Given that the police have given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that the Brexit process may make us more dependent on Interpol processes, databases and institutions, what is the Foreign Office doing to strengthen the Europol relationship and to look at reforms, through Interpol and through new additional processes, to strengthen the rule of international law?
I am sure that the right hon. Lady would support the UK view, which is that the issue of the arrest of the former Chinese president is very much a matter for the Chinese state. She rightly draws attention to the importance of international law and of our rules-based international order. I assure her that in all instances the UK Government will take the opportunity in international forums to support the observance of international law and due process, and, indeed, human rights. That is very much part of what the UK stands for in these international forums. We recognise the importance of upholding the precious rules-based international order on which the safety and security of the UK has been based since the second world war.
The difficulty for many Members is that Russia keeps getting away with it at international level. It got away with it by being able to host a successful World cup, and there is frustration that it may get away with it again. Will our delegate have the opportunity to say to other countries that if this election goes the way we hope it does not, we will form a new body automatically?
I am glad that my hon. Friend raised the World cup, because it is a good example of where UK police and Russian police were able to work closely together to ensure that all fans from the UK who travelled to Russia were able to enjoy World cup matches, and those processes worked well. He refers to the importance of international police co-operation, for which Interpol is an important mechanism. The National Crime Agency believes that it is an effective forum for it to work with, so that the delegation at Interpol and the current conference in Dubai can reassure themselves that there is a range of checks and balances, including article 3, that means they are confident that Interpol will continue to be an important part of the UK’s relation with international policing matters.
Everyone knows that with a rising threat from organised crime internationally, we have to co-operate internationally, but evidence and the weaknesses that have been described today show that Interpol is really not up to the job. Can the Minister reassure the House that Britain’s relationship with Europol and European co-operation against international crime will be kept and strengthened? People are really worried, given the threat that Brexit poses to that co-operation.
I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK continues to believe that it is very important to co-operate internationally. Where I perhaps differ from him is that I am reassured that Interpol will continue to be an important part of the UK’s ability to co-operate internationally on police matters.
Given what happened to the previous president of Interpol, can the Minister update us on conversations she has had with China on the importance of multilateral organisations?
As my hon. Friend heard me say earlier, we believe that the situation surrounding the arrest of the former Interpol president is very much a matter for the Chinese state. In terms of the latter part of her question, we have the opportunity to interact with the Chinese Government on an ongoing and constant basis in a range of multilateral forums. That is an important part of the UK’s diplomatic work and includes the UK delegation to the United Nations, where we work on a range of issues as permanent members of the Security Council. It would be hard for me at the Dispatch Box to list the range of different international forums in which we are co-operating with the Chinese Government, but I assure her that it is extensive.
Can the Minister help me? I might be becoming a bit paranoid after watching too much John le Carré on television recently, but what we see unfolding seems extraordinary. First, the president disappears in China—even his wife does not know where he is, and she says he never resigned—and almost no action is taken by the secretary-general of Interpol to find out what happened to him. Secondly, a Russian vice-president now looks likely to become president, at a time when we all know that Russia is hellbent on undermining international institutions all over the world, including democratic Governments, the European Union and everything else. Is that not the reality of the backdrop, and would it not be a disastrous development to have this man as president?
Without digressing into the wider universe—some of it fictional—in which the hon. Gentleman prefaced his question, I draw his attention to the UK Government’s position on both tomorrow’s election for this presidency and the checks and balances in terms of Interpol’s work, with a continuing assurance from our National Crime Agency that it regards those checks and balances and article 3 as important underpinnings that continue to have its full support in its ongoing work with Interpol.
The more I am learning about the governance of Interpol, the more worried I am becoming. Why on earth are member states that use their police for internal political repression allowed into this organisation in the first place?
It is a UN organisation with a very wide membership—193 states, if I remember the figure correctly—but it is also possible to be a member of Interpol without necessarily being accepted internationally as a state, through observer status. The point I will make to my hon. Friend is that organised crime does not have boundaries, so it is really important that Interpol’s coverage is wide. We would not want parts of the world to be safe havens or exempt from the ability of police forces to co-operate with each other. It is an important aspiration that Interpol’s coverage be as wide as possible
Given the concerns that already exist about the way in which Interpol red notices work, will the Government undertake to secure confirmation in advance from countries that people like Mr Browder will visit that they will not seek to apply any spurious or bogus red notices that might be issued through Interpol at the instigation of, for instance, the Russians?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot possibly make a sweeping statement of that nature from the Dispatch Box about all possible future examples. That would be too wide, but I think that, in terms of the use of the red notices, one can refer to the framework with which one is dealing, the reassurance given by article 3 of the constitution of Interpol and the checks and balances that I referred to.
Does the Minister agree that the election of this Russian will undermine the work we are doing at the Council of Europe and will undermine the European Court of Human Rights, which the Council looks after and where the cases against Russia mount daily?
I pay tribute to the fantastic work that my hon. Friend does as part of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. We value that strongly. This question is tightly constrained around the topic of the Interpol presidency election. A wide number of international organisations form an important part of the rules-based international order, and it will be the UK’s position to support the working of that rules-based international order in all those organisations.
Russia has tried to abuse Interpol no fewer than seven times to arrest Bill Browder. What assurance can the Minister give and what protection can her Government offer Mr Browder and all others currently facing pursuit from the Russian state, should the Russian candidate get elected?
I hope that I have been able to draw the House’s attention to several safeguards. First, the presidency, while an important role, is not an executive role; that role is held by the secretary-general and the executive committee. Secondly, I have drawn attention to the protections that article 3 of Interpol’s constitution gives, and thirdly, to the checks and balances that exist when, for example, a red notice is given to the UK National Crime Agency. There is a range of different checks and balances. Of course, every country that is a member of Interpol will perhaps approach things differently, but that is the position of the UK Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally wrong for a state actor such as Russia to use Interpol in a politicised way to fulfil its own political ambitions, and we should condemn in the strongest terms any attempt by Russia to do so?
I have strongly condemned a range of different activities, on which the UK has been holding Russia to account, particularly with regard to chemical weapons. Specifically on the situation of Interpol, I reiterate the important protections brought about by the existence of article 3. I would also point to, within the UK, the checks and balances that exist in terms of the red notices. As I have said in response to earlier questions from Members, that is obviously something that the UK Government will continue to keep under review.
The future credibility of Interpol is absolutely essential, never more so than when it comes to investigating violations of human rights, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, so may I ask the Minister: what kind of message would it send to the LGBT community if Mr Prokopchuk were elected as president of this organisation?
On what the UK Government have tried to do, I have outlined the UK Government’s position as far as this election is concerned. The hon. Gentleman opens up this question to wider issues. I highlight the importance that the UK Government place, in their discussions with countries around the world, on LGBT rights and human rights. That will form part of our diplomatic engagement.
The hon. Gentleman should pass on his appreciation to the teams and the supporters who travelled to Russia during the World cup over the summer. Work was done by a range of volunteers, but also, importantly, by the police to ensure that they all had the opportunity to enjoy a safe World cup.
In her question, the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), drew a comparison between diplomatic work by British diplomats in Yemen and the involvement of Russia in Interpol. Will my hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that there is no moral equivalence between the UK Government and Putin’s Russia? Furthermore, will she make it clear that the election of Alexander Prokopchuk could permanently undermine the credibility of Interpol? If he is elected, will we immediately take steps to build alternative international policing responses?
I find myself in the slightly unusual position of perhaps slightly defending the right hon. Lady because I did not see quite the angle that my hon. Friend saw in the question she posed. However, it is important that the UK, where appropriate, seeks to have the right representation in these international organisations. It is also very important—I assure my hon. Friend of this—that the UK will always seek and campaign to have the right representatives in these international organisations. He is absolutely right that the role the UK plays will often have the support of the rules-based international order through our membership of the United Nations, Interpol or other organisations. It is important that the UK Government reiterate at this Dispatch Box that we will always seek to work with the international rules-based order and uphold the values that have kept the country safe since the second world war.
There are shades here of what happened at FIFA, with voters being picked off one by one—this is actually scary. Given Russia’s recent violations of international law and the allegations regarding its influence via Facebook on elections around the world via fake news—we highlight that in our Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry—does not the Minister agree that it is completely and utterly inappropriate to have a Russian at the helm of Interpol?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the Committee of which she is a member for the important work and scrutiny that it is undertaking at the moment. I encourage colleagues on other Committees with some locus in relation to this urgent question to continue the important work of scrutinising what the UK Government do.
I point out to my hon. Friend what I pointed out earlier: the gentleman in question is currently a vice-president of Interpol; the presidency is not an executive role; and we have huge confidence in the ongoing work of Secretary-General Jürgen Stock—a German national—and his executive committee in terms of the daily conduct of Interpol and the execution of the organisation’s strategic objectives.
Russia’s attempts to discredit international organisations through its behaviour with Interpol and its consistent use of its veto to neuter the use of the International Criminal Court set a very worrying trend for the future. Will the Minister reassure me that, if this appointment is made—we hope it is not—she will work with our traditional allies to look at what we can do to strengthen the international rules-based order and ensure that it does not become so discredited that we head towards some of the disastrous situations we saw in the past when it did not exist?
Despite the narrowness of the defined subject of the urgent question, perhaps you will allow me, Mr Speaker, to make the wider point that the UK will commit, along with our international partners and allies, to send clear messages, where appropriate, about the consequences of Russia’s malign activity. I can give the recent example of our shining a light on the reckless and irresponsible cyber activities of the Russian military intelligence unit, the GRU.
Is not it of critical importance that Interpol is able to act transparently and that it is not manipulated by the Russian Government?
Of course, it is very important that the National Crime Agency continues to feel confidence in terms of its co-operation with Interpol. I can report to my hon. Friend and to the House that the National Crime Agency continues to have a very good working relationship with Interpol, to value that international co-operation and to feel that the checks and balances in terms of Interpol activity, including the existence of article 3, provide important protections.
In my youth, Interpol was a byword: it put the fear of God into criminals who wanted to operate across borders and it meant that there was no hiding place. It was known for its openness and transparency in the old days. Does my hon. Friend agree that that reputation would be thrown out of the window if this appointment went ahead and that we might lose a police force of inestimable value?
I point out to my hon. Friend that there are two candidates and I have made it clear at the Dispatch Box which candidate the UK prefers. It is important to continue to have the same kind of geographical balance and to make sure that an organisation that has a wide international membership continues to have a good geographical balance across the roles of the president, the vice-presidents, the secretary-general and the executive. I hope I have made clear the value that the National Crime Agency puts on this international co-operation, as well as the checks and balances that exist. We must continue to maintain scrutiny of all these things, but that international co-operation is valuable and we will continue to be a member of Interpol, despite what may be the outcome of tomorrow’s election.
Ebola Response Update
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and how the UK Government are continuing to support the response and preparedness activities in neighbouring countries.
Miraculously, I have put on a different hat. Since the last update to the House on 10 October by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, the number of confirmed Ebola cases in this outbreak has continued to rise. As of 18 November, there were 326 confirmed cases and a further 47 probable cases, making this Ebola outbreak the biggest in the history of the DRC.
The DRC Government are leading the response with the support of the World Health Organisation. The DRC Government issued a revised response plan in late October, which projected that the outbreak would be contained and declared over by the end of January 2019. However, it is now clear that that will take several more months to achieve.
The WHO judges that ending the outbreak could take a further six months, under a best-case scenario. That reflects the very challenging operating environment in eastern DRC, which is a heavily populated area affected by insecurity. For example, last weekend an attack by armed groups on a MONUSCO base was close to where a vaccination team were staying. Thankfully, none of the Ebola responders was injured, but they were moved to Goma for a short period and vaccination activities had to be paused for a day.
The scale of the response is also challenging. In addition to the 373 confirmed and probable cases, the DRC Government, supported by WHO and other implementing partners, is trying to trace some 4,400 contacts on a daily basis.
However, there is some encouraging news. The response is enabling faster detection of cases, laboratory diagnosis and monitoring of the spread of the disease. The WHO-led support is improving Government medical facilities and their capacity to manage patients and treat them safely. That includes vaccination of health workers, provision of personal protection equipment, and advice on safe practices for dealing with suspect and confirmed cases. Part of the response involves raising awareness of the disease within local communities and putting in place measures to prevent cross-border spread. So far, 110 people have recovered.
The UK responded quickly to support the international response as the second largest donor to the strategic response plan, as well as deploying epidemiological experts to support the WHO response on the ground. UK support has helped to improve leadership and co-ordination, surveillance, infection prevention control and preparedness measures.
In view of recent developments, we have increased our support for the response and preparedness activities in DRC and neighbouring countries. Our funding will support a range of activities including surveillance, vaccinations, infection prevention and control, community engagement and safe and dignified burials.
In addition, the UK is supporting neighbouring countries to prepare to tackle the disease should it spread, by funding key UN posts in Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan to ensure they are as prepared as possible. We are applying the lessons of previous experience in tackling Ebola. An experimental vaccine, the development of which was supported by UK aid following the west Africa outbreak, is being given to frontline health workers and contacts of confirmed cases. In the DRC, over 31,000 people, more than 10,000 of whom are health workers, have already been vaccinated during this outbreak. The UK is also supporting training in preparation for clinical trials of several of the new therapeutic drugs for Ebola.
The UK Government are also drawing on all available scientific data about the latest outbreak. We will continue to liaise closely with WHO and others to ensure that the available scientific evidence is reflected in scenario planning. An international Ebola preparedness and co-ordination meeting is due to take place in Goma shortly, which will be attended by Ministers from the DRC and Uganda, to discuss cross-border co-ordination.
So far, the UK has contributed £25 million to the Ebola response. This is supporting WHO to work on screening, surveillance and preparedness, not only in the DRC but in neighbouring countries. Of this, some £20 million is from the crisis reserve of the Department for International Development, and £5 million is from the country budget for Uganda. When I visited Uganda last month, I saw how UK aid is helping the Uganda national taskforce to be ready to deal with Ebola, as needed.
It is clear that the response will require a sustained effort over time and additional resources. The UK Government stand ready to provide additional assistance. Therefore, we have agreed a further £20 million from our central crisis reserve in 2018-19, to support Ebola responses in the affected region.
I am sure that my colleagues in the House will recognise the risk that Ebola responders face. The DRC Government have asked donors not to publicise figures for specific activities, to avoid putting implementing partners at risk from criminal elements. I hope that the House and members of the press will respect the need for discretion about this issue. Public Health England assesses the risk to the UK of this outbreak as negligible to very low. It will continue to monitor and assess the outbreak closely. Should that risk change, the UK Government remain at full readiness to respond, and I commend this statement to the House.
First, I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of her statement. I share the Government’s deep concern about the outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I am pleased to hear that £25 million of UK aid has been given to the response. We hope that it goes some way to containing this deadly outbreak.
In addition, supporting neighbouring countries to prepare to tackle the disease is fundamental and welcome. In 2014, we learned the hard way what happens when action is not taken fast enough to halt the cruel and deadly Ebola virus. We all remember with great sadness how too many people tragically lost their lives in west Africa, and none of us will ever forget the fear and chaos that the virus wreaked on the affected communities, and indeed right across the globe. I am sure we all agree that we must act now to avoid a repeat of those horrific scenes, and help the DRC to contain this outbreak.
With the World Health Organisation reporting that 213 people have died since 1 August in the DRC, and the humanitarian agency Médecins sans Frontières confirming 366 cases, let us be sure that DFID steps up and ensures that the UK plays a crucial leadership role alongside the international community in responding to this outbreak, just as we did in Sierra Leone four years ago.
However, while emergency humanitarian response is an integral part of DFID’s work, I am sure the Minister agrees that prevention is better than emergency response. While we send aid to DRC, we cannot and must not turn our backs on providing the long-term support that will ensure countries across the global south have appropriate health systems set up in the first place.
It is deeply disappointing, therefore, that the Minister’s Department dropped health spending from 18% of DFID spend in 2014, to 12% in 2017. Meanwhile, spending on banking and financial services has been on the increase, as the Department appears to lose sight of its core work and instead increases spending on promoting private companies to expand their profits.
Just this year, the aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, told DFID it really needs to improve its work on strengthening health systems. May I ask the Minister, therefore, if she feels that her Department has learned the lessons of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and recognises that supporting countries to build strong, well-managed public services is the only way to ensure that we will not see these outbreaks again in the future?
I will come on to the lessons learnt since the outbreak in Sierra Leone in a moment. However, I am sure that I cannot possibly have heard from the Opposition Front Bench a statement to the effect that having a strong private sector is somehow in conflict with having the revenues needed to provide strong health systems around the world. I hope that that is not the considered position of those on the Labour Front Bench. While spending on strengthening health systems around the world, particularly in some of the poorest and most fragile affected countries, it is important that we in the UK recognise the important role of growth and job creation in the ability of those countries to generate their own tax revenues so that they can continue to strengthen their own health systems. We think that that is the most important way to approach worldwide development.
I digress from the topic at hand. The hon. Lady mentions the outbreak in west Africa. I draw the attention of the House to progress and lessons that have been learned since that outbreak. First, the importance of reacting quickly has been taken into account, both in the first outbreak in the DRC earlier this year, which I am glad to say has been brought under control, and in this outbreak. Importantly, the UK has ensured that the WHO has the resources it needs as soon as it needs them, because this is a clear case of where a quick reaction will save lives.
One major milestone that has occurred since the outbreak in west Africa is that the world has developed an experimental vaccine, which was deployed for the first time this year in the DRC. It proved to be effective in the first outbreak. As I said, 31,000 people have been given the experimental vaccine so far in this outbreak. One real challenge, however, is that this outbreak is in a conflict-affected area. That makes it very difficult to trace contacts and, as I mentioned, 4,400 contacts need to be traced daily. It also makes it very difficult to deliver the vaccine. The vaccine requires trained medical professionals to deliver it. It also requires a secure cold chain. The fact that this is a conflict-affected area is therefore significantly hampering the ability of the international community to do what it needs to do.
The third lesson learned from the outbreak in west Africa is that the WHO strengthened its own processes and has worked with a range of different countries to strengthen their health processes. Ensuring resilience in neighbouring countries is very much a part of the response at the moment—this outbreak is not far from the Ugandan border, just some 20 miles inside the DRC. Strengthening the reaction and response at borders is a lesson that has been learned.
Order. There is some interest in this matter. We appreciate both the Minister’s statement and her desire to provide comprehensive replies, but I remind the House that there are several hours of debate upcoming on the Finance Bill and before we even get to that we have a further statement to follow. I want the next statement to start at two o’clock, so we need short questions and very short answers.
The Minister mentions Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. It is a good idea to be investing in those countries, but has the Minister also considered investing in Burundi, particularly given the economic and political instability, and the poor health system in that neighbouring country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to think about the implications further south. This outbreak is happening closer to the Ugandan border, but he is absolutely right that in due course it may be important to consider the impact on Burundi. He will be aware of the current very difficult situation for international non-governmental organisations in Burundi. Some NGOs have been asked to leave the country and the UK remains concerned about its ability to work with them there. However, I take on board his point that, should there be further movement to the south, it will be very important to ensure preparedness extends to Burundi.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement on what is a particularly unpleasant and serious illness. I was grateful to hear her update on the resources that are being provided to deal with the DRC’s largest ever outbreak of one of the most deadly strains of Ebola. I was also grateful to hear that increased support is being provided.
Can the Minister advise me on how many people are working in the region as part of the UK public health and support team? What measures are in place to protect their safety in what is effectively a war zone? It is estimated that more than 100 armed groups are active in the territory of North Kivu. A number of attacks in this province where Ebola has been witnessed are seriously hampering the Ebola outbreak response activities. What is being done to address such issues around instability, which are affecting the efforts to control the outbreak?
Finally, while I welcome the update on the numbers of people who have been provided with the experimental vaccine, may we have an update on the clinical trials of several new therapeutic drugs for Ebola that the Minister’s Department is supporting training for?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I want to reassure the House that from the very get-go—both with this outbreak and in the earlier outbreak—the UK made it clear that we will provide resources. What we really need is for the WHO and the DRC Government to co-operate on delivering them. He will be aware that some very brave people from Public Health England were able to fly out to the first outbreak, when the experimental vaccine was deployed for the first time. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to their amazing bravery, and indeed to the bravery of all health workers involved in this particular deployment.
I would also like to underline the other ways in which the UK is providing support. Financial support is obviously important, as was the initial support from Public Health England in terms of the cold chain. We helped to develop the vaccine and we also help in terms of widespread support to the health systems in poorer countries, including the DRC, where I was able to see some of the work that we have helped to support. We also support the MONUSCO peacekeeping operation, so there is a wide variety of ways in which the UK helps.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about other experimental vaccines that we may be investigating, I will write to him.
We will now have an exemplification of brevity—I call Sir Desmond Swayne.
Victims are at their most infectious when they are dead. A key intervention in Sierra Leone was burial teams; are they being deployed in the Congo?
My right hon. Friend is always a model of brevity. I can assure him that in my perhaps too verbose statement, I drew attention to the fact that we are supporting safe burial practices.
Does the Minister recognise the importance of the work in this field of Professor Tom Solomon of the University of Liverpool, and of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine? Will she continue to support international funding so that their efforts, as part of a comprehensive approach to deal with this disease, are supported?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to the very important role that these key partnerships play around the world in strengthening health systems. She mentioned Liverpool which, as the House will know, does amazing work in this area and on neglected tropical diseases. When I was in Uganda, I saw the incredibly strong partnership between the Uganda Virus Research Institute and the University of London through its London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Those incredibly important partnerships are a win-win for the developing world, and a win for the UK.
I declare an interest as a trustee of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Has my hon. Friend found that the amazing expertise gained by her Department as a result of that tragic situation in 2014 has been retained and enhanced in the meantime, or are we having to learn things again?
I mentioned some of the ways in which knowledge of dealing with these outbreaks has been acquired and improved on as a result of the outbreak in west Africa. Much of the expertise in Public Health England was drawn on very early in the previous outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I reiterate that the response is running into challenges not because of a lack of expertise, a lack of vaccine or a lack of dedicated personnel willing to deliver it, but because of the conflict on the ground. People are attacking peacekeepers in the area. Therefore, we call on all participants to eschew violence and allow health workers to do the job that they need to do, because that is the real threat in this outbreak.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières, the delay in recognising the latest outbreak is in part due to a strike by health workers in the area over non-payment of salaries. Will the Minister elaborate on what her Department is doing to support the functioning of the health service in that country?
I pay tribute to the amazing work done by Médecins Sans Frontières, which is part of the delivery mechanism for the response. We have been very pleased with the co-operation that we have had from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Government and their health system but, as the hon. Lady will know, that country is enormous. It is extremely heavily populated and conflict is being experienced in this particular area. Those factors, rather than a willingness of spirit or the desire to help, are the particular challenges in this outbreak.
To what extent does my hon. Friend think that the security situation is hampering efforts to treat people in the region, and what are the solutions?
I underline that that is the fundamental challenge in the outbreak, because it has made it very difficult to trace contacts—I mentioned that over 4,000 people who are contacts of people who have tested positive for the disease need to be traced every day—and it is making it really difficult for health workers to do their job. The fact that MONUSCO has come under attack in the area underlines the very fragile security situation, which is causing untold harm to the response.
The Minister mentioned the fragile security situation, and we know that the US Government will not allow their employees to go near the epicentre, because it is unstable. What assessment have the UK Government made of the security of UK employees there and of the circumstances in which they will be able to continue to work?
I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the remark that I made towards the end of my statement, which was that, with respect to the House, we do not feel that it is helpful to the security of the individuals involved to comment on any specifics about the people who are currently working in that region on behalf of the UK Government.
I thank the Minister for the decisiveness of her Department’s response. Is she satisfied that all precautions are being taken to ensure that the disease is contained and not inadvertently exported to nearby countries or, indeed, even further afield by plane?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We constantly ask ourselves that question and we constantly ask our interlocutors from the relevant neighbouring countries whether there is anything else that should be done or that we can do to help. For example, when I was in Uganda, I was able to ask its Prime Minister whether the country would be able to approve the use of the experimental vaccine through their procedures as quickly as possible. I am glad to report to the House that, following that intervention, it has now been approved for use within Uganda.
I welcome the overall tone of the Minister’s statement. We previously saw with Operation Gritrock how our military, in an unarmed capacity—providing logistics and medical support—could make a real difference to fighting Ebola. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Ministry of Defence about how some of those capabilities could be used, given the situation on the ground?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the amazing work that UK forces did in Sierra Leone—words fail me in describing the amazing bravery that they showed in dealing with that outbreak. This particular example is within the boundaries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is working with the forces that it believes are appropriate for that area. It is probably worth my saying on record that were the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to want to explore that approach with our Ministry of Defence, we would obviously be very happy to have that conversation.
Given that it might take up to six months to contain the outbreak, what extra resource is being deployed by other major EU countries? Does that match up to the UK’s response?
I think I said that that was the best possible scenario. I reassure my hon. Friend that while the UK is the second largest contributor to funding the response so far, the World Health Organisation’s plan is fully funded, and other countries have stepped up to the plate to fund it. The issue is not a lack of funding or a lack of willingness from the international community to help out, and nor is it a lack of co-operation from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Government in terms of the way in which the outbreak is continuing to grow. The issue is particularly the fact that this is a conflict-affected area, and that is hampering health professionals’ ability to do important work.
What is the size of the geographic area in which the 326 confirmed cases have been identified?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the largest countries in Africa. Physically, it can sometimes be difficult to travel on the roads, and communications can be more challenging than they would be if such an outbreak happened here in the UK. The current outbreak is in the area of Beni—the previous outbreak happened in a completely different part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—which is 20 miles from the Ugandan border. Physically, the area is quite large and people also move, which is why it is important to trace the contacts that people have had, because those contacts can move easily across the country and across borders.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that the actions of her Department are not only keeping people in the affected area safe but helping to keep UK citizens safe?
I can absolutely confirm that. I mentioned that Public Health England believes that the risk to the UK population is currently low, but obviously people travel around the world, and in this interconnected world, I strongly believe that a healthier world means a healthier UK.
The Minister has said repeatedly that the conflict has prevented efforts to contain the outbreak. What steps can the UK Government take to help bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion?
As my hon. Friend will know, there are many sources of conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The UK, as a leading member of the UN, is a significant funder of the UN peacekeeping operation, MONUSCO, which has been there for a long time. Obviously, the UK supports it proportionately alongside our other obligations at the UN.
World Health Organisation officials had to leave following an attack on a hotel in the Congo. Does the Minister anticipate more UN peacekeepers being in place to help officials stay in post?
I would like to put on the record my appreciation for the work of the MONUSCO peacekeepers in this very dangerous part of the world. Far too many of them have been victims of violence while doing their job. Given how prone this part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is to violence and conflict, it is important that the relevant Government authorities work with MONUSCO to take whatever steps they believe necessary to protect those peacekeepers and ensure that the appropriate forces are there.
Terrorists and refugees are extremely mobile. How adequate are the plans the Minister has announced for neighbouring countries to meet that challenge?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the risk of this outbreak being contagious across borders, given how close it is to the Ugandan border. The WHO and others are working with neighbouring countries to make sure that people are screened at the border, that there is a sufficient supply of vaccines and, as I mentioned earlier, that vaccines are approved for use within countries. We are taking all the steps we can, but what makes this outbreak so challenging is, as he rightly says, the prevalence of violent individuals disrupting the work of the health workers and peacekeepers.
With the outbreak predicted not to be under control for another six months, can my hon. Friend please assure us that everything is being done to protect our vital and much-valued health workers? Without them, we cannot deliver the programme, and with them, the consequences could extend far beyond the Congo. Will she join me in thanking these very brave workers?
My hon. Friend makes my point incredibly eloquently. I mentioned that 31,000 health workers, I think, had received the experimental vaccine so far. Think about how brave they have to be to receive an experimental Ebola vaccine; I do not like getting my flu jab. I therefore want to take this opportunity to draw the House’s attention to those strong words of appreciation for the brave work of both the peacekeepers and the health workers.
As the Minister has just made clear, the outbreak is less than 20 miles from the Ugandan border, which is incredibly worrying. What practical help and support are the Government giving to the Ugandan Government to prevent what would be a major crisis should this cross the border into Uganda?
I had the great pleasure of visiting Uganda and was thoroughly impressed by the work of the Uganda Virus Research Institute and the reassurances I got from across the Ugandan system about its increased preparedness for the risk of Ebola crossing the border. People there had, for example, made sure the experimental vaccine was approved by the appropriate Ugandan authorities.
Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.
The UK has a proud history of supporting the use of open data. Indeed, there has been a huge programme of work in recent years to make sure we are promoting the open and transparent use of data. The Government are in a privileged position, as we collect a vast quantity of high-quality data while delivering public services. As the UK moves rapidly towards a data-driven economy, we have an opportunity to improve decision making in many areas. The Government have already published over 44,000 datasets. Indeed, I pay tribute to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), who was an early pioneer of open data while a Minister in the Cabinet Office.
This unprecedented openness has created many benefits. First, it has made the Government more accountable and transparent. Secondly, it can improve the effectiveness of public services. Thirdly, it has created the potential for new businesses to thrive. By making our data available to the public, we have been able to fuel businesses and applications that make life better and easier, and all this has paid dividends. We are now ranked joint first in the world on the open data barometer—an achievement of which we can be justly proud.
While open data is something we must aspire to, we also need to use it in a safe and ethical manner. The rise of artificial intelligence-driven products and services has posed new questions that will impact us all. What are the ethical implications of using technology to determine someone’s likelihood of reoffending? Is it right to use a programme powered by AI to make hiring decisions? Can it ever be right to have an algorithm influence who should be saved in a car crash? These are no longer questions for science fiction but real questions that require clear and definitive answers, where possible, from policy makers.
That is why we have recently established the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation—ethics and innovation are not mutually exclusive, as strong ethics can be a driver of innovation. It is our intention that the centre becomes a world-class advisory body to make sure that data and AI deliver the best possible outcomes for society, in support of their ethical and innovative use. Following a consultation over the summer on the activities and work of the new centre, we are pleased to publish our response today.
This is the first body of its kind to be established anywhere in the world and represents a landmark moment for data ethics in the UK and internationally. Throughout the consultation, respondents recognised the urgent need for the centre, and there was widespread support for its objectives: to advise the Government on the necessary policy and regulatory action and to empower industry through the development of best practice. In turn, we can build public trust in data-driven technologies and make the most of the opportunities they present for society.
We have announced that Roger Taylor will chair the board. Roger has a background in consumer protection, founded Dr Foster, a healthcare data company, and is a passionate advocate for using data to improve lives. I know that he will do an excellent job. We have today announced the board members who will support Roger in this essential work. The board will include Lord Winston, a world-renowned expert in fertility and genetics, Kriti Sharma, vice president of AI at Sage and a leading global voice on data ethics, and Dame Patricia Hodgson, who was chair of Ofcom and brings a wealth of experience of regulatory affairs. The board will bring together some of our greatest minds and their immense and varied expertise to tackle these important issues.
Data is the fuel of any digital economy, and trust in that data is fundamental. As a nation, we have always been pioneers and advocates for transparency and freedom, and we will keep applying those values as we examine how we can make the most of data that is multiplying in scale and sophistication. The great challenge of the digital age is to ensure that data is used safely, ethically and, when possible, transparently. If we do that, we can help to power new technologies that will make life better and solve issues that are currently of grave concern. This truly is within our grasp, and if we work together, we can make it happen. I commend my statement to the House.
This Government tend to have ambitious plans for us to be an also-ran in the data age. We have an infrastructure that is hopelessly out of date, an education system that most teachers think is not fit for the future and a voluntary approach to regulation that will not ensure that the online world is a world of trust or a safe space for our children.
We welcome the Minister’s statement, and I thank her for advance sight of it. I also thank her for her words of praise for my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), the shadow Secretary of State, who was indeed a pioneer of open data and the Open Data Institute and the Power of Information Task Force. However, if the new centre is to be an establishment that simply writes voluntary codes and publishes best practice, it will not stop the online hate speech, the data breaches, or the risk of new algorithms coding old injustices into new injustices and inequalities. The centre joins 12 other regulators and advisory bodies with some oversight of the internet, so we now have 13 different regulators and advisers, and this one lacks any statutory basis for either its independence or its focus.
As a test case, will the Minister tell us whether the centre will advise her on the Google DeepMind deal, whereby British health data and its control were transferred to California despite all the assurances that were given to the Government and the public at the time? Will she tell us what specific guidance she is seeking on algorithmic unfairness, given that she voted down the amendments that we had proposed to create a legislative basis in the Data Protection Act 2018? Will she tell us what advice she is seeking on reforming the competition regulation regime, given that more companies, like Amazon, are using data to create monopolistic practices in this country? Finally, will she tell us what steps she will take to ensure that the centre builds on our proposal for a digital rights Bill in a new clause earlier this year?
We are not living through an era of change; we are now living through a change of era, and it is time that the Government rose to the challenge.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. First, I should make it clear that the centre is not a new regulator. It will be an advisory body, which, for its first year or so, will be in the business of advising the Government and leading public debate on serious ethical issues associated with artificial intelligence. However, I can give a positive response to his question about its independence. It will become independent, and it will be placed on a statutory footing as soon as parliamentary time is available for us to introduce the necessary legislation. We fully intend this body to be totally independent of the Government in due course. Only on that basis, I believe, will it become the world-leading authority on data ethics and innovation that we want it to be in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman asks what the centre will do about online hate speech and other well-known online harms, which my Department and, indeed, the whole Government take extremely seriously. Earlier this year, we published a response to the Green Paper on internet safety, in which we stated that we were working on a White Paper that would explore various options, including legislation and statutory regulation to hold internet companies, particularly social media platforms, to account, and that we intended to produce legislation when parliamentary time permitted. We regard that area as separate from the ethical issues on which the new centre will advise public debate and the Government.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions data protection. As he knows, that is regulated by the Information Commissioner, who has been involved in the development of the centre. He also mentions competition and the concentration of huge amounts of market power in the hands of a few companies. I am sure that many Members on both sides of the House share that concern, but it is very much a matter for the Competition and Markets Authority rather than for the new centre.
The right hon. Gentleman asks whether the centre will advise on Google’s decision to move parts of the healthcare practice of DeepMind to its Californian headquarters. As DeepMind and Google are private corporations, it is not up to the Government to pass comment on how they manage their affairs, but it is, of course, up to the new centre to opine on the practices and code of corporate governance of companies with which public services and Government contracts might work in the future. So there is a connection for the centre, albeit a rather tenuous one.
I hope that the centre will work in collaboration with the Open Data Institute, founded by Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Work on open data can make a significant difference both to people with new industries and to us in the House. The Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, of which I am a patron, can use open data in a way that makes the Government start to change its approach to residential leasehold. I am sure that we can use information of this kind to make our job better, and to make a better economy.
I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestions. The Open Data Institute is just the sort of organisation that the new centre will work with and consult.
Order. We shall need to move on by 2.30 pm. I am sure that colleagues will factor that into their contributions.
I thank the Minister for her statement, although this data seems to be under particular protection. I did not receive an advance copy, although I am sure that that was an oversight on the part of her Department.
The Scottish National party welcomes the announcement of the establishment of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. In the age of big data and tech firm power, it is vital for users to be confident that their data is being used in a safe and ethical manner. It is excellent—I hope I am right about this—to see a gender balance on the board, along with racial diversity. I hope that we may see appointments that ensure that LGBTI people and people with disabilities are properly represented and reflected.
I also hope that the Minister will do her best to ensure that the board makes every effort to bridge the gender data gap. I am sure that she is well aware of “Invisible Women”, a recent book by Caroline Criado-Perez. She may also be aware of the comments made by Mayra Buvinic, a United Nations Foundation senior fellow who is working on Data2X, an initiative aimed at closing the gender data gap. She has said:
“The dearth of data makes it difficult to set policies and gauge progress, preventing governments and organizations from taking measurable steps to empower women and improve lives”.
I am sure the Minister agrees that if our Governments are to design the right policies, we must ensure that we collect data on all parts of our society; otherwise, how can we track progress and evaluate developments? Will the Minister discuss those matters with the board and report back on progress? Will she also explain how the centre will work with the devolved nations and Governments on these issues?
There have been reports this week that airline booking algorithms are identifying families with the same surname who are travelling together on the same flight and then deliberately seating them in different parts of the aircraft, with the aim of encouraging them to pay extra to sit together. Does the Minister agree that that is an example of practices that constitute an unethical use of data and target poorer families, and will she confirm that it is exactly such practices that the centre will examine? Perhaps that is a starter for 10.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and apologise that she did not have advance sight of the statement. I agree with many of her points. It is essential that users can have confidence about what is done with their data. That was one of the driving forces behind the introduction of the new data protection legislation earlier in the year. I am glad that she has noted the better diversity on the board of the new institute; in my view that is vital for the very reasons she sets out. It is extremely important that gender, LGBTI and other groups are well represented during the decision-making processes on how data are used as well as on the board of the new body. I will certainly discuss those matters with the new board, which I meet for the first time at its meeting on Monday next week.
Yes, we must continue our discussions with devolved Administrations, and I have already condemned in the strongest possible terms the practices of some airline companies on which she updated the House just now; that is outrageous. These are questions of corporate governance as well as the use of AI. One of the reasons we have set the centre up is to make sure that AI is a force for public good, rather than manipulation in such a cynical attempt at profiteering.
I strongly welcome the statement. The Select Committee on Education is conducting an inquiry into the impact of the fourth industrial revolution and AI on skills, education and our economy. Does my hon. Friend agree that studies suggesting that 28% of the jobs done by young people could be lost to AI reveal one of the most important challenges facing our nation? Should we not have a royal commission to look at the overall impact of AI, automation and robotics?
I know my hon. Friend and his Select Committee are looking into these matters and I look forward to engaging with him on them. I encourage Roger Taylor and his team to do so as well. My hon. Friend is right. A recent NESTA report looking forward at the workforce of 2030 found that 20% of our current workforce are in occupations that are likely to be subject to automation and 10% are in occupations that are likely to expand, so this is an important issue and is right at the top of our agenda.
The scandals of Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ show just how far behind Governments are in tackling data ethics and the manipulation of data. Does the Minister agree that such issues are often best tackled at EU level, and that this is precisely the wrong time for the Government to walk away from the EU if we are serious about addressing these problems?
The matters to which the right hon. Gentleman refers were recently the subject, and continue to be the subject, of an Information Commissioner’s Office inquiry. I am confident that the ICO has the necessary resources and expertise to undertake these inquiries. Leaving the EU does not mean that we will be abandoning our data protection standards. We fully expect to maintain them and develop them further over time.
Will the centre have the scope to look at AI and data usage in political campaigning and quasi-political campaigning?
The inquiry I referred to in the previous answer has been reported on by the Information Commissioner, and she is setting forth a code of practice for political parties to sign up to on their use of data and how data are processed.
A dating service that optimises short-term relationships to ensure repeat business. A taxi service that charges people more when their phone battery is low. A recruitment service that prioritises men for higher paid vacancies. I welcome the new centre but, with respect, those examples do not require ethical investigation; they require regulation and enforcement. When will we get that?
In my answer to the shadow Minister, I set out that the Government are working on a White Paper that will be the precursor to various proposals and options for regulatory and legal reinforcement. Some of the examples the hon. Lady gives may well be the subject of that future legislation.
This area presents huge challenges for society in the future, but also real opportunities, particularly in highly skilled and well-paid jobs. How will the new centre assist in taking forward the AI sector deal, which is potentially of huge benefit across the country?