House of Commons
Tuesday 4 December 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Diplomatic Co-operation
I have recently discussed post-Brexit diplomatic co-operation with my French, German, Belgian and Norwegian counterparts, and I am confident that it will continue post Brexit.
When the Cabinet met to discuss the Prime Minister’s deal, the Foreign Secretary said that it risked leaving the UK in what he called the “Turkey trap”, and that the backstop could in fact become an indefinite “frontstop”. Given those entirely valid concerns, will he explain why he is backing this terrible deal?
I do not comment on confidential Cabinet discussions, except to say that I started my comments at that meeting by saying that this is a time when all of us owe our loyalty to the Prime Minister, who has an extremely challenging job. And like many Members of this House, I am looking forward to a delicious roast turkey for Christmas.
It is not a coincidence that Russia has chosen this opportunity to take further military action against Ukraine and to continue to stir up trouble. Why does the Foreign Secretary think that so many former diplomats and others are totally opposed to the deal that the Government are putting forward on Brexit? Is it because it will undermine our diplomatic capacity in the world and our ability to stand up to those who would seek to divide and undermine Europe and this country’s national interests?
On the contrary, I think this deal allows us to project ourselves with confidence and strength across the world. I have had conversations with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, who is grateful for the staunch support that the UK has given his country in this challenging situation. It is fair to say that the UK has been one of the leading voices, if not the leading voice, among EU countries on foreign policy issues such as this, and I am confident that we will continue to do that.
When he spoke to Andrew Marr last weekend, the Foreign Secretary said that the Prime Minister’s proposed deal
“mitigates most of the negative impacts”
of leaving the EU. Can he tell us which of the negative impacts of leaving the EU the deal does not mitigate?
Both the United Kingdom and France have permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. We get to keep our seat after Brexit, but there is growing pressure by the European Union to take over France’s seat. What is the Foreign Secretary’s view on that?
With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I think that is a matter for France. In my short time in this job, I have noticed that it is very difficult to get a consensus across the European Union to take common positions. We sometimes succeed and we sometimes do not. It is much easier to get the French to take a strong position, even though sometimes we do not agree with that, either.
As we are talking about British-European co-operation on diplomatic matters, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could talk about the events that we are seeing in Ukraine and the importance of working together to reinforce a country that is under severe threat and suffering severe abuse by a neighbour. It really does need the help of our institutions, both UK and European, to ensure that it is able to stand up to such aggression.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised this issue. He is absolutely right to say that, on an issue such as Ukraine, we have to stand four-square with our European friends, and we have indeed been doing so. We have extensive discussions about taking a common position with them, and I am pleased to say that there is unity not only among the European nations but with the United States that what Russia did is totally and utterly unacceptable. It is against international law and we do not condone it—we condemn it.
Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that he made it clear in his discussions that, while we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe, and that we will continue to work through NATO and the many other international forums to ensure the peace and security of the whole continent?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important not to underestimate the influence that we have. We are a member of the G7, the G20, the OECD and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. We are a member of 60 international organisations. With the EU, we have built up a huge amount of trust and common ground over recent years, which is why I am confident that it is in both sides’ interests that that continues.
Climate change is the biggest challenge that we face, and one that we should perhaps spend more time discussing in this Chamber. Being able to take a common position with our EU partners on this has been an incredibly powerful diplomatic tool for pushing that message forward. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will join me in welcoming the fact that the First Minister is in Poland—where Scotland’s actions have been hailed internationally—to push that message as well. How will we continue to work with our EU partners to push that important diplomatic message?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific will be in Poland on Friday and Saturday for further discussions on such issues. This issue does not respect any national boundaries and can be solved only by countries across the world working together. We have a strong common position with other European countries and that will continue.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his response. There is a concern that the UK is being left isolated in terms of Brexit and the broken relationship. In maintaining that common position as we go forward, will he commit to working as closely as we have done with our European partners? Additionally, in terms of our international ambitions, can Scotland help to act as a bridge between the UK and the rest of the EU?
The best bridge Scotland could be is by not creating a wall between Scotland and England and not trying to become independent. If we act as one voice, as a United Kingdom, we will be a more powerful voice abroad. We have had an independent foreign policy during our whole time as a member of the EU. That is not going to change, but we have found that it is incredibly effective to work closely with our European neighbours and friends on a whole range of issues, and that is also not going to change.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent question. In fact, I raised that issue when I was in Tehran on 19 November. It is essential that we give full support to media freedom in all parts of the world. We have a lot of common ground on that with other European countries that share concerns about the recent deterioration in the situation.
Only a month ago, the Foreign Secretary was one of eight Cabinet Ministers who said that they could not decide whether to back any Brexit deal unless they had seen the full, unedited legal advice given to the Prime Minister, saying that they could not repeat the failures of the Iraq war and rely only on an edited summary. The Foreign Secretary was right to take that entirely sensible and rational position just four weeks ago, so why should the same principle not apply to the whole of Parliament?
For the same reason that the previous Labour Government did not publish all the legal advice that they received: it would make the practice of Government totally and utterly impossible. I am delighted that the right hon. Lady has come in on this question, because she said on TV on Friday:
“I like the idea of us remaining in the EU.”
On this side of the House, however, we rather like the idea of implementing the will of the British people in a referendum.
I am unsure why the hon. Gentleman thinks that any of that is going to change, because the political declaration could not have been stronger in the commitments made to continue diplomatic co-operation between the UK and the EU. That is one of the first issues that European Foreign Ministers have raised in every single discussion that I have had with them, and there is total and complete unanimity.
No, it is not. We strongly support the JCPOA, but we strongly condemn missile activity by Iran in the region, because it is extremely destabilising. Military activities in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are causing enormous problems for many people in the region, and we will not settle the issues in the middle east unless Iran starts to change its approach and act peacefully towards its neighbours.
Our policy on the death penalty has not changed, and we continue to raise human rights issues with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other countries.
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary is aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) yesterday asked the Prime Minister whether she would make an appeal for clemency on behalf of the 12 men who currently face imminent execution. Is the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister willing to do that?
We continue to make representations on all cases of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, and I will look carefully into the case the right hon. Gentleman raises. I have to be direct with him and say that, because it is connected to sharia law, we think it unlikely that Saudi Arabia will change its policy on the death penalty, so most of the interventions we make tend to be in cases where a juvenile has committed the offence, or where we do not think the offence is egregious and where we think we will have the best chance of success.
The Government would have us believe that our close ties with Saudi Arabia have led to the regime behaving more humanely. Given that almost 100 Yemeni children were recently killed by Saudi airstrikes, and given the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, there is very little evidence to back up that claim, so can the Foreign Secretary point to the evidence that the UK is making the Saudi regime more humane and more responsible?
Last month, the United States imposed Magnitsky sanctions on 17 individuals accused of involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Many of them now face the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Of course I would not ask the Foreign Secretary to comment on any individual cases, but can he simply tell us how many of those 17 individuals accompanied Crown Prince Salman on his visit to the UK in April?
The Home Office is doing a lot of work on what happened with all those 17 individuals, and there have been media reports that some of them did accompany the Crown Prince when he came to the UK. We want justice in the case of Khashoggi. It is an appalling case, and the Prime Minister made that clear to the Crown Prince when she met him in Buenos Aires. We have made it clear in my private meetings, too.
Sino-British Joint Declaration: Rule of Law
The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are the foundations of Hong Kong’s continued success and prosperity. The UK remains absolutely committed to the joint declaration and to upholding “one country, two systems.” I raised the concerns about the erosion of the rule of law when I visited Hong Kong only last month, and we will continue to monitor that situation closely, as detailed in the Foreign Secretary’s six-monthly reports to Parliament.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Recent events in Hong Kong have seen the movement restricted of those critical of the Hong Kong Government, including political opponents and journalists. What steps are the UK Government taking to protect British interests in Hong Kong and the rights of British national (overseas) passport holders?
I reassure my hon. Friend that we take very seriously our long-standing and ongoing duty to uphold the joint declaration. We have raised publicly our concerns about the decision, for example, not to renew the visa of Victor Mallet, of the Financial Times, and the subsequent denial of his re-entry into Hong Kong, as well as other developments. These call into question Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. We have also made it clear in private to the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments that it is vital that Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy, which are set out in the joint declaration, are fully respected.
What will the Foreign Office do if the Government in China continue not to allow the likes of Victor Mallet, Benedict Rogers and others to have access to Hong Kong, as is correct and proper in a country with which the UK has such a long-standing relationship?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is right and proper that such individuals are entitled to be there. We are concerned by the specific decision not to renew the visa of the Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet. As I said in Hong Kong the day I was there, that incident on 9 November undermines Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and, indeed, freedom of the press, which are guaranteed under the Basic Law. This, in turn, risks undermining Hong Kong’s economic success in the longer term. We will continue to raise those concerns.
Does the Minister share concerns about the trial that began on 19 November of nine leaders of the pro-democracy Hong Kong umbrella movement on such vague charges as “incitement to incite” public nuisance, and about the implications of such charges for freedom of speech and the rule of law in Hong Kong? Will Ministers raise such concerns with the Government there at the earliest opportunity?
I thank my hon. Friend for her tenacious work in this regard. The trials are a matter for the Hong Kong courts. I met Roberto Ribeiro, the deputy chief justice, and the head of the Hong Kong Bar Association when I was there in November. I have every confidence in the continued independence of the Hong Kong judiciary, which remains in high international esteem. But I hope that the incidents to which she refers will not discourage either lawful protests or the young from engaging in politics in Hong Kong.
The banning of a pro-independence party in September marks a disturbing new phase in the erosion of democratic rights and freedoms by China. It is a clear breach of the spirit of the 1984 declaration, yet the Government are so desperate for a post-Brexit trade deal that they have done nothing. Is Chris Patten right to describe the Government’s policy as “craven”?
May I reassure the hon. Lady that we have done rather a lot? We do not support Hong Kong independence as we feel that would be a clear breach of “one country, two systems”. Nevertheless, as she rightly says, the right to stand for election, and the rights to free speech and to freedom of association are absolutely enshrined in the Basic Law. We are also concerned that, if not the letter, then certainly the spirit of “one country, two systems” is being breached by this matter. We have issued a statement and we will continue to apply pressure through diplomatic means; we will do so on an ongoing basis. I share many of her concerns, but she should not believe that there is not a lot of work going on, both from our consulate general there and from London on this matter.
Brazil: Incoming Administration
The Prime Minister has written to President-elect Bolsonaro. Our ambassador in Brazil has seen him, many of the future Ministers and the transition team, and we look forward to working very closely with Brazil in the time ahead.
The great Sir David Attenborough said yesterday that climate change is humanity’s “greatest threat”. We all know that the Amazon rainforest is known as the planet’s lungs, yet we are seeing an alarming and irreversible rate of deforestation in the Amazon and worrying noises are coming out of the new Administration about their approach. So will our Government play a strong global leadership role in ensuring that the new Brazilian Administration understand their responsibility to protect the rainforest and the consequences if they do not do so?
The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is a very clear yes—the UK, of course, is fully committed. The Brazilian Government come into office on 1 January. The President-elect has already said that Brazil will remain a party to the Paris agreement. Our ambassador has already discussed this with the incoming Government and we will continue to put pressure on and lobby in the same way as we always do in favour of climate change legislation and adherence to the Paris agreement.
In any discussions the Minister may have with the new President, will he ensure that the understanding comes across that the populism that is sweeping across much of the democratic world is because of mainstream Administrations internationally leaving many of the populations behind? That is giving rise to the populism we see today.
I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I think that all Governments need to serve the needs of all their people. We have seen the rise of the right in quarters closer to home across Europe, including in regional elections in Spain last week. I agree that populism has its serious dangers. We want to see all Administrations serve the needs of their country, as we would all wish to see.
Hazara Population in Afghanistan
We have consistently urged the Afghan Government to protect the rights of all ethnic and religious groups, including the Hazaras, in line with the Afghan constitution. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is deeply concerned by recent reports of security incidents affecting the Hazara community, particularly in Ghazni and Uruzgan. We will continue to call on all parties to the conflict to protect the civilian population.
Recently, Hazaras lobbied me and other hon. Members, saying that they are now in deep fear of an ISIS attack. This comes after they have suffered massacres at the hands of the Taliban, and they have a history of being the subject of genocidal attacks by other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Given the amount of money we have put into Afghanistan, can the Minister not do more?
We fully understand the deep concerns about civilian casualties and displacement and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the threat from not only the Taliban but potentially ISIS, too. Only last week, staff from the British embassy in Kabul met Hazara representatives for Ghazni from the Afghan Government, to hear those concerns at first hand. The Afghan national defence and security forces are working to stabilise the security situation, and of course they do that in tandem with UK forces.
In the light of the recent Taliban offensive and the atrocities that occurred as a result, and bearing in mind the deep insecurity currently felt by the Hazara community, what additional support is NATO’s Resolute Support Mission contributing to the Hazaras’ safety?
We are obviously working together with many of our allies, particularly at NATO level. NATO’s Resolute Support Mission is helping Afghans to build their own self-standing capability and capacity. We very much hope to see the fruits of that in the years to come with the Afghan national defence and security forces. That work is happening in several parts of Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we are obviously concerned about the humanitarian side, particularly when we see civilian populations under threat. This is going to be a long haul. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that, working together with allies and the US in particular, we are no longer governed by an electoral timetable. We want to leave the country in a better place, which means working to build up that capacity.
The UK has been working with the United Nations to agree a global compact on refugees, which is set for adoption by the end of the year. It provides a comprehensive global framework that goes beyond life-saving humanitarian support, enabling a longer-term response, offering refugees a viable future.
The UN’s global compact on refugees is indeed welcome—it recognises our common humanity and interconnectedness—but I am concerned that it is non-binding. How will the Government work to strengthen it? Will the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary work together to review our restrictive rules, which prevent refugee families from being together?
I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes the UK’s role, and I assure her that the UK has been fully engaged throughout the whole process since the United Nations agreed to move forward on this issue. We have been working on the wording and the direction of travel, to make sure that it is an agreement that can work for the whole world.
We are signing up to the global compact on refugees. I should clarify for the House that it is a different document from the one that has perhaps generated more controversy: the global compact on migration.[Official Report, 5 December 2018, Vol. 650, c. 9MC.]
Following numerous political attacks, search-and-rescue vessels have found it difficult to operate in the Mediterranean. Given the death toll, which Médecins Sans Frontières reckons is approaching 1,300 people this year, what are the Government doing to support the non-governmental organisations that wish to provide search-and-rescue facilities in the Mediterranean sea?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue. She will be aware that two Border Force cutters are in the area right at this moment. I know she will welcome the fact that over the course of the operation, UK naval assets have rescued more than 30,000 souls in the Mediterranean. Of course, we are doing further work in respect of the UK allocation, which so far has totalled some £175 million.
I recently attended a humbling and moving event in Taunton Deane to celebrate all the Syrian families—almost 20 of them—who have come to Somerset. Will the Minister join me in praising and thanking Taunton Welcomes Refugees, which is a model organisation? So many church people, individuals and council workers are involved in the organisation. It is just wonderful, and the families were so delighted. Will the Minister also please confirm our commitment to helping the most needy of Syrian refugees?
Mr Speaker, have you ever come across in this House a representative more passionate about her constituency than my hon. Friend? I am happy to endorse what she says and to endorse the work done in my county of Worcestershire. I inform the House that, nationally, the UK is well on track to achieving our commitment of 20,000 vulnerable people resettled in the UK by 2020. In fact, as of September, I understand that that total is now more than 15,000.
Many refugees are fleeing religious persecution. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that Christians in the middle east are on the brink of extinction, facing the worst crisis since the 13th century in the birthplace of Christianity. What are the Government doing to support Christians in the middle east and to grant asylum to those who are fleeing that persecution?
Well, indeed, it is a very sobering Christmas thought from the Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact, there are 25.4 million refugees worldwide, and the UK, of course, stands as one of the most significant supporters of refugees whatever their religious persuasion. There is a service in Westminster Abbey later today to which all colleagues are invited. I know that this is an important piece of work that the UK will remain steadfast in supporting.
Yes, if Mr Speaker will allow me to put on my other hat from the Department for International Development just very briefly, I will say to my hon. Friend that he will be aware that the Secretary of State for International Development recently announced a range of new programmes to provide support in what has been a neglected area in terms of the psycho-social support and mental health support that particularly children in refugee situations need.
Yemen: Peace Process
Peace talks to resolve the terrible conflict in Yemen are due to start in Stockholm tomorrow and attendance is looking positive.
It is difficult to know the answer to that question, because what has bedevilled these talks to date is that both sides have thought that a military victory is possible. This is the first time for two years that the parties have come round a table together. I do think that the mood has changed, so we want to do everything we can to support it.
The UN says that more than 60% of civilian deaths have been the result of Saudi-led airstrikes. Will the UK Government therefore confirm that they will undertake any and all measures to ensure that Saudi Arabia is no longer armed and trained by the UK and that every impression is made on it to reach an agreement that means that no more Yemeni civilians die at its hands?
With respect to the hon. Lady, whose views I listen to carefully, it is important to remember that the cause of this conflict was the illegal taking over of power in Yemen by the Houthis, and the Saudi military offensive was authorised by resolution 2216. We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia, which we are using to encourage it to do everything possible to come round the table to talk about peace.
Some humanitarian agencies are warning that, next year, Yemen could have the worst famine in a century. Is it not incumbent on the civilised world, therefore, to lift every sinew to broker a peace settlement under the auspices of Martin Griffiths, our UN special negotiator?
My hon. Friend speaks extremely wisely. There are 8.5 million people on the brink of starvation; 14,000 people are getting cholera every week; and 85,000 children have already died of starvation. That is why we have to do everything possible. Martin Griffiths is doing a fantastic and very difficult job.
Houthi rebels pushed the legitimate Government in Yemen from power, and they have fired Iranian-backed missiles across the border into neighbouring countries and commercial shipping lanes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any vote in the US Senate to withdraw American support from the coalition would undermine efforts to reach a ceasefire?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that there can be no lasting settlement to the terrible conflict in Yemen unless Iranian missiles are prevented from being fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia and even as far as Riyadh. That is why we must have a balanced way forward that recognises both the humanitarian needs and Saudi Arabian security.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that the situation in Yemen could only be resolved with a “long-term political solution.” To make that possible, should we not be strongly urging restraint on the part of the Saudis, given that when total war has been waged on civilians—often using weapons supplied by this country—it is hard for calls for a political solution to carry any meaningful weight or credibility?
We are strongly urging restraint on both sides. I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says about the urgency of the situation, but I also think it is encouraging that, for the first time in two years, the participants are coming together this week in Stockholm.
Some 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death in Yemen over the past three years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a political solution is the way to a lasting peace and that, more urgently, we need to ensure that imports of food can make it through the port of Hodeidah in the light of the Save the Children Fund report?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Hodeidah opening is crucial; it is also important to get access to the Red sea mills, which have enough wheat to feed 3.6 million people. The fighting has lessened, but it has still not stopped, which is why we need these peace talks to succeed.
Fifty wounded Houthi rebels are to be flown from Yemen to Oman. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that flight on a UN plane for treatment is at least a good sign of good will in advance of the peace talks and that we should pay tribute to all those involved and be hopeful for the future?
It is hugely welcome and encouraging that the peace talks in Stockholm are finally starting tomorrow. Will the Foreign Secretary update us, in parallel, on what is happening regarding getting a new UN Security Council resolution?
I am happy to do that. We have circulated a text, and the truth is that we will finalise that text after the talks have concluded. If we could choose what the text would say, we would love it to announce a ceasefire, but there is no point doing that unless it is agreed by all the parties. That is why we want the peace talks to succeed.
May I thank the Foreign Secretary for the amount of time that he has spent on the Yemen issue since assuming office? This is a very special moment. The guaranteed treatment of the Houthis in Oman is critical, but may I ask the Foreign Secretary to go to Stockholm on one of the days and show the support of the highest level of this Government for the peace process?
In principle, I have no problem with doing anything that will help this process along. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) said, this is by far the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today and possibly the worst that we have had for 100 years. However, I will always be guided by Martin Griffiths on whether my presence would be helpful.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point that out. Indeed, he oversaw those export conditions when he was working in government. It is because of the contracts that we have with the Saudis that we are very closely involved in looking at things like their targeting to make sure that they are indeed compliant with international humanitarian law.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his update on the Yemen peace talks. I would like to ask him some more questions about the UK’s draft UN resolution. May I ask him a question that I have asked three times now—at the Dispatch Box, by letter and in a written parliamentary question—without ever getting an answer, yet it is such a simple question? Did the version of the draft UN resolution shown to Crown Prince Salman by the Foreign Secretary on 12 November include a call for independent investigations of war crimes—yes or no?
First, I did not show a text of the draft resolution to King Salman or the Crown Prince when I went to Saudi Arabia, but I can confirm that both the original text and the current text refer to international humanitarian law. But in the process of getting that text agreed, did we make compromises to please the Saudis? Yes. Did we make compromises to please the Houthis? Yes, we did. As a result of that diplomacy, the talks are happening this week. Rather than criticising that, the right hon. Lady should be celebrating the brilliant work done by British diplomats.
It would be very helpful, in those circumstances, if the Foreign Secretary put a version of that draft resolution in the Library so that we can all see it for ourselves. In the meantime, the House will be aware that this week the US Senate is due to vote on whether America should continue supporting the Saudi assault on Yemen, even as millions of children face starvation. If the Foreign Secretary genuinely believes in the sovereignty of this Parliament, when will he show it? When will he ask Members of this House to vote on whether the UK support for this war can any longer be justified?
I simply say to the right hon. Lady that when it comes to the question of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, she seems to feel rather more strongly about it today than she did in 2007, when Labour Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells talked about shared values with Saudi Arabia following a big arms deal. The truth is that we follow the guidelines put in place by a Labour Government. That is what we do. They are the strictest in the world, and if she wants to change them, she should say so.
Human Rights and Freedom of Religion or Belief
The FCO’s 2017 human rights and democracy report demonstrates the breadth of the issues we work on and how we mobilise our diplomatic network to champion universal rights. This of course includes freedom of religion or belief. As a testament to that commitment, on 4 July the Prime Minister appointed my FCO colleague, Lord Ahmed, to the role of special envoy on FORB—an end to which I can assure this House he works tirelessly.
The biggest recipient of UK aid, Pakistan, has received £2.8 billion over the past 20 years—that is nearly £400,000 a day. Should we not suspend aid until Pakistan promotes freedom of religion and belief for its minorities and allows an innocent woman, Asia Bibi, falsely imprisoned for nine years, to leave Pakistan, and should we not be offering her asylum in the United Kingdom?
I know that a number of Members have concerns about this question. As the Prime Minister has stated, our primary concern is the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family. We want to see a swift and positive resolution to the legal aspect of this case in Pakistan. I should perhaps say that one allied nation has, for some years, been in detailed discussions about providing a safe destination for Asia Bibi and her family once the current legal process is complete. The House will appreciate that going into detail on these discussions would compromise that safety.
Having recently returned from the Holy Land with a cross-party delegation of women MPs—and, indeed, your Chaplain, Mr Speaker—I am very concerned about the human rights abuses that I saw. Does the Minister agree that there is a renewed urgency to find a solution to the conflict in this area?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I could not agree more. We will continue to work as closely as we can with all parties. As I have pointed out, we do a lot of work underneath the radar. The Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East work very closely in relation to these issues and will continue to do so, looking after the rights of religious minorities across the world.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa has recently been in Cameroon and speaks regularly with counterparts. We are extremely concerned about the issues in the Anglophone area. As the hon. Lady will be aware, a considerable amount of work goes on with Boko Haram on the porous border between Cameroon and Nigeria. We will continue to do all we can to protect the interests, particularly in the Anglophone area
Cambridge PhD student Peter Biar Ajak was detained without charge by the authorities in South Sudan in July for doing nothing more than speaking out on the human rights of his fellow citizens. The Government said at the time that that was of great concern. Can the Minister tell us what action has been taken since then to secure Peter’s release?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We remain appalled by the conflict and deteriorating humanitarian situation in South Sudan. We welcome the regionally led peace agreement signed on 12 September. We believe that that is the only real chance and opportunity for the people of South Sudan, who have suffered for so long. There are positive steps, but I accept, as the hon. Lady points out, that progress is very slow and inconsistent. We welcome reductions in violence, and we work with our mission there to try to move towards ceasefire violations coming to an end.
Journalists’ Rights and Freedoms
We are very concerned at the increasing number of attacks on journalists throughout the world, which is why next summer we plan to host a major conference in London on protecting media freedom.
I am grateful for that answer. This issue is close to my heart. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the UK Government will continue to press other countries to protect the freedoms, rights and securities of journalists, wherever they might be working and however inconvenient their reporting might be in those jurisdictions?
I am happy to confirm that. When I was in Burma, I talked to Aung San Suu Kyi about the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, because we have serious concerns about how due process was applied in their cases. We should remember in this House that 65 journalists were killed last year, and nine out of 10 times, no perpetrators were brought to justice.
The Foreign Secretary knows that, out of Europe, we are more and more not only under the radar but on the periphery of the periphery. The plight of journalists and aid workers is very similar, in terms of the dangers they have to face doing good work. Will he speak to the president of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, about that?
I met David Miliband when I went to New York in September, and I think it would be a good idea to have those discussions. We have great concerns about the safety of aid workers, but our concern with respect to journalists is that this trend seems to be increasing, and it seems to be the new border between free and unfree countries.
The BBC is still banned from Rwanda. Is the Secretary of State hopeful that that ban will be overturned by the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2020?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I listened carefully to what the Foreign Secretary said about Iran and journalists. With the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, describing the recent attacks in the state media and online in Iran on the BBC Persian service as “deplorable”, what more can we do to support those journalists who so bravely work in the BBC Persian service?
I, too, congratulate the Back Bencher of the year.
I raised this issue when I was in Tehran on 19 November. I pointed out to the Iranian Government that if they are unhappy with the coverage of the BBC Persian service, there is a very simple thing that they can do: allow their representatives to be interviewed on it and allow them to put across their point of view, at which they smiled and changed the subject. We will, however, continue to press on that point.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
We will continue to work with international partners to drive progress in tackling this terrible crime and deliver on the commitments made at October’s London conference. Some 57 countries have adopted the conference’s declaration so far.
We are leading from the front. As my hon. Friend knows, we are bringing in an ivory ban in the UK. We have formed a high-level political coalition, the Ivory Alliance 2024, and we are urging everyone to tackle something that is extremely urgent, because the number of African elephants has declined by 30% over the past seven years.
May I ask the Minister, who will share all our concerns about this illegal wildlife trade, to redouble her efforts to get other countries involved as well as her own and to get international organisations involved? What has happened is deplorable, and the wildlife across this planet is disappearing before our eyes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his endorsement of the work, and we truly are working very energetically and vigorously, following the incredibly important and wide-ranging conference. As I say, 1,000 people attended it, and 57 countries have signed up to the declaration. We are encouraging everyone and leading by example with our ivory ban.
Israel and Palestine
The recent upsurge of violence in Gaza reminds all of us of the need to ensure that the middle east peace process gets moving, because that is the only thing that will make a difference. Both the Foreign Secretary and I have recently seen US envoy Jason Greenblatt, and we will continue all our efforts.
The UN General Assembly is scheduled to vote on Thursday on the US-sponsored resolution condemning Hamas for the increasing violence and attacks on civilians and for the worsening situation in Gaza. Will the UK Government be supporting that resolution?
We do not disclose the intention to vote in advance. What I would say is that it is very clear that we condemn Hamas’s action and conduct; we call for a permanent end to its terror and rocket attacks in relation to Israel; and we continue to proscribe the military wing of Hamas, to impose sanctions against individuals and to have no contact with Hamas.
Given the Government’s view, which I know the Minister shares, that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, why do the Government allow the import of goods from those settlements and investment by British companies?
The tunnels demonstrate the continual threat to the state of Israel from those who would mean it harm. Again, however, that emphasises the need—I am sure the whole House shares this view—to ensure that there is a resolution of the issues between Israel and its neighbours, so that there can be permanent peace and security for all in the region.
Ministers keep telling us that they want to wait and see President Trump’s long-awaited middle east peace plan. In the meantime, we have seen an escalation of violence, death on the Gaza border, a worsening humanitarian crisis, continued demolition of Palestinian homes and the ending of US support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Is it not time that the UK said very clearly, “You cannot have a two-state solution if you only recognise one state”?
We have said very clearly that we recognise a two-state solution. We are keen to ensure that when the envoy’s proposals come forward, they get a strong reception, and people can work on them to try to bring a resolution to this long-standing crisis. It is the only thing that will deal with the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises.
Economic and Diplomatic Relations: Africa
Given the stresses and strains in British politics at the moment, I thought I might share with the House some good news: we will open a new British embassy in the Maldives. That small country has made important strides towards democracy with the recent elections and we wish to extend it every support possible, doubtless supported by several colleagues making fact-finding visits.
I will be first up for coming on the opening visit.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that through programmes including the prosperity fund, but particularly through working with MPs in Parliaments in developing countries, the UK could establish itself as a leader in accelerating renewable energy, electric cars and other business opportunities to promote sustainable development and climate action in developing countries?
Mr Speaker, given that we wish to encourage parliamentary democracy in the Maldives, you might be the right person to go there on that important occasion and I am happy to expedite the process if it would help.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of zero emissions, and Britain can certainly play a leading role.
A nice easy one. Perhaps I should say that I am the last British Minister to visit Malé, the capital of the Maldives, and I would not recommend it for more than a weekend, though the islands around might be more fun. I think that that is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary suggests that you should go there, Mr Speaker.
I will keep my answer to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) simple: yes, of course, I am happy to meet him at any point.
I know that my hon. Friend contributed to the Westminster Hall debate that took place last week, thanks to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the Backbench Business Committee. In that, I outlined the way in which our high commission is working with not only the national Government, but the state Government and community and religious leaders, and offering its help to support reconciliation and mediation in this growing crisis.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the soft power access of the Chevening scholarship programme, which creates lasting, positive relationships with future leaders, influencers and decision makers from 145 countries around the world. We now have some 50,000 Chevening alumni since the project was set up in 1983. Last year, with 75 scholars, China was the single largest part of our Chevening ambition.
As with all countries, I urge anyone thinking of travelling to look at the travel advice, which we offer in a very disciplined way on the Foreign Office website. Should the hon. Gentleman wish to discuss an individual case, then of course I would be very happy to see him as he asks.
Yes. The Foreign Secretary does indeed wish to widen the pool of talent from which we select ambassadors. Irrespective of that initiative, we are very keen to develop economic and commercial ties with Albania. We will do that in conjunction with the Department for International Trade. One thing that would help those commercial opportunities would be if Albania itself reforms its justice sector.
We are very concerned about the current chaotic political situation in Sri Lanka to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. It is causing great damage to that country both politically and economically. I made statements on 26 October, 29 October, 9 November and, as he knows, earlier this week at the meeting of the all-party group for Tamils. We will continue actively to co-ordinate our response with the international community in Colombo and in the UN.
First and foremost, we want this to be resolved by Sri Lanka in line with its own constitution and laws. We welcome the statement made on 5 November by the Commonwealth secretary-general, who I understand will be meeting the Foreign Secretary to discuss a range of matters. Obviously, Sri Lanka will very much be at the forefront of that conversation. We want to encourage ongoing dialogue and to offer the support of the Commonwealth, if required, to the Government and the people of Sri Lanka. We are in an ongoing dialogue with the Commonwealth and other partners to ensure a co-ordinated international response.
I am sure I speak for all members of the Foreign Affairs Committee when I say how much we are looking forward to scrutinising the work of our new embassy in the Maldives.
What assessment have the Government made of the human rights of Palestinians living under the brutal dictatorship of Hamas, which routinely imprisons people without trial, tortures them, executes people and is reported today to have sentenced six people to death? Does that not show, along with the indiscriminate attacks on Israel, why Hamas is the main barrier to the peace process that we all want to see?
Yes; there is all too little emphasis on looking at the rule of Hamas in Gaza and the human rights abuses that are conducted, not least the pushing of people towards the fence during the course of the summer, which led to some of the deaths and woundings that have taken place. That is why we have a long-standing policy of no contact with Hamas.
The 3.9 million Christians in Pakistan are among the most persecuted in the world. Will Ministers assure the House that they are working with colleagues in the Department for International Trade to make sure that any future trade deals are not made at the expense of those people?
I assure the hon. Lady—I know the Foreign Secretary feels the same way—that clearly this is a major concern. As she rightly points out, we want trade deals with that country and we want to normalise relations, but we are particularly concerned about the freedom of religious belief, which applies not just to Christians but to many other religious minorities in that country.
On a recent visit to Sweden, I was rather disturbed to see a leaflet being delivered to every household entitled, “Om krisen eller kriget kommer”, which translates as “If crisis or war comes”. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we are doing all that we can to stand by and support our closest allies not just in Sweden, but across Scandinavia and the Baltic, who see themselves on the frontline of this new cold war?
Apart from my hon. Friend’s primary duty of defending his Swedish wife, I can confirm to him that we are, of course, not in any way resiling from our commitment to defend our friends and to understand growing threats in eastern Europe and to the north.
I can share with the House that our assessment is that they are on track to take place, in accordance with the accord of Saint-Sylvestre, on 23 December. My hon. Friend will know that the UK has been very involved in funding 20,000 of the 60,000 election observers who will be there to observe the process.
My constituent Mr Nkemgo is from Cameroon. Many close members of his family have been shot and killed, and their villages have been burnt. What urgent action has the Secretary of State taken or will he take, and what does he say to my constituent?
I can say to the hon. Lady’s constituent that she is absolutely right to raise this very serious situation, that the UK Government are doing everything that they can to encourage the Government in Cameroon to engage in a dialogue with what has become an increasingly armed separatist movement. We are working with the United Nations on what further assistance can be given to the populations who are being displaced in this crisis.
Nappies (Environmental Standards)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
David Linden, supported by Patricia Gibson and John Mc Nally, presented a Bill to establish environmental standards for nappies; to make provision about the advertising and promotion of nappies with regard to those standards; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2019, and to be printed (Bill 299.)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit the grounds of appeal against decisions on planning applications consistent with a neighbourhood development plan or local plan; and for connected purposes.
I am introducing this Bill to try to provide reassurance to communities who spend considerable amounts of time and money producing a neighbourhood plan that their work is valued, that it plays an important part in the planning system and the determination of planning applications, and that, together with the local plan produced by the district or borough council, it is a fundamental document—[Interruption.]
Order. This is something of a discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman who is moving his ten-minute rule motion. It might not be front and centre stage in the minds of all right hon. and hon. Members, but it is extremely important to the hon. Gentleman and to a lot of people. Whether people are interested in listening or not, they should do him the courtesy of affording him a respectful silence.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I want to reassure those communities that neighbourhood plans are fundamental documents and that the effort made in producing them is worthwhile. In my own constituency, two more plans recently passed referendums by 94% and 98%, which shows how much they are valued by communities. The Bill would provide that, where a district or parish has taken control of the planning requirements in their area, that view is an important and determining one for taking applications forward.
I introduce the Bill having held the position of Government champion for neighbourhood planning. In that role, I have been around the country talking to groups of parish councils and their Members of Parliament about why they should produce a neighbourhood plan. I am grateful to the many colleagues—far more than the 11 supporter slots available—who have supported the Bill.
In my constituency, in a village called Sonning Common, the local community and district council are reported to have spent £90,000 defending the village’s new neighbourhood plan against an appeal. The subject of the appeal was an application for 95 dwellings on a site located in the neighbourhood plan for just 26. Why the application was able to be taken to appeal is part of the reason for the Bill. The application was inconsistent with the Sonning Common neighbourhood plan and there were no mitigating circumstances. Local residents had worked very hard on the neighbourhood plan, and continue to do so. The question we have to ask is: why was the existence of the neighbourhood plan not sufficient?
In order to set the scene for the Bill, I will go back to what prompted me and the then Planning Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), to introduce neighbourhood plans in 2011-12. The starting point was the recognition that the previous system of taking parish views on applications into account by ticking one of three boxes was inadequate. The boxes were: “yes”, “no” and “no firm opinion”. As we live in a plan-led system, it was crucial that anything that replaced it was part of the plan-led system—hence a new plan, the neighbourhood plan. This has proved to be a much better way of crystallising local views of development.
The neighbourhood plan becomes part of the local development plan when it is approved at a referendum and thereby carries the full legal weight that the local plan does. It is not a nimby’s charter. The plan needs to conform with the strategic objectives of the local plan, particularly the housing numbers, which should be seen as a minimum figure, and they have in practice allocated some 10% more sites than originally detailed by the district or borough council. About 2,500 communities around the country are producing a neighbourhood plan, and many have already passed a referendum with North Korean-style majorities. Nevertheless, despite the work of the local plan expert group, on which I served, to simplify the production of neighbourhood plans, the process is becoming more complex and time-consuming for ordinary people to carry out, and I pay tribute to the volunteers who spend so much of their time putting these plans together.
There is a bigger problem that the Bill seeks to address. Imagine a parish that has committed considerable money and time to producing a neighbourhood plan. It has been through the exercise of allocating sites. It may even have allocated more than it was told was appropriate by the district council. A developer wants to make a planning application that falls outside the neighbourhood plan. He makes the application. It is rightly refused as being not in accordance with the neighbourhood plan, yet he can still appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. That appeal will need to be defended. It will require vast amounts of time from the local people who put the plan together. It may require the services of a QC or other specialists, depending on the nature of the defence. As at Sonning Common, they and the district council may end up having to spend around £100,000 on defending it. Moreover, the chances of the neighbourhood plan being upheld are open to doubt. In other words, all that effort and all that money could be wasted. The question I am always asked is why, when we have a neighbourhood plan, should the developer be allowed to appeal?
How would the Bill work? Let me give three examples. First, we have the situation where there is a robust five-year housing land supply in place—or indeed, where appropriate, a three-year housing land supply—as well as a fully approved neighbourhood plan and local plan. In this case, a developer makes an application for development that is contrary to the neighbourhood plan and is earmarked for refusal on the basis of neighbourhood plan policy. The local planning authority first decides that the application is outside the plan, or contravenes a policy in it, and refuses it. It also makes a formal decision, which is published as a formal notice in the minutes of the planning committee, that the application is contrary to the neighbourhood plan: in other words, that the neighbourhood plan holds sway. In this instance the developer would have no right of appeal, because it would be withdrawn.
In the second case, there is still a five or a three-year housing land supply, but in reaching its decision the local planning authority does not follow due process. It makes a decision in which there are processual errors. It is not possible to evaluate the significance or impact of those errors, and whether that would ensure that the decision could be overturned or whether it would make no difference at all. In this case, too, the finding of fact is that the application is contrary to a neighbourhood plan. The developer would have to make an initial referral to the court by way of judicial review of the processual issues, meaning that the bar for decision was a high one, and he would seek leave to appeal to the planning inspectorate. It would be for the court to review the processual errors rather than the issue of fact.
In the third example, there is no five or three year-housing land supply, but the local planning authority still refuses the application. In this case, the rights of the developer to appeal against the application to the planning inspectorate would continue as now. That would have a number of effects. First, it would send a strong message to developers that neighbourhood plans are to be taken seriously. I am fully aware of one developer who has devoted considerable resources to undermining neighbourhood plans and regularly submits objections to local planning authorities. The issuing of a notice by the local planning authority makes it clear that there is a finding of fact that the application is contrary to a neighbourhood plan.
Secondly, only through such action will we return real democracy to the towns and villages of this country, as we originally envisaged in the Localism Act 2011. It will have no bad effect on housing numbers: as I have said, neighbourhood plans provide for some 10% more housing than originally envisaged. It could even make the allocation of land for more houses more attractive to towns and villages, because they will be protected from rapacious interests. Thirdly, it will give those towns and villages confidence that producing a neighbourhood plan is worthwhile, and will be seen as producing a determinant for the planning system.
Fourthly, this can be seen as another step in the reform of the neighbourhood planning system, which has adapted to changing circumstances throughout. First, there was the Barwell ministerial statement, which in certain circumstances reduced the housing land supply to three years. More recently, changes have been included to simplify the process for updating a neighbourhood plan.
Lastly, the Bill will encourage communities to prepare plans, including local district and borough councils, and to support neighbourhood plans. Our Local Plans Expert Group report quoted the then national planning policy framework, which states that plans should be
“the key to delivering sustainable development that reflects the vision and aspirations of local communities.”
However, we also commented that less than a third of the country was suitably covered. There are many examples of good practice in plan making; the Bill will add to that stock of good practice.
Question put and agreed to.
That John Howell, Sir Oliver Letwin, Sir Nicholas Soames, Sir David Evennett, Nick Herbert, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, David Hanson, Kevin Hollinrake, Gillian Keegan, Victoria Prentis, Damien Moore and Stephen Lloyd present the Bill.
John Howell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2019 and to be printed (Bill 300).
Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)
The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has tabled a motion for debate on a matter of privilege, which I have agreed should take precedence today. I must inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the House.
I beg to move,
That this House finds Ministers in contempt for their failure to comply with the requirements of the motion for return passed on 13 November 2018, to publish the final and full legal advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the framework for the future relationship, and orders its immediate publication.
I move this motion in my name and in the names of the relevant spokespeople for the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist party, Plaid Cymru and the Green party.
The issue before the House on this motion is very simple: have the Government complied with the order made by this House on 13 November this year to publish the final and full legal advice by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the EU withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship, yes or no? That order was binding. Mr Speaker, on 13 November I sought your advice on that issue and you ruled in the following terms:
“The ruling I give is simply that the motion is effective—I have been advised thus. It is not just an expression of the opinion of the House; it is an expression of the will of the House that certain documents should be provided to it.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2018; Vol. 649, c. 236.]
Yesterday, the Government published a reasoned position paper. That was not legal advice. It simply described the deal: it was a synopsis; it was in the nature of an explainer—an explainer having already been published when the deal was published. It was a long way from legal advice. The Attorney General made a statement to the House and then answered questions, but the Government did not publish the full and final advice by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. That is the long and short of it. The Government are wilfully refusing to comply with a binding order of this House, and that is contempt.
Yesterday, the Attorney General as good as admitted it when he said:
“I wish that I could comply with the request of this House but if I did, I sincerely believe that it would not be in all of our interests.”
And slightly later he said:
“although the House says that I should disclose, I believe that the public interest compels me not to. I am sorry.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 534 and 564.]
That is a plea of mitigation; it is not a defence.
I make three points about the Government’s position. First, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) made clear yesterday, for the Attorney General to say that in his view it is not in the national interest is not good enough. The hon. Member for North East Somerset went on to say:
“When the Government lose a vote, they must follow the will of this House under an Humble Address, according to all precedent. It is no longer a matter for the Government to judge; it has been decided by this House, which is a higher authority.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 563.]
My second point is this: if the Attorney General feels so strongly about this matter that he is prepared now to put the Government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to comply with a binding order, why on earth did he not vote against the order in the first place, or anybody else on the Government Benches? That was not an oversight: the Government knew very well what was being asked for. The Attorney General must have known what was being debated and voted on. Yet it appears from answers given by the Attorney General yesterday that he was not asked before that vote for his view on the wisdom of not voting against the order, nor did he offer any advice, directly or indirectly.
Again I quote the Attorney General:
“I had no discussions with the Chief Whip on this subject. None was sought.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 569.]
I do not doubt the Attorney General’s word for a minute, but really—before that vote nobody asked the Attorney General’s views on the consequence of not opposing the order?
The truth is that the decision not to oppose the order was a political decision, taken by the Government because they feared they would lose the vote. They did not want the short-term humiliation of losing a vote, and the price of that was higher than voting against the order—and none of them did that. That is not the first time that has happened.
I will in a moment.
For months the Government have ignored Opposition day motions, and now their tactic has got them into very deep water indeed. The Government cannot now come to this House and say, “We took a political decision not to oppose the making of the order to publish the full and final legal advice by the Attorney General and then we took a decision not to comply with that order, but somehow we are not in contempt of Parliament.”
My third point is about the Government’s amendment in the name of the Leader of the House asking this House to refer the matter of whether the Government’s response fulfils the motion to the Privileges Committee. The short point is this: there is nothing to refer. A binding order was made and the Government are refusing to comply with it. The reality is that, yet again, by their amendment the Government are simply playing for time in the hope that this ends up in the long grass until the crucial vote is long gone.
So this motion is extremely important. It has huge constitutional and political significance. Bringing the motion is not something I have done lightly. [Interruption.] On the contrary—[Interruption.] On the contrary—[Interruption.] On the contrary—[Interruption.] On the contrary—[Interruption.]
Order. [Interruption.] Order. I do not need somebody yelling rather stupidly from a sedentary position “Give way.” The right hon. and learned Gentleman will give way if and when he wants to do so, and that is the end of the matter. And the same will apply when the Leader of the House is on her feet. Let me just make it clear: these are extremely serious matters and the public is entitled to expect that this debate will be conducted with courtesy. However long it takes—[Interruption.] However long it takes, that is what will happen.
I have not taken the decision lightly because I understand the constitutional and political significance of this motion. On the contrary, we have raised points of order on a number of occasions about this order, and we have asked urgent questions, and I have repeatedly urged the Government to reconsider their position both publicly and privately, making clear the consequence of not doing so. But the Government have chosen not to do so. I urge the Government now, even at this eleventh hour, to think again: to pull back from the brink of being found in contempt of Parliament.
I beg to move amendment (a), leave out from “House” to the end and insert:
“refers to the Committee of Privileges the question of whether the Government’s response fulfils the motion passed on 13 November 2018 and requests the Committee to consider the constitutional and historic context and the proper use, ambit and scope of the motion for return procedure.”
I want to start by thanking my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General for putting himself at the disposal of the House yesterday for over two hours, to provide information about the legal impact of the withdrawal agreement. He did so with his characteristic candour and integrity. The use of this motion has happened very rarely in the history of Parliament, and I do not think that any Member can be in any doubt that the information that the Attorney General provided yesterday was a very frank assessment of the legal position. The questions posed by Members on both sides of the House addressed the key issues we must all consider on the legal effects of the withdrawal agreement. My right hon. and learned Friend responded to all those questions in comprehensive fashion.
Alongside yesterday’s session of nearly two and a half hours, the Government have also provided a 48-page legal commentary that sets out the legal effect of each part of the withdrawal agreement. The information provided to the House is the detailed legal position on the withdrawal agreement and, as the Attorney General said to the House yesterday, he continues to be at the disposal of parliamentarians to answer further questions.
I would, therefore, in responding to the contempt motion before us today, urge the House to exercise caution in this matter. The issue at hand is not one of substantive content. As yesterday’s questioning illustrated, there is no real dispute as to the meaning and legal effect of the withdrawal agreement. The Attorney General could not have been clearer about the legal position yesterday. No hon. Member could say in all honesty that the Attorney General has done anything other than treat this House with the greatest respect. There can be no question that he, or the Government, has acted in a manner that is contemptuous of this House.
The Leader of the House says that the Attorney General answered with candour. Indeed, he did, when he said that
“although the House says that I should disclose, I believe that the public interest compels me not to.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 564.]
He made it clear that he was deliberately in contempt of Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend share my disquiet about some of the sincerity expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)? The letter that he produced in support of the motion was signed and sealed on Thursday. They clearly had no interest in what the Attorney General had to say on Monday.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the House needs to exercise some caution, and I wish to explain precisely why.
The issue we are debating today is the Government’s duty to protect Law Officers’ advice in the national interest. The House has previously recognised the importance of the principle that information cannot always be disclosed. This is always guided by the need to protect the broader public interest. This is directly reflected in the Freedom of Information Act 2000, brought in under a Labour Government, which sets out a careful scheme for balancing the twin imperatives of transparency on the one hand, and of safeguarding the public interest on the other. The consequences of not following those principles are obvious. The House might request, by way of a Humble Address, information that could compromise national security or which might put the lives of our troops in danger.
Obviously, parliamentary sovereignty and the duty of Government to obey motions is extremely important to the House, but my right hon. Friend is rightly describing the other problem of the confidentiality of legal advice, which Labour and Conservative Governments need as well. Is there not a sensible solution to this, as opposed to this current party political exchange? The Opposition could agree to receive a confidential briefing on Privy Council terms, look at the documents and have the Attorney General point out those parts that, in everybody’s view, might damage the national interest or damage the negotiating position of any Government of any party, and in effect agree to redact the documents. The politically embarrassing bits, which are what the Opposition are after, and all the rest of it can come out.
Both the conventions—that the House must be obeyed and that the Attorney General’s legal advice should be confidential—should be protected, and that is a possible way of reconciling them.
I am grateful for the advice of the Father of the House, but he will appreciate that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) wants all legal advice to be put into the public domain without any attempt to protect the national interest.
I will not give way for a while.
The consequences of not following the principles of transparency on the one hand and safeguarding public interest on the other are obvious. The House could request, by way of a Humble Address, information that could compromise national security. It would mean releasing information with no method for the House itself to review or assess the information in question, before its full release into the public domain. It would not be possible under the Humble Address procedure to weigh up any potential consequences of such a disclosure. It is simply an irresponsible thing to do.
I turn to the present case concerning Law Officers’ advice. As the House is aware, this is the subject of very long standing conventions which are enshrined in the ministerial code, and recognised in “Erskine May”. First, without the authorisation of the Law Officers, the fact that—or indeed whether—their advice has been provided to Government should not be disclosed. Secondly, such advice must not be provided to those outside of Government without the Law Officers’ express authorisation.
The purpose of the conventions is to provide the best possible guarantee that Government business is conducted in the light of full and frank legal advice. This is a fundamental principle of the rule of law. If Government knew that they might be forced to disclose the advice that they had received, it could seriously compromise the sorts of request for advice that would be made, and totally impede the ability of the Law Officers and Government lawyers to provide it. In turn, that would seriously compromise good government.
The motion we are debating today would undermine these vital conventions, and it would do so through the blunt instrument of the Humble Address, an arcane parliamentary procedure which, until very recently, was last used in this way in the 19th century. Moreover, there is real doubt about the ambit of the procedure: as I said earlier, it contains no mechanism by which information can be reviewed to ensure that its disclosure would not seriously harm the public interest. In considering today’s motion, hon. Members must reflect carefully on this—and on the potential consequences not just for this Government, but for all future Governments.
As this House knows, the Government have worked extremely hard to comply with Humble Addresses that have been passed previously. We have also sought to do so in response to the case we are debating today, while at the same time, taking steps to protect the national interest. The conventions that I have spoken about stand and endure because they respect the proper balance between the Government and Parliament—and the principle that Ministers should be as open with Parliament as it is possible to be, provided that disclosure of information does not compromise the wider public interest. We chip away at them at our peril; today’s motion is not in the interests of Members and it is definitely not in the national interest. What we break now may be very difficult to fix later.
The Leader of the House has been commenting on the use of the Humble Address mechanism to compel the disclosure of information. We were told by the Attorney General yesterday that this information would be prejudicial to the national interest. Is it not impossible to debate openly in this House whether that information should be disclosed without knowing what the information is? Would it not be more appropriate to make the decision in a confidential tribunal about what may and may not be disclosed, analogous to a judge making such a decision when a matter of disclosure arises in a court of law?
Again, my hon. Friend points out the problem, which is that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras’s motion seeks that all the information be placed in the public domain without anyone on either side of the House having the ability to consider whether it is in the national interest to do so.
I want to turn now to the contempt motion itself. We recognise that concerns have been raised as to whether the Government’s response meets the terms and spirit of the motion agreed on 13 November. We consider that the spirit and intent of that motion have been fully complied with. As I said earlier, the Government have now provided a 48-page paper setting out the legal effect of the withdrawal agreement, and the Attorney General came to the House yesterday. Anyone present in the Chamber for his statement and his subsequent responses to questions can be in absolutely no doubt that the Attorney General gave a full—[Interruption.]
Order. The Leader of the House must resume her seat momentarily. Mr Russell-Moyle, you are a very excitable denizen of the House. If you were on your feet, you would be entitled to express your views. When you are in your seat, you are not. I hope that that basic rubric is now clear to you and will require no further explanation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Anyone present in the Chamber for the Attorney General’s statement and his subsequent responses to questions yesterday can be in absolutely no doubt that he gave a full and frank exposition of the legal position of the withdrawal agreement. I simply reject any suggestion that the Attorney General has done anything other than treat this House with the greatest respect.
Turning to process, the motion before the House today seeks to find the Government in contempt of Parliament, without having taken the important prior step of referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges, as is normally the case. This is a matter of due process. First, those facing this extremely serious charge of contempt should each be given the opportunity to make their case and to follow the due process of this House. They should be given the opportunity to explain how they have come to their decision about how best to balance the Government’s responsibilities to Parliament with their ministerial duties, including the need to consider the national interest. That opportunity is a vital element of any such procedure, and in this mother of all Parliaments, we are surely nothing if we do not uphold our own constitutional practices in the appropriate way.
The Privileges Committee will also want to consider the question of compliance with the motion in its full constitutional and historical context. The Government would strongly welcome the Committee having the opportunity to consider the more general scope of the motion for the Humble Address procedure, in particular as regards confidential information and the national interest. The Committee could consider these complex matters in a full and impartial way, away from the heat of the present debate and in fulfilment of its parliamentary duty as established by this House. I am grateful to the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for the conversation that she and I had today in which she agreed that her Committee would be happy to consider that.
The members of the Committee are accustomed to the consideration of complex and contested issues. That is the very essence of their role. Although it would be for the House itself to reach a final determination on whether a contempt had been committed, it should do so on the basis of the full and impartial consideration of the facts by the Committee of Privileges. I therefore appeal to all hon. Members right across the House that if they seek to pass this motion, they should refer it to the Committee in line with our parliamentary procedures. I urge all hon. Members to support the Government’s amendment.
I must say that I found the answers given by the Attorney General yesterday extremely difficult to understand in the terms in which they were expressed—that is, of relating to the national interest, because that is a question that is contained in the results of the referendum and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Following reports that I have heard, I also find it most unsatisfactory that this issue is regarded as a parlour game, and that we have been told to stop messing around with the process and to grow up. I think that that somewhat underestimates the significance of what we are dealing with here, but I will leave it at that, because people in these circumstances sometimes use language that underestimates the importance of the matters that are being dealt with.
I would like to say to the Leader of the House and to the Law Officers that the question of conventions turns on the reason for the rule. In this context, the reason for the application of this particular convention, which includes the question of the ministerial code, clearly demonstrates that, unless we know what the Attorney General has actually given by way of a full disclosure, it is extremely difficult to know whether or not the public policy that has been pursued is consistent with the legal advice that he gave.
Ivor Jennings was one of the greatest constitutional authorities on these matters. He said that
“conventions are observed because of the political difficulties which arise if they are not.”
I suggest that nothing could better illustrate the current situation, and in particular the issues relating to the ministerial code. The ministerial code states:
“The Law Officers must be consulted in good time before the Government is committed to critical decisions involving legal considerations.”
The Chequers proposals lie at the heart of the beginnings of the issues with which we are considering the withdrawal agreement, and I have been informed that the Law Officers were not consulted before the Chequers proposals. This has had dire consequences. Indeed, I said to the Prime Minister on 9 July that I did not think she would be able to reconcile the Chequers proposals with the express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which was passed on 26 June, 16 days before Royal Assent was given. We were then presented with the Chequers proposals. Everyone knew, when Royal Assent was given, that the express repeal of the 1972 Act had been enacted, yet it was clear, because it happened only a few days later, that an 80-page White Paper was being produced, the effect of which was to demonstrate that the 1972 Act was going to be considerably altered. I regarded that as a massive breach of trust, but it could have been resolved if we had had the full advice of the Attorney General at that time.
Under that same convention, and with respect to the present withdrawal agreement, it is essential for us to know now whether the present Attorney General gave advice on the issue of incompatibility between the express repeal of the 1972 Act in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and the withdrawal agreement. There is no indication in the Attorney General’s introduction to his legal statement yesterday that he addressed that question as a matter of fundamental constitutional importance. Indeed, he states that the agreement needs a new Act of Parliament in domestic law, but as I pointed out in The Sunday Telegraph that is no more than a wing and a prayer.
I asked the Prime Minister about such matters during her statement last Monday and in the Liaison Committee, but I received no satisfactory answer. I also asked the Attorney General a similar question yesterday, requesting that he draw his attention to a Queen’s bench division that was cited as a precedent for the disclosure of the Attorney General’s advice. There are four other precedents, but Factortame is particularly significant due to the incompatibility between the 1972 Act and the withdrawal agreement.
If we do not have the full disclosure of the Attorney General’s opinion, that is relevant to the question of whether the actual withdrawal agreement itself is invalid under the Vienna convention, because a fundamental failure to comply with internal domestic constitutional law amounts to grounds for the invalidity of such a withdrawal agreement.