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Commons Chamber

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2018

House of Commons

Wednesday 12 December 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

British Service Personnel Memorial

1. If the Government will make it its policy to build a national memorial to British service personnel killed on service in Northern Ireland. (908071)

May I start by paying tribute to my predecessor in this role, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who has been typically generous and helpful with his time and efforts during the handover?

I am sure that everyone on both sides of the House will agree that we all owe a vast debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of British servicemen and women who were killed upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten. Within the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire sits the armed forces memorial. Rightly, it includes the names of every member of the armed forces killed while serving in Northern Ireland, as a permanent reminder of their bravery and sacrifice.

Anthony Dykes, who came from Harworth, a mining village in my constituency, was murdered on 5 April 1979. His parents, Fred and Kathleen Dykes, are two of the finest people I have ever met and represent everything that is good about my community and this country. Other grieving parents have specific memorials. For Fred and Kathleen’s son and others who were killed or murdered on duty in Northern Ireland, there is no such memorial. Is it not now time that, as with other conflicts, there is a specific memorial for those who served our country and lost their lives in the conflict in Northern Ireland?

I understand and empathise with the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. In fact, as I visited the former Massereene Army barracks in Northern Ireland last week, I paused to pay my respects at a local memorial to two former Army engineers who were killed in 2009. There are many such memorials to individual acts of heroism or tragedy scattered not just across Northern Ireland, but around the rest of this country. Those commemorate individual actions and tragedies. The national memorial is the one in Staffordshire, and we should not underestimate its importance or value—it having been opened by Her Majesty the Queen and recording the names of everybody who has been killed on service in Northern Ireland and other conflicts.

I would gently point out that this is not an essay exchange competition; this is Question Time. For goodness’ sake, let’s speed up.

Will the Minister remind the House how many brave British service personnel were killed or wounded in Operation Banner, which was the defence by this country against a terrorist onslaught in Northern Ireland?

Having been in the job for three and a half weeks, I am afraid that I do not have the precise number, but it was very many and the tragedy was huge.

One of the last formal acts I did as Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2013 was to unveil a memorial stone in the Belfast City Council memorial garden to the Ulster Defence Regiment and others who served in Operation Banner. May I invite the Minister to come with me to see the memorial there and to consider how best nationally we could reflect the Government’s recognition of sacrifice in Northern Ireland?

Business Promotion

Britain is a global trading nation and is about to become more global, so we want to promote the strengths of Northern Ireland’s business community to a global audience. So far, I have visited CM Precision Components in Downpatrick, the Causeway Chamber of Commerce, Randox in Antrim, Coca-Cola in Lisburn, Queen’s University Centre of Excellence in Precision Medicine in Belfast and many Northern Ireland representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses, Chamber of Commerce, Confederation of British Industry and Institute of Directors.

On every visit I make to embassies in my role as Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, it has been made very clear to me that Northern Ireland has an amazing economy that is growing and has a rightful place around the world. Does my right hon. Friend—forgive me, I meant my hon. Friend; the day is young—agree that Northern Ireland’s economic achievements would only be greater if the Northern Ireland Assembly were out there assisting and promoting it through the Northern Ireland Executive?

I completely agree that things would be hugely improved by a functioning Assembly and Executive. I have been in this role for only a couple of weeks, but, as a former businessman, I have been hugely impressed by the economic progress since the Belfast agreement. Northern Ireland is open for business and we want the whole world to know.

In his first few weeks of meeting businesses, what is my hon. Friend’s assessment of the unique strengths of Northern Ireland for global companies looking to grow and invest their businesses, and what support will he provide as Minister?

In the meetings that I have held so far, I have been hugely impressed by the skilled and stable workforce in Northern Ireland. I have also been impressed by its world-leading research—for example, in the precision medicine centre that I visited at Queen’s in Belfast—and by the strong sectoral abilities in cyber-security, life sciences and aerospace. We are doing a great deal and we need to continue to do so to promote that economic growth.

The Minister will be aware in recent times of the success that companies have had across the globe in the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland from China to Taiwan, Australia and Dubai. There is perhaps a chance of hosting a conference in Northern Ireland to promote the agri-food business and business as a whole. Is that something in which he would be interested?

The short answer is yes. If the hon. Gentleman brings me the details, I will be delighted to discuss them.

In relation to the Belfast region city deal announced in the recent Budget, will the Secretary of State justify or explain why the percentage of match funding guaranteed for Belfast is not being replicated elsewhere in the UK, most notably in my city of Dundee under the Tay cities deal?

As I understand it, city deals vary from place to place. They are situation and location specific almost by definition, so there is not a particular standardised approach to any one of them. They are tailored and deliberately so. I am afraid that that is what inevitably happens. With any luck, some other city deals, perhaps in other parts of Scotland, may conform more closely to what the hon. Gentleman is after.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to boost business in Northern Ireland will be to deal with air passenger duty and corporation tax, which are, unfortunately, devolved matters? Will he therefore encourage the institutions in Northern Ireland to get up and going again? If not, will the Government take some action?

My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, is absolutely right to point out that these are devolved matters and that they need to be taken forward by a devolved Assembly and Administration—the Executive. We want to encourage all sides to get going again, because, clearly, these issues are important to the people of Northern Ireland and need to be addressed.

EU Withdrawal Agreement

6. What assessment her Department has made of the effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. (908076)

10. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the EU withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland. (908080)

12. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the EU withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland. (908082)

14. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the EU withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland. (908084)

15. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on Northern Ireland of the EU withdrawal agreement. (908085)

May I start by putting on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), the former Minister?

The withdrawal agreement is the best way for Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom to ensure that we leave the European Union. It protects all the things that we value in Northern Ireland—the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK, and vital jobs and investment—and, for the people of Northern Ireland, it continues the progress that we have made over the past two decades under the Belfast agreement.

On Saturday 8 December, just five short days ago, the Secretary of State penned a letter to the people of Northern Ireland. The letter stated that the deal protects all the things that we value. As the Prime Minister is now desperately rushing around Europe to change that very deal, may I ask what the new letter will say this Saturday?

I stand by the comments that I made in the letter. This is the best deal to ensure that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union as one united kingdom. The Prime Minister, though, has recognised the concerns that there rightly are around the backstop, and she is seeking to address those concerns.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what aspect of this deal would require the Northern Ireland Assembly to be sitting? If the Government cannot get devolution in Northern Ireland back up and running, will they resort to direct rule to implement their deal?

We all want to see the Executive back up and running, and we want to see the institutions in place. The Good Friday agreement achieved so much for the people of Northern Ireland and those institutions are such an integral part of them. I know that the politicians in Northern Ireland do want to come back to do that. I think the hon. Lady is referring to the Stormont lock in paragraph 50 of the joint report, and the Government stand by that lock.

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether she has carried out any analysis on the exact economic and competitive advantages that Northern Ireland would have over the rest of the United Kingdom in the event of the backstop being activated? If she has, will she publish them? If she has not, will she commission some?

I think that it is clear that this Government want to see us go into the future relationship with the European Union by 31 December 2020 and that the backstop is an insurance policy that none of us wants to see activated.

Article 5 of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol on the withdrawal agreement, which states that

“free movement for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality, to, from and within Ireland”,

means that people will be able to move about as part of the common travel area. So with the end of free movement post Brexit, what additional checks will be imposed on people travelling to and from Northern Ireland from the UK mainland?

The hon. Gentleman does not understand the way that the common travel area works today and the fact there is free movement across the island of Ireland for all citizens and nationalities. Of course there is a good working relationship between the Border Force agencies in Northern Ireland and their equivalents in the Republic, so that we can ensure that those who do not have the right to be in the United Kingdom do not access the United Kingdom.

Throughout the debates on the EU, we were talking about the European arrest warrant. I give the Secretary of State another opportunity today to clarify why there has been in the withdrawal agreement little in the way of commitment on the European arrest warrant, which is key to policing in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the European arrest warrant is used in Northern Ireland more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and it is an incredibly important instrument. I hope that he has read the political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement, which is clear that in the future security partnership we will have a deeper relationship with the European Union than any other third country, including on surrender of EU nationals.

The Prime Minister has told us that she is on a quest for “democratic legitimacy” for her agreement in respect of Northern Ireland. Is this not a curious term to use given that the one group of people who have been consistently ignored by the Government are the people of Northern Ireland, who voted not to leave the European Union?

The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Nearly 17.5 million people in the United Kingdom, including people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine, voted to leave the European Union. The people of Northern Ireland want to see this deal, because they want to see us leave the European Union in a managed way that is not chaotic and that works for Northern Ireland.

What feedback has my right hon. Friend had on the withdrawal agreement from the business community in Northern Ireland, and is there any differentiation between those who are on the border and those who are not?

I have significant engagement with businesses across Northern Ireland, and I have found an absolutely consistent message, which is that those businesses, to protect jobs and to protect the progress that we have made since the Belfast agreement, want to see this deal so that Northern Ireland can leave the European Union, with the whole United Kingdom, in an orderly way. In fact, we were very pleased to welcome 12 business and civic society leaders to Westminster last week to express exactly that view.

Given the desire by all sides to avoid a hard border between the Republic and the north when we exit the European Union, why is that not, in a legally enforceable way, within the withdrawal agreement or the backstop agreement so that we use new technology for these purposes, not old and untried technology?

My hon. Friend will know that the backstop can be ended, if we go into it in the first place, by the future relationship or by alternative means, and that can of course mean new technology. But at this time there is no technology that deals with the issue of the border in a way that respects the rights of the people of Northern Ireland and respects the Belfast agreement and the way that it operates.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the evidence presented to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee following our visit to Northern Ireland, published on Monday, saying that businesses and trade bodies in Northern Ireland are crying out for clarity and certainty as we leave the European Union?

I was delighted to find myself on the same aeroplane as the BEIS Committee on its visit to Northern Ireland, and am sure that it heard the same message I hear when I am in Northern Ireland, which is that businesses want certainty and clarity, and would like to see us implement this deal so that we can ensure that we leave the European Union in an orderly way.

Last week, the Secretary of State was telling everybody that this was the best deal and the only deal. The Prime Minister now says that that is not the case and she needs changes. What does the Secretary of State say to that?

As I have said, this is the best deal. This is the best way for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union as a whole in an orderly way, but the Prime Minister has recognised and listened to the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and many others in the House about the backstop, and she is looking to assuage those concerns.

The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. She is telling everybody that this is the best deal, it is a wonderful deal and everybody should accept it. However, the Prime Minister is telling everybody that nobody likes it, the Irish do not want it, Europe does not want it and the British Government do not want it. How does the Secretary of State explain the utter contradiction in those arguments?

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is a contradiction. I think he is talking about the backstop. We all agree that the backstop is a very uncomfortable thing that none of us wants to see introduced, just as we never want to see any insurance policy called upon, because the fact that it is called upon means that the worst has happened.

I welcome the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) back to the Government—although, with recent developments, it may be a short stint.

In recent weeks, the Secretary of State has publicly stated that the current backstop protocol puts Northern Ireland in an unrivalled position in the world as a destination for foreign direct investment. However, her Cabinet colleague the Scottish Secretary has said that any suggestion of an advantage for Northern Ireland is a wholly false argument. Who is right—the Scottish Secretary or her?

I trust that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to somehow use the unique situation in Northern Ireland and the success of Northern Ireland to try to impute a special status to Scotland. The fact is that Northern Ireland has a land border with Ireland and therefore will be in an unrivalled position, because it will be the only place that has both a land border with the European Union and access to trade deals through the independent trade policy of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

I do not wish to tempt fate, but at the moment, the Government Benches are a model of decorum. By contrast, there is a very large number of noisy private conversations taking place on the Opposition Benches, which I feel sure will now cease, as the Front Bench spokesperson comes in.

I welcome the Minister of State to his place. Paragraph 50 of the EU-UK joint report last December made it clear that there would be a guarantee, consistent with the 1998 agreement, that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive would be consulted on any regulatory changes. Why did that guarantee disappear in the withdrawal agreement? Why did the Secretary of State allow it to disappear?

The hon. Gentleman refers to an important point. This withdrawal agreement is the only agreement that we can guarantee is consistent with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. He refers to paragraph 50 of the joint report. The Government’s commitments under paragraph 50 still stand, but quite rightly, we do not want to negotiate our sovereign rights, which are a sovereign matter for the United Kingdom, with the European Union. We want to do it unilaterally.

Paragraph 50 was very clear about the role of the Assembly and the Executive. The Secretary of State’s words are not good enough. Why should Northern Ireland Members have confidence in this Government? Why should the people of Northern Ireland believe that this Government are committed to devolution, to the peace process and to the Good Friday agreement?

It is this Government who have inserted in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship our absolute commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is this Government who are committed to abiding by all our commitments under paragraph 50 of the joint report, including the points about the Stormont lock and unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the market of Great Britain. We stand by those commitments.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Since the withdrawal agreement protects the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the consent principle as guaranteed by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, does the Secretary of State agree that it is unforgivable for the Labour party—the architects of the Good Friday agreement—to appear to have abandoned the Good Friday agreement by voting against the Brexit deal negotiated by the Prime Minister?

I have to say that I agree with the hon. Lady. I think putting party politics above the Good Friday agreement and all that we achieved through that is unforgivable.

Legacy Consultation

4. When she plans to respond to her Department’s consultation on addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. (908074)

It is clear that more needs to be done to address the legacy of the past. The current system in Northern Ireland is not working well for anyone. This needs to change to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the troubles and to ensure that our armed forces and police officers are not unfairly treated. We are carefully considering all the views received in almost 18,000 responses and intend to provide an update in due course.

As the Secretary of State will recall, I have been raising with her for over a year the issue of military veterans who are being legally scapegoated for political and financial gain. It is getting worse. We now have the case of David Griffin, a retired Royal Marine, who is being reinvestigated for an alleged offence 46 years ago, of which he was cleared at the time. He is a Chelsea Pensioner. Is the Secretary of State proud of the fact that, on her watch, we have given “get out of jail free” cards to alleged IRA terrorists and we are now pursuing Chelsea Pensioners instead?

My right hon. Friend raised this case with the Prime Minister last week. I, too, am upset to see this situation. This is a result of the current system that we all want to see changed. I say very gently to my right hon. Friend that I have also wanted to work with him on finding a solution to this, and I look forward to continuing to do so, because there is no one simple solution, but we all want to see the system changed.

While the headlines are dominated by Brexit, the sad reality is that the witch hunt against our veterans who served in Northern Ireland continues. Can the Secretary of State outline what discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on finding solutions to stop that witch hunt?

I can assure the hon. Lady, with whom I have spoken about this matter on a number of occasions, that I work across Government with all colleagues, because we need to find a way to deal with this issue. There is no one simple solution, but we have to have a way to deal with this that is legal, fair and proportionate.

In supporting the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), may I remind the Secretary of State that veterans were upholding law and order in the Province and it was the terrorists who were trying to kill people? We should bear that in mind when looking at this issue as a whole.

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that that is exactly what we are doing. We would not have seen the peace process without the hard work, dedication and dignity of our armed services and our police. They are the reason that we actually were able to have a peace process and we must never forget the sacrifice they made.

May I, too, welcome the Minister of State—[Interruption.] Thank you, ma’am—the Prime Minister is very gracious. May I welcome I believe the ninth Minister to whose substance I have stood as mere shadow? May I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), a decent man who is wrong on Brexit, but right on many other things?

May I ask the Secretary of State this? She has previously made it clear that she does not support a statute of limitations in Northern Ireland. Does she therefore agree either with her colleague the Secretary of State for Defence, who describes the persecution of veterans as a “ridiculous vendetta”, or with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which says that

“we have the law and…we should all be equal before it”?

It is possible to agree with both. It is a delight to respond to the hon. Gentleman, who has incredible popularity in this House. I hope that he heard the documentary on the BBC yesterday, when the Defence Secretary made it clear on the record that we are looking at every option across Government. We are working across Government on this because we all want to see a solution to this problem.

Armed Forces Veterans

This Government are clear that it is only due to the unstinting efforts of our police and armed forces that we have relative peace and stability in Northern Ireland today. I was honoured to meet the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland recently when launching the veterans strategy there.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that any proposals that she brings forward to deal with the legacy of the past are balanced and proportionate, and that our brave veterans are fairly treated?

Three hundred and nineteen Royal Ulster Constabulary officers murdered, 258 Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers murdered, and over 200 of those cases unresolved—what is the Secretary of State going to do to bring justice to those gallant members from our community?

The hon. Gentleman puts it very well. We need to see this issue dealt with. The current system is not working for anybody. We need to see it resolved. We are working through almost 18,000 responses to the consultation and we look forward to working across the House to find a resolution that works for everyone.

The Secretary of State is also proposing to support some of the 500 victims of the troubles with a victims pension. Can she tell us when the first payments will be made?

The hon. Gentleman knows better than anyone that this is a devolved matter. It is a frustration that we do not have an Assembly and an Executive in place to make these decisions, but I want to see progress made.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with all those caught up in the horrific incident in Strasbourg last night, and we stand ready to give whatever support the French authorities may need.

Today, I will have meetings—possibly many meetings—with ministerial colleagues and others.

Just a normal day in the office then, Prime Minister. I also want to give my condolences for the tragic events in the beautiful city of Strasbourg.

Last year, the Prime Minister told us that there was not going to be a general election, and then there was. This week, she told us that she was not going to pull the meaningful vote, and then she did. Can I ask her now if she is going to rule out having a general election and a people’s vote?

Can I say to the hon. Lady, first of all, that I think that a general election at this point in time, in the middle of our negotiations, would not be in the national interest? Secondly, as she will have heard me say before in this House, I think we should respect the result of the referendum that took place in 2016.

Q6. Given what we could call uncertainty about the future of the withdrawal agreement, could the Prime Minister give people some certainty—that is, EU nationals in the UK—that whatever happens to that deal, they will be allowed to stay on roughly the same terms that are in that draft agreement? (908161)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because I know that EU nationals living here in the United Kingdom will be concerned about what might happen if a deal is not agreed. We have been very clear as a Government that the withdrawal agreement that we have agreed does respect the rights, and protect and guarantee the rights, of EU citizens living here. But in the unlikely event of no deal, I have been clear that this Government will still protect EU citizens’ rights, and we would wish to know that actually, other EU Governments would respect the rights of UK citizens living in the EU as well.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in joining the Prime Minister in condemning the shootings in Strasbourg and extending our sympathy to the families of those that have been killed or injured there.

I am delighted to see the Prime Minister back in her place after her little journeys. Having told the media this morning that she has made progress, can she now update the House on what changes she has secured to her deal?

I travelled to Europe yesterday and met several Heads of Government, the Commission and the European Council, precisely because I had listened to concerns raised in the House. I took them to Europe, and no one I met yesterday is in any doubt about the strength of concern in the House about the duration of the backstop. I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman wants to know what progress we have made, because actually he could not care less what I bring back from Brussels. He has been clear that whatever comes back from Brussels he will vote against it, because all he wants to do is create chaos in our economy, division in our society and damage to our economy. That’s Labour. That’s Corbyn.

It is very clear that nothing has changed. If the Prime Minister needed any clarification about the temporary nature of the backstop, she need not have gone to Europe; she could have just asked her Attorney General, who said it endured indefinitely.

As the Prime Minister may recall, when she left on her journey, we were about to start day four of a five-day debate on the deal. Since she has not achieved any changes, either to the withdrawal agreement or to the future partnership, will she now confirm that we will have the concluding days of debate and votes within the next seven days, before the House rises for the Christmas recess?

I had discussions with people yesterday, and I have made some progress, but of course there is an EU Council meeting and further discussions are to be held. The right hon. Gentleman asks about the meaningful vote. The meaningful vote has been deferred, and the date of that vote will be announced in the normal way. The business motion will be agreed and discussed in the usual way. [Hon. Members: “When?”] I will tell Opposition Members when. We had a meaningful vote in the referendum in 2016 and, if he wants a meaningful date, I will give him one: 29 March 2019, when we leave the European Union.

That is totally and utterly unacceptable to this House. This House agreed a programme motion. This House agreed the five days of debate. This House agreed when the vote would take place. The Government unilaterally pulled that and denied the House the chance of a vote on this crucial matter. The Prime Minister and her Government have already been found in contempt of Parliament. Her behaviour today is just contemptuous of this Parliament and this process. Her appalling behaviour needs to be held to account by the House. The people of this country are more and more concerned about the ongoing chaos at the centre of her Government. [Interruption.]

Order. We must have calm on both sides of the House. [Interruption.] Order. The questions will be heard, however long it takes, and so will the answers. Do not try to shout down. All you do is wear out your voices, and you will not succeed. Amen. End of subject.

When the Prime Minister made her Lancaster House speech, she set out her negotiating objectives, and they are worth quoting. The first objective is crucial:

“We will provide certainty wherever we can.”

Does this look or feel like certainty? Can she mark her own homework?

Indeed we have at every stage—the right hon. Gentleman said we would not get agreement in December, and we did; he said we would not get the implementation period in March, and we did; he said we would not get a withdrawal agreement and political declaration, and we did. Concerns have been raised about the backstop. As I said, we continue those discussions, and no one yesterday was left in any doubt about the strength of feeling in the House. Of course, we all know what his answer to the backstop is: ignore the referendum and stay in the EU.

If this is an agreement, why will the Prime Minister not put that agreement to a vote of this House?

The Federation of Small Businesses says that planning ahead is impossible. Many, many other people around the country find planning ahead impossible, because all that they see is chaos at the heart of Government and an inability to plan anything for the future. Yesterday the cross-party Exiting the European Union Committee, including Conservative Members, unanimously found that the Prime Minister’s deal

“fails to offer sufficient clarity or certainty about the future.”

Will the Prime Minister give the country at least some certainty and categorically rule out the option of no deal?

The way to ensure that there is no no deal is to agree a deal. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the impact on businesses. I will tell him what will have an impact on businesses up and down the country: what we learnt just a few days ago, that the shadow Chancellor wants to change the law so that—[Interruption.]

Businesses will be affected by the fact that the shadow Chancellor wants to change the law so that trade unions in this country can go on strike in solidarity with any strike anywhere in the world. That may be solidarity with trade unions. It is not solidarity with small businesses, and it is not solidarity with the ordinary working people who would pay the price of Labour.

My question was, would the Prime Minister rule out no deal? She has failed to do that.

Let me tell the Prime Minister that this sorry saga is frustrating for businesses, for workers, and, actually, for many of those behind her as well. Many of them are trying to work constructively to find a solution. Yesterday, her former Brexit Minister said that a new customs union with the EU “could be the basis for a parliamentary consensus”. When will she start listening to people who actually want to find a constructive solution, rather than denying Parliament the right to debate it and vote on her deal?

We all know one group of people who do not want to find a constructive solution: the Labour party’s Front Bench. That is what we see on the other side of the Chamber: no plan, no clue, no Brexit.

The time for dithering and delay is over. The Prime Minister has negotiated her deal—[Interruption.]

The time for dithering and delay by this Government is over. The Prime Minister has negotiated her deal. She has told us that it is the best and only deal available. There can be no more excuses, no more running away: put it before Parliament and let us have the vote. Whatever happens with the Prime Minister’s Conservative leadership vote today is utterly irrelevant to the lives of people across our country. It does nothing to solve the Government’s inability to get a deal that works for the whole country. The Prime Minister has already been found to be in contempt of Parliament. Will she now put this deal before Parliament and halt the escalating crisis which is so damaging to the lives of so many people in this country?

We all know from the multiplicity of changes in plan that we have seen from the Labour party that there is one thing we can be sure about: whatever U-turn comes next in Labour’s policy, the right hon. Gentleman will send out—[Interruption.] He will send out—[Interruption.]

Order. I said a moment ago that the Leader of the Opposition must be heard, and, belatedly, he was; and the Prime Minister will be heard.

Whatever change in Labour policy we see, the right hon. Gentleman will send out his henchman to reveal it all to the world: “The Inconstant Gardiner.” [Interruption.] Somebody will explain that to the Leader of the Opposition a little later. The right hon. Gentleman should be honest with people about his position: he could not care less about Brexit; what he wants to do is bring down the Government, create uncertainty, sow division and crash our economy. The biggest threat to people and to this country is not in leaving the EU; it is a Corbyn Government.

Q8. A few weeks ago Ben McKenzie from Neilston, a pupil at Eastwood High School, took his own life, having been the victim of cruel online threats and bullying on social media and his mobile phone; he was just 13 years old. Nearly £10,000 has been raised in his memory for Beautiful Inside and Out, a Scottish charity that supports the families of victims of child suicide. Can the Prime Minister set out what this Government are going to do to tackle cyber-bullying not just to support and empower victims, but to deter and prevent children who might be engaging in these acts without realising the consequences they can have, because no family should be enduring a Christmas without their child due to suicide? (908163)

My hon. Friend has raised an extremely serious issue and I am sure the thoughts and condolences of the whole House are with Ben’s family at this terrible time after this terrible tragedy. We need to address cyber-bullying in both ways, as my hon. Friend said: both working with the internet companies on what is put out on their platforms and with schools to help people recognise this material and deal with it, and supporting those children who could, as my hon. Friend said, be the victims or who might be carrying out these attacks. Our consultation last year on internet safety showed that despite a range of voluntary initiatives and good work by a range of charities—I commend the work of the Scottish charity Beautiful Inside and Out and the amount of money that has been raised—this remains a serious issue for millions of people. I know the Scottish Government have been addressing this with their “Respect for All” approach, and we have funded the UK Safer Internet Centre, which is providing guidance for schools, but we should all be taking this issue seriously and the Government will continue to work on this.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on cyber-bullying and indeed on the terrible tragedy yesterday in Strasbourg?

We were promised “strong and stable” and we were promised a vote on the Brexit deal, but this Prime Minister cannot even do her own job because of the Tory civil war. This Government are an embarrassment. Christmas is just two weeks away; will the Prime Minister bring forward her meaningful vote on the Brexit deal next week?

As I have said, we are having discussions with European leaders and others and those discussions will continue. What matters is that they are in no doubt about the strength of feeling in this House on the issue of the duration of the backstop and they are in no doubt about the strength of feeling in this House that that should be addressed in a way that has legal force, and that is what we are discussing and continuing to negotiate with the European Union. As I said earlier, the date of the deferred vote and debate on this will be announced in due course in the normal way.

That is contemptuous of Parliament. Parliament voted for a meaningful vote; we should be having the vote and it should be happening next week. This Government are a farce: the Tory party is in chaos, the Prime Minister is a disgrace through her actions. The reality is that people across Scotland and the UK are seeing this today. Prime Minister, take responsibility, do the right thing: resign.

The right hon. Gentleman makes his remarks about deferring the vote, but it is precisely because I and my colleagues in Government have listened to the views of people across this House that we are pursuing this issue further with the European Union. That is being respectful of the views that have been raised in this House.

Q10. Many businesses up and down the country have put their plans on hold while waiting for us here in Parliament to agree our future trading relationship with our biggest and closest neighbour. Does the Prime Minister agree that their interests, and those of their workers, their suppliers and the country as a whole, are best served by concluding the agreement with the remaining 27 and by those on this side of the House supporting her in the vote this evening? (908165)

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and I agree with him, particularly on the need to ensure that we do not increase or create more uncertainty. The public voted to leave the EU and they want us to secure a deal that delivers on that result. We should not risk handing control of the Brexit negotiations to Opposition MPs in Parliament, because that would risk delaying or even stopping Brexit. None of that would be in the national interest, so I think we need to get on and deliver a good Brexit for the country.

Q2. When I stood for election, I vowed not to vote for any Brexit deal that was not in the best interests of Lewisham West and Penge. After pulling the Brexit vote, the Prime Minister must now concede that her deal is doomed. The House and her own party appear to have no confidence in her, but will she have confidence in the people and give them a say with a people’s vote, including an option to remain in the EU? (908157)

We have deferred the vote on the agreement. On the issue that the hon. Lady raises about putting the vote to the people, I say to her, as I said to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and as I have said on many occasions in this House, that the House put its faith in the votes of the people of this country when we decided to give them the referendum in 2016. People voted to leave the European Union and it is now our duty to deliver on that.

Q12. This House has a duty to ensure that the next generation live better lives tomorrow than we live today, so how does my right hon. Friend respond to the audit carried out by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that found that three quarters of the hundreds of babies who die or suffer brain damage each year could be saved by better care? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that every expectant mother and unborn baby receives appropriate monitoring? (908167)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. I know that it is close to the hearts of many Members of the House. Every death or injury of a child is a tragedy, and we have a commitment to halving the rates of stillbirth, neonatal death and brain injury after birth by 2025. That is supported by system-wide action under our national maternity safety strategy. We are increasing midwifery training places by 25% and investing millions of pounds in training for staff and in new safety equipment to ensure that the NHS can provide world-class care for mothers and babies, but we recognise that we need to continue to ensure that we do all we can, and I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that we will do that.

Q3. As the right hon. Lady reflects on her premiership, may I ask her which of the following judgments she most regrets: laying down red lines before the Brexit talks had even begun; wasting precious negotiating time on a general election; or consistently failing to face down the hardliners on her own Benches and reach out to forge a consensus in this House and the country? (908158)

I will tell the hon. Gentleman the judgment that was the right one. It was to accept the vote of the people in the referendum, to deliver on the vote of the people in the referendum and to deliver a good Brexit for the future of this country.

Q15. Small businesses are the backbone of my constituency. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced a revitalisation fund for our high streets. May I ask my right hon. Friend when it will be made available? It will prove a vital lifeline for my constituency, because of the anti-business policies of Labour-controlled Sefton Council. (908170)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the help that we have announced for the high street. He is absolutely right that the Leader of the Opposition may stand up and claim to be interested in business and small businesses, but we so often see Labour councils up and down the country doing exactly the opposite. We have provided £675 million in the future high streets fund so that plans can be made to help to make high streets and town centres fit for the future, and we will be publishing a prospectus for the fund shortly.

It is important that we deliver on Brexit for the people of this country. I believe that we should do that with a good deal with the European Union, and I believe that that is what we have negotiated. I also believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) said from a sedentary position, that the worst thing for this country would be a Labour Government.

At a time of grave national crisis on an issue that we all agree is of huge importance to future generations, can my right hon. Friend think of anything more unhelpful, irrelevant and irresponsible than for the Conservative party to embark on weeks of a Conservative leadership election?

My right hon. and learned Friend has raised an important issue. It is about the impact that the weeks of that campaign would have on the decision that the House has to take and that we have to take as a country in relation to leaving the European Union, because there is no doubt that the process would go beyond the legislated date of 21 January. That would mean that one of the first things that the new leader would have to do—were a new leader to come in—would be either to extend article 50 or rescind it, which would mean either delaying or stopping Brexit.

Q5. Away from the madness of the Prime Minister’s own MPs, may I welcome her back to the real world? Last week, Marian was forced to queue outside St George’s hospital, Tooting, with a badly infected left leg because the A&E was full. Knowing what happened to my constituent, will the Prime Minister tell me how long that queue will be should the local NHS get its way and move the A&E at St Helier hospital to leafy, wealthy Belmont? (908160)

I am concerned to hear the case that the hon. Lady raises about her constituent. It is absolutely right that decisions on delivery of services should be taken by local clinicians, because they are best placed to assess local need. I understand that the local NHS is looking at the considerable challenges facing Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust and at the options for future services, but that process is at an early stage. Knowing the hon. Lady as I do from when we both sat on Merton Council, I am sure that she will continue to raise the concerns of her constituents, and I would encourage her to do so.

Shortly, 34,000 copies of “Your Money Matters”, a free personal finance textbook, will wing their way to every secondary school in the land. Will my right hon. Friend join me in saying thank you to Martin Lewis, who is its funder, Young Money, which is the organisation behind it, the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people, which I chair, and, not least, the Department for Education for making this fantastic resource for our young people happen?

My hon. Friend has done an important thing today by raising people’s awareness of this booklet, which will be extremely important for secondary schools. It is a really good piece of work, and I congratulate all those involved. I know that my hon. Friend, through his chairmanship of the APPG, has taken this matter seriously and has been championing it for a long time. I hope that he is pleased to see this piece of work being done, and I am sure that he will want to carry on to ensure that financial education is taking place and that young people are prepared for their future lives.

Q7. The economy is stalling, business investment is falling, and we have the grotesque—[Interruption.] (908162)

Order. I could not care less what somebody chuntering from a sedentary position says is or is not the truth; what I care about is that the hon. Lady will not be shouted down any more than any other Member in this place will be shouted down. Be quiet and listen.

The economy is stalling, business investment is plummeting and we have the grotesque spectacle of Tory MPs putting party interest before the public interest. If the Prime Minister survives tonight’s vote, will she finally rule out no deal, face down her hard Brexiteers, let this place vote down her deal and put it back to the public in a people’s vote?

First, if the hon. Lady wants to ensure no deal, the way to ensure no deal is to agree a deal. That is the best way to ensure there is not no deal. She talks about the economy: employment is at a record high, wages are growing and we have had 23 consecutive quarters of growth, the longest run in the G7. That is a balanced approach to the economy. That is Conservatives delivering for the people of this country.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to take her mind back to September 1997, when a referendum was held in Wales? The result of that referendum was 50.3% in favour of an Assembly and 49.7% against, on a turnout of 50%. Nobody questioned whether we should accept the referendum. Does that hold any future reference for us?

I thank my right hon. Friend for making a very important point about the principle that was accepted at that time, which was, however small the margin, the overall result of the vote should be accepted and acted on.

Q9. Last week, I hosted an event to raise money for Hallam FM’s Mission Christmas, a charity doing fantastic work helping children in need in my constituency, and for the local food bank. Indeed, many of the 41% of children living in poverty in my community will really need help this Christmas. What message does the Prime Minister have for those working hard to make ends meet but who will find themselves forced to rely on food banks for their family’s Christmas meal and Mission Christmas for their children’s presents? (908164)

First, may I say how good it is that Hallam FM has been doing this work? There are many charities up and down the country that work to provide a better Christmas than many children would otherwise have. That is important. We do not want to see people relying on food banks, but the way to ensure that people are able to provide for themselves without having to rely on food banks is to ensure that people are in work, that that work is well paid and that work always pays, which is exactly what we are doing.

Residents in Erewash are clear that we need a strong Government to deliver on Brexit and on our domestic agenda. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for us to unite on the Conservative Benches, as the real threat to our great nation is the party opposite and a Labour Government?

I echo my hon. Friend’s comments. Many members of the public want us to get on with Brexit and to ensure that we are delivering for them on the domestic agenda, like the record number of new homes we have seen being built—the best number ever, bar one year, in the last 31 years. It is important that we get on to that domestic agenda, and to do that we must unite as a party and bring our country back together again. She is absolutely right that the greatest threat to the jobs, livelihoods and futures of her constituents, and constituents around the United Kingdom, would be a Labour Government.

Q11. Last month, a 16-year-old boy was tragically killed in a knife attack in my constituency. This came as knife crime has almost doubled in Coventry over the last five years. I know that some good multi-agency work is happening in this field, but does the Prime Minister still think that we have enough police officers on our streets to be able to fight crime and the fear of crime? (908166)

I extend my condolences to the family of the hon. Lady’s constituent who suffered this terrible attack. Obviously there is a concern, and I recognise that concern, about the rise in violent crime, which is why the Government have produced the serious violence strategy. Members on both sides of the House, on a cross-party basis, sit on the serious violence taskforce. We are giving extra powers to the police to tackle knife crime through the Offensive Weapons Bill, and we have strengthened firearms control through the Policing and Crime Act 2017.

This is not just about police action. We have announced the £200 million youth endowment fund, which will help to work with young people who otherwise might find themselves drawn into gangs and the use of knives, to prevent them from doing so and to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns and those of my constituents about the further delays and increased costs of Crossrail, and the failures of Transport for London and the Labour Mayor of London?

I absolutely share my right hon. Friend’s concerns and his constituents’ concerns, and indeed my constituency is also affected by the delay of Crossrail. Yes, we should recognise the role that TfL and the Labour Mayor of London have played in this. We want to see Crossrail. It is going to be of benefit to my right hon. Friend’s constituents and mine, and the Labour Mayor needs to get his finger out on this.

Q13. In 1997, the British Prime Minister issued an apology to the people of Ireland for Britain’s historic role in the great famine—a famine that saw 1 million people die and 1 million people be displaced from their homeland. That apology sent out a powerful and important message. Will this Prime Minister condemn any notion and any suggestion that food shortages in Ireland will be used to strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand during the Brexit negotiations? (908168)

I am happy to absolutely give that assurance. We would not use that issue in any sense in the negotiating strategy. We want to work with the Irish Government to ensure that we are providing a good Brexit for the UK and for Ireland, and I believe that would be a good Brexit for the European Union.

One of my constituents in Oadby has written to me to say, “I voted for Brexit and I urge you to support our Prime Minister unreservedly and vote for this Brexit deal.” Another constituent in Great Glen says, “The Prime Minister has done a terrific job in trying circumstances. The headbangers from all sides and the supine attitude of the Labour party has meant she has had an impossible job, but she has done so well.” Finally, a third from Saddington writes, “I am an employer of 30 people in the Harborough constituency. To vote against the deal will cause political chaos and open the door to the worst possible scenario for this country—a far left Labour Government.” Does the Prime Minister agree with me that my constituents have got a lot more common sense than the Members opposite, who want to stop Brexit and fundamentally damage our democracy?

Q14. The self-serving chaos unleashed on this Parliament this week is emblematic of the way in which this Government have consistently treated the people of our country. In the light of the Prime Minister’s conduct, the pound has fallen by 2% in the past 48 hours—her Budget’s equivalent of running the entire NHS for six weeks. Does she believe that this is a price worth paying for her Brexit deal? (908169)

The hon. Lady talks about what the Government are doing for the NHS. It is this Government who are establishing a 10-year plan for the sustainability of the NHS and putting the biggest cash boost in its history into the NHS to ensure it is there for all our constituents, now and in the future.

Does the Prime Minister agree that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our police officers, prison officers and probation staff, who are in the frontline of keeping us all safe, which is the first duty of any Government? In that regard, may I ask her to take a close and personal interest in the 2019-20 police funding settlement?

First, let me agree with my hon. Friend; we do owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all those who are on the frontline, putting themselves potentially at risk for us—not only police officers, but prison officers and probation officers, whom he referenced. I assure him that, as he has, I have been looking, with the Home Secretary, at the 2019-20 police funding settlement.

The plotters behind her know that any replacement Prime Minister would face exactly the same party arithmetic and exactly the same deadlock on Brexit. This deadlock can be changed only by going back to the people. Today, The Times also said that is her only chance of saving her job and saving her deal. So can she tell the House: what exactly is she afraid of?

The issue is that this House overwhelmingly voted to give the choice to the British people as to whether or not to leave the European Union. The British people chose to leave the European Union and I strongly believe it is the duty of Members of this House to deliver on that vote.

What does the Prime Minister consider most important: playing parliamentary parlour games in this place, or protecting jobs and businesses by going back to the negotiating table and thrashing out a deal that will pass through this House?

It is in the interests of employers and in the interests of people whose jobs are at stake to make sure that we get a good deal with the European Union. That is why it is important that I was in Europe yesterday and will continue to be in Europe doing exactly as my hon. Friend says: negotiating the deal that I believe can get the support of this House to ensure we can move forward and deliver a good Brexit.

Does the Prime Minister judge that it is more welcome or more appropriate to face a no confidence motion from her Back Benchers or from the Leader of the Opposition?

Obviously, one of those will take place. What I think is important for everybody in this House is to recognise that we have, I believe, a solemn duty to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum. I believe the best way of doing that is with a good Brexit deal with the European Union that protects jobs and honours the referendum. I believe that is the deal we have negotiated.

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman, whose mellifluous tones we listened to only a few moments ago, that I am very happy to entertain a point of order, but that it should come after the urgent question. I am sure he will retain the thrust of it in his head and he will share it with the House in due course. We will await that with eager anticipation, but not until we have had the urgent question from Emily Thornberry.

Institute for Statecraft: Integrity Initiative

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on his Department’s funding of the Institute for Statecraft’s integrity initiative.

The Institute for Statecraft is an independent UK-based charity whose work seeks to improve governance and enhance national security. It runs a project called the integrity initiative, which is working to counter disinformation overseas by bringing together groups of experts to analyse and discuss the problem posed by Russian disinformation.

The Government are funding this initiative with nearly £2 million this financial year. That funding covers its activity outside the UK and it does not fund any activity within the UK; nor does it fund the management of the integrity initiative’s social media account. Recent reports that Foreign Office funding has been used to support party political activity in the UK are therefore wholly untrue.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the Minister of State for his opening remarks.

Let me make it clear at the outset that I have no interest today in debating the integrity initiative’s purpose of countering the very real threat of interference in western democracies and the spread of disinformation by the Russian state. If a debate needs to happen on how that objective is best pursued, it is best left for another day. The issue before us today is much more simple and fundamental: it is a cardinal rule of public life in our country that official resources should not be used for political purposes, a rule we saw symbolised this very morning when the Prime Minister delivered her statement outside Downing Street with the usual Government coat of arms removed from her lectern because of the political nature of her statement. There is, I am afraid, absolutely no doubt that the publicly funded integrity initiative has broken that rule repeatedly by using its Twitter accounts to disseminate articles attacking the integrity of Conservative and Labour officials, of Conservative peers and, repeatedly, of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

I greatly welcome the Minister’s statement on Monday, in which he totally condemned such behaviour by a publicly funded organisation, and said that not only must it stop, but that he wanted to know

“why on earth it happened in the first place”.

That is doubly important in this case, because the integrity initiative’s use of Twitter as a tool for disseminating information has not been a fringe activity, but is an integral part of its applications for Foreign Office funding over the past two years. Indeed, the budget for its agreed objectives of increasing reporting in the media and expanding the impact of its website and Twitter account amounted to £275,000 in this financial year. In the list of key deliverables it promised the Foreign Office this year, it stated explicitly that one of its instruments of delivery will be its

“600-plus Twitter followers, including influential players”.

In the light of all that, I hope that the Minister of State can answer some more questions to explain, as he put it, why on earth that misuse of public funds has taken place. First, were Foreign Office officials monitoring the integrity initiative’s social media output, given that it was an integral part of the activity for which it was being funded? If so, why did they not flag up concerns to him about the dissemination of personal attacks? If not, why was this misuse of public funds going unchecked? Secondly, does the funding agreement governing the integrity initiative make clear that its use of funds and its public statements must comply with Cabinet Office rules? Finally, if the Government intend to renew that funding for the next financial year, what arrangements and agreements will be put in place to ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again?

It is a matter of regret, Mr Speaker, that the right hon. Lady did not listen to the answer that I gave a moment ago. Let me explain to the House what has been going on. The Institute for Statecraft was hacked several weeks ago and numerous documents were published and amplified by Kremlin news channels. The Russian state media campaign that followed fits with a wider pattern of Russian disinformation against the UK. This campaign’s objective is clear: it is yet another example of Russian disinformation intended to confuse audiences and discredit an organisation that is working independently to tackle the threat of disinformation. The current Russian disinformation activity is precisely the sort of disinformation that this project is designed to counter. It is regrettable, but perhaps rather unsurprising, that some have been fooled, and have used this to make accusations about British politics in exactly the way hoped for in this malign activity.

While that is going on in the UK, the sort of activity that we do fund is doing its utmost to counter Russian disinformation overseas, which is undermining democracy and its institutions ever more widely across the world. The FCO has given a grant to the Institute for Statecraft this financial year of nearly £2 million. Our agreement, written into the contract with the institute, specifically states that the grant must not be used to support activity intended to influence, or attempt to influence, the UK Parliament, Government or political parties. We have not seen any evidence that the integrity initiative has breached this obligation, and the accusation that Government money has been used for domestic political purposes is utterly unfounded.

I say once again to the right hon. Lady that no Foreign Office funding is used for the initiative’s UK domestic activity. She can look at me as aghast as she likes, but the money that comes from the Foreign Office is used for activity overseas, and she should accept that as the—[Interruption.] If she does not accept it, she should say in terms what she is accusing me of, because that would be a breach of the forms of the House.

It would clearly be concerning if any Foreign Office money was being used for party political activities, so I welcome the Minister’s reassurances. Will he confirm that an investigation has been launched to see what has happened, and that when a proper, independent investigation has come to proper conclusions, he will take action on them?

Perhaps one of the accurate things that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said was that when I was interviewed on Radio 4 and this matter was sprung on me, I said that I would look into it straightaway, and I did. I have established the facts and I am satisfied that our money does not go towards funding any kind of UK domestic activity.

Mr Speaker, I have been accused of speaking rubbish by the hon. Lady. She should mark her words carefully before she bellows untruths at me across the House.

Order. Nobody should bellow across the House from either side. I know that the right hon. Minister of State is very well able to look after himself. The word “rubbish” is sadly used relatively frequently in the House, and it is certainly not unparliamentary. It is a matter of taste rather than of order. I am glad to see the right hon. Minister of State breaking out into a smile. It would be more seemly if colleagues would conduct these exchanges in a slightly more restrained fashion. To that end, I now look in hope—possibly in anticipation—to Mr Stephen Gethins.

I wish to put on record that a number of FCO-funded non-governmental organisations do extraordinary work in the most difficult circumstances. Before I came to this place, I worked in the south Caucasus and the western Balkans, where many of those organisations do that extraordinary work. They deserve our support for doing that but, more than anything else, they need to know that the Foreign Office has full openness and transparency. Our most powerful tool against any Russian misinformation is respect for the rule of law, the democratic process and, critically, transparency; we owe that to those working in these organisations. The Minister will be well aware of many people who work in very difficult circumstances and find themselves at the hard edge of Russian disinformation campaigns.

We need to have confidence in our democratic process. There should be no undermining of politicians, be they Labour, Scottish National party or Conservative, or of anybody else. What further steps will the Minister take to ensure that impartiality and integrity goes to the very heart of all funding that comes from the Foreign Office? I hope that he will consider the tone of the question I am putting to him, and will agree with me that those who are doing difficult work in difficult conflict environments deserve the full support of this House, and to know that the Foreign Office has their back.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for both what he asked and the tone in which he asked it. He has experience of these issues and I share in pretty well everything that he just said. The integrity initiative, in its activity abroad, endeavours to deliver exactly that sort of transparency to counter fake news and disinformation, in the way that I think the hon. Gentleman and all of us would hope. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury said in her opening remarks that she would support that sort of activity.

What is more, this charity is incorporated in Scotland, so it is subject to the Scottish Charity Regulator, and that kind of non-partisan activity is required. Within the UK, the charity does some automatic retweeting of stories that relate to Russia. Of course, on some occasions that includes mentions of the right hon. Leader of the Opposition; equally, there could be mention of a Conservative, as indeed has happened on many occasions. It has been judged to be no more than non-partisan repetition of stories that relate to Russia.

Yes, my right hon. Friend is right to be. The whole House should appreciate that this is an ever-increasing challenge, and one that we need to meet in the cyber field, as we do in the information field. That is what we are doing.

The right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position “in a united way”—yes, and she could add to that unity by recognising the truth of what I have said, instead of denying it in her normal way.

The Minister said that the Institute for Statecraft was hacked several weeks ago. Will he clarify for the House whether that hacking extended to the Twitter account of the integrity initiative, which has been retweeting articles that are undoubtedly critical of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and the Opposition’s policy?

The answer is that I do not know, but if information is on a Twitter account, it is publicly available anyway. It is the information that was not publicly available that was hacked, and I deplore that hack. That is what is now being used by Russian-inspired sources to create the sort of encounters we are witnessing here today.

This is the first time I have come across an accusation from a Labour party spokesperson that retweeting a New Statesman article was a smear against Labour. Despite the fact that the Government’s financial support has nothing to do with the institute’s UK activities, will my right hon. Friend reassure Members that if any evidence is found that the institute is involved in efforts to discredit the Labour party, he would unequivocally condemn such behaviour?

Yes. If our funding were being used for that, then yes, I would condemn it, and the contract would be withdrawn. [Interruption.] I hear again from a Labour Front Bencher an accusation, which I have categorically denied today, that Foreign Office funding is paying for UK Twitter activity and the management of the institute’s account. I say to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who has been shouting at me from the Front Bench, that he should withdraw that accusation, because I have spoken in honesty to the House, and he should recognise that.

Russia has been pushing the boundaries with its international interference and disruption, and we have seen incidents such as Salisbury and what is happening in Ukraine. Our defences against cyber-attack will be depleted if we leave the European Union, so will the Minister tell the House what plans have been drawn up to increase the skills and resources required to counter future cyber-attacks?

We are one of the leaders in cyber-defence; indeed, we assist other countries in learning the techniques necessary to protect against the sort of hacking that we are discussing in part today. I am confident, and I have enormous confidence in the professional competence of our officials in defending this country from cyber-attacks and malign cyber-activity.

How sure are we that the Russians were behind this hack? If we are sure, what are we going to do by way of response?

One of the responses is, of course, to counter in the sort of way that we are doing in the House today. Unfortunately, I do not have as many allies across the Chamber as I would like to have in so doing. We know the origin of the attack because it takes exactly the same pattern that we have seen in previous attacks.

The Russians are engaged in hybrid cyber-warfare against our country and many others. We seem to play by different rules from theirs. What are we doing to counter the nefarious activities of the Russian propaganda channel RT and of Sputnik?

We do indeed play by the rules, because we have integrity in upholding the rule of law and acting within the confines of our own law. Some might say that that puts us at a disadvantage, because other people break the rules to try to get the better of us, but we have strong cyber-defences. The kind of activity that the integrity initiative undertakes is designed to counter the sort of activity to which the hon. Gentleman rightly refers. It saddens and dismays me that I do not have the full support of those on the Opposition Front Bench in defending what we are doing.

I welcome the absolute clarity of the Minister’s statement and his refutation of the allegations. I also welcome the work of the Institute for Statecraft. Does the Minister agree that we need to double down on that work, because as the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has shown, the reality is that Russian disinformation is a danger to our democracy and our very way of life? We should not fall into Russian traps and aid the sort of paranoia that we have seen in the coverage of this matter in the likes of The Canary and that type of publication.

I fully agree. We should not be taken for a sucker. If we allow malign forces to divide us and try to rule over us, that is what will have happened to us. Again, I urge the Front Benchers of Her Majesty’s Opposition to appreciate that this is a proper part of government activity—within the rules, according to a contract—and it behoves them to accept the assurances that have been so clearly and openly given today.

On the allegations of Russian influence, is the Minister aware of concerns about some activities of peers in the House of Lords who are representing Russian companies, including Lord Truscott, who is the remunerated chairman of the advisory board of Russian Gold Fund, which is a private equity investment fund about which it is possible to find out precisely nothing, including who is investing in it and where the money is going?

It is not for me to comment on the propriety or otherwise of any Member of the House of Lords. It has its own standards and rules, and it is for that House to apply those rules as it sees fit.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the robust way in which he has answered these questions. Will he ensure that the Institute for Statecraft reviews its editorial policy so that we counter Russian fake news and disinformation and so that it does not fall foul of criticising UK politicians?

I am very happy to say yes. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that when it comes to challenging officials on any issue, I do so very robustly, to establish the highest standards of activity in everything the Foreign Office does. Therefore, in response to this situation, I have certainly been grilling officials to find out exactly what is happening. I have asked them to engage with the Institute for Statecraft to look at its editorial policy to ensure that there is, and will remain, an absolutely clear division between its domestic activity under its charitable rules and any overseas activity that we fund and is subject to the contract we have.

I completely support any attempts to deal with misinformation campaigns, whether they originate from Russia, Saudi Arabia, the hard right in the United States of America or Syria—or, for that matter, in Catalonia last year. I want to make sure that a project such as this really works, but it will not have the confidence of the whole nation unless we are able to see some changes in the way in which it operates in this case. I would have more confidence if the Government were to engage in the kind of investigation that is ongoing in the United States of America into Russian involvement in democratic process in this country. Why can we not have that investigation?

Again, that is an area where there is an enormous amount of work going on in the Government. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. We have seen all sorts of social media activity and we have seen completely verified activity of Russian intervention in democratic processes, such as the election in Montenegro and perhaps the referendum in Catalonia. That is in addition to the full spectrum of activity that we are specifically discussing in this urgent question.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Government are still not in favour of expelling the Russian Federation from the Council of Europe? The Russian Federation is in breach of all its international obligations, yet the Government are not doing what they could do, which is to expel it from the Council of Europe.

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but a matter of that sort is for the Council of Europe and I know that the parliamentary representatives are discussing it. Russia has not paid its dues and this question is being discussed regularly.

May I just observe that the Minister seems to be rather affronted by the anger felt on this side of the House, particularly by my Front-Bench colleagues, on this issue? He really need not; he ought to be sharing in that anger. Does he think that the investigation that he has undertaken so far is sufficient, or does he plan any further inquiry into this matter? Does he think he has done enough?

No, I do not share in the anger because the accusations that are being made are misplaced and have been categorically denied. Right hon. Ladies and Gentlemen in particular should accept the assurance on that basis.

I am delighted that the Foreign Office is spending money trying to counter the disinformation and fake news that is coming not just from Russia but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, from all over the world. What comments has the Minister given to this organisation to impress upon it that its domestic use of its Twitter account, whether right or wrong, may be undermining what it is trying to do internationally?

I actually think that that is a perfectly fair question about whether the domestic activity of the organisation somehow taints the legitimate and Foreign Office-funded international activity. What I resent very deeply is Members of this House not accepting the assurances given that Foreign Office funding does not pay for that domestic activity. In the organisation’s defence, I think that all it does is to forward from already open website articles anything that happens to mention Russia. It is deemed to have done so on a non-partisan basis, so in as much as it may occasionally mention the Leader of the Opposition, it could also mention anyone on the Conservative side. That distinction ought to be accepted and understood, particularly by Opposition Front Benchers. I have undertaken to conduct exactly that sort of review, because it is important that our activity is clear, distinct and not in any way muddled with the sort of activity that the hon. Gentleman is describing.

Will the Minister clarify when the Foreign Office became aware that the account had been hacked? Was it before or after the press coverage?

I suspect, although I am partly speculating, that the Foreign Office probably knew fairly quickly. The matter did not necessarily come to Ministers straightaway, probably because it was not deemed to be that serious. Unfortunately, these things happen all too frequently at the moment.

According to documents that the company itself has filed with Companies House, one of the directors describes his own occupation as “senior civil servant”. Now, it may be that that is his former rather than his present occupation, but a simple glance at his career indicates that he has held a number of senior and presumably sensitive posts within both Her Majesty’s Government and NATO. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government were aware, until now, that this individual held that directorship? Were the Government involved in any way in nominating or recommending him for that position? And what approval of authorisation, if any, did the individual require before he became a director of what is, as the Minister has said, is an independent company limited by guarantee?

It was very cheeky of the hon. Gentleman to ask three questions, but I am sure the Minister will respond.

I believe that I would be right in saying that perhaps the reason for this is that NATO is also a funder of this activity. Therefore, I imagine that the name to which the hon. Gentleman refers has a connection with NATO. However, should this be inaccurate, I will of course write to him straightaway.

In the end, this is about trust. In a recent parliamentary question to do with public money to fund social media ads to promote the Brexit deal, I asked the Government whether they would place the contents of these ads in the Library for us all to see. Unfortunately, this request was declined. Does the Minister agree that, to ensure public trust and transparency, the content and audiences of any ads paid for by public money should be published centrally as a matter of course?

The Foreign Office funding for the Integrity Initiative does not really pay for advertisements, so that is not really relevant to today’s urgent question. May I just refer to the earlier question regarding when we knew about the hack? We first knew about it on 23 November.

The Minister is burying his head in the sand. The fact is that this organisation has received more than £2 million of public money in just over 18 months, and it is a matter of fact that it has been engaging in a smear campaign against the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour party. It has also taken credit for derailing the appointment of Pedro Banos as the director of Homeland Security in Spain. This is a democratic outrage, and will the Minister therefore agree to an independent inquiry into the activities of this organisation?

I have said this on many occasions this morning: what the hon. Gentleman says about domestic activity—smearing the Leader of the Opposition —is utterly untrue.

I have sort of answered all those questions already this morning. I first knew about this when there was a report in the Sunday papers. I answered a question sprung on me on the “Today” programme at 7 o’clock yesterday, after which I sought all the facts, which have equipped me truthfully to answer this urgent question today.

Does it not concern the Minister that the internal checks within the FCO have led it to sending cheques for £2 million to a derelict mill in Scotland as an address for this charity?