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
The Secretary of State was asked—
British Service Personnel Memorial
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?
I will gladly go to that memorial.
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 be only that much more great 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
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 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.
The Secretary of State will be aware—[Interruption.]
Order. Hush for Lady Hermon.
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.
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?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that guarantee.
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.
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.
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.]
Order. The Prime Minister’s reply must be heard, and it will be.
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.]
Order. The right hon. Gentleman will be heard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Or a Labour Government.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I think, Mr Speaker, that this can be an occasion where I give a very short answer: yes.
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.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
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.
I am reassured to know that we are taking on Russian misinformation. I am right to be, aren’t I?
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.
In a united way.
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.
I’m not a gentleman. I have never been a gentleman.
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 smears 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 contact 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.
Will the Minister now make it clear when he knew, how long the institute was hacked and what he has done about it?
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?
Well, that is not the cleverest of questions. The charity was incorporated in Scotland. Most of its activities are in the UK and all payments are channelled properly to where they belong.
Will the Minister tell us a bit more about the Foreign Office’s counter-disinformation and media development team—what its objectives, resourcing and budget are and whether it has operational interface with the integrity initiative?
This question this morning is primarily about the integrity initiative. We carry out a lot of activity. Indeed, it is linked with our cyber-facilities in the UK Government, so, across Whitehall, there is all sorts of counter-disinformation activities. This is managed by our strategic fund—the conflict, stability and security fund—so increasingly across Whitehall, we are having to be alert and equipped to counter cyber-attacks and disinformation.
The Government should be doing much more to counter Russian disinformation in Britain and in the west. In particular, may I ask the Minister to comment on the activities of RT, which cannot be regarded as a serious news organisation? It is a wholly owned Kremlin propaganda channel, which has engaged in dishonest campaigns to undermine our democracy. Does he agree that it is a channel that mainstream politicians should not have anything to do with, and will he contact his counterparts at DCMS and ask them to encourage Ofcom to review the channel’s licence?
It is a rare moment of early festive good cheer that I can find myself wholly in agreement with the hon. Gentleman, which is not something that always happens across the Floor of the House. He is absolutely right about the extent to which Russia Today is an obvious mouthpiece for the Kremlin. It distorts information; it spreads disinformation; and it has quite a few useful idiots who it puts in front of the camera, and we should identify those so-called useful idiots and make sure that none of them is ever in our midst.
I agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary that we should scrutinise all instances of public bodies in receipt of public funds, yet the fact remains that the integrity initiative has criticised all political parties, including my own, when they have fallen foul—inadvertently or not— of the Russian disinformation narrative trap. I am a wee bit concerned that we fall into a trap where we are exposing the plethora of, some would say, Putin-Verstehers in grey suits in all political parties. I understand that the origin of much of the information discussed today emerged as a result of a hack perpetrated by actors of a dubious origin. Will the Minister enlighten the House further on the circumstances of that hack, and will he bring a report back to the Floor of the House?
Obviously, when I referred to my “Today” programme interview, it was on Monday, rather than yesterday. Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that we are having an investigation into the hacking. It is continuing. We cannot attribute it with certainty to an absolutely specific source, but it does fit in with the wider pattern that I mentioned earlier, and therefore, of course, we have our well-founded suspicions.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The wait is over. A few days ago, a senior Labour Member of Parliament addressed a public meeting in my constituency relating to the relocation of a post office—a very sensitive public matter. I will not name the MP in question, but I would like your guidance please, Sir, on the correct procedure for Members in terms of when they should or should not show the courtesy of letting a sitting Member of Parliament know.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The answer is straightforward: it is a long-standing convention in this House that a Member visiting the constituency of another Member in a political or public capacity should notify the Member whose constituency is to be visited. If the visit is of a purely private character, for example, going to lunch or dinner at somebody’s house in that Member’s constituency, the obligation does not apply. I am bound to say to him, and I am sorry that he is obviously highly dissatisfied about this, that this is a recurrent complaint from Members on both sides of the House and I hope that, in the interests of the House as a whole, Members on both sides would honour the convention. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) says from a sedentary position, “Who was it?”. Well, the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) has not named the Member. I think that he is focused on the principle rather than the personality. It seems to me that the principle applies regardless of who the personality is. However, if the hon. Member for Bolsover is particularly keen to know the identity of the person concerned, he can always have a cup of tea with the hon. Gentleman, although he may think that that is a step too far.
A big step too far.
Why is that response not a great surprise to me?
I am saving up the Front Bench. It would be a pity to squander the hon. Gentleman at too early a stage of our proceedings.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may remember that an independent report into the allegations of sexual harassment, abuse of power and bullying at UNAids, which Britain currently chairs, has recently been published calling for the resignation of the current executive director. Can you think of any way in which it would be possible to elicit a statement from the Secretary of State for International Development, whose responsibility this is, on what she and the Government are doing to effect the resignation of the said executive director?
The hon. Gentleman could seek an Adjournment debate on the matter. There are other routes open to him and I think that he knows that. I cannot offer any promise to him but, if he were able to demonstrate that it was a matter of urgency, it could be aired on the Floor of the House. Sometimes, when I am asked by a disappointed or, dare I say it, a mildly frustrated Member who has not been able to air the matter of concern to him or her, my advice tends to be: persist, persist, persist. Just because a Member is unsuccessful the first time round, it does not automatically follow that the Member will continue to fail.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have raised this matter with you and the Clerks, and I understand that measures are being taken to address this issue, but I want to raise with you the concern that there are hundreds of young people here today campaigning for a people’s vote from the For Our Future’s Sake organisation and Our Future Our Choice. They have been in the House to meet MPs over the past few weeks and have had very constructive discussions. They are not protesters. They are not here to cause disruption; they are here to speak to their elected representatives. Can you ensure that they are being allowed in to meet MPs and to use the Committee Rooms that they have booked with Members and that this does not happen in the future? It sends out a very bad message if, for whatever untoward reasons, young people coming to express their democratic rights are prevented from accessing Central Lobby and speaking to their Members.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to do so. My reply is a nuanced one that I hope is fair in the circumstances, and those circumstances include the fact that I have been in the Chair and not able to view the circumstances directly, so I am reluctant to rush to judgment.
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is as follows. If constituents have meetings with their Members, they should of course be given ready access to those Members and should also be permitted to get to a Committee Room with maximum expedition. Security and logistical concerns may mean that larger groups are filtered through Central Lobby in batches so that they can obtain the relevant green card. However, I will investigate the circumstances of what happened this morning more fully and write to him when I have full information.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, whose point of order is very reasonable, will understand if I say two things. First, I share his insistence on ready access and his passion for the idea of public engagement—in particular, the idea that young people who want to get into this place and communicate with Members, and register their views, should have the opportunity to do so. It is not for nothing that I have chaired the UK Youth Parliament for the past 10 years here, and not for nothing that I have gone to the UK Youth Parliament’s annual conference every year for the past 10 years. That is not just because I enjoy talking to them, though I readily admit that I do, but also because I enjoy hearing from them. That, I think, is important.
The second point I would make, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept in the spirit in which it is intended, is that I know that our staff are utterly dedicated and conscientious, and I would not want to criticise those staff unless there were a very compelling reason to do so.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I will look into it and get back to him.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is customary for the local government finance settlement to be announced to Parliament in early December. Indeed, Ministers had pencilled it in for 6 December. Last week, in a written statement, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government deferred the statement until after the “protected period”, by which I assume he meant the expected meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement, which of course should have been last night.
Have you, Sir, had any indication from the Government as to when they expect to bring the statement before the House, as given the late change to this week’s business, it could have been made by now? I am not asking you to speculate on rumour and uncertainty, with the Government perhaps wanting to collapse business next week. However, this is crucially important, notwithstanding the psychodrama unfolding on the Government Benches, because our councils are now entering the council tax-setting cycle and need to have certainty about their budgets and their council tax requirements, including the police precept, ahead of the bills being sent out in March.
I say to the hon. Gentleman, in all candour and conviviality, that no one could accuse him of excluding from his attempted point of order any point that might to any degree, in any way, at any time be judged to be material. That is my polite way of saying that his point of order is supremely comprehensive.
My answer to the hon. Gentleman is twofold. First, the business question is the obvious opportunity for this matter to be aired and, as he is sitting next to the shadow Leader of the House, he can attempt to add it to the list of important matters that she will feel inclined to raise at the business question tomorrow.
Secondly, although I obviously have absolutely no way of knowing whether the contents of the prospective statement are likely to be finalised any time soon, if they are finalised soon, there is no shortage of time for this matter to be aired either tomorrow or, indeed, next week. The hon. Gentleman is dextrous in his use of parliamentary mechanisms to secure the attention of the House. We will leave it there for now.
If there are no further points of order—if the appetite has been satisfied—we come now to the ten-minute rule motion for which the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) has been so patiently waiting.
International Trade and Development Agency
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 establish an International Trade and Development Agency to coordinate the development and delivery of policy between the Department for International Trade and the Department for International Development; and for connected purposes.
I am sure that all Members of this House will be familiar with the old adage, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for life.” But I feel that another line should be added to that: “Buy that man’s surplus fish and watch him lift himself out of poverty.”
In March 2016, I went to Sierra Leone, the country of my mother’s birth, to see the impact that UK aid has had. Sierra Leone is a country that was ravaged by civil war—a civil war that was ultimately brought to a close because of the involvement of British armed forces. More recently, Sierra Leone was hit by Ebola, a disease that was able to take hold because the social and medical infrastructure of the country was smashed during the civil war. British aid and British medical professionals were instrumental in winning the fight against Ebola. When mudslides in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown took the lives of hundreds, UK aid stepped up and supported the country once again.
However, when I spoke to the people of Sierra Leone—a country that was hit by war, disease and natural disaster—on my visit, I found that the thing they craved most from their relationship with the UK was not further aid, thankful though they were for the aid they had received, but increased trade. They wanted to be able to sell to us and to be able to buy our products and services in return.
The Department for International Development has the remit to end extreme poverty and tackle the root causes of disease, mass migration, insecurity and conflict. I know that DIFD does look at helping countries on the journey out of poverty by supporting the development of their commercial potential and establishing the foundations for future trading relationships, but it will always feel pressure to focus on countries with the most poverty and at the times of greatest hardship. Our constituents very rarely complain when they see UK aid supporting those in the most extreme hardship. We are, at heart, a nation of people with an internationalist outlook and a desire to support people when they are at their lowest ebb. There is, however, less vocal support for our development spending when it is not targeted at the points of most extreme poverty and hardship. Yet it is this area that gives countries the best chance of becoming permanently economically self-sufficient.
Since the EU referendum vote, the people of the United Kingdom have embraced a new-found interest in international trade policy. We have seen a significant appetite to build on our current relationships and become, once again, a global trading nation. It is right that in the immediate post-Brexit world, the International Trade Department prioritises increasing trade flows between the UK and other larger developed economies. This is the most efficient use of limited Government resources: time, money, and people. But there is danger that countries who are neither at the poorest nor the richest end of the spectrum fall between the two. We see very little public disagreement when our aid spending is directed at countries like Sierra Leone, which has gone through such difficulties, but when it is directed at countries like Nigeria and Pakistan, we too often see negative headlines and public disquiet. Yet it is countries like these—not at the lowest ebb but certainly not yet fully economically stable—that could be permanently helped out of poverty through trade with the United Kingdom.
If the UK is going to take up its rightful position as a truly global leader in this field, we need to ensure that we have a repository for the kind of expertise necessary to look into things like trade preferences for least developed countries and how we make sure that countries growing out of LDC status are not presented with a cliff-edge change to their trade status.
Addressing those complexities is a tall order for our civil servants, spread across two Departments, and takes deep, specialist expertise. Civil servants rotate through different jobs across Departments every few years, so we often have to rely on outside expertise, and unfortunately there is little institutional memory in this area. Equally, asking civil servants to assess the impact of policies and programmes they have designed is like asking someone to mark their own homework. Parliament must also be able to access independent evidence and analysis, be well informed about the shape of our new trade arrangements with developing countries as we leave the EU, have visibility of the impacts of those trade arrangements and, if they are performing less well than expected, call for improvements.
A similar basket of requirements brought about the creation of the United States International Trade Commission some 100 years ago. That is why we should have a similar but enhanced organisation here in the UK at this pivotal moment in our history. The agency would be a statutory body, reporting to Ministers and Parliament, probably with a staff of around 50 full-time professionals. The agency would have five main functions.
First, it would carry out analysis and consultations with businesses in the UK and in developing countries to build up a robust evidence base, monitoring our trade with developing countries and assessing the impacts on growth, employment and development, reporting to Ministers and Parliament annually.
Secondly, it would specifically review the scope and design of our trade preference systems for developing countries and advise Ministers at least every two years on how these were performing and where improvements were needed, including which countries should be included, excluded or graduated.
Thirdly, it would recommend how we can best craft our future trade agreements with developing countries in goods, services and technology to maximise the benefits for promoting shared prosperity at home and abroad and overcome red-tape barriers for developing countries exporting to the UK.
Fourthly, it would undertake sustainability impact assessments of all future UK trade agreements with developing countries, following the model that has been used extensively by the EU but for which we currently have no system here in the UK.
Finally, the agency would track our Aid for Trade programmes, assessing performance against Government targets and recommending best practices for joined-up and effective UK aid spending in this area.
We have the opportunity to create an organisation of truly global standing that could be a model for other OECD countries and an international centre of excellence. We have the chance to make a statement to countries around the world, rich and poor, that we do not just want to make poverty bearable; we want to make poverty history.
I rise to speak in opposition to the Bill. Let me start by making it clear that trade, development and ending poverty very much go together. That has always been at the heart of the Department for International Development’s agenda, having been put at its heart when the Department was established by the last Labour Government in 1997. I sat in that Department as an adviser and worked with many organisations, particularly on trade and development issues, for many years. I worked alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), who served as a joint Trade and DFID Minister, on how we properly put those issues together.
I am a Labour and a Co-operative MP. Fair trade and trade justice are at the heart of what Co-operative MPs stand for. Many of us are members of the fair trade group in Parliament, and many of us have argued for support for trade with developing countries—trade that will lift people out of poverty.
The hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) mentioned the Make Poverty History campaign, in which I was closely involved in 2005. One of its three pillars was trade justice, alongside more and better aid and dropping the debt. All those things go together. While I agree with some of the principles put forward by the hon. Gentleman, his speech belied a wider agenda. This is essentially part of an agenda about Brexit and an attempt by some Government Members to undermine and take apart the Department for International Development by other means than a straight-out abolition. That has been a hallmark of some Conservative policy over the last few years, which is deeply disappointing. While we have, on the face of it, a commitment to the Department and to the 0.7% spending target, a series of measures have undermined the Department and its core objectives.
I am not sure that some of the things the hon. Gentleman suggested would be compatible with the International Development Acts. Those Acts were clear that poverty eradication had to be the foremost agenda of UK aid and development policy. He said that the Department feels “pressure” to focus on countries with the most poverty. I think that it should. That should be the primary purpose of our aid and development spending—those most in poverty.
The hon. Gentleman says that I was not listening. I was listening carefully. He is blurring objectives. The focus should be on poverty and on our common interest. There is a way of devising international development policy and trade policy that is in the common interest of both parties—of our country and of developing countries—and ensures that we move together in generating and spreading wealth and prosperity for all people in the world, including in those countries, rather than having a self-interested trade policy.
Past Conservative Governments do not have a positive record on this. I would hate to see a day when we slip back to things like the Pergau Dam scandal, or where things are tied simply to self-interested trade policies and we attempt to get self-advantage rather than to focus on common interests between ourselves and some of the poorest countries in the world.
There is a good way to go about this. It is the policy that we have practised in Government through the Department for International Development. It is the policy that has been pursued in much of our work through multilateral agencies, which do much to promote trade and development and provide trade capacity.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the EU. One of the greatest tragedies of Brexit is that we are potentially coming out of key European development agencies, the European development fund and the arrangements that exist for close co-operation with many countries, including many in the Commonwealth and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. It has been far from perfect. I have campaigned when I think the EU has got things wrong in its relationships. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West will remember he and I having lively discussions about policy in a previous life and where that went.
The reality is that, on the whole, the EU has had development and poverty eradication at the heart of its policies and its relationships with the ACP countries. We already have trade agreements with many of those countries. We already have supportive policies in aid and development. One of the tragedies of Brexit is that we will potentially just chuck all that in the bin.
The European development fund, the European Commission’s humanitarian office—ECHO—and many other programmes are some of the Department for International Development’s highest rated multilateral programmes. I previously served on the International Development Committee, and we saw evidence of that when looking at the funding of multilateral agencies.
It seems absurd to suggest that we come out of all those programmes and create something else that is hugely bureaucratic and would, I fear—whatever the intentions of the hon. Member for Braintree—be used by other Government Members and those with agendas to simply undermine the work of the Department for International Development.
There is also the crucial issue of the extra bureaucracy and cost of setting up such an agency. Why do we need it? We already have a Department. We already have UK aid. We already have the multilateral agencies that have these relationships. We already have many experts working in trade facilitation and trade and international development. Why would we create another costly agency and reorganise and shunt civil servants back and forth yet again when we already have people doing excellent work in that area, in not only this country but many of the others with which we co-operate? I do not need to mention all the names, but there are many other agencies that we have worked with for many years, such as Crown Agents.
Of course, we also have the Commonwealth Development Corporation. Mr Speaker, you will know, because I have spoken on this at great length before, that I have been a critical friend of the CDC. The CDC has got things wrong in the past. The huge extra funding given to it was premature and too much to absorb quickly, but I know that the CDC is working to look at all those issues. It is important that we stick with what we have. It works perfectly well. It has poverty eradication at the heart of it. We have excellent people working on it. We do not need to create something else.
As I said, this Bill unfortunately sits alongside a series of other agendas. We have seen attempts by this Government to rebadge aid and development spending and redraw the definitions used at an international and UK level—“Let’s say we’re keeping the 0.7% target, but we’ll undermine it in every way we can by sticking everything else under it and claiming that it’s development spending.” We have seen the repeated diversion of our aid funding to private contractors, many of whom have actually been seriously criticised for some of the work they have been doing. As I have said, we have had the huge increases to the CDC. I am not opposed to an increase to the CDC, but I have had some serious concerns about its level.
We have also seen this with the Government’s two cross-Government funds—the conflict, stability and security fund and the prosperity fund. Many parts of that work are excellent—the funds are doing excellent work—and we cannot have a purist development policy in which we do not work with other agencies. However, I certainly have some serious questions about the way in which other Departments have been spending money through the prosperity fund without reference to our development objectives and without reference to poverty eradication as the first point. Quite frankly, there has been very lax scrutiny from other Departments—including, I am sorry to say, the Foreign Office—about where that is going and how it is being spent.
I do not think that the fate of the world’s poorest people and the relationships of common interest that we should be building together, as I have said, should somehow be used instrumentally in the Brexit process. They should not be used as some sort of Brexit sweeteners for us to try and grab magical trade deals that, frankly, we already have, but are also not going to replace our excellent trading relations with our EU neighbours or, indeed, the trading relations that exist between us as an integral part of the European Union and many of the world’s developing countries.
We have to have a relationship of mutual respect: not simply one of self-interest, but one of common interest. We will truly make poverty history by supporting and working alongside developing countries, not by acting in an instrumental way in which we are putting our own interests before those of others. I therefore oppose the Bill, and I hope the House will divide on this.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
12 December 2018
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
I am not quite sure which football team the hon. Gentleman supports—
Well, in that case the hon. Gentleman is always a model of good behaviour—always. Any Arsenal fan is to be commended. We appreciate the amiable demeanour of the hon. Gentleman in the circumstances.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether I might seek your advice on this matter. The Home Office has just laid a written statement on an update of the Government’s anti-corruption strategy 2017 to 2022, which originated from David Cameron back in 2016. I have been unable to get a hard copy of it, but having this as a written, not an oral, statement denies Members of the House the opportunity to hold the Government to account on the commitments in the strategy. We are at least due by now a consultation on the new economic crime of failure to prevent money laundering—I asked the Prime Minister about that in her statement on the G20 the other day. I know that these are good days to bury bad news and that this Government like to duck big challenges, but have you received any advance notice or indication of when there will be an oral statement from the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention on the anti-corruption strategy, which would give us in this House an opportunity to debate its progress?
The short answer to the hon. Lady is that no, I have received no indication of an imminent statement on that matter by any Government Minister. This is not, strictly speaking, a point of order upon which I can rule, although I must say that in raising an attempted point of order that does not constitute a point of order, she is not in a notably isolated minority—that is to say, the vast majority of attempted points of order are, of course, nothing of the kind. They are points of frustration, points of point-scoring, points of view and points of advertisement, rather than points of order. What I would say is that it is of course for the Government to decide whether, and if so when, to make a statement on the matter and to judge what form that statement should take. Principally—I say this as much for the benefit of people attending to our proceedings who are not Members of the House as for those who are—they have to make a judgment about whether to make a written or an oral statement. That partly depends on the timetable and how much space there is in the day, and it partly depends on their judgment about the level of importance to be attached to the matter.
The hon. Lady has made clear her view that an oral statement would have been appropriate in this case, and no doubt that view will have been heard clearly on the Treasury Bench. Meanwhile, although she is disappointed not to have witnessed a statement that she thinks is appropriate, she has at least succeeded in highlighting the fact of the imminent publication—well, we think the imminent publication, but certainly the important publication—of the document concerned.
If there are no further points of order, the Clerk will now proceed to read the orders of the day.
Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [Lords]
Consideration of the Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
I should inform the House that I have selected the amendments on the amendment paper—although they are starred as tabled after the usual deadline—because of the late notice of today’s business. I should also inform the House that I have today issued a provisional certificate that clause 2 of the Bill, as amended in Public Bill Committee, relates exclusively to England and Wales and is within devolved legislative competence. At the end of the Report stage on a Bill, I am required to consider the Bill as amended on Report for certification. At that point, I will issue my final certificate.
Authorised court and tribunal staff: legal advice and judicial functions
I beg to move amendment 1, in page 3, line 28, leave out subsection 3 and insert—
“(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.”
This amendment would require that where statutory instruments delegating judicial functions to authorised persons are brought they would be subject to the affirmative procedure.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, in the schedule, page 6, line 36, at end insert—
“(aa) is a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive with more than three years’ experience post-qualification, and”.
This amendment would stipulate that the minimum legal qualifications for authorised persons should be three years’ experience post-qualification.
Amendment 3, in the schedule, page 8, line 31, at end insert—
“( ) is a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive with more than three years’ experience post-qualification, and”.
See explanatory statement to amendment 2.
Amendment 4, in the schedule, page 11, line 12, at end insert
“and if they are a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive with more than three years’ experience post-qualification”.
See explanatory statement to amendment 2.
Amendment 5, in the schedule, page 11, line 32, leave out subsection 67C and insert—
“67C Right to judicial reconsideration of decision made by an authorised person
A party to any decision made by an authorised person in the execution of the person’s duty as an authorised person exercising a relevant judicial function, by virtue of section 67B(1), may apply in writing, within 14 days of the service of the order, to have the decision reconsidered by a judge of the relevant court within 14 days from the date of application.”
This amendment would grant people subject to a decision made under delegated powers a statutory right to judicial reconsideration.
I rise to speak in support of amendment 1 and the other amendments. We are being encouraged to wave through this wafer-thin Bill, which is both narrowly constrained and obscurely drafted. This is a Bill that sneaks through changes that will change unconstitutional double delegation—that is, of legislative power to unaccountable judges sitting on procedure rule committees and of judicial powers to non-independent courts and tribunal staff.
Let us begin with clause 3, which delegates judicial functions to authorised staff. This provision must be understood in the context of a wider court reform agenda and the austerity measures that seek to make significant cuts. These efficiencies, generated through the proposed reforms, arise not only from the reduction in the size of the courts estate, but from savings on judicial salaries. Ultimately, the Bill seeks more justice on the cheap.
The Bill will ensure that judicial powers are delegated to non-independent courts and tribunal staff. The procedure rule committee is primarily made up of senior judges, who would ensure relatively little external public scrutiny of this delegation of judicial functions to non-judicial employees of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. That is a really important point.
The Bill provides that regulations under clause 3 must be made under the negative resolution procedure. In effect, this will allow new rules of court stipulating which judicial functions can be delegated and to whom, and the requisite qualifications or experience that an authorised person must have to take on these judicial functions, but, as the Bill stands, such a delegation will come into force without any real parliamentary scrutiny. In essence, by providing that the regulations in the Bill are to be made under the negative resolution procedure, the Government are avoiding proper scrutiny by a democratically mandated legislature here in this place.
Our amendment, which is supported by the Bar Council, would ensure more constitutionally appropriate accountability and scrutiny, through the affirmative resolution procedure, of these sweeping regulations. These regulations concern powers to make rules stipulating which judicial functions can be delegated and to whom, and the qualifications and experience required before a member of the administration can be given these judicial functions. Without careful scrutiny and additional safeguards, the Government’s drip-feed approach to court reform will erode some of our most fundamental institutions and our understanding of the rule of law.
Will the hon. Lady comment on whether the qualification provision will raise the bar significantly above that in current regulations for such people and whether that will put at a disadvantage people already carrying out those functions?
We are talking about two different things. The authorised persons are to have delegated to them many judicial functions, and it is only appropriate that they have some experience. In those circumstances, three years’ post-qualification experience is not a big ask, obligation or burden. We are asking for the minimum, and we are being very reasonable and practical about it. We are only surprised that the Government are not taking our concerns on board and changing the rules.
One reason we need proper scrutiny is the tendency towards rationalisation of the courts, which eventually means long waiting times—that cannot be justice for anyone waiting for a trial. There have been endless cases of this now, and it is getting worse, not better. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not fair on the victim or the perpetrator?
My hon. Friend is spot on. That is one of our concerns about the Government’s proposals.
We need a process that requires transparent and public scrutiny in this House of the scope of future delegated powers. The safeguards the Opposition seek on the powers created by the Bill are not unreasonable and would not interfere with the notion of reasonable delegation of non-contentious administrative functions; they simply press for further oversight and accountability.
Our amendments providing that the authorised persons must be solicitors, barristers or chartered legal executives with more than three years’ post-qualification experience have been recommended and drafted by the Law Society and are supported by the Bar Council. In other words, all the practitioners in the country are supporting and asking for these changes, and I ask the Government, even at this late stage, to consider adopting them. In the circumstance, we believe them to be the minimal ask of the Government. It is a lower qualification threshold than what is currently required of pupil supervisors, or indeed of solicitors, to supervise an office.
It is worth remembering that authorised staff are not subject to the training, experience, ethos and oaths of professional judges, and could be performing judicial functions while also—this is really important—being employed directly by HMCTS. This raises genuine questions of independence.
We are talking about taxpayers’ money. Does the hon. Lady not accept that where such tasks are routine—say, straightforward case preparation—the people performing them should not need a legal qualification?
These people will be performing judicial tasks and functions and so will need to be appropriately qualified, which is why we have tabled the amendments.
It is my understanding that these are mainly interlocutory functions, not actual judgments or significant judicial functions.
No, as we understand it, although it is envisaged that some of these tasks will be procedural, others will be very important to people whose rights are affected. We might think, for example, that requests for adjournments are straightforward, but they are not. As practitioners and former practitioners will know, they can be complicated, because when a judge decides whether to grant one, they take into consideration a host of things, so it is important that the person be appropriately qualified.
We accept that the procedure rule committee will be able to iron out some of the questions about what are judicial and what are administrative functions, but the main thing is that these people will be carrying out judicial functions and deciding some difficult issues, and it is only appropriate that they be qualified and appropriately experienced.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We discussed this in Committee. Interlocutory case management often has a large bearing on what happens in a case; it can alter what happens in a case and it can alter cost decisions. In their own way, such decisions are as important as purely judicial decisions. The Government’s proposal might be a false economy, so I support what she is saying.
I thank my hon. Friend, a former shadow Justice Minister, for his intervention, and I take his point.
We acknowledge that the relevant procedure rule committee will set out the procedural requirements for who can carry out the procedures, but we also know that these committees are predominantly made up of senior judges, so this will have implications for the independence of judicial decision making.
We also believe that such a shift will not match the expectations held by members of the public on the experience and independence of those making judicial decisions about their rights.
The hon. Lady referred to the independence of the judges. Is not the whole virtue of this proposal that the rules governing who should be delegated what functions will be made by judges, and should not be made by politicians in any circumstance? Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the former Lord Chief Justice, observed:
“Experience has shown that detailed restrictions on procedure are a very real fetter on the administration of justice.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2018; Vol. 791, c. 2039.]
He counselled against too much restriction of the kind that is being proposed.
The procedure rule committee obviously has a place in our judicial system, and we accept that judges and others are involved in it, but everyone knows that there are times when, because of financial pressures, services are cut to the bare minimum. We believe that, to protect our judicial system, the functions concerned should be clearly set out, and those that will have an effect on someone should be decided by an authorised person with a legal qualification.
The hon. Lady is getting perilously close to suggesting that judges will do justice when they are inside a court, but will be incapable of ensuring that justice is done when they are outside a court, on the procedure rule committees. Will she make it crystal clear that judges will always, in all circumstances, want to do justice, and can be trusted to do so?
We are not suggesting that judges will somehow not be independent. As I have said, I have the highest regard for our judiciary in court, although from time to time we might disagree with the decisions that judges reach. In the real world, however, there are often targets to be met and financial constraints to be considered. We are saying that when the procedure rule committee is making rules, it should be guided by Parliament.
I have taken a number of interventions, and I will make some progress now. Otherwise we will be going round in circles on the same point.
The Bill provides for judicial functions to be delegated to authorised staff across the criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals. However, it also states that while those staff will be independent of the Lord Chancellor when carrying out the delegated functions, they will remain court staff, and will not take the judicial oath of independence. It is surely important for those who will be making any type of judicial decision to take that oath. They cannot be described as independent when they are employed by the court in which they will serve.
There might, for example, be economic pressures. The court might want to get rid of cases very quickly, within a certain period. The promotion prospects of those who are employed directly by the courts will, of course, be affected, and, unlike judges, they will not be governed by the oath of independence, the Bar rules and the Law Society rules. People who are making judicial decisions should be appropriately qualified, with the proper ethos and the proper rules that apply to solicitors and barristers, and to which members of the legal profession, such as me, must have regard.
Our amendment 5 would ensure that a party to any decision made by an authorised person exercising a relevant judicial function, or the function of a tribunal,
“may apply in writing, within 14 days of the service of the order, to have the decision reconsidered by a judge of the relevant court within 14 days from the date of application.”
We will be quite happy if the Government want to increase the period to 21 days, or reduce it to fewer than 14, but we want people to have a right to judicial reconsideration of a decision made by an authorised person. We cannot understand why the Government do not want to accept the amendment.
The statutory right of reconsideration would allow any party to a decision made by an authorised person to have that decision reconsidered by a judge, as recommended by Lord Justice Briggs in his 2016 “Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report”. The right is already provided for in, for example, tribunal procedure rules. Lord Justice Briggs said:
“The creation of an extensive right to have the decisions of Case Officers considered by a judge has from the outset been regarded as the natural safety valve for concerns about what was...described as the delegation of judicial functions to persons who are not judges”.
We are asking for a minimum safeguard. The right of reconsideration would have the benefit of freeing an authorised person from the obligation to produce detailed reasons for every decision, as would be the case if the right of appeal, for example, were created. It has the additional benefit of going further than a right of review by guaranteeing judicial oversight of a decision.
More importantly, that statutory right would ensure compliance with article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which refers to the right to a fair trial. Decisions that affect people’s rights must be made by an independent and impartial person, and that person cannot be a member of court staff or employed directly by a tribunal. We consider this to be a proportionate safeguard that would be relevant to the new powers created by the Bill, given the provision in article 6 that the determination of a person’s civil rights and obligations, or any criminal charge against them, must be undertaken by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.
The requirement for independence would apply not only to the tribunal, but to any judge or other officer authorised by law to exercise judicial power. As the Ministry of Justice acknowledges in its human rights memorandum on the Bill,
“In considering independence...guarantees against outside pressures are relevant—as is the question whether the body presents an appearance of independence”.
In the memorandum, the MOJ suggests that it is intended that
“case management decisions which it is proposed these authorised members of staff will be able to take will be uncontentious and not of sufficient importance to engage Article 6”.
However—I say this particularly to those who have practised in law and have attended court, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made the point earlier—case management decisions can have a significant impact in shaping the ultimate outcome of a case. For example, a decision on the appropriate timescales within which a party should take a step in proceedings may be significant, as failures to comply with a timescale will lead to some or all of the party’s case being struck out.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice’s factsheet on the delegation of functions to non-judicial staff states:
“In future, we expect that authorised staff may be able to carry out a…range of…functions”
“including case management powers and some mediation roles.”
That suggests that what is envisaged is more than a delegation of purely procedural powers to authorised persons. In effect, a mediation role is almost like a judicial role, and people who have not been properly trained and are not properly qualified should not be mediating between the parties to the proceedings. Even in its own paper, the Ministry of Justice seems to expect those staff to play a much bigger role in decision making.
Labour Members strongly believe that Parliament must have a role in ensuring that the new system of delegation proposed in the Bill includes a backstop protection—the word “backstop” has been used a lot in the last few weeks—of the right to a fair trial. Our amendments have been endorsed by the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They propose a statutory right to judicial reconsideration for any party to a judicial decision made by an authorised person or non-judge. This would afford stronger protection of the right to a fair trial, and would guarantee the independent and impartial determination required by article 6. Another of our amendments seeks to ensure that, in drawing up the rules on reconsideration, the procedure committee must consider which functions and decisions could clearly have a material impact on the substantive rights of the parties.
The safeguards we are calling for are not unreasonable; they are minimal if we understand that the provisions in this so-called “uncontroversial” Bill have the potential to profoundly impact on our justice system. But to truly understand the impact of this Bill, we have to look at it in the context of the Government’s wider austerity agenda. The double delegation of powers that the Government are intent on introducing is a slippery slope that, without proper controls, puts rights at risk. We can resist this—and we do. Without further careful scrutiny and additional safeguards, this Bill has the potential to erode long-established legal rights.
The Government must take notice of the clear limitations of this Bill. They should listen to those who seek to improve this Bill and accept our amendments to ensure that we protect our judicial system.
I hope I shall make a better stab at my speech than I did of being a Teller earlier.
I rise to oppose these amendments, tempted though I am by the way in which they were proposed by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), whom I respect as a fellow lawyer. However, I do have to say that she seeks to go further than is appropriate and seeks to put a needless restriction on the ability of the procedure committee in particular to come to the appropriate balance. I have very great respect for the views of both the Law Society and the Bar Council—I say that with reference to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a non-practising barrister and a consultant to a law firm—but ultimately the scheme envisaged by the Government is a right and balanced one, and reflects in particular the views of the senior judiciary, which I think is important because ultimately it is the judges who are best placed to decide the appropriate level of delegation. They are the people who work day to day with these staff; they see day to day the nature of the boxwork—as it is sometimes called—and the other things that come in.
For these reasons, when the matter was debated in the other place, both Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the recently retired Lord Chief Justice, to whom I have already referred, and Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, recently retired president of the Supreme Court, counselled against an undue restriction on the operation of the civil procedure rule committee, already a well established body of the kind the Opposition seek to bring in. I think they also broadly supported the overall thrust of the Bill.
The hon. Lady referred to austerity. That is not the objective of this Bill; there has been a long-standing proposal to modernise the civil justice system. She referred to the work done by Lord Justice Briggs, for whom I have the greatest respect. The Bill is a logical follow-on from the Briggs report, and it is necessary if we are to achieve modernisation and make the courts more accessible for litigants. This is an entirely sensible Bill; that is why the judiciary has pushed for these sorts of proposals, and why Lord Thomas said that he “warmly” welcomed it. It will save some £6 million; he regards that as a realistic figure. That is important in the context of the available resources for the courts system. We all accept that the courts are under pressure, and this is a sensible way forward that does not impede the basic requirements of access to justice or fairness.
Lord Thomas said two further things that we should bear in mind. He spoke about the developments in civil procedures; the rule committee has been an important part of that over the last 15 to 20 years, so it is not as though the committee were unused to dealing with these matters. The committees bring together representatives of the legal profession. As a former practitioner, I agree with his description of that committee as
“a highly representative body with many representatives of the legal profession. Certainly, the committee will always try to reach a view by consensus—when I was a member of it for more than six years there never was a division; we always managed to agree.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2018; Vol. 791, c. 2039.]
Most experienced practitioners will be aware of that. I think we can say the same of the criminal procedure rule committee; these are very well established bodies, and judges do not forget that they are judges when they are there.
It is a little unworthy, I say with respect, to suggest that the judiciary—we have talked about the senior judiciary chairing these bodies—would acquiesce in an inappropriate level of delegation for a purely financial consideration. They would be going against their judicial oaths. I do not think for one second that the hon. Lady really means to say that they would do that. The amendments would, however, put needless constraint on the committee’s work. That is why I quoted before and quote again Lord Thomas’s observation:
“Experience has shown that detailed restrictions on procedure are a very real fetter on the administration of justice”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2018; Vol. 791, c. 2039.]
In the other place, he gave a number of examples that I need not give here showing why that could be counterproductive.
It is also worth considering the speech of Lord Neuberger. He pointed out the following:
“There are two protected factors: one is that nothing can be done without it being in the rules, and the second is that the Lord Chief Justice needs to give his or her authorisation to the person who makes the decision.” .”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 July 2018; Vol. 792, c. 887.]
Those are important safeguards.
My hon. Friend speaks with great expertise. What he is saying goes back to the point raised earlier about the possibility of the functions that are delegated having legal significance. Presumably if that was the case, they would not be delegated to start with.
That is precisely right. It is inconceivable that any Lord Chief Justice would give his or her consent to a delegation that was inappropriate or would put the interests of justice at risk. I never sat as a deputy district judge—they used to be called deputy registrars in my day, so long ago was it—in civil matters, but I have many friends who do, and a great deal of what is called boxwork, with which at least some on the Treasury Bench will be familiar, was of a very administrative kind. We expect the district judges in a busy county court to deal with that, whereas it seems perfectly reasonable for many of these matters, which are often of a very interlocutory nature, to be dealt with by an experienced member of court staff who has been in the service for many years. We are not talking about the ultimate determination of the case in any of these matters. That is why Lord Neuberger referred to that safeguard or protection, and the protection that that would be laid before Parliament.
Lord Neuberger made another important observation on the attempt, as it seems to me, to fetter the discretion of the committee. He posed a rhetorical question, as perhaps senior judges and other lawyers tend to do:
“Whether it is right to provide in such clear terms, and such uncompromising general terms, for the circumstances and requirements for”
appeals—which is what he was talking about—seems to him to be questionable. He was making this point:
“Having chaired the Civil Procedure Rule Committee for three years, I can say, as has been quoted in relation to its criminal equivalent by my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas, that considerable care is given to ensure that all the requirements of justice are met. It is very rare, if ever, that I can remember a decision being arrived at which was not arrived at by consensus.”
These questions are considered, not only by the judiciary but by practitioners, including members of the solicitors’ profession and members of the Bar. Plaintiffs’ and defendants’ interests are represented on these committees, as are both ends of the profession—solicitors and barristers—and all levels of the judiciary, from the High Court bench through the circuit bench to the district bench. This is a broad-based body and, as Lord Neuberger said, these
“details should be worked out…by the rule committee”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 July 2018; Vol. 792, c. 890 to 891.]
I think that that is a forceful argument for leaving the proposals as the Government intended.
This is an important matter, but I hope that the House will not be lured into setting an undue restriction that, with every respect to the intentions of the hon. Member for Bolton South East, could give the impression that Parliament did not trust the independence of the judiciary, because that would certainly not be correct, or that it sought needlessly to circumscribe the way in which judges operate their courts. It is fundamental that we as party politicians—that is effectively what virtually all of us are—should not interfere in the way in which judges organise their workload and the staffing of the courts. As well as being impractical and unhelpful, that could also set an undesirable precedent in which Parliament, as well as setting the statutory framework in which judges operate, sought to delve too closely into the control of the everyday operations of an independent judiciary and court system.
I rise briefly to speak in favour of the amendments tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues. I believe that safeguards need to be in place to ensure that people are properly qualified to make decisions and particularly that contentious decisions should be reviewed by a qualified judge. I want explicitly to address concerns about how this might transpire in the family courts. Several of my hon. Friends raised the concern in Committee that the family courts could be the most affected by potential delays and the perverse consequences of the measures in the Bill.
This is particularly relevant given the recent exposure of the case of Sammy Woodhouse. I am sure that colleagues will be well aware of her case. I know that the Minister is, and I am grateful to her for meeting Sammy and me last week. Mr Speaker also welcomed Sammy to Prime Minister’s questions last week. Her bravery in putting herself forward, in risking being held in contempt of the family court and in waiving her anonymity to speak about her experiences, so that we in this place can drive change, is inspiring. We owe it to her and to the many other survivors to ensure that we drive change and ensure that what happened to her and to too many other young women and girls never happens again.
Those young women and girls were failed by the state. They were failed by our legal system, by the police, by the Crown Prosecution Service, by local authorities and by government at every level, and now they are being failed yet again by our legal system. Our entirely permissive system, which allows anyone to make an application through the family courts, means that men who have been convicted of rape—in Sammy’s case, the father of her child, Arshid Hussain, is serving a 35-year prison sentence—can apply to the courts for access or visitation rights. Sammy’s case shocked the nation, but unfortunately it was not unique. Just yesterday, I spoke to another woman who had to respond and attend court after the man who was convicted of raping her and fathering her child had applied through the family courts from prison.
This could be prevented through a simple ban on any man convicted of fathering a child through rape applying to the family courts. I know that the Government are reluctant to bring this forward, out of concern for the convicted rapist’s article 8 right to a family life, but I am afraid that that simply is not good enough. I will always defend our human rights as enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights—I say this on the day of the 70th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights—but article 8 is a qualified right and not one that should override the rights of women and children and their safety. Surely, we should be starting from the presumption that if a child has been conceived through rape, the man should have no parental rights to that child and that we should allow such rights only in exceptional circumstances, not the other way round.
When I speak to victims of rape and survivors of child sexual exploitation in situations such as Sammy’s—women who have an almost uniformly terrible experience of the family courts—their feeling is one of betrayal and despair that every day is a battle in which they have to fight for their most basic rights. They are often forced to relive their traumatic experiences and justify themselves over and over, yet they are so often told about the rights of the men who have abused them and who can now click their fingers and drag their victims back through the courts to traumatise them all over again. Women such as Sammy, who have already given evidence, spoken out in criminal trials and been to hell and back, should not then live the rest of their lives trying to bring their children up in horrendously difficult circumstances with the threat of being dragged back through the courts once again to face the man who raped them. It may be the case that no judge would allow such access in any circumstances, but it is surely intolerable for women in this situation to have to face the man in court all over again, and I believe that we as a Parliament should make that crystal clear.
The family procedure rule committee met earlier this week to discuss the consequences of Sammy’s case and to consider amending practice direction 12C. I hope that the committee will be able to bring much greater clarity, but this is likely to be in relation to local authorities’ duty to notify in the case of a care order. That will not solve the problem, and I worry that, combined with the measures introduced in the Bill, it could bring greater uncertainty to the process and leave victims with even greater uncertainty and fear that their abusers might be able to weaponise the courts against them. As I have said, I am grateful to the Minister for meeting Sammy and me last week, but we were both really disappointed that the Government were not willing to take more immediate action to address this thoroughly intolerable situation. I hope that the Minister will be able to update the House on what action they have now considered and on the implications of the Bill for this important issue.
It is an honour to take this Bill through its final stages. I should like to start by addressing some of the key points raised today by the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). She suggested that we were sneaking the Bill through the House. However, it was introduced seven months ago. Not only that, but it forms part of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which was introduced in this House in 2017 and which fell at the general election. The provisions in this Bill have been well known for some time. They have been debated in this House, and they are not being sneaked anywhere at all. The thrust of the hon. Lady’s speech was that this is a Bill about cuts, but it is certainly not. The Bill is part of our £1 billion court reform programme.
My hon. and learned Friend is making an important point. In 2010, this country faced its largest budget deficit since the second world war, and all that my constituents want is value for money from the Government. The measures that we are taking forward today may not be the most exciting or sexy things that we will do this House, but they are a key part of value-for-money government.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that has a number of aspects. First, my Department had to make cuts in 2010 because of the poor financial situation that we inherited from the Labour party. Secondly, it is important that we deliver justice fairly to those who are part of the justice system, but as he says, we also have a duty to the taxpayer. Overlaying those two points is a third point. Notwithstanding the position we inherited and notwithstanding our duty to taxpayers, my Department is undertaking a significant reform programme that is investing in our justice system. A couple of weeks ago, the Ministry of Justice held a conference at which more than 20 countries from around the world were represented. They talked about their own reform and modernisation programmes, but ours is one of the most ambitious. We are at the forefront of innovation, and we are investing in our justice system to bring it up to date in the 21st century.
Is this not also important in the context of the speech by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd in the other place? He said that
“the operation of the criminal, civil, tribunals and family procedures rule committees has enabled us far more than any other state to keep our rules up to date.”
We need to continue to do that. That is why he stated:
“I urge the greatest caution in trying to put into primary legislation anything that restricts in this way the powers of the rule committees.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 2018; Vol. 793, c. 425.]
That is an important point. Our justice system is renowned throughout the world, thanks to its flexibility, which is enabled by the rules committees along with the other measures that allow us to develop our jurisdiction.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East finished by suggesting that we should listen and take the amendments on board, but we have listened and made amendments. We made amendments in the other place to include safeguards and improve the Bill.
The Minister makes a good point about our duty to the taxpayer. Irrespective of this nation’s financial situation, we always have a responsibility to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely. As she knows, Northallerton magistrates court in my constituency will close. She has put in place some mitigation measures to help people to continue to have access to justice, but will she ensure that those measures are in place before the closure of that court?
My hon. Friend and, indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker have campaigned hard about the closure of their local courts, and the dispensing of local justice is important in Northallerton, as it is in Chorley. My hon. Friend makes an important point, because, following campaigning by my hon. Friend and his constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), we committed not to close the court on the basis that we would do so only when the technology was in place to ensure that we could continue to deliver justice. We need to move with the times, but we must also ensure that people get fair procedures and justice in the tribunals.
My hon. and learned Friend is being most generous in giving way. Does she also recognise that modernising and simplifying procedures saves money not only for the taxpayer, but for litigants? Part of access to justice is about reducing needless costs for litigants.
That is an important point, because when we talk about what we have saved, we often mean what has been saved at the Ministry of Justice, but the reality is that ensuring that justice is served for the people who use it is at the heart of our reforms. Many of our changes have received positive feedback. In a recent trial at the tax tribunal, people were able to access justice from remote locations and not have to go to a physical court. That was well received, because people did not have to disrupt their day by physically entering court. Of course, that will not be appropriate for everyone, but we must ensure that we use the advantages of technology in the future.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice for giving way—[Laughter.] That bought us 32 seconds. I am interested in what she has said. Is she able to dilate—preferably at some considerable length—on the benefits that might accrue from people not having to go to court in rural areas, such as North Dorset, where public transport is scarce and where not everybody has access to a motor car? The changes could be of huge benefit to large, sparsely populated rural areas such as mine.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I also represent a rural area. Interestingly, some of the greatest and most interesting innovations at our conference were from Australia, where the geography is an issue, and we can learn a lot from its procedures. Over recent years, 300,000 people have started engaging with our online services, which have been well received.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I will take one intervention and then address the amendments.
I am grateful. Can we read across from what my hon. and learned Friend says that she is making strong representations to ministerial colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to BT and to other providers to ensure that hotspots, blackspots, notspots—call them what you will—in rural areas that are poorly served by a reliable, speedy, robust internet will be filled to allow all our citizens to access justice and make representations using technology? With the best will in the world, if the technology is not there—I know that my hon. and learned Friend knows this—people will not be able to use it.
My hon. Friend makes a second important point, which is that we cannot roll out and continue to use technology unless the technology actually works. I regularly talk to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and others about the importance of ensuring that the systems that we already have in place work well, so that the technology does not fail us when we are trying to hold court hearings.
Further to the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) about virtual and online courts and creating hassle-free access to courts for all constituents, can the Minister give us figures for the extent to which the change has helped to unclog our courts? One of the benefits of the Bill for my constituents is not just hassle-free access for them, but the fact that our courts will not be clogged up by the traffic cases and small beer that lead my constituents to wonder why serious criminals take years to be processed. Will the Minister give us some stats about the growth of virtual and online courts and what this Bill will do to those stats?
I mentioned earlier that 300,000 people have already started engaging with our services online. They can apply for probate or divorce online, and many people are doing that. We also have our new online civil moneys claim court, which enables people to apply online and defend online. In one case in the first week after its launch, we had a settlement without people going to court at all. Technology will not only enable us to unclog our courts and get quicker hearing times, but give our constituents better access to justice because more people will be engaging with it. It will be cheaper for them to engage, and therefore more people will be able to access fairness and justice in the resolution of their claims.
I turn to the essence of the Bill and the Opposition amendments. Amendment 1 relates to clause 3(3), which provides for the use of the negative resolution procedure, which the hon. Member for Bolton South East suggested is not appropriate when dealing with the judicial functions of staff. However, the Government think that the amendment is inappropriate for several reasons. First, clause 3(3), which provides for the use of the negative resolution procedure, is not actually concerned with judicial functions. Clause 3(3) is in fact cross-referring to clause 3(2), which allows the Secretary of State to make
“consequential, transitional, transitory or saving”
provisions relating to authorised staff by way of regulations.
In reality, clause 3(3) allows us to amend references in secondary legislation to, for example, justices’ clerk—a post abolished by the Bill—to authorised officer. So far, we have identified over 200 references and over 60 pieces of secondary legislation that would need amendment, and there may be more. It is a standard clause for this type of provision. We know that that is the correct reading of the measure because the power to enable staff to carry out the judicial functions that the hon. Member for Bolton South East is concerned about is actually set out in the procedural rules made by the independent rules committees. This is clear from clause 3(1), which refers not to regulations but to procedure rules. The procedure by which the procedure rules are enacted is set out not in this Bill but in other legislation, namely the Courts Act 2003, the Civil Procedure Act 1997 and the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007.
Amendments 2 to 4 relate to the qualifications of those undertaking advice or judicial functions under the Bill. Amendments 2 and 3 require that any staff member who gives legal advice to lay justices or judges of the family court must be legally qualified and have more than three years’ experience post-qualification. Amendment 4 requires the same qualifications for any staff carrying out judicial functions.
The Government absolutely agree it is important that those who undertake functions in our courts are suitably qualified. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said, and as he has said on many occasions, our justice system is renowned throughout the world, and much of that is down to the experience and quality of our judiciary. Ensuring that those who work within our justice system have the right skills is fundamental to justice.
Members on both sides of the House would agree that we have a world-renowned judiciary. In fact, Members are profoundly nervous when we see headlines in our papers calling judges, “Enemies of the People,” which we would all disavow. These are people who, day in and day out, do things in court that could cause them to be threatened. They are taking risks on behalf of the rest of us, and it is a high-quality system. With that in mind, and given the respect in which the judiciary are held by this House, does my hon. and learned Friend agree it is important that we do not accidentally do them down in this debate? Does she agree it is not right for the shadow Attorney General to suggest, I think unintentionally, that temporary judges may be less impartial than permanent judges? All our judiciary are high quality.
That is absolutely right. As a former barrister, I appeared regularly before experienced judges, all of whom were full of integrity, undertaking important roles.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East suggested that all judges need qualifications of some kind. Of course, we have magistrates across the country who are doing outstanding jobs in our justice system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) mentions, temporary judges, just like full-time judges and judges who operate on a permanent basis, are recruited because of their expertise and skill. They are trained, and they carry out their roles as they should.
My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the fine work done by magistrates. Is there any way we could relax the requirements in order to increase the number of cases that may be considered by magistrates? I understand that magistrates are the most cost-effective part of the justice system.
Magistrates undertake a significant number of roles, and they have vital responsibilities. In fact, they deal with over 95% of all criminal cases, the majority of which are less serious criminal cases, but they are very important. I am pleased recently to have attended the Magistrates Association conference, where I met a number of magistrates who are doing vital work across the country.
I declare an interest, as my wife is currently going through the process to become a magistrate. I am struck by how the role of magistrates is so little understood. There are a number of people in my professional and personal circles who might make good magistrates, but they are unaware of the process or of the importance of the role. What more could be done to highlight the significant role that magistrates play in the criminal justice system?
I am pleased to hear that Mrs Cleverly is undertaking this important role. My hon. Friend is right that it is important, and employers do understand. The Lloyds banking group recently won an award for encouraging staff to take time off to undertake this important role, and we need to do more to encourage employers to encourage their staff to take part in this important function.
A short intervention.
Everything I do is short, Mr Deputy Speaker.
We are all, thank God, living longer. At some point, might there be merit in reviewing the retirement age both for our judges and our magistrates? With people taking early retirement and so on, the receptacle of wisdom should not be lost to the courts, particularly taking the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) on the difficulty of finding people to fill these posts.
Order. We need to move on now. I was very generous before, but magistrates have absolutely nothing to do with the Bill, as the Minister well knows.
I am happy to come on to the three reasons why amendments 2 to 4 cannot be accepted. First, the amendments are not necessary. The functions are already being carried out, and carried out well, by those with lesser qualifications than those sought by the hon. Member for Bolton South East. The qualification requirements for legal advisers in the magistrates court and family court are currently set out in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor, as they have been since 1979, and amendments 2 and 3 would raise the qualifications bar significantly higher than the current regulations and would rule out a large proportion of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff from giving legal advice in future.
There are many people in the Chamber with huge legal expertise. All I can claim is spending my year off as a junior outdoor clerk, for which the only qualifications needed were a ponytail and a cockney accent, as far as I could see. From my short experience I discovered the huge number of staff who make up our courts and keep them ticking along. They might be administrative functions, but we should not be afraid of reforming our courts to give those people greater roles that help them to make more of their career.