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Commons Chamber

Volume 653: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019

House of Commons

Tuesday 22 January 2019

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Human Rights

1. What recent assessment he has made of the safety and security of human rights defenders throughout the world. (908694)

The UK is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide and supports the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the High Commission for Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UK is one of the longest-standing members of the Human Rights Council, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware. Regrettably, human rights defenders face unprecedented attack in many parts of the world. In 2018 alone, more than 300 such defenders were killed, and thousands more were imprisoned, attacked or tortured around the world.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. There has been a surge of attacks against and repression of human rights defenders around the world. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women’s rights activists, including Samar Badawi, have been detained since last May, and there have been reports that some have been tortured. I welcome Lord Ahmad’s announcement last month that the Department will publish the guidelines for embassies about support for human rights defenders, to aid clarity and consistency. When does the Minister envisage that publication taking place?

I do not want to put my ministerial colleague under undue pressure, but this is clearly something that we consider a major priority. Obviously, as Ministers we raise human rights issues with all our overseas counterparts, in both public and private forums. In December, as part of the UK’s commitment to freedom of religious belief, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is sitting to my right, announced an independent global review of the persecution of Christians, which will contain recommendations on practical steps in respect of that persecution. Of course, that applies to religious beliefs of all sorts.

An estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims are being held in detention camps in Xinjiang by the Chinese Government. In the very week that we commit to relearning the lessons of the holocaust, does the Minister share my concern that such human rights abuses and persecution cannot go unchallenged? It is quite disgraceful conduct from a permanent member of the Security Council. What is the Minister doing to protest to the Chinese Government about these issues?

May I address this issue up front? I suspect that many Members from all parties have grave concerns about it. We are concerned about what is happening in Xinjiang province, including the detention of, as the hon. Lady says, more than 1 million people without trial in political re-education camps. Not only did British diplomats on the ground visit Xinjiang in December 2018 but we are raising and will continue to raise this issue bilaterally with the Chinese. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did so most recently in Beijing in the autumn.

Human rights defenders face particular challenges in the Gaza strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Journalists are oppressed, demonstrations are violently put down and public executions take place. What are we doing to support human rights defenders in the Gaza strip?

I reassure my hon. Friend that Ministers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, do make clear our concerns about the rights of human rights defenders and the importance of their work in every part of the world.

Brave human rights defenders are alerting us to a terrible new wave of persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Chechnya. What steps will the Government take to remind the Russian authorities of their responsibilities, including publishing an independent inquiry into this issue? They are signatories to the European convention on human rights and these abuses cannot be allowed to continue.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are and remain deeply concerned by the recent reports of the renewed wave of persecution of LGBT folk in Chechnya. Both the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas have in the past week made it clear to their Russian counterparts that we must stop such persecution and hold those responsible to account.

What discussions about the human rights situation have Ministers had with the Government of Colombia, either directly or through the embassies, following the bombing of the police academy in that country?

There are obviously great concerns. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, a number of cadets were killed taking important action as human rights defenders. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas has raised this issue at a bilateral level, and we will monitor the situation carefully.

It will indeed. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) speaks avidly, repeatedly, and, if I may say, persistently on this matter—and indeed extremely effectively. My right hon. Friend can be assured that we will address that along with other issues about Christian persecution across the world.

One of the most chilling aspects of the violence in Zimbabwe in recent days was the statement of the President’s spokesman that this was

“just a foretaste of things to come”.

In the light of that, does the Minister agree that it is time for the UN to revive the Security Council resolution on Zimbabwe that it failed to pass in 2008, and will the UK seek to initiate that discussion?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. This is deeply disappointing to all of us in this House. We all celebrated the demise of the Mugabe regime, feeling and hoping that a new chapter of Zimbabwe history was commencing. We are very concerned about the disproportionate response of the security forces to the recent protests. May I reassure the House that my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador on 17 January to urge the Government there to show restraint and fully investigate any cases of alleged human rights abuses? Obviously, we will take this up in multilateral forums such as the UN. I do not want to make a firm commitment to what the hon. Lady has said, but she will know that, in this fluid situation, we will keep all our options open.

Iraq

I spoke to Foreign Minister Alhakim on the telephone on 14 November. I saw him in Rome with President Barham Salih at the end of November, and the noble Lord Ahmad spoke to him in December.

I thank the Minister for his response. Ben Taub reminded us recently in The New Yorker that the murder and rape of women and the brutalisation of children in Iraqi detention camps do not bode well for peace and security. Does the Minister agree that when he next meets his counterparts he should remind the Iraqi state that it should be building peace and reconciliation rather than creating breeding grounds for a new Daesh insurgency?

That is absolutely right. The future of Iraq, which has real possibilities now following the elections some months ago, has to be built not only on the understanding that all communities in Iraq need a share in government and in the development of the country but on human rights, which can be exploited if they are abused. That forms a fundamental part of the future of Iraq. These issues are indeed raised.

A successful economy is vital to secure Iraq’s long-term future and the wellbeing of its people, who have suffered so much. What steps are being taken to ensure that British companies can participate in building that better future?

We have an active and thriving Iraq-UK business council. Baroness Nicholson has been involved for many years in efforts in this area, particularly in the south of the country in Basra. The contracts and opportunities for the rebuilding and the reconstruction of Iraq will be much helped by the international community’s determination to support Iraq and Iraq’s own use of its oil revenues. British companies should be well placed because of their history and expertise.

What dialogue has the Minister had with the Government of Iraq on the rights of Kurdish Iraqis and Kurds across the region?

The Kurdish community is represented through the Kurdish Regional Government, and we keep in regular contact with them. Relationships between Baghdad and Irbil are vital for ensuring that the Kurdish community feels a full part of a united Iraq. Those relations, I think, have been strengthened since the election of President Barham Salih, but the Kurdish people’s future in a united Iraq is fundamental to the future and progress of a united Iraq.

The Government are supposed to provide the House with an update on the campaign against Daesh every quarter. The last I checked, the duration of a quarter is 92 days, but the most recent Daesh statement was more than 200 days ago, so when will we get the next update, or has the policy changed?

Yes, soon. It seems the best possible word to use. The definition of quarter has obviously stretched a little bit too far, but it is important both to keep up the relationship with the House on this and to confirm progress in relation to Daesh across Syria and Iraq, which continues to be vital.

Leaving the EU: Diplomatic Co-operation

3. What assessment his Department has made of the effect on diplomatic co-operation between the UK and the EU of the UK leaving the EU on 29 March 2019. (908696)

The Secretary of State says that, but the effects of a lack of co-operation are being felt directly in my constituency. A major European car manufacturer was due to invite 40 international journalists per day to a new Inverness hotel. Now the owner, Tony Storey, tells me that that has been cancelled, costing him £400,000 and priceless exposure for the highlands. What does the Secretary of State say to business owners like Tony and others who are being affected by this Brexit shambles?

If SNP Members want to resolve the uncertainty, it is very simple—vote for the deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated.

It is possible to welcome yesterday’s announcement of the waiving of the settled status fee, which has gone down very well with EU nationals across the UK, including in Chelsea and Fulham, where I have 11,000 EU nationals. Could my right hon. Friend say something about improving and boosting our efforts in Germany? We currently have only three diplomatic missions in Germany. France has seven; Italy has 11. Our future relationship with Germany will be crucial. We have no representation. We have a very good honorary consul in Frankfurt, but it seems that for the European Central Bank, we need more representation in Frankfurt and Hamburg in particular.

I defer to my right hon. Friend’s knowledge of Germany, which is second to none. I would like to reassure him that over the past three years we have had, on average, about one Government Minister visiting Germany every single week, so we do give it the highest priority in our foreign relations, and will continue to do so post Brexit. However, I will look into the issue of consulates that my right hon. Friend raises.

Surely the Foreign Secretary has picked up the fact that morale in the diplomatic corps across Europe is at rock bottom. What will he do to lift the spirits of a corps of professional diplomats who are so disturbed by the lack of leadership from this Government on Europe?

Of course I recognise that we would all like to resolve the uncertainty around Brexit as soon as possible, but we have significantly expanded the diplomatic corps in Europe. Our representation in Brussels—the UKRep office—has gone up from 120 to 150 and will go up to 180 people; we have upgraded our representation across every EU state to senior ambassadorial level; and we are investing, because it matters.

Recently, the former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, remarked on the fact that the British Government are working closely with other European Governments on the Iran nuclear deal. Could the Foreign Secretary give the House further detail on how that will continue after we leave the European Union on 29 March?

Absolutely. We have an independent foreign policy now and we will continue, obviously, to have that post Brexit. The Iran nuclear deal was negotiated with the United States and European countries, and has been successful in preventing Iran developing a nuclear programme. It is not perfect, but it has worked, and that is why we continue to support it and work closely with our partners to do so.

I am sure all Members will want to join me in congratulating the Dáil in Ireland, which yesterday marked the centenary of its first international address and its message to free nations. Ireland, like every other EU member state, sees the EU as a way of strengthening its independence and sovereignty and increasing its diplomatic clout. Shinzo Abe has called on us to take no deal off the table. The Secretary of State knows the deal will not go through. Can he at least take no deal off the table? No deal would undermine our diplomatic clout.

The best way to avoid no deal is to find a deal that can pass through this House. If you take no deal off the table, you remove any incentive for the EU to help us do that, which is why it would be a big mistake and actually make no deal more likely.

The Foreign Secretary is wrong. If we take no deal off the table, we can talk in a meaningful way with each other and with our European partners.

On 17 January I received a written answer from the Minister for Europe and the Americas, saying that we have 550 officials working on Brexit—hundreds of officials, working on a worse deal for the UK. At a time when the FCO and the public services are struggling for resources, is that not a waste of time, a waste of finances and a waste of the good will that we desperately need at this time in terms of our diplomacy?

What makes no deal more likely is if parties like the hon. Gentleman’s continue to vote against sensible proposals that this Government bring to the House of Commons. Any Government have to be responsible and prepare for all eventualities, but the best way to make sure that we do not have that eventuality is to do the preparation.

May I take the Foreign Secretary back to our last debate on Brexit? He gave me an answer that was not exactly convincing, so I thought I would give him another chance. [Interruption.] I am nothing but kindness—it is my new year’s resolution. Four days after the referendum, he said that

“we need to negotiate a deal and put it to the British people, either in a referendum or through the Conservative manifesto at a fresh general election…we will trust the British people to decide on whether or not it is a good deal”.

So can I ask him again why he no longer believes in trusting the British people to decide whether they want the Prime Minister’s deal?

I do. We have had a general election and over 80% of voters supported parties that wanted to leave the EU and end free movement. I will happily take criticisms of our Brexit policy on the chin the moment Labour actually has the courage to have its own Brexit policy in the first place. This morning, the shadow Business Secretary, on the “Today” programme, could not even say whether Labour supported a second referendum or not. That is not policy—it is politics. I simply say to the right hon. Lady that to play politics with Brexit in a hung Parliament is a total betrayal of ordinary voters.

Well, that is not a very convincing answer, is it? It is the same sort of unconvincing answer that we got last time. We always know when Government Ministers are getting a bit desperate when they decide that they need to ask the Opposition what their policy is instead.

The Foreign Secretary said in the very first paragraph of the article that I am quoting that

“we did not vote on the terms of our departure.”

So his entire argument was that we should trust the people to decide the terms on which we would leave. But let me also remind him that in the same article he warned of the danger that

“we could be thrown out with no deal at all.”

So even if he no longer believes that the public should have a say on the final terms of a deal, does he still at least believe that they should have a say if we are risking leaving with no deal at all?

If the right hon. Lady is worried about no deal, there is a very easy way to stop it, and that is to talk to the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition talks without preconditions to Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA, but not to the British Prime Minister. The reason is that Labour’s objective is not to have a deal but to have a crisis—and what a betrayal of ordinary families that is.

Catalonia

As I have made clear to the House previously, the situation in Catalonia is a matter for Spain. The UK strongly supports the rule of law and is of the view that questions related to the issue of Catalan independence should be resolved within the proper constitutional and legal channels of Spain.

Carme Forcadell was the presiding officer in the Catalan Parliament—a position we would call “the Speaker”. Carme has been in prison without trial for over nine months because she facilitated a debate in a debating chamber. When she is tried, she faces over 16 years in prison. When will the UK Government condemn this outrage and stand up for the process of democracy?

This is a matter for the Spanish courts. Every democracy has its own rules, laws and procedures. We fully support the proper implementation of the rule of law in Spain, and it is not for us to interfere in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

In any discussions that the Government might have with the Spanish Government, and indeed Governments across the EU, would the Minister be assured that each of those Governments are respectful of the national economic and political integrity of sovereign states across Europe?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s view and am very grateful to him for expressing it so clearly, so cogently and so sensibly.

I just very gently say to the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan): do not give the Government any ideas.

Afghanistan

5. What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to help ensure the safety of the Hazara community in Afghanistan. (908698)

The UK remains committed to ensuring that the Afghan national defence and security forces improve their capability to protect all ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan. British embassy officials regularly meet Hazara representatives to hear their specific concerns at first hand. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been positive recent developments in Afghanistan’s political and security situation, but the ongoing conflict means that significant challenges remain.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The Hazara community in Afghanistan is increasingly being targeted by not only the Taliban in Afghanistan, but Daesh infiltrating from Pakistan. What steps are the Government taking to talk to the Governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan about stopping at source the violent approach from ISIS and other military groups?

I very much accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We work closely with our counterparts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Peace efforts must focus on supporting attempts to start a credible process. To that end, we will work closely with partners—in particular, US Special Representative Khalilzad—to ensure that international forces that are a factor in the conflict properly address the issue.

In view of the ongoing security situation, will Ministers do more with Defence and Home Office Ministers to ensure that Afghan interpreters who came here alone under the redundancy scheme can be reunited here with their wives and families, as they clearly face great danger in Afghanistan?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right; local staff, including interpreters, continue to play a vital role in supporting the objectives of the UK and our partners in Afghanistan. As well as paying generous redundancy packages in recognition of service, we will do our level best for those who have made such sacrifices on our behalf, and I will write to my counterparts in the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to ensure that we do so.

I pay tribute to the work of the Foreign Office in Pakistan and particularly our high commissioner, Tom Drew. Will the Foreign Secretary lend all his support to the work that Tom is doing alongside Khalilzad on peace negotiations in Afghanistan, particularly to protect the Hazara population but also to stop foreign actors playing silly and dangerous games in Afghanistan, which we have seen for far too long?

I thank my hon. Friend for his wise words. He knows this issue well. We are lucky to have such a high-calibre high commissioner in Pakistan in Tom Drew, who is coming to the end of his time there, and in Sir Nicholas Kay and Giles Lever, the chargé d’affaires in Kabul. We have the highest calibre of trusted diplomats, who make a tremendous contribution not only to UK interests but to the interests of civilians in both countries.

What discussions has the Minister had with his American counterpart about US plans to reduce by half the number of troops in Afghanistan? Does he share my concern that that announcement might encourage the Taliban to play for time, rather than engage in meaningful peace talks with the Afghan Government?

That is always an issue. After the White House statement on 28 December that the President had not decided to draw down the US military presence in Afghanistan, we want to try to nail this issue down. Our collective long-term commitment to the objective remains unchanged. We have a long-term intention that NATO and its partners should not reduce their military presence unless conditions on the ground change.

US Trade Restrictions on Cuba

6. What recent discussions he has had with his US counterpart on lifting US trade restrictions on Cuba. (908699)

As we have said on many occasions, we consider the US embargo to be counterproductive, and we oppose any possible tightening of it in the future. US sanctions and other unilateral Administrative and judicial measures do the opposite of encouraging potential reforms and economic progress, and officials in London and the British embassy in Havana regularly raise our objections to trade restrictions on Cuba with our US counterparts.

Free markets and free trade always encourage political freedoms, and therefore I urge the Minister to continue doing everything possible to remind the United States of its commitment to free trade around the world and the importance of that in encouraging freedom and democracy.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We consistently vote in support of UN resolutions to end the US-imposed embargo, but we do more than that because, under the UK Protection of Trading Interests Act 1980, it is illegal for UK companies to comply with extraterritorial legislation such as the US embargo. We continue to work together with our EU partners to provide UK companies with the support they need to be able to trade with Cuba.

Syria

The Government support and keep in close contact with the UN-led political process to end the Syrian conflict. We have used our relationships and convening power to encourage progress, including by hosting the then UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura and the Syria small group of like-minded countries. We are also engaging with the new UN envoy, Geir Pedersen, who has our full support.

Given the sensitivity at the Syria-Turkey border, what specific steps can we take to keep the US engaged in diplomatic solutions, if it is going to withdraw troops, and, crucially, to keep Turkey engaged in finding a diplomatic solution that does not involve attacking the Kurdish forces?

I think both states are extremely conscious of the impact of any of their decisions on Syria. We have engaged regularly with the United States as it works through its process of withdrawal to make sure it is manageable and to make sure that everyone remains focused on the importance of continuing the global coalition against Daesh. That contact is constant with Turkey and with the United States.

Will my right hon. Friend condemn the role in Syria of Iran, a regime that is terrorising its people at home and many across the region, including in Syria?

The actions of Iran in supporting the Assad regime and the way in which it has conducted a civil war against its own people have caused deep concern. Iran can improve its position only if it does not support such a regime and if it encourages a full part in the political process to see a reformed Syria.

19. A stable Lebanon is vital to securing a resolution to the conflict in Syria. I have just returned from Lebanon with Aid to the Church in Need, and we saw there that Lebanon is a country barely able to cope with the pressure it is under, having been without a Government for the past eight months. What has been done to ensure, while a Government are being found, that Lebanon remains stable and secure? (908712)

I met the Prime Minister of Lebanon, as did my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, on his visit to the United Kingdom.[Official Report, 23 January 2019, Vol. 653, c. 4MC.] We work very closely with all parties in Lebanon to encourage the process of Government formation. We are acutely conscious of the pressure of 1.3 million refugees in Lebanon. We would encourage the return of refugees from Lebanon to Syria, but only when it is safe to do so. Support for Lebanon and its economy is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom’s engagement in the region.

The Minister will be aware that countries across the Arab Gulf are now reopening their embassies in Damascus. What work is the Minister doing with some of our Arab allies and partners to do more to get back to rebuilding and to getting peace and consensus across Syria?

There seems to be a mixed view among Arab states about normalising relations with Syria, and that is certainly not the view of all states. Arab states are understandably worried about the influence of others in Syria, but there is a recognition—certainly by the United Kingdom, the EU and others—that there can be no normalisation of relationships and no return to embassies unless there is clear evidence that the regime in Syria has learned from the terrible costs it has inflicted on the Syrian people and there is a political settlement to demonstrate that.

Given the huge shifts in policy on Syria emerging from the United States Administration, will the Minister provide some clarity on three related issues: when US troops will be withdrawn, what the preconditions are for that to happen and how America’s Kurdish allies will be protected after that withdrawal?

With respect, Mr Speaker, they were good questions all. It is clear that the United States has made a serious appraisal of the impact of its troop withdrawal so as not to affect the global coalition against Daesh, and it is in close contact with its neighbours. We do not know the precise details. It is important that this does not disturb the work against Daesh, but the United States has also made it clear, as have others, that the Kurdish community must not be affected by any untoward incursion by Turkey or any others. It is important that the stability of north-east Syria is not affected by American decisions.

Registers of Beneficial Ownership of Companies

8. What recent discussions the Government have had with authorities in the (a) overseas territories and (b) Crown dependencies on establishing public registers of the beneficial ownership of companies. (908701)

My noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for the overseas territories, along with the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption champion, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), discussed the Government’s approach to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 with overseas territories leaders on 5 December. Government Ministers and officials routinely discuss with the Crown dependencies a range of matters relevant to them, including company registers of beneficial ownership.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm what date the Government will set in the Order in Council if the overseas territories do not move voluntarily on this issue, and will he confirm that the end of 2023 will be far too late, given that it would be five years after the House voted on it?

As required by the 2018 Act, we will prepare draft legislation by the end of 2020. All the overseas territories are expected to have fully functioning public registers in place by the end of 2023, as my hon. Friend says, as part of the Government’s call for all countries to make such registers the global norm by that date. The plan is to make 2023 consistent for both.

From the vantage point of having introduced the original public register, may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is utterly intolerable that British territories and dependencies should be used as a covert conduit for British tax dodgers, and that if they will not reform we should resort to the sanction of direct rule?

We will stick by the timing, but I think that a lot of work has already been done so that they could perhaps be in place before that date. I am confident that progress is being made as we would wish.

Over and over again the Government have let the overseas territories off the hook. Now the Government are saying that the territories do not need to have public registers of beneficial ownership until 2023—at a cost, incidentally, of £50 billion to the British taxpayer. The law we passed last May required the Government to act in 2020. Does that not take the Government’s contempt for Parliament to a new low?

No. I share the hon. Lady’s view that overseas territories with financial centres should meet international standards on tax transparency and anti-money laundering, but most overseas territories are either being evaluated or due to be evaluated by the financial action taskforce and are working to deliver their commitments made to the European Commission to prevent them from being included on the EU’s list of non-co-operative tax jurisdictions.

Israel and Palestine

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of renewed rocket fire from Gaza into Israel on the political and security situation in that region. (908702)

Rocket fire and attacks on Israel from Gaza remain unacceptable and damaging to any prospect of eventual peace. We continue to urge Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume direct negotiations towards a two-state solution, and we remain in regular contact with many parties on this important issue.

Last year more than 800 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza into communities in Israel. Does the Minister agree that we must not forget that Gaza is run by Hamas, who are not our friends but an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation? Will he update the House on what help we are providing to Israel in its fight against terrorism?

We never forget that Gaza is under the control of Hamas, and that other military groups operate there. As long as there are terrorist attacks on Israel from Gaza, the situation will remain impossible to resolve. We will continue to support very strongly the right of Israel to defend itself.

What is the Government’s assessment of the report by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs about the rise in Israeli attempts to delegitimise human rights organisations operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly humanitarian non-governmental organisations, and the negative impact that that has on their ability to represent Palestinian rights and organisations?

Israel, as a democracy in the middle east, has always prided itself on ensuring that those groups have the freedom to operate there, even if they challenge the Israeli Government. It is very important to the United Kingdom that that tradition is maintained, particularly at a time of crisis. The west bank needs those who are able to interpret the situation and speak honestly, both to the Palestinian Authority and to the state of Israel, and the more political space there is to do that, the better it will be all round for the prospects of peace.

The recent discovery of tunnels from Lebanon into Israel has caused much concern. It is important that they are dealt with on both sides of the border. There is no reason for that work to continue, either by Hamas in the south in Gaza or by Hezbollah in the north in Lebanon.

Does the Minister agree that Malaysia’s decision to ban Israeli athletes from participating in Malaysian sporting events is shameful and that such attempts to single out the world’s only Jewish state come from a place of deep prejudice does nothing to advance the cause of peace?

The United Kingdom does not agree with this decision of the Malaysian Government. It does nothing to assist the worldwide recognition of Paralympians. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific will take that up directly.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) on materials that are sent to Gaza for building homes, but are being diverted to build terror tunnels, what action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that our aid is used to build homes for people in Gaza rather than terror tunnels?

The principal control of materials flowing into Gaza is of course exercised by the Israelis, with their concerns about dual-use material. We are in regular contact with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to make every attempt to ensure that such materials are not diverted. Ultimately, there is no future for Hamas and for Gaza unless they stop the terror tactics and the diversion of materials, and respond to the Quartet principles and make peace.

In the past year, 186 Palestinian civilians have been killed on the Gaza border and no Israelis. More than 23,000 Palestinian civilians and 16 Israelis have been injured. Should not the focus be on ending the blockade of Gaza and, indeed, the occupation that has gone on since 1987?

Virtually every statistic from the area cries out for the need to resolve this issue. We have spoken about it in this House for decades. There are arguments and counter-arguments, but in the main, the misery continues, either for those who feel under attack from terrorist sources or for those who feel the humanitarian impact of political decisions made elsewhere. That is why the United Kingdom is so wedded to—and determined to see—a middle east peace process for all.

Yemen

10. What recent diplomatic steps he has taken to help secure a resolution to the conflict in Yemen. (908703)

24. What recent diplomatic steps he has taken to help secure a resolution to the conflict in Yemen. (908717)

Last Wednesday, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2452, which establishes a six-month, 75-strong UN mission to monitor the ceasefire in Hodeidah. We obviously wish it every success.

One of the fears about the Swedish agreement and the accompanying UN resolution was that they were too limited in scope and too loose in enforcing compliance. Does the Secretary of State accept that those fears are being realised? Is it not time to consider a broader and more robust UN resolution?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. I simply say that we wanted to establish a ceasefire—this is the first time that has happened in four years of conflict—and then move on to the next stage, which is a second set of peace talks where we can agree a political settlement. There have been some worrying signs—there have been attacks on both sides—but I was in touch with Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy yesterday, and broadly the ceasefire is holding. The key thing is to open the road from Sana’a to Hodeidah so that World Food Programme food can be released to the population.

In the coming weeks, both Houses of Congress are due to vote on whether the US should continue its support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen. Both are expected to vote that it should not. Will the Government give this House the same opportunity to vote on whether the UK should maintain our support for the war if it continues?

This House has shown recently its high ability to have votes on anything and everything it wishes to, so I am sure that there are plenty of opportunities to have votes on that. However, to answer directly in response to the point that the hon. Lady is making, breaking off support for the Saudi-Emirati coalition would reduce our influence with those two countries. At the moment, the ceasefire is broadly holding because those two countries are playing ball, and we would not want to change that.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he said before Christmas about my constituent Jackie Morgan’s daughter, Safia, who was kidnapped from Cardiff and taken to Yemen in the ’80s. I am glad to report to the House that she, her family and her husband, who are now in Cairo, have been granted the visas to travel to the UK, I hope tomorrow. Will the Foreign Secretary pass on my thanks to the Minister for the Middle East for the efforts that he has made to help in this case?

I am happy to do that. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister and all the Foreign Office staff involved in that work.

UN Aid to Palestinian Refugees

11. What steps he is taking to help ensure the long-term sustainability of UN aid to Palestinian refugees. (908704)

The UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, is a necessary humanitarian and stabilising presence in the region, providing vital services to millions of Palestinian refugees every day. We have increased our funding to UNRWA, providing £65.5 million in 2018.

On 9 January, the Minister said:

“Work is going on to ensure that, in the long term, UNRWA is sustainable.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 349.]

However, UNRWA is already closing health centres, and doubling and trebling shifts at schools to cut costs. If it closes down, what will happen to the 526,000 children in UNRWA schools and the 3.1 million patients of UNRWA health services? Can the Minister set out exactly what is going on?

We sought to increase our funding, as I mentioned to the hon. Lady, but we also talk to other donors. It is impossible for the United Kingdom to fill the gap created, but the point she makes is extremely pertinent: if the education of those in Gaza and children of Palestinian refugees stops, I wonder what organisation in the region would like to take over the education of impressionable youngsters.

Ongoing humanitarian support for Palestinians is vital but, given the track record of Hamas in seeking to abuse and exploit UNRWA, what assurances will the Minister give about protecting the independence and integrity of UNRWA and ensuring that taxpayers’ money is used to good effect?

I hear my right hon. Friend, but it is really important for the House to be clear that UNRWA is an independent organisation run by the UN. Of course practical pressures are caused in Gaza, because Gaza is run by Hamas, but it is wrong to suggest that UNRWA is in hock to anyone else but those who contribute as donors. It does vital work—health, education and services—and it is essential that that continues, because if UNRWA does not do it—I ask the House—who would step in to provide support, where would the finances come from and what would be done with them?

Does the Minister agree that the announcement by the Israeli authorities that they plan to close UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem is a direct attack on the welfare of Palestinian refugees in two refugee camps there, including 3,000 students? I welcome the Minister’s increased funding for UNRWA, but will he commit to support the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate later this year?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; he knows the area very well. Of course we will continue to support UNRWA, and look hard at the mandate renewal. It is important that it continues its work there because, as I have said, there is concern about what the impact will be if that work is not done. As I said earlier, all this tells us that such disputes and concerns will not change unless there is overall agreement on a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Unless that is done, these problems will continue to occur, much to the misery of all involved.

Soft Power

According to the Portland Soft Power 30 index, the UK is the world’s leading international soft power country. Post Brexit, this will be a vital asset for us to continue to exploit.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important answer, but does he agree that, like so many things that we do well in this country, we tend to take that for granted? Will he therefore assure this House that he will pay greater attention to the co-ordination of soft power across all Departments?

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that very important point. I can reassure him that I have presented to Cabinet on the subject of soft power and written to every head of mission across the world to underline its importance and to ask what they are doing about it. I am also in charge of a cross-Government taskforce aimed at making sure we do everything we can in this area.

Soft power can be very effective in places where we have a traditional connection, such as Cameroon. Constituents have recently visited me concerned about the ongoing human rights crisis there. Will a Minister meet me and my campaigners to see what more we can do?

The Minister for Africa is not here, but I am delighted to say in her absence that she would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.

20. Soft power in the form of trade can lift billions of people out of poverty. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the opportunity of new trade deals with the Commonwealth, which would give those countries an opportunity to prosper, is one that we should pursue? (908713)

I absolutely agree. Just as vital is the UK’s support for the international trading system and our belief in free trade, which we continue to champion.

African visitor visas are refused at over twice the average rate, and this has a negative impact on all aspects of soft power, including trade, business, culture, education and academia. This afternoon, the all-party parliamentary group on Africa, which I chair, is holding an open meeting on African visa refusals. Can I tell the meeting that the Foreign Secretary is speaking to his Home Office colleagues about the negative impact that this broken system is having?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. If she writes to me following this afternoon’s meeting, I will happily pass them on to the Home Secretary.

Climate Change: International Co-operation

13. What recent assessment he has made on the progress of international co-operation on climate change. (908706)

Lucky 13 for the right hon. Gentleman! The agreement of the rulebook for the Paris agreement at the 24th conference of the parties in Katowice in Poland last month, which I attended, was a crucial step forward, but all our assessments conclude that the current level of global ambition is not enough to meet the Paris goals of just over three years ago. We need unprecedented and rapid action to reduce emissions and build resilience.

I concur with the Minister. For all those reasons, will he ensure that, if the President of the United States visits this country in July, climate change will be central so that we can put it on the agenda of America, which is the power best able to influence world opinion on this issue?

I very much hope so. I was at the climate change summit in San Francisco in September, and interestingly it is not just the state of California but other US states that take this very seriously. There is, then, a lot of pressure from within the US, but obviously we will keep up that pressure in every way we can, both bilaterally and in multilateral forums.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister agree that climate change is a strategic threat to our prosperity and security? If so, why is it no longer mentioned in the 28 objectives in his departmental plan?

It is very much an important part of my own plan. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, I attended last year’s meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru and will attend the next one in Tuvalu—these issues are existential for many of those Pacific islands. I am sorry she feels that we are not giving this enough attention. I am proud of the work the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which lead on this issue; we work very closely together in a range of different forums and will continue to do so.

Topical Questions

My colleague the Minister for Africa is not with us today, as she is meeting partners from the African Union. At that meeting, she will be underlining our concern about the issues in Zimbabwe, where we have seen widespread unrest and a heavy security force response over the last week. Yesterday, I called on President Mnangagwa not to turn back the clock. People must have the right to peaceful protest without fear of violence.

Gaza has been described as the biggest open-air prison in the world. Israel continues to plan settlement expansion and demolitions with impunity, and clearly US foreign policy is making things worse. When will the UK set a realistic timeframe to step up and recognise the state of Palestine?

We have always said that we will recognise the state of Palestine when the time is right—we support a two-state solution—but we want to do it at the moment it will have the most impact on the peace process.

T2. Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), at a time when relations are improving greatly between Israel and many countries around the world, particularly its Gulf neighbours, will my right hon. Friend stress that not allowing Israeli swimmers to participate in the Paralympic qualifiers would be a retrograde step? (908720)

We also have strong relations with the Malaysian Government, and I am very disappointed that they have made what I feel is a fundamentally wrong decision. As my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, those Israeli Paralympic athletes should not be banned from competing. I shall be seeing the Malaysian Education Minister this afternoon—with, I think, a senior representative of the high commission—and I promise to ask for an assurance that this will be dealt with properly, as a matter of urgency.

T4. I thank the Foreign Secretary for travelling to Stockholm for the peace talks, and for resolution 2452. Yesterday, however, five aid workers were killed in Yemen as they tried to de-mine parts of the country. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the safety of aid workers is a priority during the talks? [R] (908722)

Absolutely. In fact, I had an exchange with Martin Griffiths, the Yemen special envoy, yesterday. De-mining the road between the port of Hodeidah and Sana’a so that food supplies can come from the port into the rest of the country is essential, and I think that the whole House will wish to express our admiration for the bravery of the aid workers who are in Yemen right now.

T3. Recently, six underground tunnels built by the Iran-funded Hezbollah terror group were discovered leading into Israel from Lebanon. The deepest tunnel had electricity and a rail system. Does my right hon. Friend share my fear that Hezbollah was building those highly advanced tunnels in order to launch a large-scale invasion of northern Israel, on the watch of the United Nations and the peace- keeping United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon? [R] (908721)

My hon. Friend is right. The discovery of those tunnels has highlighted concerns about a re-armed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it is essential for them to be dealt with by both UNIFIL and the Lebanese armed forces. They constitute a clear breach of UN Security Council regulation 1701.

T7. My constituent Mr Niranjan Rasalingam is currently shackled in a prison in Myanmar, serving a 13-year sentence after being forced to sign a confession in Burmese, a language that he does not understand. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, he is a British citizen being mistreated. I have raised his case in this place before, but I understand that the Foreign Secretary did not make representations on his behalf during a recent trip to the country. May I ask him again please to give more support, and to advocate on behalf of my constituent? (908725)

I shall be happy to deal with this matter in my role as Minister of State. I hope to go to Burma, or Myanmar, within the next few months, but I will obviously try to deal with it from London at an earlier stage.

T5. What assessment did my right hon. Friend make of the future economic, trade and diplomatic relations with Singapore and Malaysia? (908723)

I had a very good trip in the new year. We have excellent relations with both countries. What I find impressive is the fact that their prosperity has come about through openness to trade. In that regard, our post-Brexit foreign policy, embracing free trade, will be central.

T9. Of the almost 7,000 Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS, there are still very few who have received treatment for their physical and psychological injuries, and many have been unable to return to their homes. What more can the Government do to support those women, and to urge the Iraqi Government and the Administration in Kurdistan to work together to bring about their resettlement? (908727)

That is another good question. When I was last in Iraq I met agencies involved with Yazidi women, and I hope to go there again in the not too distant future to make the same representations. The difficulty of going back to such areas is related to the overall security situation in Iraq. It is essential for the Iraqi authorities to be able to protect everyone, and that work is ongoing in very difficult circumstances.

T10. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on his assessment of our relationship with China, particularly in respect of financial services in the City of London? (908728)

The City of London’s connections with China form an essential part of our overall bilateral relationship, and we look forward to proceeding with an ambitious commercial agenda during 2019. As my hon. Friend will know, the City is already the world’s leading offshore trading centre for the renminbi. It engages in more than 40% of global trading, even more than Hong Kong.

Yanto Awerkion, Sem Asso and Edo Dogopia were among six members of the West Papua National Committee who were arrested in December, when the police and the military took over the group’s secretariat in Timika. The three men were detained on 5 January and later charged with treason, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in Indonesia. Amnesty International has called for the unconditional release of the activists, because they have only expressed their political views. Will the Minister press his counterpart in Indonesia to release them?

Order. May I very gently advise Members that, in future, if they have a substantive question that is not reached, they must ask a truncated version of it during topical questions? That is the way it is.

Sadly, Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman has asked a rather different question, so I cannot just refer to the briefing I have here. May I, however, reassure the hon. Gentleman that the officials at our embassy in Jakarta, including the ambassador, visit Papua and West Papua regularly? We will do our very best in future visits to bring up the specific cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

With India entering the Open Doors world watch list top 10 and now designated as a country where Christians experience extreme prosecution, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to promote the importance of religious freedom in India?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have just asked Bishop Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, to do an independent report on what more we can do to support the quarter of a billion Christians across the world facing persecution, but in India the British high commission regularly meets minority communities, including Christian groups, and we have recently enabled training for 900 minority students on faith issues in six universities.

May I ask about human rights defenders in Bahrain, as we have close links with Bahrain? There is not time to name them now, but they are prominent people and I would like to give their names to the Minister afterwards, and they include Nabeel Rajab and political opposition leaders such as Sheikh Ali Salman, imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights. What are we doing to get them out of jail?

As the right hon. Lady knows, all the prominent cases of human rights activists are carefully monitored by the UK representatives in Bahrain. There are independent processes in order to oversee the activities of the courts in Manama, and we urge that there is a consultation and dealings with them. We keep a constant eye on this; it is a matter for progress in Bahrain, and the United Kingdom is very involved in seeing greater progress there.

Will Ministers use the United Nations as a forum where the United States can expose the Russian violation of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty so that if America does withdraw, responsibility will lie where it should?

We are absolutely sure that Russia has been violating the terms of the INF treaty and that the way forward in this is to get back to compliance because it is vital for Europe’s security, but that starts with Russia recognising what it has done wrong.

What representations are the Government making to the Government of Nepal in relation to the recent case of the death of a woman and her two children who were suffocated while being confined in a poorly ventilated so-called period hut?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I must confess that I do not have direct knowledge of this case, but I will get in touch with Kathmandu to make sure we make representations on her behalf.

When can we expect the report the Foreign Secretary has commissioned on UK support for persecuted Christians to be published, and will he make a statement at that time?

Subject to other parliamentary business I will welcome the opportunity to do that, because it is a very important issue. The timetable we are provisionally working to is that the interim report will be published before Easter, which will outline the issues faced by Christians all over the world, with the final report later in the year.

We were told earlier that the Foreign Secretary has raised the brutal treatment of Muslims in China. I am interested to know what possible excuse his Chinese counterpart came up with for their medieval behaviour.

It is fair to say that the responses we got in no way assuaged our concerns about what is happening. We do raise these issues: we raise them in private but we raise them persistently, and it is very important for the Chinese to know about the concern in this House and indeed across the country.

Following a further week of violence in Venezuela and a refugee crisis that is overwhelming its neighbours, what conversations have the Government had with the United States and Lima group countries to resolve this crisis?

We are working very closely with the Lima group. I made a very firm statement in the last few days and indeed only yesterday 25 members of the National Guard revolted against President Maduro’s leadership. We are taking a very robust stand on this and we recognise the legitimacy of the constituent Assembly, as indeed should all countries.

The Minister for the Middle East knows that we normally agree, but what on earth did he mean when he implied that we might normalise relations with the murderous tyrant Assad if he learned his lesson?

We do agree; there is no normalisation of the relationship with Syria. The point I was seeking to make was that before there can be any recognition of Syria, there has to be an understanding of what has happened there. We are looking for the regime, in its political settlement, to understand that it cannot continue to rule as it did in the past. There are no plans whatsoever for the United Kingdom to normalise any relationship with Syria. Looking at the numbers of deaths, of people killed and of murders committed by the regime, it is very difficult to see what arm of justice could possibly result in normalisation.

On the Bishop of Truro’s review of the Foreign Secretary’s review of persecution of the Christian Church, will the Foreign Secretary tell me what human and financial resources the bishop and his team will get to ensure that the report is done thoroughly?

Before I address that question, I need to correct the record. When the Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), talked about the constitutional assembly, he actually meant the National Assembly in Venezuela. We will extend all the necessary resources to the Bishop of Truro and his team. We have had good discussions about the resources that they need. This is an important review, and we want to ensure that it is done properly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his remarks on Zimbabwe. Has he—or the Minister for Africa—spoken directly to the South African Government? If not, he should do.

I agree with the hon. Lady, who is very wise on these matters. The answer, truthfully, is that I have tried to speak to the South African Foreign Minister and so far I have not been able to find a time that suits.

There is widespread concern among the Muslim, Hindu, Tamil and Christian communities in Sri Lanka about the appointment of alleged war criminals to very senior positions. What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Sri Lankan Government to prevent this from happening?

We welcome the progress that has been made towards a peaceful resolution of the destabilising situation in Sri Lanka that took place from late October onwards. Just last week, I welcomed the Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and commended him for his central role in bringing that about. Clearly the situation in Sri Lanka is very fluid, and I would be happy to take specific representations from my hon. Friend about the particular concern that he has just raised.

On Friday, the skirl of the bagpipes will be heard and haggis, neeps and tatties will be consumed in large quantities all over the world. Have the Government instructed their network of high commissions, embassies and consulates to facilitate the celebration of our Scottish national bard’s work and life all over the world?

I am pleased that the United Kingdom has regained its No. 1 spot in the Portland soft power top 30, particularly because we overtook France in order to do so. Although not every element of our soft power is under my right hon. Friend’s Department’s control, will he ensure that organisations such as the British Council and the BBC World Service are well funded and able to project our soft power globally as we leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend is right to mention those organisations; they do a very important job. I actually think that the role of the BBC in providing impartial news across the world is very underestimated; that is an area in which we could do much better.

Will Ministers tell us what representations they are making to the Turkish authorities in relation to hunger strikes by Kurdish politicians and activists, and what representations have been made to end the persecution of Kurdish people?

We are in regular dialogue with the Turkish Government, as is the Minister for the Middle East, specifically in respect of Syria and the Kurds.

Are Ministers aware of reports this week from China Aid that Christian persecution is escalating in China, and that it is now at its worst for 40 years? Thousands of churches have been desecrated and destroyed, and pastors have been imprisoned and are facing trial. Whole sections of society, including children under 18 and students, have been banned from going to church, and those who do attend church are now being filmed and fingerprinted. What can be done to raise this issue internationally?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I read a moving report about a pastor in Chengdu who has suffered greatly. We raised these concerns during the universal periodic review that we did with China in November 2018, and I regularly raise concerns about human rights issues with my Chinese counterpart. One of the reasons for doing the review is to ensure that I am properly informed on matters of religious freedom.

Given the Minister for the Middle East’s earlier expression of support for UNRWA and the concern about the alternative education that Palestinian children might receive if UNRWA pulls out, will the UK Government consider filling the vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of US leadership in this important service?

In reference to the question from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), I am appropriately wearing my tartan tie to celebrate this week.

As I indicated earlier, we support UNRWA’s work and work hard with the organisation in case reform is needed. In the long term, UNRWA’s future will be about the future of refugees and their final settlement status. In the meantime, we cannot completely plug the financial gap left by the United States, which is why we are working with others, but leadership is vital, as is trying to get it across to the world that UNRWA is doing important work, and the UK will remain a champion.

Order. Demand always exceeds supply, but I thank the Foreign Secretary and his team, who have been addressing the House, the nation and, very importantly, the world—the planet!

Tower Blocks: Dangerous Cladding

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will update the House on the action taken and planned by the Government with respect to high-rise residential blocks with dangerous cladding.

There is nothing more important than ensuring that people are safe in their homes, and we remain determined to ensure that no community suffers again as the community did so tragically and appallingly at Grenfell Tower. Within days of that tragedy, a comprehensive building safety programme was put in place to ensure that residents of high-rise blocks of flats are safe and feel safe now and in the future. Our Department has worked with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to identify high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding and to ensure that interim safety measures are in place until issues are permanently remediated. Measures have included waking watch, which has been put in place in all high-rise buildings with ACM cladding, with the oversight of the National Fire Chiefs Council. As of 31 December last year, interim measures have been in place on all 176 high-rise private residential buildings with unsafe ACM cladding.

Permanent remediation must rightly now be our key focus. On 18 December, we published our plan to implement the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, which will create a stronger regulatory framework and fix the issues for the long term. We have repeatedly called on private building owners not to pass costs on to leaseholders who find themselves in this position through no fault of their own. We have also warned private building owners that, unless they remove and replace unsafe ACM cladding from their high-rise residential buildings now, local authorities have the power to complete the works and recover the costs from the owner. As a result of our interventions, we have secured commitments from owners of 268 privately owned buildings, 212 of whom have either started works, completed them or have commitments in place to remediate. There remain 42 private residential buildings for which the owner’s plans are unclear, so we are maintaining pressure and rule out no solutions.

This is obviously a matter of great importance to many colleagues and, indeed, to many constituents, and that is reflected in the huge amount of activity that is taking place both within the Department, externally within the industry and, critically, in this House. There is an Adjournment debate tomorrow, and I will appear at oral questions and before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday.

It should be a cause for national shame that, over 19 months after the Grenfell Tower fire, I am having to drag Ministers to the House because there are still buildings in this country cloaked in Grenfell-style cladding and residents who do not know whether their homes are safe, as the Daily Mirror has revealed today. It is shocking that the Government’s own figures show that there were 437 high-rise blocks with the same Grenfell-style cladding and that 370 are yet to have it removed and replaced. It is shocking that the Minister knows every one of those blocks but will not name the landlords or tell the residents. Whatever he says he is doing, it is not working. For over 19 months, any progress made has simply been too slow, too weak and always following pressure from this House and from Labour. If the Government cannot fix problems this serious and urgent, what on earth are they in office for?

Here is a six-point plan to sort out the problems, and this is what we have been arguing for months. First, widen the Government testing programme to cover all suspect cladding, not just ACM cladding. Secondly, set a deadline for all blocks to be made safe. Thirdly, make clear the legal duty for block owners to get this work done, and to pay for it without passing on the bill to hard-pressed leaseholders. Fourthly, set up a loan fund for private blocks. Fifthly, name the landlords and tell the residents so that the public know the safety status of all high-rise blocks. Finally, toughen the sanctions, up to and including taking over blocks to get this vital fire safety work done.

For more than nine months, as the Minister has repeated today, the Secretary of State has said that he is not ruling anything out. It is time to rule things in, and it is time to reverse the refusal to act on all these fronts.

In the days after the Grenfell tragedy, the Prime Minister promised the nation:

“My Government will do whatever it takes to…keep our people safe.”

When will the Minister finally be able to come to this House to tell us and the public that the Government have honoured that pledge?

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has sought to make this such an antagonistic exchange in what is a difficult and complicated situation that requires significant amounts of engineering and construction work, which will necessarily take time. He will know that the response from both the Department and the Government in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy was immediate and wide-ranging. The commissioning of Dame Judith Hackitt to conduct her inquiry was an important step forward in tackling this issue.

Since then, significant resource and effort have been injected into the need to remove this cladding, but the vital first step was to make sure that people living in high-rise blocks with ACM cladding were safe immediately, and those steps were put in place immediately. We now know, and can tell everyone in tower blocks with this cladding, that they are safe tonight. The Government’s primary focus was to make sure there were enough interim measures in place and that local fire and rescue services were satisfied that the buildings were immediately safe, while at the same time providing the resources, assistance and support—and, yes, cajoling some in the private sector to do their duty and replace this cladding.

That is what we continue to do, and we are making significant progress. However, the right hon. Gentleman is correct that we will get to a point where, for a small number—we are now down to a small number—of owners or contractors who put this cladding on buildings, we will need to consider more assertive measures, and those measures are under active consideration at the moment. All the while, in all of this—he may present himself as an expert, but I am certainly not an expert—we are guided by expert opinion, which includes Dame Judith Hackitt’s review and the independent expert advisory panel that was constituted in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell. We follow their advice in making sure that we can guarantee people’s safety tonight.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not a very bright idea to be partisan about this, given that the majority of the non-private blocks are probably in Labour-controlled councils.

Has the advice on fire and evacuation changed, and is the policy of staying put still right for these blocks? How will my hon. Friend take advice from the representatives of leaseholders? They are the ones who are made to carry the can, but they are regarded as only tenants for most legal purposes.

The advice on evacuation procedures is for the local fire and rescue service to determine. Depending on the formulation of the building, advice is given on whether it should be evacuated simultaneously or sequentially, and that advice varies from building to building. In the end, it is for the local fire and rescue service to satisfy itself that there are appropriate evacuation procedures in each building.

My hon. Friend is a well-known and long-standing champion for leaseholders in a number of circumstances, and he will know that we are putting significant pressure on building owners and, indeed, contractors to ensure that leaseholders do not bear the cost of this situation in any circumstance. The Secretary of State has not ruled out any particular measure in making sure that that pertains.

It is all very well for Ministers to come here and say “never again” after Grenfell, but it is extremely disturbing to hear the news from the X1 Eastbank block in Manchester. Not only did the construction firm apparently neglect to pass on the findings of a failed test, but it appears to have threatened to withhold payment for the test unless the testing company signed a non-disclosure agreement concerning the results. Will the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State can request that information from the construction firm’s administrators and make sure that it is all handed over?

In the more than 18 months since the Grenfell tragedy, there seems to have been a continued lack of progress and reform. The Royal Institute of British Architects has stated that England lags behind Wales and Scotland, which have in place, or are introducing, regulations to require sprinklers and provide a second means of escape. The Scottish Government-led review of the Scottish fire safety regime by the building and fire safety ministerial working group produced its conclusions and recommendations in December last year. What discussions has the Minister had about that with housing Minister Kevin Stewart in Scotland, and are there recommendations from the group that he could easily implement in England?

Finally, I ask again whether the Government will consider zero rating materials for replacement cladding. That would help to reduce the costs for firms that want to take such remediation measures, and make it easier for them to do so.

As I said in my earlier answer to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), I believe we are making progress on remediation. That is particularly true in the social sector, but we are now seeing signs that significant progress is being made in the private sector with the number of buildings that have been completed, the commitments that have been made and the work that is ongoing.

Regarding the Manchester situation that is on the front page of the paper today, I understand that the local fire and rescue service is satisfied that everybody will be safe in that building tonight, and that temporary measures are in place while the work is being done. There seems to be some complication about getting that work done, but it is being done.

Sadly, I have not met the Minister whom the hon. Lady mentioned, but as she will know, we are reviewing approved document B—the fire safety building regulations —and we would welcome any contribution towards that consultation to help us to get this right.

Assertive measures are urgent for my constituents at Northpoint in Bromley, one of the 42 buildings where the owner—in this case Citistead, an offshoot of the Tchenguiz family trust—refuses to meet its obligations and insists that it will use a term in the lease to pass on the costs to the flat owners regardless. The Government need to introduce a legally foolproof mechanism to override those provisions and prevent my constituents and others from being forced to pick up the tab. Words are not enough.

My hon. Friend is a fierce advocate for his constituency, and we share his concern about the position of the Northpoint residents. We have been very clear that leaseholders should not bear the cost, and he will be pleased to learn that the Secretary of State has written to the building owner and other parties concerned to make it clear that he expects them to fund the work.

The Secretary of State has just written to the Select Committee about the role of local authorities, and local authorities clearly have powers under the Housing Act 2004. When building owners will not act and the local authority acts instead, it may incur costs that it can try to recover from building owners. Can we have an absolute guarantee from the Minister that when local authorities find it impossible to do so, the Government will find that money so that it will not have to be found from hard-pressed local authority budgets?

The Chair of the Select Committee raises an important point. We have offered financial assistance to local authorities, and we will work in partnership with them to attempt to recover the money. Where that proves to be impossible, we will try to reach as convenient and financially efficacious an arrangement as possible.

May I ask my hon. Friend about Hartopp Point and Lannoy Point, two 14-storey blocks in Fulham that are rumoured to face demolition? Residents—including leaseholders who are worried about getting proper compensation —are extremely concerned, and opposition Conservative councillors are calling for an emergency council meeting tomorrow night. Will he join me in urging Hammersmith and Fulham Council to lift the secrecy from its proposals and communicate properly with concerned tenants and leaseholders?

My right hon. Friend raises what sounds like an alarming situation. Where people’s homes are concerned—whether it is about safety, the future of their homes or, indeed, demolition—I urge all those in authority to be as transparent as possible. It can be extremely debilitating, concerning and worrying for any resident to have the future of their home mired in uncertainty. I hope that he gets the clarity that his residents need.

If the Minister was one of my constituents in the X1 block in Manchester, I am sure that, like them, he would have woken up this morning feeling not only worried and scared, but furious—furious at the way in which the matter has come to light, and furious that there is still, after all this time, no accountability, no transparency and no recourse for the people affected. We urgently need legislation, which must also cover leaseholders who, like those in many of the blocks in my constituency, cannot sell their homes because of the fear that they will have to pay the cost of recladding. This has got to stop.

The hon. Lady is quite right; given the story on the front of the paper, anyone who lived in that block would be worried. We have reassured ourselves that the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service is satisfied that everybody resident in that block is safe tonight, and that there has been sufficient engagement by the owners and managing agents to make sure that the temporary measures that are in place are adequate to keep residents safe.

We understand that there is work under way. I believe that that work has been contracted, but it is yet to be made clear who will pay. We will put pressure on the owners and managers of that building, as we are doing with all owners and managers, to make sure that it is not the leaseholders who pay. At this stage, we are not ruling out any particular measure for making sure that that is the case.

The Housing Minister is doing excellent work on the matter, both behind the scenes and out in front. I have spoken to him about it on a number of occasions. Particularly with private sector buildings where there is no obvious freeholder responsible for replacing the cladding, does he consider that central Government should step in and fund the cost of replacement until it can be established who is responsible for it, after which they should reclaim that money?

My hon. Friend is quite right, and he points to something that will become an increasingly difficult issue. In a number of cases, the freeholder of a building—essentially, the owner of the building—may well be obscure, overseas, difficult to contact or, indeed, a dormant company. In those circumstances, as the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, local authorities have the power to enter the premises and do the work. We have offered financial support to make sure that it gets done.

I am very concerned to see the Minister treating this like some kind of theoretical exercise. People are genuinely afraid in their beds and it is not really enough for the Minister to say that he is satisfied. Seventy-two of my neighbours—including those who had warned people about their fears—died in the worst possible circumstances, in front of their neighbours. Hundreds were made homeless, and 19 months later many are still homeless. Nearly 700 children have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as have nearly 1,500 adults.

This was all preventable. Look at the cases over the years in which people have died in fires spread by external cladding, including at Summerland leisure centre, Knowsley Heights, Garnock Court and Lakanal House, where the coroner advised specifically how the Government should change building regulations to keep people safe. Nothing has yet changed. The Government are ignoring warnings, and our constituents are going to bed afraid. Current measures are not working. One of the Grenfell survivors said:

“Grenfell 2 is in the post.”

How many more must die before the Government take positive action to keep people safe in their beds?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady has not acknowledged the significant amount of work that has since taken place, not least the work of Dame Judith Hackitt, which has been seminal and foundational in our changing of the building regulations for the future. The hon. Lady should be under no illusion about the seriousness with which I take the matter. It has occupied very significant amounts of my time since I was appointed in the summer, including chairing the ministerial taskforce, having regular meetings with the team internally to make sure that we are driving performance and numbers and, critically, engaging with the Grenfell community, as I have done on many occasions, both individually and collectively. That included, movingly, attending the silent walk that took place just before Christmas. We believe this a significant part of our responsibility to make sure that everybody is safe.

As I said earlier in response to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), our primary concern is to make sure that every resident is safe tonight. Whatever measures are required—whether a waking watch, the retrofitting of heat sensors or smoke alarms, new doors, or whatever else it might be—our primary concern is that every local fire and rescue service can guarantee to the Department that everybody who is in a residential building of more than 18 metres is safe tonight.

The secondary concern of importance is getting the remediation done. We are making significant progress on that and will be accelerating that progress in the next few months.

In evidence to the Select Committee, Rockwool has claimed that there are more than 1,600 high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, rather than the 397—I think—that the Department claims. That is a clear, massive disparity. Will my hon. Friend make sure before he comes before the Select Committee next Monday that we are given a clear explanation of why there is this wide disparity and that he will take action to make sure that all 1,600 buildings are made safe?