House of Commons
Tuesday 22 January 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
Will the report to which my right hon. Friend has referred focus on the plight of Christian Churches in China?
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.
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?
No, the policy has not changed. The short answer is soon, of course.
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
Diplomatic co-operation with our partners in the EU over a wide range of areas is excellent, and will continue to be so post Brexit.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
Cheeky—three questions, but there is not time for three answers.
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
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
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.
What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of the tunnel construction into Israel by Hamas?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
We are over time, but we cannot proceed without hearing from the hon. Lady.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s hear it.
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?
Particularly in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
If we have not, we should.
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?
My hon. Friend makes an important point of which we should not lose sight: there are types of cladding other than ACM cladding. He will know that the Department issued advice to building owners in December 2017 on how to investigate non-ACM cladding systems on their buildings and remediate them. At the Secretary of State’s request, the expert panel reviewed and updated that guidance in December last year, and it reiterates that the clearest way to ensure safety is to remove any unsafe materials. We have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to conduct a programme of testing on non-ACM materials, and we expect that testing to start shortly.
Will the Minister confirm that however strongly worded the letters that he writes to property owners are, they have no legal status whatsoever, so those owners can legally ignore them? Given that, will he tell us what the timescale is for the decision on when he will proceed to legislation; exactly what factors he will bear in mind when he makes that decision; and at what point property owners will know that if they refuse to act, legal action will be taken to force them to do so?
Whatever the status of the work that has been done by the Department and of the letters from the Secretary of State, it is bearing some fruit. A large number of companies have taken their responsibilities seriously and are now funding remediation, some of which is quite elderly, and they are doing it for all the right reasons. We are working on the group who have yet to acknowledge their responsibilities and are hopeful of more success on that. As far as legislation is concerned, the hon. Lady will know that just before Christmas we published the Hackitt implementation plan for consultation, along with several other calls for evidence and consultations. Once they are all in and completed, we will produce the legislative programme.
The Minister has mentioned a number of small private developers and, indeed, individual freeholders, but will he write to me about Premier House in Edgware, to ensure that my local leaseholders and constituents do not have to foot the bill for the removal and replacement of materials that are considered dangerous? My constituents have already paid out thousands of pounds to their freeholder, a small independent developer. Although they are grateful for the Minister’s support, the leaseholders want legal clarity and certainty that they will not be forced to pay any additional moneys.
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the interests of his constituents. I am not aware of the particular situation, but I am more than happy to investigate and write to him, as he requests.
It is quite extraordinary that the Minister has just said that testing on non-ACM-clad buildings is about to start. There are around 340 high-rise buildings clad with non-ACM combustible materials, and more than 1,000 high-risk buildings. Will he guarantee, now, that those buildings—like Lakanal House, where six people died 10 years ago—will all be tested and treated in the same way as ACM-clad buildings?
In considering what we should do about non-ACM cladding, we have been guided by the expert panel, which includes Dame Judith Hackitt, on how we should proceed, and we are proceeding on the panel’s best advice. As I said, we expect testing on non-ACM cladding to begin shortly, and the conclusions of that work will obviously colour what action is taken next.
The Minister and I share a local government background, particularly in relation to the fire service, so he will be aware of the importance of not only how regulations are set up but how they are enforced, and I am sure that he shares my concerns about the changes that were made a decade ago. As part of his review of building regulations, what consideration is he giving to ensuring that they are actually complied with?
With his usual acuity, my hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. As part of her review, Dame Judith Hackitt considered whether there is an inherent conflict of interest for those who are implementing buildings and paying for building regulation and therefore being inspected. That is one of the issues that we will explore with the industry. It is about how we can ensure professional standards and professional independence in safety-critical situations.
I have previously raised in the Chamber the situation of my constituents in Heysmoor Heights in Liverpool. They live in a high-rise property owned by the offshore company Abacus Land 4. My constituents have already paid for replacement cladding. The situation in relation to insurance cover is completely confused: constituents were told that it was covered, but are now told that it is not. In view of the Minister’s commitment that private owners should not pass on the cost of replacement cladding to leaseholders, will he intervene in the case of Heysmoor Heights?
I am more than happy to look into the specific situation and write to the hon. Lady once I have had a review from the Department.
For a variety of reasons, local authorities with high-rise social housing are in the process of taking it down. That includes Rugby Borough Council, which is about to demolish two blocks at Biart Place, where there are structural concerns, and replace them with a larger number of conventional housing units. Does the Minister agree that this process should be accelerated?
It is typical of my hon. Friend to fight for improvements for his constituents. I agree that for buildings built in the 1960s and ’70s—I do not know what period the buildings he refers to are—refurbishment often presents more challenges than demolishing and replacing them. In doing so, the consideration of a different formulation—including streets, squares, low rise and high density—may well be preferable to high rise.
Of course, grave fire risk is no respecter of boundaries within the UK. We heard a wee snippet from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on what the Scottish Government are doing about this issue; dare I assume that Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Administrations are communicating and co-ordinating to establish the safest possible regime throughout the United Kingdom?
These are obviously devolved matters, but the hon. Gentleman should be reassured that, certainly in respect of my responsibilities in this country, we will leave no stone unturned and turn away advice from no one if they are getting it right. As I have said, we are currently going through a series of consultations to get this right. If the Scottish or, indeed, Welsh experience can inform our consultation on approved document B —the building regulations—I would be more than happy to consider it.
The Minister tries to assure our constituents that they can sleep at night, but I remind him that when he was a London deputy Mayor making fire service cuts and shutting down fire stations, he also assured us that people could sleep at night. Subsequently, we had the Grenfell disaster. I respectfully ask him to take this matter very seriously, or he will not be able to sleep at night because of the prospect of people continuing to live in danger. There are 41 blocks in my constituency that need urgent action; he needs to legislate now.
The hon. Lady is quite right to point out that I have spent a significant period in the frontline of public safety policy delivery. I like to think that my record in doing so, particularly on crime, speaks for itself. She will know that during my time at City hall as deputy Mayor for policing, we drove crimes, including teenage murder, down to 20-year lows. We did that by application, dedication and commitment, and I am giving exactly the same to this subject.
Nineteen months on from the Grenfell tragedy and despite all the warm words, not one penny has been forthcoming from the Government to help Birmingham City Council make safe 213 tower blocks in which 10,000 households live. Now the Department has at last written to the council asking whether it has any other “sizeable building safety issues”. That is scandalous. When will the Government accept their responsibility and contribute towards the very significant cost being undertaken by the city council to ensure that our city’s tenants are safe?
We have already made a very significant contribution towards supporting remediation in the social sector, and we have already allocated £248 million to remediate 135 buildings out of a fund of £400 million. We are still receiving bids from local authorities, and if Birmingham City Council can make the case, then, of course, we will support it.
Rockwool is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), but a number of its workforce live in Bridgend. They have come to see me to reiterate the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that Rockwool’s product, which is fire resistant and has thermal and acoustic properties, is not being promoted in relation to the work that is ongoing. It is non-ACM. Why are we not looking at other products that could also enhance the retrofitting of buildings throughout the UK?
I recognise the hon. Lady’s concern, but I am sure that she will agree that it is not for the Government to promote any particular product. The Government’s job is to set the framework in which those who are fundamentally responsible for building safety—that is those who build them and those who own them—are able to make the proper assessment of the safety of the products that they are using. It is quite obvious to everybody that the Grenfell Tower tragedy lifted a big flat rock on the building regulation system and showed that it has not functioned for some time across a number of Governments. We are trying to rectify that and to provide a framework in which developers, building owners and, critically, residents can be sure that the materials used to construct their homes are safe.
One of the 42 blocks that was mentioned by the Minister is New Providence Wharf, which is owned by Ballymore in my constituency. He repeatedly says that there are measures under active consideration to get these owners to comply. When will we actually see what these measures are?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the New Providence Wharf situation is one of those that is currently unresolved. We are engaged with Ballymore, which is the owner at the moment, and it is making the case that leaseholders should carry the cost. We have made it clear to it that that is not the case, and we will keep up the pressure and hope for a resolution soon.
The Local Government Association says that it continues strongly to urge the Government to ban the use of any combustible materials on high-rise and high-risk buildings. Rockwool has been in touch with me about two buildings in Hull North: the Bransholme Health Centre and the Allam Medical Building. I am concerned to hear that these buildings have materials that are combustible and could be dangerous. Is the Minister concerned, as I am, about these type of buildings not being part of his proposed plan?
I am, of course, concerned to hear that, and the hon. Lady will know that we introduced a complete ban on combustible materials on buildings over 18 metres just before Christmas. That ban is not retrospective. However, all building owners have a duty to ensure that their buildings are safe, and if they believe, after assessing their buildings, that they are not safe, they also have a duty to remediate. It is almost impossible for us, I guess, to tour the country and review every single circumstance, which is why we are stressing that the primary responsibility for this lies with the building owner. If she knows of buildings that she believes are not safe, and the building owner is not taking the action that is required, she should, in the first instance, speak to her local authority colleagues who have the power to intervene. If that fails then, by all means, write to me.
As has been mentioned, I represent Rockwool, which has its base in my constituency—the only base in the UK. The Minister says in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) that it is not Government’s job to legislate on the use of whichever materials a house builder may need and that is down to the house builder. I am sorry, but I do not agree with him. Ministers legislate all the time on health and safety matters. The reality is that we should not have combustible insulation inside tower blocks, hospitals or schools. The Government could legislate on that today for public safety.
Perhaps I was not as clear as I should have been. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have banned combustible cladding, which includes insulation, from all high-rise buildings. Anything that forms the skin of the wall and is combustible is now banned for new buildings. The point that I was making to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) is that it is not for us to legislate that a particular company’s product should be used. What we are in the process of doing is a review of approved document B. I urge both him and his constituents to contribute to the consultation on approved document B to make sure that we are getting the standards to which products must adhere right so that people within the industry can make a selection among products that they know have been tested correctly and are at the right standard to show that they are not combustible and can be used safely on high-rise buildings. That is exactly what we are trying to establish at the moment through the review and I urge him and all colleagues who have questioned me today to participate in that consultation.
To ask the Leader of the House of Commons if she will make a statement on the obstacles to introducing proxy voting in Parliament.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this urgent question. I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for her question. I have great respect for her, particularly for her invaluable work on the steering group to establish the Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy. She has also been a strong voice on the issue of proxy voting and I know that many of us enjoyed seeing her in her place during the previous debate on this matter with baby Gabriel.
I am also delighted that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) welcomed a new baby boy, Raphael, on Thursday. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our very best wishes. There are a number of Members right across the House who are expecting babies in the coming months and so I know that this matter is, quite rightly, of huge importance to many.
I profoundly believe that all new parents should be able to spend uninterrupted time with their new baby. That is vital both for the physical and mental wellbeing of parents and their babies. Working to give every baby the best start in life has been a passion of mine for many years, and during this time I have had the pleasure of working closely with many hon. and right hon. Members across the House.
I was delighted that the Prime Minister asked me to chair a cross-Government ministerial group in June to explore what more the Government can do to improve the cradle-to-grave effects that result from better support in this critical period of our lives. The group that I chair will make recommendations to relevant Secretaries of State on how the Government can improve the co-ordination and cost-effectiveness of early years family support, and identify gaps in available provision. I am delighted to be visiting Home Start and Sure Start in Manchester this Friday with the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) to hear directly from parents about their experiences.
I assure the House that I am absolutely committed to making progress on the issue of proxy voting, and I am truly delighted to be able to confirm to the House today that a substantive motion on proxy leave in the case of maternity, paternity and adoption has been tabled today for the House’s agreement on Monday 28 January.
The motion I have tabled will largely follow the helpful recommendations set out in the Procedure Committee’s fifth report of the Session. It will facilitate baby leave for Members of Parliament and implement the House’s decision to agree to proxy voting in instances of baby leave.
The motion and Standing Order changes that I will table deviate in two minor ways from the drafting in the Procedure Committee report. First, the motion will provide for a pilot scheme of one year, with a formal review at the end of that by the Procedure Committee to ensure that it is working well. Secondly, for that reason, the Standing Order is temporary, and in agreement with the Clerks, the ability to make provision for proxy voting in so far as not provided for by the Standing Order was deemed unnecessary for the scheme to be fully workable. Those are the two minor changes.
This is a perfect example of how Parliament can work collaboratively to bring about important change, demonstrating the work of many colleagues from all parties, who have been determined to see this happen. This is a really positive moment for many colleagues across the House. There have been a number of constructive debates about this issue, and ultimately it is clear to me that the balance of opinion is that baby leave is a unique period of time and is crucial for new parents. This is a step forward, removing the choice between parliamentary and parental responsibilities and helping to make Parliament a more modern workplace.
I do hope that the House will be of the same opinion, and that it will fully support the motion next week to bring forward a pilot scheme for proxy voting.
First, I absolutely share in the congratulations that the Leader of the House is sending—I am sure from the whole House—to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on the birth of her gorgeous baby boy, Raphael.
I thought that things were pretty bad when, back in June in the heat wave, I was 10 days past my due date, but the Government’s response to the House’s instruction to introduce proxy voting gives a whole new meaning to the word overdue. In all seriousness, I congratulate the Leader of the House on her work and on getting to this stage; she is a genuine advocate. Those of us who have worked hard on this issue—the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and those of us who have recently been pregnant or are currently pregnant—know from our meetings with the Leader of the House that she has been seriously helping to drive this initiative within Government, I am sure to her frustration at times, because she is committed to this issue. However, it is shameful that last week the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn was put in the invidious position of having to make a choice—weighing up the potential health risks to her baby against whether her constituents could have their voice heard on the biggest issue of our time. Nobody should be put in such a position.
I would also say, for the record, that I think that it is disgusting that some have suggested that the hon. Lady was just trying to make a point. She was put in an impossible position and she made a choice. The judgment that comes from all corners of parents making choices like that, and all sorts of others, is out of order. We should respect the choice that she made.
Yes, the hon. Lady was offered a pair—that is what some people have said: “She was offered a pair.” but it is the Government’s fault that pairing is entirely discredited as a mechanism to enable pregnant MPs and new parents to discharge their responsibilities. I was nursing my two-week-old baby in July when I found out that the person I was paired with had voted anyway. He had not voted all day; he had voted in just the two Divisions that happened to be very close—one that the Government lost and one that they won. So forgive me if I am a bit sceptical about the assurances that we were given that that was a genuine mistake, because the result of the Chief Whip’s behaviour—as it then turned out, others had been asked to break their pairs too—was to cheat my constituents out of their voice on one of the biggest issues of our time: Brexit. So some Members of the Government—not the Leader of the House—have been dragged kicking and screaming to this position.
I also think we should put on record thanks to Esther Webber of The Times, whose article suggesting that it was the Chief Whip who was blocking this issue is, I suspect, not entirely unrelated to the date at which this announcement has been brought forward today, in response to this urgent question.
However, I ask the Leader of the House, why the delay? It has been nearly a year—five babies born; three more on the way. Does she appreciate the appalling message that that sends out about maternity rights? Fifty-four thousand women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and the Government’s response has been completely inadequate. The charade that we have seen in this House just underlines that message.
The baby son of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn is five days old. We in law do not allow new mothers to work for two weeks after their baby is born, which is why I am delighted that the Leader of the House says that the House will discuss this issue on Monday. May I ask her some practical questions? Will the motion have time allocated to it, so that it is not possible for a single voice to shout “Object!” and stop the debate happening? What discussions has she had with the Speaker’s Office to make sure that all the preparatory work is done, and that a scheme is in place, so that if the House approves the motion on Monday, the scheme can be in place on Tuesday?
Of course, that does not get round the issue of the voice of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn being heard on Monday for that vote. Perhaps the Leader of the House might like to suggest a pair for the hon. Lady on Monday evening—I do not know what the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is doing then, but somebody like him may well appreciate having the night off.
We have waited long enough for this change. Modernising the House of Commons is a slow and laborious process—frankly, it is often quite like childbirth—so let us get on with it. I hope that on Monday night I will walk through the Lobby with the Mother of the House, the Leader of the House and many modernising MPs from all parties to get this done.
I say again that I consider the hon. Lady to be a friend and I entirely understand her frustration. I will respond to her questions in turn.
First, the hon. Lady talks about the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). As I said in business questions last Thursday, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn was offered a pair. She has also received an invitation to be nodded through should she wish her vote to be recorded. That would obviously require her to come to this place at some point during the day before the vote, when her name would be recorded; but in the meantime, she is invited to have a pair. I understand that she had a pair yesterday.
As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) knows, until proxy voting is in place, that remains the way in which those with illnesses and those having parental leave are accommodated. She will also be aware, as was said at the time, that the breaking of the pair in her case on, I believe, 17 July was done entirely in error. My right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) apologised directly to her, as did my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip on behalf of the Whips Office. I apologise to the House again, but I can assure all Members that it is intended that a pair be provided for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn should she wish it, as was the case yesterday.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire asks about the delay. She will appreciate that this is a fundamental break with the past in this House. She will also appreciate that I wrote to the Procedure Committee in November 2017, asking it to look into this matter, because it was a significant change for the House, and the Committee raised a number of issues that needed resolution. For example, when should a proxy be used? Could it be just for Government business? Should it be for private business? Should it be for a closure motion? Should it be for life-or-death decisions only? Those were very important questions. Also, who should offer the proxy? Who should be the proxy? Who should provide that role, and what sort of consequences does that offer for the individual who may be voting against their conscience on behalf of another Member? Finally, there is the question of whether proxy should be used only for those on baby leave rather than for those who are ill or who have other priorities.
Those were significant questions and I understand the hon. Lady’s frustration at the time it is taking, but we have had a number of very constructive debates, and I believe that we have concluded that the issue of baby leave is unique, and therefore should have priority. That is why I am able to bring this forward today.
Finally, with the breaking of pairs, I totally understand that in the hon. Lady’s case that was extremely regrettable, but she will appreciate that, as an informal system, there are a number of problems with the administration of pairs. I would very gently point out to her that five Liberal Democrat MPs—almost half of the party’s MPs—have broken their pairs in this Parliament alone. It is not unique to the Government side; a number of pairs have been broken through genuine errors. All hon. Members need to consider the fact that there is a strong commitment to making the informal pairing arrangement work as well as it possibly can.
I thank the Leader of the House for what she has said. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) also asked what discussions the Leader of the House had had with my office, to which the answer is that the Leader of the House and I have discussed this matter from time to time. I have made extremely clear privately, as I have made extremely clear publicly, my desire for progressive change and my impatience with its absence. More particularly, what I would like to say to the hon. Lady and for the benefit of the House is this: I can assure colleagues that if and when the House agrees to the necessary resolution and Standing Order, I will ensure that I have a scheme ready to be activated, so that Members can rapidly—indeed, I think instantly—apply for a proxy vote, and their nominated proxy can then cast that vote the next day. I think colleagues will agree that that is crystal clear.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House not only for her statement but for her personal commitment to supporting, in particular, pregnant and new mothers—and new fathers—in Parliament. I fully support what she has outlined today. She talked about modernising the workplace. Proxy voting is only one aspect of modernising this, frankly, prehistoric workplace in Parliament. So many aspects of Parliament need modernisation, and change, as this issue has shown, is far too slow and fragmented. Where does responsibility for driving forward that change lie? I know that it does not lie with the Government.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her comment and question. I completely agree with her. Many of us—if not all of us—across this House want Parliament to be a more family-friendly place. There have been a huge number of efforts, including by you, Mr Speaker, and by right hon. and hon. Members across the House to change the sitting hours to make them more family-friendly, for example. There are now better childcare facilities on the estate. There is a greater use of technology to make it easier to go about our jobs. We have done a huge amount of work, with cross-party collaboration, to bring in a new behaviour code and a new complaints procedure to make people feel that they can be treated with the dignity and respect that everybody deserves in this place. There is a huge amount more to do. I am committed to working with colleagues to make more progress. My right hon. Friend and I met only yesterday to talk about what more we can do, cross-party, to try to ensure that we have a more family-friendly Parliament that encourages people from all walks of life to want to come here and take up a role representing their constituents.
The responsibility is shared, but on a point of fact, as I suspect the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) knows, responsibility on this matter was manifestly and incontrovertibly that of the Government, as the Procedure Committee recognised. That responsibility has been discharged today by the Leader of the House, and I thank her for it. It is very important that we proceed on the basis of factual knowledge and not of misguided perception.
I thank the Leader of the House for her response and congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing this urgent question. I think Andrew is the only one of her family not to be in the Chamber. Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, because it has allowed us to get some further information.
It seems that it is not only the Prime Minister who returns frequently to this House and tells us that nothing has changed. It must be catching, as we have been promised yet a further debate. This is the second urgent question on proxy voting for baby leave in the space of six months, the last being on 18 July 2018 in the wake of the shameful events when a pair was deliberately broken by a Government Minister. The Leader of the House honoured her promise of a debate on 13 September. We have had two debates, and yet no further progress, despite there being broad agreement, and the will of the House being known, on the principle of proxy voting for baby leave. This House is debating and voting on one of the most significant issues that this country has faced, and yet last week a Member who was heavily pregnant, but who wanted her vote counted and recorded to fulfil her duties to her constituents, had no other option but to come to the House. It is time that we ensured that this is a modern workplace with modern employment practices for those with baby leave.
I know that the Leader of the House wants urgently to find a way forward and is not the block in the Government to these reforms. Today we hear about the Prime Minister of New Zealand—she knows that there is a work-life balance, even in that position. Everyone can find a way. Both Australia and New Zealand have a system, so there is absolutely no reason why we cannot look at those precedents and come up with our own solution.
I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has announced not just a motion but a debate. Will it be on a voteable motion? Will there be time for amendments? For how long will the debate take place? Why, given the paucity of the Government’s parliamentary agenda, can the Leader of the House not secure sufficient Government time? She has not actually said how long the debate will be and whether it is on a voteable motion. Will she say, in response to the question by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and to mine, whether we can vote and whether this principle will be secured by a vote on Monday?
As I set out from the Dispatch Box on 18 July and 13 September, Her Majesty’s Opposition—the Labour party—support the principle of proxy voting for baby leave. As I have repeatedly set out, there is a way that baby leave can be introduced today, without the need for a debate, through public agreement by all the parties to nod through those on baby leave for every Division. As I mentioned in a previous debate, there is a way that we could ensure that those voting by this means are denoted with a star. I even offered the idea of a baby emoji—I am sure that someone will come up with that. That will give full transparency to the public as to how Members have voted.
On 13 September, I asked about the evidence that the Leader of the House was going to take. She said that she wanted to take evidence on unintended consequences and various other issues. Has she taken this evidence? When will she report back to the House on it? Could she share that evidence with the House, and at least with the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who is in his place? As I offered on 18 July, will she agree to meet me today to discuss this?
It is vital that we are a modern workplace—that those on baby leave can have their vote recorded and take part in our proceedings as they are elected to do. I appreciate that the Government are putting forward the motion, but it does not guarantee any time for us to debate or give Members a vote to decide on this matter once and for all. Will the Leader of the House please be clear on that? We need to make this Parliament the modern, progressive and equal Parliament that we all want to achieve.
Well, I do not quite know where to start, because the hon. Lady will be aware that, as I have just made quite clear, Members can be nodded through if they request that. If they come to this place, their name can be recorded. They can, equally, request a pair. So she is pointing out something that is self-evident. On her other point, proxy voting does require a motion of this House, so she is actually not correct to say that people can just be offered a proxy vote as of today. That would be to undermine the right of this House to take decisions on its own procedures.
The hon. Lady asks if there will be a debate and a vote. I thought I had made it clear, but perhaps not, that, as I mentioned in my remarks, the motion that I have tabled today will enable the House to take a decision on Monday on whether it wishes to accept the Procedure Committee’s report, as amended, or not. So it will not be a further debate, as she says. We have had a number of debates.
As I also thought I had made clear, the evidence I took was on issues such as what sorts of motions should be eligible for proxy voting, who the proxy vote should be made by, and what sorts of circumstances should merit a proxy vote.
Finally, the hon. Lady asks if I will meet her today. If she looks in her diary, she will see that we are supposed to be meeting this afternoon.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s statement to the House today. I fully support proxy voting. In my experience of having a baby while being an MP, the guilt that you feel, as a mum to a newborn, about having to drag a three-week-old baby across the country is immense. I lost count of the number of times I was called at the last minute to come and vote. I recall one occasion when I jumped on a train, baby in tow, voted, and got back to Yorkshire at 11 o’clock at night, only to receive a call saying that I needed to be back the next day. So I know that feeling of guilt and I am pleased that the Leader of the House mentioned the emotional impact on a new mum as well. We already have a fantastic nursery in Parliament that my little son, Clifford, attends. I understand that that was a pet project of Mr Speaker, so I welcome his bringing that to the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that proxy voting will safeguard this precious mummy and baby bonding time?
I certainly love looking at my hon. Friend’s Facebook photos of little Clifford. It is great to feel that we get to see him a bit even though he is not often in the Chamber. Yes, I completely agree with her. What proxy voting will do for this place is to enable parents to have that precious bonding time with their new babies.
I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for securing what has turned out to be a fruitful urgent question. I very much welcome the Leader of the House’s commitment to ensure that we have the motion on Monday. It has been a long time coming, but I think we are going to get there at last. This episode has been profoundly embarrassing for the Government; I do not know whether the Leader of the House shares that embarrassment. I do not know whether it was the Whips Office trying to block this, but I will take the Government at their word. I welcome you saying, Mr Speaker, that if the motion is passed, proxy voting will be available the day after to Members of the House of Commons. Perhaps the Leader of the House can ensure that that is the case.
What happened to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) shocked the country. Our constituents could not believe that in the place where we design the legislation that deals with safety at work, we were prepared to put one of our colleagues at such risk. Our 19th-century method of voting has totally and utterly failed. The discredited “nod and wink” pairing system is in tatters and lies in disrepute. It has relied on trust, and clearly that trust has been thoroughly and fundamentally broken by what happened to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire.
The Scottish National party never believed in that system or trusted it. I am glad that we have been totally vindicated for never participating in pairing. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, said, we have to do more to modernise this place. This is a good start, but it is only a start. We have to start to ensure that we look after people in this House who are ill, indisposed or cannot make it to this place of work. We have to start looking at the practice of putting people in cramped Division Lobbies, at risk to their own health. Many of us heard my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) talking about her claustrophobia in the packed Lobby last Tuesday. We have to get beyond that. We have to start making sure that this place looks like a modern, 21st-century Parliament.
This is good news, and I welcome it. I look forward to discussing this later with the Leader of the House, when we will hopefully get a clear indication about how this will be done. This is good work, but there is more to be done. Let us get a move on and make sure that this place is safe for the people who come to work here.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is taking this matter up with the Scottish Parliament, which also has informal pairing arrangements. I am interested to know what steps he is taking to ensure that it comes into the 21st century at the same rate as the Westminster Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the situation for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). I can confirm that a pair is available for her, or, if she is on site during the day at any point before the vote, she will be nodded through, which means her vote will be recorded. That is the existing arrangement for those who cannot be here due to illness or other reasons. As I said last Thursday, I genuinely do not believe that any of her constituents would honestly require her to turn up here in a wheelchair when it was perfectly possible to receive the normal arrangements for people in this place with conditions. Members with long-term health issues were paired on that day.
I am genuinely delighted that we are making progress on this issue, but I urge all Members to recognise that we had 13 years of a Labour Government, with three female Leaders of the House, and we have had two Liberal Democrat Deputy Leaders of the House, and I do not believe that any of them brought in proxy voting. The Scottish Parliament has not brought in proxy voting.
Let us pause and have a moment of celebration. We are achieving something truly fantastic—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) shouts that this is not my idea. I am certainly not claiming credit for it. I am asking Members to celebrate the House’s achievement and what we can do when we get together and collaborate.
Mr Speaker, I am certainly celebrating the House’s achievement, just as I am celebrating seeing you break into a smile at the same time as the Leader of the House—it was like a parting of the clouds. You should try to do it more often; you work quite well together.
I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for closely involving the Procedure Committee in their work. This is good news. As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I would particularly like to thank the Committee’s members for bringing forward a really good report that seems to have the House’s support.
I want to say—I do not think this is a divisible proposition—that the hon. Gentleman is an all-round wonderful human being.
I find myself entirely agreeing with you on that point, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for the excellent and timely work of the Procedure Committee, which has provided a way forward on which I sincerely hope the House will agree on Monday.
Colleagues, there is a piquancy about the fact that, as we have been debating this important matter, a large number of children and young people have been observing our proceedings. Until a matter of moments ago, to boot, there was a young man up in the Gallery clutching a little baby—[Interruption.] Apparently, it was the baby of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)—[Interruption.] Ah, on cue! We are grateful to him.
Those watching our proceedings will be pleased to know that the next Member to be called is the person who has done more to champion women and equality in this House than anyone any of us can recall: the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Mother of the House, elected on 28 October 1982 and still in service here.
Thank you for your kind words, Mr Speaker, but this has been a collective endeavour. First, I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has been a champion of this for pressing reasons and reasons of principle. I thank her for securing this urgent question, and thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker. You have always been on the side of progress in respect of parents. As the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) said, you were a champion of the crèche here, and she explained why this measure is so necessary.
We must also thank the Procedure Committee and its Chair. As soon as the House passed the motion, the Committee cracked on with it and did a thorough and excellent job. Who knew how exciting the Procedure Committee was? I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). This is me railing ineffectively, but she had the idea that we should go to the Backbench Business Committee, to enable the Chamber to debate it. I thank the Committee for its role.
It is 31 years too late for me, but I am delighted about this, because it is really important. There are many babies of Members on both sides of the House in the offing. They are blissfully unaware of the Brexit debate, but these Brexit babies cannot wait, so I am delighted that we are getting on with it.
Finally, I pay tribute to the Leader of the House, who I am in no doubt has always been on the right side of the argument. I point out that I, too, was Leader of the House, and I failed to get this through. Whoever succeeds in these long decades of progress and these baby steps into the 21st century, all power to your elbow.
Of course, the right hon. and learned Lady’s baby steps in her day would now be teenage. She demonstrates what a wonderful Mother of the House she is by being so collegiate. I share her delight that this has been a cross-House effort and that we have got to the point where we can take this forward, which will be great news for all those babies. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), is sitting beside me with her youngster kicking away, obviously signalling some approval.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, I want to say a great big thank you for this step forward. I would like to see more women in this Parliament, and it is the women who are, biologically speaking, more likely to need to take maternity leave.
As someone who served in a Parliament for eight years that did not have any proxy voting or pairing and who saw women have to fly all across Europe to vote, I urge colleagues not to throw away the pairing system. Pairing offers flexibility, especially if somebody is unwell or has an urgent family matter. It is a really useful system. It needs to be more robust. Let us respect it and keep that option on the table.
My hon. Friend is exactly right; pairing has its uses. It is important that any parent on baby leave can choose to have either a proxy vote or be paired, if, for reasons of ill health or reasons associated with being a new parent, they do not feel in a position to make that decision. It is very important that they have the choice.
I join others in very much welcoming this important motion and the important step that is being taken. In the interests of keeping up momentum on the issue of reform, does the Leader of the House agree that, although this is a first step, what we really need in order to bring Parliament into the 21st century is electronic voting for all? I wonder whether she might explore that option.
May I ask the Leader of the House one question about the motion? I am sorry, but I have not had a chance to look at it yet. I know the Procedure Committee has suggested that there may be some exceptions where proxy voting would not be suitable in its view—for example, a decision on military conflict. I do not think I agree with it about that, but I am interested to know whether that is attached to the pilot that she is proposing.
I can say to the hon. Lady that this is a temporary Standing Order, and it follows the Procedure Committee’s view. I do not want to get this wrong: I know it will not apply to a closure motion, but it will apply to Government and private Members’ business. I suggest that the hon. Lady looks carefully at the Procedure Committee’s report for the finer details of exactly what is included and excluded.
The hon. Lady will obviously appreciate that the reason for making it a temporary Standing Order is so that the Procedure Committee can look at it after a year and decide, in hindsight, whether it is appropriate in scope, who gets to use it and who provides the proxy. In having such a pilot scheme, we will be able to address any residual concerns about its operation.
As many hon. Friends have said, people may wish to have a pair for other reasons, such as ill health or bereavement. The pairing system and its robustness seem to be in doubt, with an hon. Member coming in because they could not trust the pairing system, which is something none of us wishes to see. Will my right hon. Friend look at making this more robust, perhaps by ensuring that pairs are lodged in writing in advance—with you, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House or whoever is thought to be appropriate—such that if someone votes in error, their vote can be discounted, thus restoring faith in the pairing system?
I think my hon. Friend makes a very constructive suggestion, and I will of course discuss it with other business managers. However, she will appreciate that the pairing arrangements are informal arrangements to accommodate people with a sudden need to be absent and so on. Therefore, as I said in answer to a previous question, there are occasions where the administration of them can break down. This is an extremely difficult thing to be absolutely 100% robust, but I know that the business managers are absolutely committed to making it as robust and reliable as they possibly can.
It is a pleasure to be back in the House and to be speaking because, as is quite topical in this discussion, I have just returned from six months away from this place to spend time with my new baby, Eli, who is up in the Public Gallery with my husband, Eli’s dad, Ben. I just want to thank the Government for honouring the pairing arrangements that they gave me during my six months’ leave. I feel I need to say that because that was not always honoured for all my fellow MPs who were also having babies around the same time.
Much has been said about pairing, and I want to put on the record that, while I thank the Government for honouring my pair, I would much rather have had the opportunity to vote—to vote by proxy—perhaps giving my vote to the MP for a neighbouring or nearby constituency who could cast my vote on my behalf, because I was at home and I was following what was going on on BBC Parliament. I remember watching the debate in September, sitting, with baby Eli on my lap, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) is doing right now. Today, she is watching this on BBC Parliament, with baby Raphael, and she knows what is going on, so if there were to be a Division, she could cast her vote.
I stress to the Leader of the House how important it is that proxy voting goes ahead, because I do not think that pairing alone really brings Parliament into what, let us be honest, is the mid-20th century in terms of workplace rights. If we want to get into the 21st century, we have much further to go as a House.
May I welcome Eli and welcome the hon. Lady back to the House? It is great to see her in her place. I completely understand and empathise with what she is saying, and I am delighted that we are bringing forward this motion.
It is absolutely fantastic news that the House has come together to look at these much-needed changes. I pay tribute to my colleagues all across the House who have spoken about their experiences. My children are too old for this to be an issue for me. In my former life, before coming here, I was a human resources director, and I was the person responsible for writing policies. I say to the Leader of the House that I know how difficult it is to be in the position of writing such a policy—we all have the right intentions, but sometimes there are unintended consequences and all sorts of things that we have never thought about. Please will she pay great attention to the pilot study, with the input of the Procedure Committee and everybody from across the House, so that we get a sustainable, long-term solution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of making sure that this is correct. That is why it is a pilot scheme for one year. I am confident that the Procedure Committee will do its job in making sure that we review all the positives and negatives during that period.
I would like to put on the record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for your personal commitment to the introduction of proxy voting, as well as to the cross-party effort and, of course, to the Mother of the House for pushing this with the passion with which she always pushes quality issues. Thanks so much to the Leader of the House for laying this motion on Monday.
To reiterate what we have already heard in this debate, I want to say from personal experience that pairing may be an option that people want to choose, but for me it was not enough, because my reputation was questioned in a newspaper in relation to why was I not here and why I had the second worst voting record in this Parliament. I want to say to the Leader of the House that the reason why what she is going to do on Monday by laying the motion is so important—I hope we can get on with using this on Tuesday—is that Members should be able to have babies and have their vote registered. That is why proxy voting is such a massive step in the right direction.
I totally agree with the hon. Lady. I know that, in response to her raising this same issue during the debate we had a couple of months ago, the theyworkforyou.com website agreed to change what it was putting on its website about MPs who are on pairing arrangements because of maternity leave, so that it did not indicate that they were incredibly lazy. All of us expressed our disgust at the way she was treated in the press over that. It was a clear misunderstanding, and I hope that the new arrangements will ensure that will not happen in the future.
I am pleased to support the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, on which I am privileged to serve. I welcome the Leader of the House’s response today, and I thank her for all the work she has done on this important issue. Today is good news indeed. Does she agree that this place has to keep pace with the modern world and that proxy voting will certainly help with this, although there is much more to be done?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know he did a job share with one of our hon. Friends who was on maternity leave, and it was very good of him to do that. I think all hon. Members are committed to dragging us into the 21st century, and it is quite right that we do that.
Last year saw a whole range of events in Parliament to mark the centenary of some women getting the right to vote, and this year marks 100 years since the first woman took her seat in Parliament. I was really proud to take part in a lot of those events last year, and I know a lot of progress has been made. Other Members have mentioned the House of Commons nursery, which enabled me to put myself forward for Parliament. I have placed on record my thanks to those who made that happen, particularly you, Mr Speaker. However, when we talk about wanting to have a more diverse Parliament and we have things such as the nursery, is it not a contradiction that we have not yet introduced proxy voting? Does the Leader of the House agree that it is long overdue, and that if we want to break down barriers to women entering Parliament, we do need to take this very swift action?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady, and that is why we are doing so on Monday.
May I perhaps surprise you, Mr Speaker, by suggesting that I think this does not go far enough? I think that if this pilot scheme succeeds, as I hope and believe it will, it will probably pretty soon be extended to people who are unwell, because there are very strong arguments that people who are ill should be able to have a proxy for the same sort of reasoning that correctly underlies this one. However, does the Leader of the House agree that any move to something like electronic voting would be a retrograde step? The reason why we vote in person—there are many reasons why, but one of the principal ones—is that we can get hold of a lot of colleagues, principally Ministers or shadow Ministers, at the same time in the same place every day. That is the reason why we would be cutting our own throats as Back Benchers if we were simply prepared to press a button and leave it at that. Let us do this for the categories that need it, but preserve the rights of Back Benchers to be able to nobble Ministers in the Lobbies, because that is what they need.
My right hon. Friend demonstrates perfectly why some debate was needed before we decided to limit the proposal to baby leave and have a one-year pilot. Some Members argue that proxy voting should have a broader reach and include those who are ill or otherwise incapacitated. Clearly there are different views on how we vote, but those are for another day.
I do not wish to promote sibling rivalry, so I call Rachel Reeves.
I am the older sister, yet I have been called second today—we will be having words later, Mr Speaker.
I too thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for asking this urgent question, and the Leader of the House for answering it. May I just check the procedure for Monday? Is the intention to table a motion that we can vote on, or will it be introduced at the end of the day, in which case there is a risk that one Member will shout “Object” and stop the proposal going through? I know that the Leader of the House is trying to do the right thing, but we are all keen to ensure that we have proxy voting in place by the end of Monday.
Having had three kids, I have discovered a very useful piece of information, which I wish now to share with the hon. Lady: the oldest child makes the rules, the second child is the reason the rules are needed, and to the third child the rules do not apply. She is absolutely right to raise this issue. We have debated proxy voting a number of times and want to get on with it, so the plan is to bring it forward for the House to nod through. She is therefore quite right that if somebody objects, I will need to look at further measures, which I will do in very short order. This is the quickest way to get it through. Following that, as you have said, Mr Speaker, you will ensure that the detailed procedures are ready immediately thereafter. That will then need to be signed off by you, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Scottish National party’s Westminster team. Once those signatures have been received, it will be possible for proxy voting to take place on the next sitting day.
I thank the Leader of the House for that useful clarification. For the avoidance of doubt, if it is necessary for me to trog around the offices of the individual party leaders in order to secure those signatures, I shall be happy to do so.
Well, toddle then.
I wish you well in your toddling endeavours, Mr Speaker, although I hope that is not necessary. I associate myself with everything the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said and welcome the excellent announcement by the Leader of the House. I declare an interest, as my wife and I are expecting our first child in just over six weeks’ time, so I might be making an early application. With regard to the one-year trial, how will that work ahead of a birth? I am keen to take advantage of proxy voting post birth, but for those of us who represent constituencies far from London—if I am in the Chamber after 5 pm, I cannot physically get back to Moray until about noon the following day—will there be an opportunity not only to share the first few days of their child’s life, but to be there for the birth?
I am happy to discuss this with my hon. Friend in more detail, but the idea is that the normal rule will apply so that the two weeks of parental leave for fathers under proxy voting would be available from the birth. However, there is equally an expectation that it might be necessary to take that at another time, so that can also be facilitated, under the terms of the Procedure Committee’s report, which I encourage him to look at in detail. He and I can then discuss the matter further.
I am thrilled and associate myself with all the thanks to all the people who have already been thanked many times, including the Leader of the House. I am certain that someone will try to object on Monday, so I am going to drop what has been quite a pleasant and collegiate discussion so far. Would she like to join me in warning that I will personally make a misery of the lives of anyone who comes in here on Monday and objects, based on their patriarchal, paternalistic, draconian and old-fashioned sensibilities? What does she think is the likelihood of this getting through on Monday? I would also like to say that it will not just be me making their lives a misery; it will be me and my feminist army.
What I can say to the hon. Lady is that I absolutely believe her—I do not think anyone would doubt her for a moment. Anyone who is even considering objecting should beware.
I welcome this statement. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is right that the absent Member should choose the name of their proxy, rather than the Whips, and that they should have an absolute right to change that name upon giving written notice that they wish to do so?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, and that is indeed the intention.
I am pleased to subscribe to the feminist army of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips); I will be a proud member and glad to serve. Will the Leader of the House confirm that if somebody does shout “Object” on Monday, the motion will fall? It is unacceptable that one male Member of this House can override the overwhelming will of everybody else in this place just to get their own way, and on an issue that will not even affect them. Will she give that serious consideration? What will she do to ensure that such Members do not play silly games on Monday night, given that babies are expected sooner rather than later in this place? What else will she do to implement the findings of Professor Sarah Childs’s report “The Good Parliament”, which has been far too long in the implementing?
As the hon. Lady will know, it is for individual Members to examine their consciences and act accordingly. I sincerely hope that all hon. Members will support the motion. It is clear that there is huge support for it across the House. As I have said, in the event that somebody does object, I will look in very short order at what I need to do to bring it back again for the House to reconsider. With regard to Sarah Childs’s report, the hon. Lady will be aware that these matters are not entirely for the Leader of the House: they are matters for the House, and the Commons reference group is a cross-party group. I am always keen to hear from right hon. and hon. Members and would be delighted to discuss it further with her.
I hope that I can be counted as a member of the feminist army of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). When I entered the House in 1979, it was a horrible place to have a family. We had about 19 women MPs and it was totally family-unfriendly. It was miserable. I have a large family. As the House will know, I have three daughters and a son—we had four daughters but lost one—and now many grandchildren, four of whom are granddaughters. When I was a young MP, this place was chauvinist and the atmosphere was both undemocratic and unsupportive of those with families. I am just thankful that an army of women came into this place. I remember the dramatic change in 1997, when more women came in than ever before, and they transformed this miserable place into something democratic and warming, and made it a lovely place to come to work. People forget how the arrival of those women not only transformed our democracy but made our politics more pleasant, and I want to put that on the record. I also want to say that I saw a lot of Speakers who could not have cared less about families, women or equality, but you have championed this, Mr Speaker, and I salute you.
I think that the whole House enjoyed and concurred with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He does a very good job of showing himself to be a feminist, and those of us who join that brand of feminist determined to make the House a more modern place welcome his views with open arms.
Today is a good day at the office. Although we are taking a small step forward, it is important. I want to push the Leader of the House a little further on the point that the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made about whether, after the pilot of a year, other groups may be considered suitable for proxy voting. I think particularly of people who are seriously ill, perhaps with cancer, and undergoing treatment but who want to register their vote in the House. During the pilot year, could work be done on that, ready for the end of the pilot, to see whether proxy voting needs to be extended further?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. As we have discussed in the two debates and several urgent questions on this in recent months, some people believe that proxy voting should be extended, but nevertheless, there is cross-House agreement that the pilot should be restricted to baby leave, which covers a critical and unique period of life. However, I agree that, once the Procedure Committee’s review is under way, we should consider whether other matters should be included.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s statement. It starts to reduce the perception that the mother of Parliaments is frozen in time, although of course, if a Member shouts “Object” on Monday, that perception will be reinforced. Will she join me and others in all parties who campaign for other reforms, such as ensuring that there is adequate seating in the Chamber for all Members, electronic voting and, indeed, job sharing for Members of Parliament?
I am always interested to hear hon. Members’ views. I would be happy to discuss that with the right hon. Gentleman, but he will realise that such change would require the whole House to concur with his ideas for reform.
I know that the Leader of the House wants proxy voting to happen. I am a member of the Procedure Committee and I say to all Members that procedure is fun—never more so than in recent months.
Indeed, I am sad.
I ask the Leader of the House, in all sincerity, if, as I fear and perhaps she fears, the proposal does not go through on the nod on Monday, how soon will she bring back a substantive motion with a vote? The following day, we are expecting votes on Brexit legislation, which means that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who has a new-born baby, could lose out again. I am sure that the right hon. Lady agrees that that is simply not acceptable.
I have certainly made it clear that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) should be able to spend critical time with her baby, and I sincerely hope that she will avail herself either of nodding through, or a pair in the event that proxy voting is not available. However, as I have said, in the event that somebody regrettably decides to object on Monday, I will table a substantive motion as soon as possible.
As it happens, I do not have children, although I was told categorically by an eight-year-old in Ton Pentre school last week that I have two sons, aged two and six, which goes to show that the internet is not always accurate. Perhaps it was another Chris Bryant.
All my friends in the House who have children say that the most useful thing for them is certainty about when votes will be held and when the end of the day will come. Of late, we have had a lot of Tuesdays and Wednesdays that have gone later than 7 o’clock and votes at strange times, and we do not have any certainty about whether the proposal will be accepted next Monday. I urge the Leader of the House to think again about whether it is possible to have a 45-minute or hour-long debate on Monday, with a vote at the end so that we have a guaranteed chance of getting this through. While we are talking about certainty, many parents are uncertain because there are rumours that there will no longer be a February recess during half-term. Will the right hon. Lady make it clear whether that will happen?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the House has agreed its recess arrangements in February. It is a matter for the House, but I have no plans to change that. I have tabled the motion for Monday and I sincerely hope that it will be successful.