House of Commons
Wednesday 27 February 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
International Trading Opportunities
I start by congratulating coach Warren Gatland and captain Alun Wyn Jones on their most magnificent victory in Cardiff on Saturday. Speaking as a proud Englishman, it was a joy to watch the game. There is no better way to kick off Wales Week in London, in which we champion and celebrate everything that is great about Wales, including its rugby team.
The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade on promoting Wales’s trading opportunities. From trade missions to his work with trade commissioners and sitting on the Board of Trade, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State works continually to create potential both for Welsh exports and for foreign direct investment projects to come to Wales.
I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s remarks, although I preferred the first half.
Many people will have used the M4 this weekend. Given the M4’s potential for promoting international trade in Wales, and indeed in the rest of the country, will my hon. Friend tell me what progress has been made towards honouring the commitment from the 1960s to build the M31 from Reading down to Gatwick Airport, via the M3?
I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion for that project, and rightly so. He is right to raise this important issue. The Department for Transport recognises the importance of cross-border connectivity. It has been gathering evidence to inform the second road investment strategy—RIS2—which will govern investment in England’s motorways and major A roads between 2020 and 2025. Economic growth is one of RIS2’s five stated key aims and will play a part in the appraisal of schemes. It will be published in 2019.
I join the Minister in congratulating the Welsh rugby team on their excellent victory. They are on course for the grand slam this year. The Minister will be aware that REHAU plastics in my constituency, which has traded internationally for more than 40 years, has announced its closure. It will now concentrate its business on the European mainland. Will his Department work with the Welsh Government, myself and local government to try to retain those important trading jobs? They are international jobs, and we need them on Anglesey.
Absolutely. I have a sneaking feeling that rugby might be a running theme throughout these questions. We recognise the importance of REHAU as an employer in the region and on Anglesey, and we will work closely with the hon. Gentleman and with the company to achieve the best possible outcome, most importantly for the important staff who work there.
There are many excellent international trading companies in north Wales, but in order to continue to thrive they need access to the most modern digital infrastructure. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board to ensure that growth deal funding is targeted towards improving digital connectivity?
My right hon. Friend is indeed a great champion of north Wales. I recently met that board to discuss its progress in finalising its proposition to utilise the £120 million that we and the Welsh Government each allocated to the deal. Digital infra- structure is currently an underpinning project, but we have set the region a challenge to go even further and to be even more ambitious about what the project can achieve for the region by working closely with a range of partners, including the private sector.
Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus for Friday, Mr Speaker. I pay my good wishes to Sam on the sad loss of Paul Flynn. This is the first chance I have had to do that. He was a great man. He actually stood in my constituency in 1974.
In January, Dyson announced the relocation of its HQ to Singapore, Hitachi ended its interest in Wylfa and Airbus said it was prepared to leave Wales in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Government’s handling of Brexit has been described as a “disgrace” by Airbus’s Tom Enders and a “state of total confusion” by tycoon Sir Martin Sorrell. What message does that send to international investors and traders about trading opportunities in Wales?
If I might politely say so, the hon. Gentleman is being a little selective with his examples. I would point him to the employment figures. The real figures show that foreign direct investment last year created 3,107 new Welsh jobs, which is a 20% increase. I understand why he might want to paint a gloomy picture. Airbus has made it perfectly clear that it does not want no deal. It wants a deal, and the best thing that he and his party could do is support the deal when it comes before the House.
Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Legislative Consent
This is the first Welsh questions since the sad passing of our friend and colleague, Paul Flynn. He leaves a significant space on the Labour Back Benches.
The Government are engaging extensively with the Welsh Government in preparing the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This includes bilateral engagement and meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committees.
The National Assembly for Wales backed the Plaid Cymru motion calling for work to begin immediately on preparing for a public vote. A recent poll by YouGov also found that more Welsh voters back a people’s vote than do not. If the Secretary of State is truly Wales’s voice in Westminster, as he so boldly claims, will he outline the preparations he has pressed the Prime Minister for to facilitate a people’s vote?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I would politely point out to her that Wales voted to leave the European Union in even stronger numbers than the rest of the UK. We have an obligation to act on the instruction that comes from that referendum, but in doing so we will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government to ensure and secure a smooth and orderly exit.
I first met Paul Flynn in 1980. He was absolutely inspirational to me then and he continued to be a source of inspiration throughout the many years I had the privilege to know him.
Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the Welsh Government will be fully represented in any negotiations with the EU that impact on devolved competence and policy?
The UK Government have been open and transparent in their dealings with the Welsh Government on representation and engagement. In fact, the Welsh Government sit on the EU Exit and Trade (Preparedness) Sub-Committee, which shows and demonstrates our positive engagement. I am only disappointed that the same privilege and opportunity has not been extended to the UK Government to sit on the Welsh Government’s similar committee.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but does he understand that if the UK Government negotiate free trade agreements, for example with the USA, which force hormone-injected beef and chlorinated chicken on the people of Wales without the legislative consent of the elected Welsh Government, that will trigger a major constitutional crisis? Is he prepared to risk that?
First, I do not accept the basis of the question, but the hon. Lady raises an important point. We will, of course, continue our warm, constructive and positive engagement with all the devolved Administrations. Our work with the Welsh Government on leaving the European Union has proved fruitful so far. We have laid 120 statutory instruments on behalf of the Welsh Government and at their request. In terms of future trade agreements, we will continue to work with them constructively in the interests of the whole of the UK. Clearly, my interests and their interests will be to defend the Welsh interest. I plan to continue to work with them on that positive basis.
Leaving the EU: Economic Support
I meet my counterparts in the Welsh Government on a regular basis, including Baroness Eluned Morgan on Monday, to discuss a range of policy areas. A responsible Government prepare for every eventuality, including no deal, and we continue to work together on operational readiness through the Joint Ministerial Committees.
That is all very well, but the Government’s no-deal assessment made it clear that the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the UK’s food and drink sector would be most damaging in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the sector comprises over 5% of those economies compared with just 1.38% in England. How can the Government claim, therefore, that this is a partnership of equal nations when they stand ready to ruin the economies of three, purely in the interests of Tory party unity?
The hon. Gentleman is quite selective with the data that he points to. He has highlighted one scenario, but if he is happy to take that message so clearly from the sector that he has highlighted, that same sector encouraged him to support the Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union. When that meaningful vote returns to Parliament, I hope that he will heed that message then.
Will the Secretary of State recognise that 92% of Welsh lamb goes for EU export? Welsh hill farmers have said that if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead, their industry will be decimated and wiped out—a view confirmed in his economic evidence that was published last night. If that is his analysis, will the Secretary of State for Wales act responsibly and make sure that Welsh lamb is protected?
I would say similarly to the hon. Gentleman that absolutely, we recognise the importance of Welsh agriculture, as we do all the important employment and economic sectors in Wales. The National Farmers Union and NFU Cymru were strong supporters of the deal with the European Union, so if he is happy to repeat their message today, I hope that he is happy to act on their message when it comes to voting on the meaningful vote in this House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that agriculture is a very important industry not only for Britain but for Wales—particularly, as has already been outlined, Welsh lamb? What measures could be taken in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Clearly the deal would be the first option, but if there was a no-deal Brexit, how would those difficulties be overcome?
My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. Agriculture is an extremely important part of the Welsh economy and is disproportionately important there compared with the rest of the UK. We would, of course, act in a way that would protect the interests of that economy to ensure that those jobs are there for the long-term future, in spite of any short-term challenge.
Regardless of whether we have a no-deal Brexit, is my right hon. Friend aware—I am sure he probably is—that it is coming up to the 50th anniversary of the investiture of the Prince of Wales? How can we employ, in that sense of the word, the Prince of Wales’s soft power and so on to promote Wales and the Welsh economy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we leave the European Union, there is an opportunity to look outwards, and the Prince of Wales is a great champion of Wales and brings about significant soft power. We rightly recognised him last year by renaming the second Severn crossing the Prince of Wales bridge. I pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen, who will host a reception next week to mark the 50 years since the Prince of Wales was named such.
I will be voting for a deal with the European Union. The hon. Lady will have an interest in a whole range of sectors, be they agriculture or automotive, and all those sectors have strongly supported the Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union. I am disappointed that the hon. Lady voted against that, making no deal more likely.
I do not want to pre-empt our consultation, which will go out very shortly, but I say candidly to the hon. Gentleman that he will recognise that more than £4 billion—approaching £5 billion—in EU structural funds has been spent in the Welsh economy over the last 17 years; does he honestly believe that we have had the best value from that, and is there not a better opportunity to deliver better value for money for the taxpayer?
Leaving the EU: Business Preparations
Since the referendum I have been talking to stakeholders the length and breadth of Wales on the implications of EU exit. This includes the discussions I have had with my expert panel and economic advisory board, which met again last month.
My hon. Friend is a great champion of his constituency, and I have no doubt that people in Corby and east Northamptonshire will want to visit Wales regularly. This is a great opportunity to highlight Wales Week in London. Wales Week has gone global this year, being held in New York, in Washington and in all parts of the UK. I would be interested in seeing what we can do in my hon. Friend’s constituency next year.
There is absolutely no reason why those employees should have left, because we have respected their rights. I only hope and wish that as we continue to negotiate, all the rights of UK nationals living in the European Union will be respected in exactly the same way. The hon. Lady voted against the Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union, and by doing so she is making no deal far more likely. So I would encourage her to look objectively at the data, and to support the meaningful vote when it comes up.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office already has an agenda to take as many jobs as possible out of Whitehall and relocate them across the rest of the UK on an ongoing basis. Leaving the European Union will bring new responsibilities. I think there is an opportunity for my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I shall be seeking to play my part in ensuring that Wales benefits too.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Wales Office sits and acts right across the whole of Government, but my prime lead is with the Welsh Government. We have now ensured that they sit on the European Union Exit and Trade (Preparedness) Sub-Committee, and as I mentioned earlier, I only hope that they will similarly invite a UK Government representative to sit on their equivalent Committee.
The Government understand that police demand is changing and becoming increasingly complex. That is why, after speaking to all police forces in England and Wales, we have provided a comprehensive funding settlement that increased total investment in the police by over £460 million in 2018-19.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the 2019-20 settlement provides total funding of up to £14 billion, and it is an increase of up to £970 million on the previous year. I would also politely remind him that the Labour party voted against that increased funding.
The industrial strategy provides a platform for the Welsh economy to thrive, and we have been working closely with the Welsh Government to ensure that we make the most of the opportunities available. We are already delivering a wide range of projects in Wales, such as through the industrial strategy challenge fund, for which Wales is scoring well above its population share.
If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute to my parliamentary next-door neighbour, Paul Flynn. The unique, unforgettable parliamentarian he was will be missed by all in this House.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State is concerned by the news that the Welsh Automotive Forum says that once Honda stops production in Swindon, 12 companies based in Wales will be affected by that decision. If he is worried, what will he do for those small and medium-sized enterprises to open up new markets?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I was in Japan last week when the ambassador received the news. It is necessary to recognise that this is nothing to do with Brexit; it is about changing market habits and about Honda’s changing approach. We have already been in touch with the Welsh Automotive Forum and are engaging positively with its members. The hon. Gentleman is right about the number of companies, but the exposure is more limited than it might initially suggest.
In terms of the industrial strategy, does the Secretary of State think that the chronic M4 congestion around Newport, which snarled up the England rugby team coach last Friday, was part of a cunning plan to give Wales the edge, or just a consequence of 20 years of failure on the part of a Welsh Labour Government, who cannot build a road?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even the Welsh coach, Warren Gatland, said to Eddie Jones that he would never have travelled through Newport at that time of day because of the congestion in the area. That might be light-hearted, but the reality is that the problem is causing serious reputational damage to Wales. The plan is available and makes a positive recommendation, and the money is available from the Treasury. I wish that the Welsh Government would just get on and deliver the road.
I am sure the House will join me in welcoming the serendipity of the alignment of stars whereby in every year ending in “9” since 1949, Wales has beaten England.
Wylfa Newydd was a key development underpinning north Wales growth deal projects. Now that Hitachi has pulled the plug on Wylfa, what is the Secretary of State doing to secure additional funding, specifically infrastructure investment, over and above the £120 million currently committed by the Government?
The hon. Lady has asked an important question, but Hitachi has paused the project and is maintaining the development consent order. It has not pulled the plug. When I met the chairman last week, he was keen to continue to engage. We will look open-mindedly at the north Wales growth deal, but it is of course a matter for local authorities and businesses to submit bids to me so that I can consider them in due course.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential use of Crown Estates revenue income from Wales, or other Treasury funds to support the development of energy infrastructure, and specifically to develop the tidal stream energy sector in Pembrokeshire, Llŷn and Ynys Cybi?
The hon. Lady has given some excellent examples of projects that could well gain support through the north or the mid Wales growth deal or the Swansea city deal. Those are the sorts of projects that I should like to explore, but of course they are bottom up. Working with the hon. Lady and with local partners, I shall be happy to see what we can do.
Journey Times: Chepstow to Gloucestershire
We have regular discussions with the Welsh Government about cross-border roads, including the proposed A48 bypass around Chepstow. We know that a bypass could improve journey times between Chepstow and Gloucestershire as well as reduce air pollution, and we look forward to working with the Welsh Government to deliver this vital piece of infrastructure.
There are times when a drive through Chepstow resembles the rush hour in Lagos or Mexico City. Will Ministers therefore do everything that they can to encourage the local authorities in Gloucester, the Welsh Government and the Department for Transport to work with Monmouthshire council to deliver that bypass as soon as possible?
There is no greater champion and voice for Chepstow than my hon. Friend. The Government are dedicated to improving transport infrastructure across Wales, for instance by providing a new relief road. We have abolished the tolls over the Severn, and I know from personal experience on Saturday that Chepstow could do with a bypass.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. He is a fine man and Slough is a very good place, but it is a long way from Chepstow or Gloucestershire. If the inquiry consists of one sentence and relates either to Chepstow or to Gloucestershire, I will hear it. If it is about Slough, he must remain seated. Blurt it out, man.
Again there is no stronger voice for Wales than that of my right hon. Friend, who has a long-standing interest in Wales. Yesterday I met the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) to discuss the F-35 contract. The recent announcement puts Wales right at the centre of the global F-35 partnership. It is the largest defence programme in history.
It was a great pleasure to visit the F-35 factory in Fort Worth in the summer of 2016, and of course the F-35 has a huge UK content to it, so does my hon. Friend agree that these contracts show the immense contribution being made by the Welsh defence industry to the UK economy and exports overall?
The aerospace and defence industries are in very good health in Wales. In the financial year 2017-18, the UK Government spent £960 million with the Welsh defence industry and commerce; that is up from £946 million. This supports an estimated 6,300 jobs in Wales and the half a billion pound F-35 contract is to be welcomed right across this House.
I certainly would agree to meet with the aerospace industry. I have already visited a number of companies. I am also committed to holding a roundtable on this very subject and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman as well to discuss this further.
The hon. Gentleman raises this issue on the European Union. He voted against the Prime Minister’s deal. That makes no deal far more likely. The only way to secure a smooth, orderly exit from the European Union is to support the Prime Minister’s deal when the meaningful vote comes back to this House.
RNLI New Quay
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on this important issue. The UK Government do not anticipate that the RNLI’s decision to replace the all-weather lifeboat with the Atlantic 85 vessel will have an impact on its capability to co-ordinate search and rescue in Cardigan bay.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that the decision to remove the all-weather lifeboat from New Quay has caused considerable concern in Ceredigion and further afield. May I ask him to again raise this matter with the Department for Transport and press for detailed reassurances that the removal will not diminish search and rescue capabilities in Cardigan bay?
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I first say that the UK is deeply concerned about rising tensions between India and Pakistan and urgently calls for restraint on both sides to avoid further escalation? We are in regular contact with both countries urging dialogue and diplomatic solutions to ensure regional stability. We are working closely with international partners, including through the UN Security Council, to de-escalate tensions and are monitoring developments closely and considering implications for British nationals.
Mr Speaker, I understand that Eve Griffith-Okai in your office retires at the end of the week. She has worked for four Speakers and I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing her the very best for the future.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
First, I made a statement and answered 82 questions on these issues in the House yesterday. We will be bringing the meaningful vote back by 12 March. As I said yesterday, if that meaningful vote is rejected again by the House, we would have a vote in this House on 13 March on whether the House accepts leaving without a deal on 29 March. If the House rejects leaving without a deal on 29 March, there would be a vote on a short, limited extension to article 50. On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I continue to believe that it is right for us to deliver on the result of the referendum that took place in 2016.
Obviously, this is a matter for Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council to resolve: rubbish piling up on the streets because of the failure of the Labour council to get a grip. Not only does it show what a hard-left Labour Government would be like; it shows all of us that, under Labour councils, you pay more and get less.
There is an urgent question coming up on Kashmir, but I will just say that from our side of the House we strongly support rapid dialogue between India and Pakistan in order to reduce the tension and deal with the root causes of the conflict before more lives are lost.
I also join the Prime Minister in wishing Eve a very happy retirement, Mr Speaker. She has been absolutely brilliant in your office over the many years of people rushing in and out and making totally unreasonable demands. She has always sorted it out. Could you pass on to her the thanks of lots and lots of Back Benchers over many years?
The Bank of England forecasts that growth for this year will be the slowest in over a decade. Does the Prime Minister blame her shambolic handling of Brexit or her failed austerity policies for this damaging failure?
First, I think the right hon. Gentleman should have seen the report that actually showed the expectation that in this country over the coming year we will have higher growth than Germany. He talks about the economy, so let us just say what we see in the economy under a Conservative Government: more people in work than ever before; unemployment at its lowest level since the 1970s; borrowing this year at its lowest level for 17 years; and the largest monthly surplus on record. Conservatives delivering more jobs, healthier finances and an economy fit for the future.
I know that the Prime Minister is very busy—I understand that—and she possibly has not had a chance to look at the Bank of England forecasts, which suggest that there is a one in four chance of the UK economy dipping into recession. Manufacturing is already in recession, car manufacturing has declined at the steepest rate for a decade—down 5% in the past quarter alone—and Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan have announced cuts to either jobs or investment in recent months. Does she blame her shambolic Brexit or her Government’s lack of an industrial strategy for this very sad state of affairs?
I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman the positives in the economy and the consistent quarter-by-quarter growth that we have seen under this Government. What do we know would be the worst thing for the economy in this country? It would be a run on the pound, capital flight and £1,000 billion of borrowing under a Labour Government.
As manufacturing industry declines, it is skilled well-paid jobs that are lost. But the Prime Minister is right—there is something that is increasing, and that is the income of the top fifth richest people in this country, which went up by 4.7% last year while the incomes of the poorest fell by 1.6%. With the poorest people worse off, will the Prime Minister now commit to ending the benefit freeze, or does she believe that rising poverty is a price worth paying?
Perhaps it might again help to look at some of the facts. The top 1% are paying 28% of income tax, which is higher than at any time under a Labour Government, income inequality is lower than that which we inherited from a Labour Government, and the lowest earners saw their fastest pay rise in 20 years through the national living wage. The Conservatives are building a fairer society and delivering for everyone.
Some of us cannot forget that it was the Conservative party that so opposed the principle of the national minimum wage from the very beginning. Perhaps the Government could start by tackling the scourge of low pay in their own Departments. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Justice pay some of their central London workers as little as £7.83 an hour, and they have been on strike again this week, hoping to get a London living wage. Will the Prime Minister intervene and ensure that they do get the London living wage so that they can continue doing their valuable work for both those Departments?
Low pay means that many workers have to claim universal credit just to make ends meet. This month, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions admitted that universal credit is driving people to food banks. Is it not time to stop the roll-out and get it right, or does the Prime Minister believe that rising poverty is a price worth paying?
No. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman is repeating his previous question, but he talks about universal credit. We have made changes to it as we have rolled it out as we have seen how it has been operating. In my first months as Prime Minister, we cut the taper rate so that people could keep more of what they earn. Since then, we have increased allowances to 100% of a full monthly payment, we have scrapped the seven days’ wait, meaning that people get their money sooner, and we have brought in a two-week overlap for people on housing benefit. When we were making all those changes to universal credit to benefit the people who receive it, why did the Labour party oppose every single one of them?
Can I just give one example of what is happening? Take the food bank in Hastings, which is represented by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, where demand went up by 80% after universal credit was rolled out, and the Trussell Trust said that a significant proportion of referrals are related to benefit changes, delays or sanctions. It is a huge increase in food bank use.
Some 4.1 million of our children are growing up in poverty, and the Resolution Foundation said last week that UK child poverty was on course to hit record levels. Will the Prime Minister act to prevent that? Will she start by ending the two-child limit? Will she end the benefit cap? Will she restore the 1,000 Sure Start centres that have been lost under her Government?
We want to ensure that we have a welfare system that is fair not only to those who need to use it, but to all the hard-working taxpayers whose taxes actually pay for the welfare system. The right hon. Gentleman talks about child poverty, but absolute child poverty is at a record low. We know that a child growing up in a home where all the adults work is around five times less likely to be in poverty than a child in a home where nobody works. Under this Government, the number of children in workless households is at a record low. So, when the right hon. Gentleman stands up, will he recognise that work is the best route out of poverty and welcome the fact that we now have more people in work than ever before—3.5 million more than in 2010?
It clearly is not working, because so many people who are themselves working very hard, some doing two or even three jobs, have to access food banks just to feed their children. The Prime Minister used to talk about the “just about managing.” Well, they are not managing anymore. Income inequality— up. In-work poverty—up. Child poverty—up. Pensioner poverty—up. Homelessness—up. Austerity clearly is not over. People on low incomes are getting poorer, while those at the top are getting richer. The economy is slowing, manufacturing is in recession and this Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit—[Interruption.]
Austerity clearly is not over. People on low incomes are getting poorer, while those at the top get richer. The economy is slowing, manufacturing is in recession and this Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit is compounding years of damaging austerity. Their policies are driving people to food banks and poverty in the fifth richest economy on this planet. Are any of these burning injustices a priority for the Prime Minister?
Manufacturing is not in recession, and what the right hon. Gentleman says about the lowest earners is not the case. If he had listened to my earlier answer, he would know the lowest earners have seen the highest rise in their pay for 20 years as a result of the introduction of the national living wage—the national living wage introduced by a Conservative-led Government.
If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about actually helping people who are in work, let us talk about the fact that we have cut income tax to help people to keep more of what they earn. We have frozen fuel duty to help people for whom a car is a necessity, not a luxury. Since 2010, those measures have saved working people £6,500.
From the way the right hon. Gentleman talks, one might think that he would have supported those measures. But what did he do? No, he voted against them over a dozen times. That is the reality: it is working people who always pay the price of Labour.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. Obviously I recognise the concern those people feel, particularly those who live furthest away from the planned new hospital. As he says, health is a devolved matter for the Labour Welsh Government, but I urge them to consider fully the impact of the changes on local residents. We want to ensure that people can access the services they need, wherever they live in the United Kingdom.
I am sure the House will want to join me in welcoming the president of the Dutch Senate and the Dutch parliamentarians who are with us. Goedemiddag. Hartelijk welkom, dames en heren.
Some 100,000 jobs in Scotland are under threat from a no-deal Brexit. The Scottish Government’s top economic adviser has warned that it could create a recession worse than the 2008 financial crisis. The Prime Minister must rule out no deal right here, right now. Why is she still blackmailing the people of this country?
The right hon. Gentleman might not be surprised if I point out to him that there are only two ways to ensure that no deal is taken off the table. [Interruption.] It is no good SNP Members shaking their heads or muttering from a sedentary position. They need to face up to the fact that we will not revoke article 50 because we are leaving the European Union, so the only way to take no deal off the table is to vote for the deal.
I think it will be for Parliament to decide, and of course there are other options: we can extend article 50 and we can have a people’s vote. The Prime Minister should look at the faces of her colleagues; she is fooling no one. Parliament will not be bullied into a false choice between accepting her very bad deal or no deal at all. MPs from Scotland must now decide: will they stand up for Scotland or will they stand up with the extreme Brexiteers on the Tory Benches? Today, the Scottish National party will move an amendment to rule out no deal in any and all circumstances. Scottish MPs can back the SNP or betray voters in Scotland. Will the Prime Minister finally end this Brexit madness and vote for the SNP amendment tonight?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about an extension to article 50 or a second referendum, but that does not solve the problem—it does not deal with the issue. The issue is very simple: do we want to leave with a deal or without a deal? That is the question that SNP MPs and every other MP will face when the time comes. He then talks about betraying voters in Scotland. I will tell him what has betrayed voters in Scotland: an SNP Scottish Government who have raised income tax so that people in Scotland are paying more in income tax than people anywhere else in the UK; an SNP Scottish Government who have broken their manifesto promise and raised the cap on annual council tax increases for homeowners; and an SNP Scottish Government under whom people are facing the prospect of an extra tax for parking their car at their workplace. And all of that—[Interruption.]
First, I join my hon. Friend in recognising the work done by the Community Security Trust. It does such important and valuable work throughout the year, and I am pleased that the Government are able to support the work it does. He is absolutely right to say that one can never be too apologetic about antisemitism, but I think what we have heard sums up Labour under its leader: it loses the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and it keeps the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson). That tells us all we need to know about the Labour leadership: they are present but not involved. Perhaps if the Labour leader actually wants to take action against racism, he would suspend the hon. Member for Derby North.
One homeless person dying on our streets is enough for national shame, yet the latest figures show that in 2017 nearly 600 died. In that same year, the Vagrancy Act 1824 was used more than 1,000 times to drag homeless people before our courts. Crisis, Centrepoint, St Mungo’s and MPs on both sides of this House agree that it is time to scrap this law. Will the Prime Minister consider meeting us and the charities so that we can make the case for why we should not wait one more day?
As I think I indicated in Prime Minister’s questions last week, the number of people sleeping on our streets has gone down for the first time in eight years, but of course there is more to do. On the wider issue of homelessness, there is more to do in terms of building more homes, and we are doing that. I will ensure that the Minister from the relevant Department meets the hon. Lady to discuss the matter.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I know that, as he said, he has been in touch with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, as well as the Treasury. As I have said previously, we fully expect building owners in the private sector to take action, make sure appropriate safety measures are in place, and not pass costs on to leaseholders. We have written to all relevant building owners to remind them of their responsibilities. They must do the right thing; if they do not, we are not ruling anything out. I should also point out to my hon. Friend that local authorities have the power to complete works and recover the costs from the private owners of high-rise residential buildings. I am sure that a Minister from MHCLG would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to continue to discuss this matter, to ensure that the residents are given the peace of mind they need by the action being taken.
The Department of Health and Social Care is taking the steps necessary to ensure that medicines are available. We have been clear before that it is not necessary to stockpile and that patients should not be stockpiling medicines. Medicines will be available. If the hon. Lady is so concerned about the impact of no deal—
We will be introducing a fund to ensure that our towns can grow and prosper. The details will be announced in due course by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that Harlow, and indeed other towns across England, will be able to propose ambitious plans to help to transform their communities. Of course, we will work with the devolved Administrations and in Northern Ireland to ensure that towns in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also benefit from town deals.
Constructive discussions are taking place. This House was clear on what it wanted to be changed in relation to the withdrawal agreement and the deal that we had brought back from the European Union, and we are making progress and having exactly the constructive discussions the hon. Gentleman talks about.
As I said yesterday, in answer to a question from, I think, our right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the first aim of the Government and my first aim is to bring back a deal that can command support across the House in a meaningful vote, such that we are able to leave with a deal. The arrangements within the political declaration have significant benefits in relation to issues such as customs, but they also provide for us to have an independent trade policy and to bring an end to free movement. My hon. Friend talks about trust in politics, but I believe that those were important elements of what people voted for in 2016 and it is important that we deliver on that.
I set out clearly in my statement yesterday and I have repeated it in answer to a question today, the process that the Government will follow. The Government policy is to leave with a deal. We are working to ensure that we can bring back that deal. The hon. Lady talks about the rejection of the meaningful vote and not listening to Parliament, but the constructive discussions that I am having with the European Union at the moment are exactly about listening to Parliament—[Interruption.] It is all very well the shadow Trade Secretary, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), shouting, “Nonsense!” He might not have noticed that on 29 January this House voted by a majority to say what it wanted to be changed in the withdrawal agreement, and that is what we are working on.
Little moves us more than the death of a child and for bereaved parents that grief is beyond words. Action speaks louder, which is why I have championed, inspired by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), the Children’s Funeral Fund. Will the Prime Minister tell us when the good work of her Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), will come to fruition and the fund will begin to bring support and solace? We cannot mend broken hearts here, but those who have loved and lost deserve better than delay and doubt.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for the work that he has done on this issue with the hon. Member for Swansea East. It is accepted across the House that it is not right that grieving parents have to worry about how to meet the funeral costs when they have lost a child. As he knows, we have confirmed that parents will no longer have to meet the cost of burials or cremations. Fees will be waived by local authorities and paid for by the Government. The relevant Ministries have been working on the most effective way to deliver this, and I can confirm that the fund will be implemented by the summer.
Of course we recognise the concerns about serious violence, which is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has brought forward measures such as the Offensive Weapons Bill and set up the serious violence taskforce. In relation to funding for the police, the Metropolitan police will receive up to £2.5 billion in funding in 2019-20, which is an increase of up to £172 million on 2018-19. If the hon. Gentleman also wants to ask questions about funding for police in London perhaps he should speak to the Labour Mayor of London.
I recognise that my right hon. Friend has been, and continues to be, a huge champion for social mobility. She is asking me to provide a solution to higher education funding and student finance before the Augar report has been received and published. All I can do is assure her that Philip Augar and his panel are working on the report and we will look seriously at the proposals they bring forward.
I am sure the whole House will recognise the concerns of Harriet and her family. We want to ensure that patients have access to the most effective and innovative medicines, but obviously at a price that represents value to the NHS. NHS England has proposed its best ever offer for a drug. This offer is the largest ever commitment of its kind in the 70-year history of the NHS, and would guarantee immediate and expanded access both to Orkambi and the drug Kalydeco for patients who need it. We have been closely following the discussions, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has offered a meeting with the global chief executive officer of Vertex, NHS England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in an effort to move the situation forward for the benefit of patients.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that five years ago today Russian special forces seized the Government building in Crimea and raised the Russian flag? Will she confirm that the UK Government remain committed to the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, and will she look at strengthening sanctions against Russia until that can be achieved?
I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. This was an illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, and we have been doing everything we can to ensure that the appropriate sanctions are imposed that will have an impact. We have been one of the voices around the EU Council table that has been advocating the roll-over of sanctions at every stage and ensuring that, as we look at the actions of Russia here and elsewhere, we enhance those sanctions and rightfully put pressure on those who are responsible.
Thousands of young girls—including, sadly, some from Taunton Deane—are purchasing so-called quick-fix diet and detox products that are often endorsed by celebrities on social media, something for which these celebrities can be paid thousands of pounds. NHS chiefs say that some of these products can have highly detrimental health effects and are heaping work on our mental health services. In Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and following this morning’s excellent Westminster Hall debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), will the Prime Minister agree that the irresponsible and unsafe endorsement of such products should be addressed?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I am sure that all Members have had constituency cases where they have seen the devastating impact that eating disorders can have on individuals, and on their families and friends. The Government have been taking steps over the past few years. In 2014 we announced that we were investing £150 million to expand eating disorder community-based care for children and young people, and 70 dedicated new or extended community services offer care as a result. As my hon. Friend said, young people may be encouraged to take products because of celebrity endorsement. The celebrities involved should think very carefully about the impact that these products can have in effecting eating disorders, which devastate lives.
The Prime Minister, and indeed the entire House, know the conditions under which her withdrawal agreement will have a majority. The whole House, and indeed the country, now know that as a result of yesterday’s events the prospects of the Prime Minister being able to achieve the necessary changes have been undermined and her negotiating position has been weakened. That is the reality of the situation. Can we have an assurance, in terms of any possible extension—and I would be interested to know what the Prime Minister thinks the purpose of the extension would be—that she will continue to focus on getting those legally binding changes? Hopefully, during any future negotiations, she will not be undermined in the way that she has been so far.
First of all, we are continuing to press for those legally binding changes. Those are the discussions we have been having with the European Commission. It is what I have spoken to every European Union leader about over the last 10 days or so. It is what I was speaking to people about at Sharm El Sheikh over the weekend as well. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the extension to article 50. Can I be very clear again? The Government do not want to extend article 50. The Government’s policy is to get the legally binding changes so a deal can be brought back to this House, and this House can support the deal, and we can leave on 29 March with a deal.
Unlike some Ministers who cannot normally take the view that the Prime Minister’s word is binding, I do take the Prime Minister’s word as being binding. Can I ask that she reiterates our manifesto commitment to leave with a deal or to leave with no deal, and that is our commitment?
Indeed, I have always said that no deal is better than a bad deal. I think we have actually got a good deal from the European Union. It provides for citizens’ rights; it provides certainty for business with the implementation period; it ensures that we have, in the political declaration, the arrangements for customs in the future—for no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin; and it covers a number of other areas that I think will indeed be positive for this country. There is an issue that the House wants to see changed. That is what we are working on in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop. I want us to leave with a deal. I want to be able to bring back a deal that this House can support.
Violet Grace Youens was walking home from nursery with her grandma on 24 March 2017. She was hit by a stolen car driven erratically and at 83 mph in a 30 mph zone. The driver and accomplice immediately left the scene, and the driver absconded from the country. Tragically, four-year-old Violet Grace died in her parents’ arms the following day and her grandma suffers with life-changing injuries. The offenders have since been sentenced to tariffs that do not fit the gravity of the crimes.
In October 2017, the Government published a response to the consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death or serious injury. They confirmed proposals to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years’ imprisonment to life, along with other tariffs for serious driving offences, and stated that Government would bring forward proposals for reform of the law as soon as parliamentary time allows. Today, after just one week, the public petition “Violet Grace’s Law” stands at more than 74,000 signatures. The Government are repeating the same response—
First of all, I am sure that the feelings of the whole House will be with Violet Grace’s family that this terrible tragedy has occurred. I know from a constituency case that I had the concern that parents, family members and others have when they see somebody who has caused a death in this way by their driving being sentenced to a tariff which they feel is less than it should be. The Government have taken this very seriously—that is why we have had the consultation—and we will indeed bring forward our proposals when parliamentary time does allow. But I will ask a Minister from the Department for Transport to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this matter with her.
Mr Speaker, I do not know whether you were as surprised as I was yesterday that, yet again, the media had verbatim reports of the Cabinet meeting straight after it. In fact, there were references to colleagues in front of me as kamikaze pilots. Prime Minister, to sort this issue out, would it not just be easier to televise Cabinet meetings? [Laughter.]
Mr Speaker, when you did a thumbs-up after that question, I was not sure whether that indicated that you had a view on the televising of Cabinet meetings. My hon. Friend has tried to approach that issue in various ways. I seem to remember that last time he asked me about this, it was not about televising Cabinet but sending his CV in to be a Cabinet Minister. Perhaps these are linked—perhaps he wants to sit round the Cabinet table and be on television all the time.
Jammu and Kashmir
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the security and humanitarian situation in Kashmir, in the light of the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan.
I understand that the Prime Minister referred to this during Prime Minister’s Question Time. The UK is deeply concerned about rising tensions between India and Pakistan. Understandably, there has been huge interest in this rapidly developing situation. The House will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail on reportage at this time, as the situation evolves.
We understand that on 14 February, at least 40 paramilitary Indian police officers were killed in a suicide attack in India-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for that attack. India-Pakistan tensions, which were already at a high level, rose significantly following the attack, and both countries publicly exchanged heated rhetoric. On Tuesday 26 February, Indian and Pakistani news reported that Indian jets had crossed the line of control between India-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. There have been reports of further ceasefire violations across the line of control overnight, and the situation remains unclear but fast developing.
The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Indian and Pakistani counterparts on Monday to discuss the situation, and we are in regular contact with both countries at senior levels to encourage restraint and to avoid escalating tensions further. We are monitoring developments closely and considering the implications for British nationals. I will be speaking to both the Indian and Pakistani high commissioners this afternoon and will continue to press for the importance of restraint. We urge both sides to engage in dialogue and find diplomatic solutions to ensure regional stability. We are working closely with international partners, including through the United Nations Security Council, to de-escalate tensions.
India and Pakistan are both long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom. We have many and significant links to both countries through sizeable diaspora communities. As a consequence, we enjoy strong bilateral relations with both nations. The UK Government’s position on Kashmir remains that it is and must be for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to this situation, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe, intervene or interfere with a solution or to act as mediator.
I know that the House has previously raised concerns about the humanitarian and human rights situation in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We continue to monitor the situation, and we encourage all states to ensure that their domestic standards are in line with international standards.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but this has been an ongoing situation since independence in 1947, and successive Governments have failed, in dealing with the issues associated with Kashmir, to help facilitate peace alongside our international allies.
As the Minister has said, he is aware of the recent aerial attacks from India and then from Pakistan, following on from the militant attack in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir and the death of the 40 Indian troops. This is a proscribed group in Pakistan. I understand that it is said to be apparently based there, but as I say, it has been proscribed by Pakistan. I am grateful to the Minister for reporting on the action he has already taken and the dialogue he has already had with counterparts in the high commissions for both India and Pakistan, and I would be grateful if he reported back once he has had meetings on this, because it is a very fast-moving situation.
The Minister mentioned the UN Security Council. What specific action has been decided on there? India has said that airstrikes in Balakot in north-western Pakistan yesterday were in response to the militants’ attack and killed a large number of militants, but Pakistan has said there were no casualties. Will the Minister clarify these reports? Today, Pakistan claims to have shot down two Indian jets when they entered Pakistani airspace, and the Indian news agency Asian News International has reported that a Pakistani jet has also been shot down on the Pakistan side of the line of control. Again, if the Minister could expand on some of this information, that would be very helpful.
In the light of the escalation in military action, will the Foreign Secretary be altering his travel advice to UK citizens? The Minister knows there is large Kashmiri diaspora in the UK, many of whom have families still based there, and their safety is a real concern for them. As I say, the escalating tensions have had a profound effect on our communities. What assurance can he give them that the UK Government are doing all they can not just to de-escalate tensions now, but to work towards a sustainable peace in the region?
Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. This is not just an issue for the region; it is an issue for the whole world. As the chair of the all-party group on Kashmir, I have repeatedly reiterated our commitment to supporting a process of peace and reconciliation in the region, but the UK Government need to step up and help to facilitate this, alongside our international partners. We have a vital role to play, as I say, not just in de-escalation, but in terms of a sustainable peace, and I urge the Minister to do all that he can to do this.
I thank the hon. Lady for her calm and wise words. May I say that I appreciate she has a busy day today already, with huge amounts going on near her own constituency following the large-scale fires? We are very grateful for her work, and we all recognise as Members of Parliament that we are sometimes torn between important international issues that are close to our hearts and dealing with those that may seem very parochial. None the less, I am very grateful for her words—her words of calm.
On the UN specifically, the hon. Lady is right that this is a UN issue of some urgency, simply because obviously both Pakistan and India are nuclear nations. It is therefore all the more important that we try to tone or dial down some of the rhetoric and, dare I say it, some of the actions we have seen in recent days. I think there are many friends of India and of Pakistan—and of Kashmir—not just here in the UK but across the world who are doing their best to try to calm this down.
The hon. Lady will I hope appreciate, in relation to the clarification she has requested on some of the reports—she made reference to reports of Indian planes having been shot down over the last 24 hours—that I do not want, and I hope she will understand why, to be drawn into comment on this because it is a fluid situation and many of these reports are unconfirmed. I therefore think that the most important thing, as I say, is to try to produce a slightly calmer approach.
On the issue of travel advice that the hon. Lady requested, we are very closely monitoring the situation, and we shall keep our travel advice under constant review and update it regularly—not just in Kashmir, but obviously in other countries. I should say to the hon. Lady that, as it happens, I am going to be in the region on a long-prearranged trip—provided we get out of this place, anyway, with Brexit votes later on. I am hoping to go to India tomorrow morning for three days. This is obviously a fast-moving issue, and I will speak not just with our high commissioner out in New Delhi, but obviously with counterparts both there and in Mumbai.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this urgent question about this very tense situation, and I thank the Minister for his solid answers thus far. Clearly, the escalating tension emanates from the terrorist suicide attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed on 14 February. This group is based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Pakistan, so clearly the answer to this is that Pakistan has to take action to dismantle the terrorist camps and organise so that the terrorists are brought to justice. Will my right hon. Friend tell the Pakistani high commission to own up to its responsibilities and make sure that the terrorists face justice?
I have a lot of respect for my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in these issues. However, I think he is making some categorical statements that are not entirely supportable at this point. As I say, I think it is important for all of us as Members of Parliament with significant diasporas—I know that there is a predominantly Indian diaspora in his own Harrow East constituency—to try to calm feelings and to de-escalate some of the concerns, not least as this is a fast-moving situation.
It is fair to say, however, that Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility for the 14 February attack. The UK will continue to support a listing of that organisation and indeed of its leader, Masood Azhar, under UN Security Council resolution 1267. The organisation itself has been listed by the UN since 2001, and Masood Azhar is the head of that organisation. However, I think it is very premature to start making categorical statements about any involvement by Pakistan in this issue. We will obviously keep this under review, and as I say, I will endeavour to speak with both the Indian and Pakistani high commissioners this afternoon to ask them for any updates on the situation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for securing it, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who I know also sought an urgent question today.
At the outset, let me make it quite clear that we condemn the despicable terror attack carried out in Pulwama on 14 February, and I believe that we speak on behalf of the whole House when we do so. India has been absolutely right to take action against the terrorist group responsible and to urge Pakistan to follow suit. It is also high time that China lifted its veto so that the UN can designate the head of JeM as a global terrorist.
Will the Minister join me in urging the Indian authorities, at national and regional level, to protect those innocent civilians of Kashmiri origin who have faced reprisals across India following the Pulwama attack? On the airstrikes and dogfights of the last two days, will the Minister of State join me in calling for immediate talks between India and Pakistan to de-escalate that crisis, but also in urging them to put an immediate stop to any military activity that risks escalating it further? We have heard both sides claim that their actions have simply been designed to send a message, but it is all too easy in those situations for messages to be misinterpreted and for grave and fatal mistakes to be made.
Finally, will the Minister of State join me in asking both India and Pakistan to think first and foremost of the innocent people of Kashmir, who are literally caught in the middle of this crossfire and have been so for 70 years? Their human rights have been serially abused, their humanitarian needs have been neglected, and their own wishes about their own future have been treated as unimportant. No one in India, Pakistan or this country wants yet another generation of Kashmiri children growing up facing the same cycle of instability, violence and fear that has afflicted their parents and grandparents for decades. Only peaceful dialogue can break that cycle. All parties must commit to engaging in that dialogue.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that we want a broad-based dialogue, and that the whole House condemned the original attack that took place on 14 February. I have to say that the concern about China’s veto is unfortunately not isolated to issues around Kashmir. There are other areas, not least in relation to the Rohingya population from Burma, on which, as she knows, the prospect of a veto and of a lack of co-operation does not make life easy within the UN Security Council. There are other organisations, such as the European Union and the UN Human Rights Council, through which we will try to utilise as much muscle as we can, again in collaboration in with other countries, to try to bring about the peaceable progress to which she refers.
The right hon. Lady also raised the humanitarian situation. We recognise that there are and have been long-standing human rights concerns in both Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. We believe that any allegation of human rights abuses is of great concern and has to be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. I reassure the House, as I did the Members here who were at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on 23 January, that we will continue to raise issues relating to Kashmir, including human rights, at all opportunities with the Governments of both India and Pakistan.
I reiterate the right hon. Lady’s words. It is important for us, given the importance of the diaspora that we have here, to make it clear, as she rightly says, that the worst of all worlds would be many more decades of deprivation and humanitarian problems in Kashmir. To intervene or interfere, or to try to mediate in a broader way, is not necessarily the role for the United Kingdom. Our role, not least because of that diaspora, is to at least try to present that there must be a better future for future generations of Kashmiris than the last 70 years. We need to focus more attention on the future, rather than past. I very much hope that one way in which our diaspora here can make a contribution is to try to help to build up industry, to provide some prosperity for future generations of Kashmiris.
I am grateful that my right hon. Friend the Minister is in the Chamber to respond to this important urgent question from the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). I am very concerned, as many of us are, about the issues that have led to such violence in Kashmir over the past two weeks.
I understand that my right hon. Friend will not play a part as a negotiator or mediator, but will he at least do his best to get around the UN General Assembly and other members of the Security Council and encourage those who are friends of both countries to help them to get together and talk, at least in the margins and the quiet corridors, so that when they get to the actual talks, there is a conversation to be had? Will he also ensure that those members of the UK population with connections to Kashmir are able to support their families and those who may have been cut off or in any way harmed by the economic shocks affecting the region at the moment?
We shall do our level best. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that active conversations will take place within the UN corridors of both New York and Geneva. I should perhaps say that this goes beyond simply friends of Pakistan and India. The realisation is that this is an extremely serious situation involving two nuclear powers in that part of the world, and that it is therefore in everyone’s interest to see a de-escalation, but with an eye towards trying to solve some of the underlying problems for the longer-term future.
Unfortunately for the man to my right, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), it is the fate of Government Whips that they do not have a chance to say very much—[Interruption.] I am sure that you look forward for that reason to the day I am elevated—or maybe demoted; whichever way one looks at it—to the Whips Office, Mr Speaker. On a serious note, I am well aware that my hon. Friend does a huge amount of work on this, not least because one of the main towns in his constituency, Nelson, has a significant Kashmiri population. I know that that applies to many Members on both sides of the House.
I thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for raising this important urgent question. I also thank the Minister for his measured response to the situation to date. However, the House will be concerned about the rise in conflict in that region, especially when the nations involved have access to nuclear weapons. Will the Minister ensure that the serious concerns raised in the House are relayed directly to the Governments of Pakistan and India at the highest level, and that the Foreign Office strains every sinew to make sure that both parties act with responsibility and restraint, and that it insists that escalation is not an option?
Many Members have mentioned positive and meaningful talks taking place. In order to protect the civilian populations on both sides of the border, and indeed within Kashmir, we need to ensure that these populations are not put at any further risk. I know that the Government are focused on other matters at the moment, but I hope that the Minister, or the Foreign Secretary, will be able to keep us up to date with developments on a regular basis.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive words. He is right that this requires a nimble diplomatic approach. I have to say that I have encountered over the last two mornings a blizzard of diplomatic telegrams from Islamabad, New Delhi and, of course, New York recognising the huge amount of work going in from our diplomatic service in trying to keep open lines of communication and trying to speak to individuals in the military and at the political level. We will do our level best as this situation evolves and we are able to say more, and with more certainty, to ensure that the House is kept fully informed.
The right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) just entered the Chamber carrying, as per usual, a book. I note in passing something of which the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware. In his party, which used to be my party, it was frequently said that to be seen carrying a book was dangerous, but to be seen reading it was fatal.
I absolutely condemn the perpetrators of the initial act of violence, but I also condemn airstrikes in retaliation for what really could have been a crime, rather than an act of war. Thousands of my constituents will be alarmed about the prospect of escalation because they have families on not only one but both sides of the line of control. Will the Minister join me in saying to the evil people who perpetrate acts of violence for political causes that they defeat their own ends by the revulsion and horror that they cause?
I know full well that my hon. Friend has a significant Kashmiri population in his constituency, not least because I have had the chance to meet some of them in recent weeks. He is absolutely right: it is entirely self-defeating. In many ways, we all want to see some sort of normalcy within the Kashmir area, whether under Pakistani or Indian administration. Above all, the clearest way for that to happen is if there is stability in that region, which would allow for economic prosperity. One only has to look close at hand to our situation in Northern Ireland. It was when the worst of the troubles of the 1970s and ’80s were behind us that we were able to see some progress and international investors could comfortable about being able to build businesses in that country. That is the great prize if we can de-escalate some of these long-standing issues within Kashmir.
Until his election, Prime Minister Modi was banned from entering the United Kingdom for his part in the Gujarat massacre, which resulted in more than 2,000 Muslim deaths. As Prime Minister, he has pursued a divisive, right-wing, Hindu nationalist agenda that has inflamed tensions in both India and occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of pointing fingers at Pakistan for the Pulwama attack, when will Prime Minister Modi look at his own record of persistent state violence and gross human right abuses, as highlighted by both the UN and all-party parliamentary Kashmir group reports, which caused the rise of the home-grown insurgency in Kashmir?
I understand the hon. Lady’s heartfelt passion, but let me just say this: that is not relevant to the present situation. We all know we are in a pre-election period in India, and that is one of the factors of concern. We want to see a de-escalation at the earliest possible opportunity to avoid the sorts of issues to which she refers. She will appreciate that from the perspective of the Foreign Office we want to remain strong friends on all sides. To start condemning, in the way she proposes, would only undermine our position of trying to bring both sides together.
May I ask that the Government recognise the severity of the terrorist threat faced by India in relation to Kashmir, and that our Government offer support where the Indian Government take measures they feel are necessary to protect the security of their citizens?
We will offer support to all Governments who look to protect their civilian populations, but we will do so in a way that is managed, manageable and not focused on an overreaction to what has happened. I appreciate that, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, the attack on 14 February was one of the very worst single episodes for some decades, but equally we would like to see restraint on both sides, recognising the importance of having a secure region to ensure that civilian populations are properly protected.
Just last week, I returned from leading a delegation of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to Pakistan, during which I met the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister assured the delegation of his commitment, reiterating that he wants a peaceful resolution through diplomacy. I am sure the Minister is aware that the central issue in this crisis is Kashmir. While the people of Kashmir are not given their right to self-determination they will not be free, nor can we truly expect to see long-term peace between India and Pakistan. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to change our policy position on Kashmir and play a central role in helping to resolve the issue that we played a part in creating when leaving the region as a colonial power? Will he consider making an application to the United Nations Security Council on this matter?
I must say—the hon. Lady will recognise this—that I do not agree with her prescription that we should try to intervene. The reality of the situation, as I am sure she is well aware, is that if the UK Government were to offer to mediate or feel that it is our place to interfere, we would simply lose credibility, particularly with the Indian Government. We would therefore end up not being able to play the role we do in trying to ensure a de-escalation of tensions. Our long-standing position is, and must continue to be, for India and Pakistan to find a political resolution to the situation in Kashmir through their own efforts, taking into account the wishes, as she rightly says, of Kashmiri people. If we were to intervene, interfere, prescribe a solution or purport that we can somehow be a mediator, I think that would very much undermine our position on all sides.
I was going to call the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), but he now seems very pre-occupied with—[Interruption.] We have already heard the fella. I should not have forgotten so quickly. I will remind myself of the eloquence of his contribution in due course.
The Minister is taking a very fine line, trying to sit on the fence, effectively, mindful that there are diasporas from both Pakistan and India living in this country. He is treading a very fine line in his answers. However, where it is abundantly clear that the terrorists are living in one particular country, will he give an undertaking to this House that the British Government will make it absolutely clear to that host country that it should not be tolerating terrorists who are engaging in activity in another country and that they must face the full force of law?
My hon. Friend will recognise that, as a diplomat or a Foreign Office Minister, sometimes the most effective way to make an argument to our counterparts is not through megaphone diplomacy. There are robust private conversations that will take place. I do not want to go into detail as to what they will say, but let me just say this. We do understand that there is a need and a desire for any country to act proportionately to secure its borders, people and military, but the idea that the UK should be seen to be robustly on one side of this battle rather than another would be entirely self-defeating. I think it is in the interests of us all to take a calm approach. Of course, we will not in any way do anything other than criticise terrorist organisations. That is one reason why the organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed has been subject to a UN listing for almost 20 years and has been proscribed in the UK for that period of time.
I must express my grave concern and alarm at the ongoing escalation of the conflict between India and Pakistan in disputed Kashmir. War will benefit no one, least of all the people of Kashmir. As of yet, however, there are no signs of a serious—I emphasise that word—international attempt to put an end to this crisis. Does the Minister agree that the international community must do more and act now to put an end to these senseless acts of military violence? If so, what steps will his Government be taking to achieve that outcome?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. As I mentioned earlier, we are working as rapidly as we can within all international organisations. If I may touch on a point I did not address earlier about the UN, we are working within the UN. This is a major issue, not least because of the fact that these are two nuclear powers. I suspect there will be a move to de-escalate and negotiate as far as possible. I know from discussions with our US counterparts that they are also expressing concerns. Ultimately, I believe it must be for the Kashmiri people to find a way forward. I appreciate that there is a lot of history. The worry is that a lot of things can be said and done now that could be very difficult to forget. The prize for the future is to try to achieve a more peaceable solution. Ultimately, that must come from the hearts of those who are in Kashmir, whether of Pakistani or Indian origin.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), I have many thousands of constituents who are very worried about family members in Kashmir. I was heartened by what the Minister of State had to say about his robust conversations on human rights with both sides. Does he agree that there is perhaps more we can do as a nation to help investigate human rights abuses and ensure that truth is brought to the forefront, rather than the great deal of misinformation we are hearing at the moment?
Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. She will be aware that any allegations of human rights abuses are concerning and need to be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. She will also be aware that our single biggest Department for International Development budget is in Pakistan. Human rights concerns are part and parcel of the money that is spent out there, trying to build up capacity and capability to ensure that such human rights issues are properly dealt with.
The whole House will support the Government and the United Nations in their efforts to get India and Pakistan to draw back from further conflict, but does the Minister agree that it is the people of Kashmir who are both the victims and spectators of their own future because of the failure of those two countries to reach an agreement on what will happen? Above all else, the people of Kashmir want the chance to live in peace and security, and to have the right to determine their own future, as they were promised over 70 years ago when it was suggested that a referendum might be held. That, of course, has never taken place.
I am not sure I would recommend a referendum to anyone in the current circumstances—certainly, it would not be wise for the UK—but the right hon. Gentleman makes a very serious, fair point. We continue to raise human rights issues and to look at this in a humanitarian sense. To add my responses to one or two other contributions, we noted the findings of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports and are particularly concerned about allegations of human rights abuses and violations in both India and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. I make it clear that we will continue to raise these issues with the Government in New Delhi.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; as the former chairman of the all-party Kashmir group, I visited the region. Many thousands of constituents are concerned for family, friends and loved ones in the region and have contacted me to raise their concerns. Does the Minister agree that this situation is worrying on two levels—first, because we have two nuclear powers squaring off against each other, and secondly, because the people on the ground in Kashmir are the ones who are suffering? Given that we have heard about the documented evidence of human rights abuses, does he not agree that the right course of action might be for us to send observers, perhaps with our EU colleagues, to make sure that there are no human rights abuses on the ground in Kashmir?
I know that my hon. Friend is also a former officer of the all-party beer group—I wondered whether he was going to express that interest today. Again, he makes a serious point about having observers, whether at an EU or UN level. We will do our level best, particularly as this situation develops, to ensure that the international community has a chance to see what is going on on the ground in order to de-escalate the tensions.
Further to the answer that the Minister has just given, he set out his fears of somehow being seen to take sides. Let me tell him that the community in Walthamstow, who are desperately concerned about the situation in Kashmir, want him to stay on the side of human rights. He spoke about the importance of the work that the UN can do in investigating these cases. He has also told us that he is going to have phone calls this afternoon with both the Pakistani and Indian representatives. Will he commit now to raising directly the importance of them allowing the UN to go to the region and investigate, so that finally, when we talk about allegations, we can show the truth and the people of Kashmir can have justice?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I will be only too happy to commit to making that pledge, as it were, in the telephone calls that I will have later this afternoon. I talk about not taking sides, but the side we take is obviously with the people of Kashmir to try to ensure that lives that have been so blighted can thrive. The danger with being seen to take a side on this issue is that we will lose any leverage or credibility with one or other of the Governments concerned. We are well aware that there is a large diaspora in this country, but this is not simply about there being a diaspora here; it is about doing the right thing as well, and these human rights issues are clearly of grave concern. As I said, I will commit in my conversations not just today, but in the days to come, to ensure that the voice that she puts across—
Apart from being the chair of the all-party group on Pakistan, I was born in Kashmir, and in the 2005 earthquake, I lost 25 relatives, including my grandfather. Muzaffarabad is very near the line of control. The people of Kashmir want peace, prosperity, human dignity and to be masters of their own destiny. As the Minister says, our long-standing position is in line with the 1948 United Nations resolutions 47 and 39, which the United Kingdom signed up to, saying that we will support the people of Kashmir’s right to self-determination. That being the case, will the Minister please push for that at the United Nations and, as other colleagues have said, for a United Nations human rights fact-finding mission? Whatever it says and whoever it finds against—the Indian or Pakistani sides—we will all accept it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As I said, we note the findings of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports, which are deeply concerning. We will make sure that these are brought up in international committee, both in New York and in Geneva.
The attack in Srinagar was absolutely atrocious, and the prospect of descending into a tit-for-tat exchange is immensely depressing. As the Minister knows, this is an incredibly serious issue. I speak as the former chair of the all-party Kashmir group. Last year, we published our report on our inquiry into the human rights situation, as the Minister knows, because he heard a recent presentation on that. I hear what he says about Government policy, but we have a responsibility to help to support confidence-building measures. We have a legacy responsibility in that region of the world, and the UK has an obligation to lead and show the way forward for human rights and peace in this area.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says and support the idea that there is a leadership role, not least within the UN Security Council, where clearly, long-standing connections between the UK and both India and Pakistan will be brought to bear. We will continue to be in the closest possible contact at senior level in both India and Pakistan to try to avoid escalation and ensure regional stability. Part of that is obviously about the capacity building to which he refers. I think he will understand that quite a lot of work goes on both in India and Pakistan to try to ensure that this is brought to bear and hopefully make lives better for all concerned.
My right hon. Friend referred to the discussions and channels that are being used through diplomatic routes both with the UN and directly, and it is very fortuitous that he happens to be visiting the region in the next few days. Before he goes, will he also engage with the Ministry of Defence to encourage senior military leaders and Ministers to engage with their counterparts both in India and Pakistan to make sure that there are senior-level military-to-military back channels between the two armed forces, so that they can help to avoid the accidental escalation of conflict?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He, of course, was a Defence Minister and will understand that those back channels exist. Clearly they are not always entirely avowed, but the UK has back-channels with both the Indian military and the Pakistani military, and I am well aware that conversations have already taken place and will no doubt continue at pace.
This is the latest chapter in a horrendous story for the people of Kashmir, as I am sure the whole House agrees. What efforts is the Minister making to ensure that day-to-day communication with the diaspora community is ongoing so that they know what is happening to their friends and family in Kashmir?
I very much understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. The picture is very confused at the moment, and I wish we could confirm more what is happening on the ground. Part of the reason that I have not been able to be as expansive as I would like is simply that there are conflicting reports of what is happening. Obviously, we will do our level best to ensure that as many of the diaspora, who must be increasingly worried about the wellbeing of their relatives close at hand, are kept as informed as possible in the circumstances. When I am in the region, I will make sure that we express that.
I thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for securing this urgent question. Like many hon. Members, I have a significant community of Kashmiris in my constituency, who are extremely concerned. I am also the senior vice-chair of the all-party Kashmir group. Does the Minister agree that we must condemn the use of violence and the abuse of human rights wherever it occurs and by all parties in Kashmir?
Those of us of south Asian ancestry were overjoyed recently at the opening of the Indo-Pak border—an historic and commendable decision by both Governments—so that Sikhs and others could pay homage at the final resting place of the founder of the Sikh faith. We had hoped that there would be further border openings, but simultaneously we expressed concern that terrorist attacks or abuse of human rights would once again sow the seeds of hatred and division. Does the Minister agree that we need to impress upon both nations the need to urgently de-escalate tensions, and that we need to work with them to find lasting, sustainable peace for the long-suffering but wonderful Kashmiri people?