House of Commons
Tuesday 2 April 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 regularly discusses the violence in Cameroon with international partners, including France and the United States, and I welcome French support for the recent UK-Austria joint UN Human Rights Council statement about the deteriorating situation in Cameroon.
Southern Cameroons voted to join French Cameroon on the basis that they would be federated states equal in status, but this is clearly not what has happened. It is treated as a region made up of second-class citizens. The UK has a duty to Southern Cameroons to use all available instruments to find a solution to the growing crisis that takes into account the wishes of the people. Will the Secretary of State meet me and a delegation of Southern Cameroons to discuss possible solutions?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the first question on the Order Paper, because this is a worsening crisis. The UK has been strongly engaged with our international partners to find a way forward. Of course, the UK respects the territorial integrity of Cameroon, but we also believe that, where there are calls for more autonomy in the south-west and north-west, the Government of Cameroon need to engage in an inclusive political dialogue, because the violence from both sides is creating a serious situation for civilians on the ground.
In her discussions with her US counterparts about the worrying situation in Cameroon, has the Minister asked them about suggestions made that resources they have given to help the Cameroonian Government in the fight against terror and Boko Haram are being diverted, misused and used in attacks on some of the communities in Cameroon?
As I often find myself saying during questions, I am happy to be accountable for what the UK Government have been doing, and I can confirm that we have extensive discussions with the Government of Cameroon, who, as my right hon. Friend will know, are a partner with the international community in the fight against Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa in the north of the country. We also have discussions with international partners to find a way forward on the views expressed with increasing violence by those of a separatist tendency in the south-west and north-west provinces.
One of my constituents is a member of the South Cameroonian diaspora and is deeply concerned about what is going on. A recent Amnesty report noted the presence of arbitrary arrest, torture in detention and the existence of secret and illegal detention facilities in Cameroon. Does the Minister agree that such activities are in stark violation of the Commonwealth Charter, and if so what efforts has she made to engage with Cameroon through the Commonwealth?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the range of different human rights violations and abuses noted in the statement which we were pleased to see 39 countries sign at the most recent UN Human Rights Council. Specifically on the Commonwealth, I can tell the House that Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Commonwealth, wrote to the Commonwealth Secretary-General recently to share UK concerns about Cameroon and press for further Commonwealth engagement on the matter.
My hon. Friend states the UK’s policy aim to be an ambitious investor in African economies, and I can confirm that there are UK companies that invest in Cameroon; businesses are absolutely free to choose to do so. In terms of the political track, though, we are trying to engage with the Government of Cameroon—I spoke to the Prime Minister there recently—to encourage them to find a way forward in a political and inclusive dialogue that can address some of the concerns being raised.
I spent time in Cameroon in 2013 as a political volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas, and it breaks my heart to see what is happening to that beautiful country today. It seems to me that there is a potent mix of contemporary challenges and the long tail of our own and, indeed, French colonial history. Can we take a two-pronged approach? Will our colleagues in the Department for International Development tackle the urgent crises involving displaced peoples and conflict, and will the Minister’s own office make a proper effort to secure a diplomatic solution?
As the right hon. Gentleman says, there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Earlier this year I authorised work by us, through UNICEF, to provide immediate humanitarian assistance. More than 400,000 people have been displaced in the crisis, and more than 30,000 have fled to Nigeria. DFID is doing programming work, and we are urging the Cameroon Government to allow humanitarian actors access to all parts of the country.
Last week, Human Rights Watch said:
“Government forces in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have killed scores of civilians…and torched hundreds of homes over the past six months.”
How many more innocent victims need to be slaughtered for Cameroon to be suspended by the Commonwealth?
The hon. Lady is right: there have been human rights abuses and human rights violations on all sides in the conflict. Hospitals have been burnt and villages torched. We drew attention to a range of issues in a statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which the UK sponsored. Obviously the UK is a member of the Commonwealth, and our Commonwealth Minister has written to the Commonwealth Secretariat suggesting that it encourage discussions on this topic in future meetings.
Before we move to Question 2 and I call the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), I hope that the whole House will want to join me in extending a warm welcome to Gareth Evans, QC, who served with great distinction as a Cabinet Minister in Australia from 1983 until 1996 under—if memory serves me—the Hawke and Keating Governments. As we have just been talking about human rights, let us not forget that he was a key architect of the United Nations’ responsibility to protect. We celebrate that achievement, and many people around the world, sir, will be thankful to you for your leadership on that front.
Persecution of Christians Overseas
It is a pleasure to interrupt a mammoth Cabinet meeting to enjoy the harmony and consensus for which the House is famous. [Laughter.]
The United Kingdom has long championed freedom of religion, but I think we should do more for the estimated 240 million Christians who face persecution for their faith around the world. I have therefore asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct a review, which I hope he will deliver in the summer.
The Secretary of State will no doubt be aware of an Open Doors report which predicts a 14% increase in the persecution of Christians this year. It also says that North Korea is the most dangerous place in which to practise Christianity, where it is seen as a threat to the Communist regime. What work are the Government doing with such non-democratic countries to try to ease the persecution of the Christian community?
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the Open Doors report, which contains some stark statistics. It states, for example, that 80% of the people who suffer persecution for their religious belief are Christians. The most striking statement is that the vast majority are in the very poorest countries: this is not, on the whole, a problem affecting people who live in affluent countries.
My hon. Friend is right to mention that countries such as North Korea have been singled out. The purpose of the review is to ensure that we use all the UK’s diplomatic leverage to highlight these issues and put pressure on those regimes to change.
I want to ensure that we exercise maximum influence where we have that influence. The striking thing about that report is that, notwithstanding the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made about North Korea, some of the worst offenders are in the middle east, notably Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, where the population of Christians has fallen from 20% to around 5%. In many of those countries, we have big aid budgets and a lot of influence.
The UK has a proud history of standing up for the rights of minority faith groups, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. As the Secretary of State says, we have a budget of over £2 billion, which is being allocated to the middle east and Syria, where the situation is particularly appalling. How can we use that budget to protect Christians from the appalling persecution they are facing?
I pay tribute to the Department for International Development, which has allocated £12 million recently specifically to promote freedom of religious belief. The gist of my hon. Friend’s question is right—where we have a large aid budget, with countries such as Afghanistan, it is absolutely essential that we make it clear to the Government in those countries that we are expecting progress on freedom of religious belief. We need to remember that many of the worst conflicts in the world have happened because people of different religions have clashed, so promoting harmony between religions is one of the best long-term ways of promoting peace.
Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern that often the persecution of Christians does not get the attention that it deserves—almost as though there was a bizarre hierarchy of victims, whereby they are not deserving of the same degree of attention as others? If we are serious about tackling freedom of religious belief and expression, we need to ensure that much more attention is given to some of the awful examples of persecution of Christians right around the world, and that the Government are not ashamed to step up and call it out.
My hon. Friend is right. I think it is fair to say that there has been some hesitation in the past in our embracing the issue of persecution of Christians—whether from a misguided concern about our history and the role of missionaries, I do not know—but now is the time when we have to put all that behind us and say that freedom of religious belief is an essential and indivisible part of freedom, full stop. The UK should always be on the right side of that issue.
Christians are among the most persecuted believers in the world, and clearly we have to do more to help. I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said about the work that he has commissioned. Are Christian women not often doubly persecuted, for both their religion and their gender? That needs looking at very closely as well; there needs to be more work around the world with Governments to tackle that problem.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I would widen the point even further, and say that women from all religions, not just Christian religions, are double victims. Where there is persecution of any religion, often women come off worst. I think the most inspiring example of courage in the face of that persecution is Nadia Murad, the recent Nobel peace prize winner, a Yazidi campaigner who suffered absolutely horrifically but is an inspiration to persecuted women all over the world.
Could the Government go one step further in contesting the persecution of Christians around the world by making it clear that Asia Bibi, who has been persecuted for many years for her faith, will be offered asylum in this country for herself and her family, should she wish to accept it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in the Asia Bibi case, which I know is shared in all parts of this House. I reassure the hon. Lady that making sure that she is safe, and has somewhere safe to go, is a top priority for this Government. We have had numerous private discussions with the Pakistani Government about how to progress this issue. I do not want to go into the details of those discussions, but we are making progress and I am very hopeful that this will have a positive outcome.
Risca in my constituency has a large Egyptian Coptic church, to which many people travel every weekend to worship. Many of their family members and friends are subject to terrible persecution in Egypt and have been, as the Secretary of State knows, subject to terrorist acts. What reassurance can he give my constituents and those who travel to the Coptic church that everything is being done to stamp that out?
The atrocities suffered by the Copts are some of the very worst suffered by Christians anywhere, and there have been several examples of those in Egypt. However, the Egyptians are trying very hard to address these issues. They recently opened a brand-new cathedral, and that is a big step forward for any country in the middle east. We obviously want to encourage them on the journey.
It is good that the Foreign Secretary has come to the peace zone—this Chamber—this morning.
China continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. Non-approved churches are being closed down and pastors are being jailed. How does he intend to strike the balance between valuing China as a post-Brexit trade partner and standing up for those people in China whose human rights are being abused because of their religion?
I thank the hon. Lady for asking that question. Of course China is an important country with which we have critical relations in the world, but having those relations means that we have to be able to raise issues of concern when we meet our Chinese counterparts. That is what I did when I visited China in August last year and raised concerns about freedom of religion in Xinjiang province. We had the universal periodic review in November last year, and concerns were also raised at the 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. We will continue to raise those concerns with China at every opportunity.
Rules-based International Order
The rules-based international system has made the world collectively massively safer and more prosperous than it has ever been before. This country played a major role in setting it up and we will always defend it, as we did when we held Russia to account after the terrible attack in Salisbury.
It has now been five years since the annexation of Crimea by Russia and since then Putin has repeatedly proved to be one of the greatest threats to the rules-based international order. The UK has led international efforts to try to make Russia see sense, and this has very much taken place online and in the media. With this in mind, will the Foreign Secretary join me in urging Members of Parliament to think twice about appearing on Russia Today, which remains a propaganda tool of the Russian state?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments; he could not be more right. It is incredibly important that when Russia does things such as invading neighbouring countries, as it did in Crimea, no one in this House should say things such as the Leader of the Opposition said, which is that Russia has more right on its side than Ukraine. That is quite wrong, and it is giving people permission to do that kind of thing again.
Climate change is the biggest challenge facing the world today. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what the Government are doing to maintain an international focus on this and, in particular, what representations he has made to the Trump Administration in the United States on this crucial question?
We have been investing a huge amount in our global leadership on climate change, and we are the G20 country that has the biggest drop in emissions per unit of GDP. We are also bidding to host COP 26, which will be the next big climate change conference on the fifth anniversary of the Paris conference. We have a different view from that of the Trump Administration, and we are very open about that with them. It is all the more important that the countries that do not share their view and that think we have a responsibility to future generations should stand proud in our support for this vital agenda.
My right hon. Friend has made powerful comments about the role of the United Kingdom as a network player in the international rules-based system. Will he tell the House a little bit about the work he has been doing with our European partners, especially after the Foreign Affairs Committee published its report about a year ago on how to look forward to working with our European partners, on supporting the international order and the international rules-based system that Britain played such an important part in building?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. In all the debates we have about Brexit—I have now met my counterparts in every EU country—the one thing that comes across loud and clear is that the part of the world that has suffered the most from not having adherence to a rules-based international order is Europe. That is why European countries say to us constantly that they want to continue to have their vital strategic and military relations with the United Kingdom, whatever the outcome of Brexit, and that they want Britain to play a strong and influential role in upholding the rules-based order across the world. That is what we will do.
The rules-based international order would be strengthened if countries were seen to be held accountable for adhering to the conclusions of the United Nations Human Rights Council. What steps are Ministers taking to hold Sri Lanka to account for its failure to bring to justice those who are guilty of perpetuating major human rights abuses?
This is something on which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific has done an enormous amount of work through his contacts with the Sri Lankan Government. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue, not least because many members of the Sri Lankan community in this country have a great deal of concern about it. Overall, the picture in Sri Lanka is remarkably better than it was a decade ago. However, there will never be lasting peace unless there is justice and accountability for the things that went wrong.
Is it not a matter of the greatest regret that our most important ally, the United States, is in clear contravention of United Nations Security Council resolution 497 by recognising Israeli sovereignty claims over Golan? As annexation of territory is prohibited under international law, will the Foreign Secretary send a very strong message to the United States that the British House of Commons condemns unreservedly this breach of the rules-based order?
I am happy to do that. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—we should never recognise the annexation of territory by force. That has been one of the great achievements since the founding of the United Nations. I do that with a very heavy heart, because Israel is an ally and a shining example of democracy in a part of the world where that is not common. We want Israel to be a success, and we consider it to be a great friend, but on this we do not agree.
If we are to maintain a rules-based international order and strengthen it, the Foreign Secretary will agree that reciprocal arrangements for our constituents when they go abroad or when citizens of other countries come here are absolutely vital. Julie, the niece of my constituent, Deborah Pearson, was killed—murdered—by her ex-partner in Eilat in Israel at the end of 2015. I have raised this with the Foreign Secretary’s predecessors, but we are no further forward. We now know that the police were called five times, but they palmed her off, saying that she was a nuisance. She had 78 bruises on her body, and lost over a litre of blood. Will he meet me so that we can get justice for Julie and Deborah, my constituent?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that case. Obviously, our hearts go out to her constituent’s family over a truly terrible incident. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific is very, very happy to meet her and make sure that we are doing everything that we can.
May I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming our distinguished and learned visitor, Gareth Evans, who continues to make a vital contribution, as he has throughout his career, to the concept of the rules-based world order? On that subject, we must note that it is six months to the day since Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered by Saudi agents in their embassy in Istanbul. The greatest tribute that we can pay to him today is not to look back at his death but to look at the murder of innocent children in Yemen whose lives he tried to save with his journalism and which matter just as much as his did.
I realise that I have not asked a question, so let me say this. In that light, what possible justification can the Foreign Secretary offer for the Saudi air strike last week on the Save the Children-supported hospital in Kitaf, which was clearly marked on the Saudi no-strike list? The strike killed three adults and four children, including an innocent child aged just eight years?
Let me tell my opposite number that that is exactly why we are doing everything that we possibly can to try to create peace in Yemen. It is why I am the first western Foreign Minister to meet the Houthi side, even though they were the ones that were the cause of the conflict when it began four years ago. I am the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen to see where we could progress the Stockholm accords. I am not prepared to let Labour pose as the great humanitarians, as their foreign policy is to support an evil regime in Venezuela that stops its own people accessing food and medicine—it just does not work.
Does the Foreign Secretary understand the frustration we feel in this House when time and again over the last four years, including on Jamal Khashoggi, we get the same response from the Government? They regret what happened, they want a proper investigation by the Saudis, they promise real consequences and nothing ever happens. There is no investigation, there are no consequences and bin Salman carries on with complete impunity.
I ask the Foreign Secretary yet again what it will take for this Government finally to tell bin Salman that he cannot keep getting away with murder.
The right hon. Lady just is not reflecting what has happened. Thanks to action by this Government and other Governments, a judicial process started in Saudi Arabia on 3 January and we are sending observers. We have a UN special rapporteur, Agnes Callamard, who is responsible for looking at extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and she is leading an independent international inquiry.
When I became Foreign Secretary—the right hon. Lady was shadow Foreign Secretary then, too—we did not have a peace process in Yemen, and now we do, which is thanks to the UK and the huge diplomatic effort we have been making.
On 4 February, I attended a Lima Group meeting in Ottawa at the invitation of the Canadian Foreign Minister. At the meeting I spoke to the Foreign Ministers of Colombia and Brazil about the crisis in Venezuela. I have also spoken recently to Chilean Foreign Minister Ampuero and Peruvian Vice-Foreign Minister de Zela. We continue to work closely with the Lima Group, the Organisation of American States, the United States and like-minded European and international partners to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela.
The Labour party and its leadership have an unforgivable record of defending the Maduro regime, which is so toxic that people have started leaving the party. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that this Government condemn the human rights abuses and the regression of democracy, and will continue to promote freedom and democracy and offer support to surrounding countries that are dealing with the refugee crisis as a direct result of this abhorrent regime?
I can give assurance to my hon. Friend on all those things. We are working closely with all international partners to find a resolution to the fact that the Maduro regime has completely bankrupted his country and made it destitute to the point where 3.6 million people have fled to neighbouring countries.
Throughout my visits to the region, it has become abundantly clear that the humanitarian situation in Venezuela is having a huge impact across Latin America. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to address the consequences of the continued political humanitarian abuse?
May I first congratulate my hon. Friend on all his work in the region as an effective trade envoy? He has built up some very good relationships to our benefit.
We are, of course, working with the Department for International Development to deliver a humanitarian aid package of over £6.5 million, on top of the multilateral activity to which we always contribute in such a significant way.
In its declaration last month, the Lima Group called on the UN high commissioner for human rights to publish a report on human rights abuses in Venezuela. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the United Nations about this? Although the UN has been vociferous about the impact of sanctions on the regime, it has been strangely silent on the curtailment of the freedom of the press and other human rights abuses in Venezuela.
I am delighted to hear an Opposition Member raise the topics of the abuse of human rights and freedom, on which we have been speaking very loudly and on which we are working very deeply with the Lima Group. The fundamental issue is Venezuela’s poverty. People cannot get basic goods, and the fact that President Maduro is blocking aid from getting into his own country is so contemptible that, on both sides of the House, we should all speak with one voice in condemning it.
Given the continuing humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela, does the Minister agree that we need to ensure that both the Lima Group and other Government agencies in both North America and South America additionally press President Maduro to ensure that food supplies are delivered to the people of Venezuela?
Yes, indeed. All countries across the world have to do their bit. Canada and the European Union international contact group are doing a lot. We all have to work together, and one of the most concerning developments at the moment is that President Maduro is trying to strip Juan Guaidó of the immunity he enjoys as a member of the National Assembly. We in this House should send out a very clear message today that that would be utterly unacceptable and that Juan Guaidó is the interim President we recognise.
Colombia Peace Process
Since 2016, Colombia has made significant progress in its peace process; the FARC is now a political party and the last elections were the safest in decades. I reaffirmed our full support for the peace process with the Colombian Foreign Minister on 4 February in Ottawa. The UK has expressed concern to the Colombian Government over delays in the transitional justice system, which is a critical part of the peace process. We continue to support the process through the conflict stability and security fund.
I understand that there were a couple more paramilitary killings last week. Did the Minister read the report by Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur, who has said that the national landscape continues to be plagued by violence, particularly gender-based violence? Will the Minister put the problem of the continuing structural gender-based violence in Colombia on the agenda for the November conference on the preventing sexual violence initiative?
Yes, I certainly will, because preventing sexual violence against women is one of the UK’s human rights priorities in Colombia. Indeed, Foreign Office officials recently met the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) to discuss that. I hope that illustrates once again the extent to which we are really working together across the House to tackle these vexed problems at all levels, in every way we can.
Diplomatic Relations: Saudi Arabia
I visited Saudi Arabia most recently on 2 March. We have a long history of close co-operation in support of regional stability, alongside frank conversations on areas of concern, including human rights.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. A UN human rights expert has said that the court proceedings relating to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi have been secret and fall short of international standards, and it was reported only today that Saudi Arabia is paying his family so that they continue to show restraint in their public statements. Can the Foreign Secretary update us on any conclusions that he has reached from the promised credible investigation into the murder?
I can assure the hon. Lady that we have been clear from the outset that what happened to Khashoggi was fundamentally against our values, and that there has to be full accountability and a transparent judicial process that meets international standards. That process has started and we continue to monitor it; we are sending observers to see what happens in the trial process. We continue to exercise our strong views on the issue, in private and in public.
Absolutely not. I raised the issue of detained women campaigners when I was recently in Saudi Arabia, and the Prime Minister has raised the case of Raif Badawi, the blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes. The interesting thing about the report, if it is true, is that it was commissioned by the King, who wants to understand what is going on in the prisons, to ensure that they meet international standards of humanitarian justice.
Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that in the past week three women human rights activists have been released conditionally on bail in Saudi Arabia? What are the Government doing to press for the release and discharge of other women in prison?
I had not heard that report, but it would be excellent news. I can reassure the right hon. Lady that I raised the issue when I met the Saudi Foreign Minister on my recent visit. We have asked to have access to the trials, but that has been denied. We continue to follow the case very carefully and press it at every opportunity.
We are concerned by the recent violence in Israel and Gaza, and we welcome the Egyptian efforts to de-escalate the situation. At the UN Security Council on 26 March, the UK condemned the rocket attacks, which injured two British-Israeli citizens. We regret the loss of life, including the death of four children in protests over the weekend—mercifully, fears of major violence were not realised. Our diplomats in the region urge all parties to continue to demonstrate restraint in the tense days that lie ahead.
I thank the Minister for his response and associate myself with his comments. Last month, more than 60 rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel. Two were intercepted above Tel Aviv, while another destroyed a residence in central Israel that was occupied by a British-Israeli family, resulting in injuries, including to a six-month-old baby. What steps are the Government taking to support our ally, Israel, as it fights this terrorist attack on the country?
I think we all recognise that Israel is an important strategic partner for the United Kingdom and that we need to collaborate actively on issues of defence, security and intelligence. In October 2018, the Government launched the UK-Israel counter-terrorism dialogue to share best practice and insights on a wide range of capabilities. We are now committed to holding such a dialogue annually, which will help to complement the already strong operational relationship between our countries.
There are two issues at stake, so I shall go into some detail, if I may. We abstained on that UNHRC resolution calling for an inquiry on the basis that the substance of such a resolution must be impartial and balanced. We could not support such an investigation when the resolution refused explicitly to call for an investigation into non-state actors such as Hamas. I should also say—this relates to the hon. Gentleman’s Question 21—that we have stressed and will continue to stress the importance of protecting and delivering medical services, particularly in Gaza. As recently as 28 March, the Department for International Development announced a new £2 million package for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which will contribute to the delivery of urgently needed supplies.
Clearly, we want to try to avoid violent confrontation at all costs. As I said in my earlier answer, mercifully the major concerns about violence at the protests this weekend, which we felt could have been a lot more serious than they were, were not realised. My hon. Friend will recognise that we do all we can on the ground to try to defuse some of the tensions. That is an important part of our diplomatic work, which we do with other countries as well, of course.
I utterly condemn the latest rocket attacks that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) raised. We know that Hamas is given tens of millions of dollars a year by Iran to fund these terrorist acts. What steps are the Government taking to stop the Iranian regime funding barbaric middle east terror groups such as Hamas?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. She will recognise that Hamas is one of a number of Iranian proxies in the region. Our position is that Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously agreed and signed agreements. We condemn Hamas and other terrorist groups for firing rockets into Israel from not only Gaza but elsewhere, in the way described by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). Those groups must permanently end such attacks against both civilians and defence forces.
Overseas Soft Power
We regard the UK as a soft power superpower, and this is widely recognised in independent international surveys and reports. [Interruption.] A few more tongue twisters and I will be anyone’s! This is the sort of thing you want to do at 11 in the morning, not 11 o’clock at night. The FCO vigorously continues to support the UK’s soft power through the funding of, among others, Chevening scholarships, the British Council and the BBC World Service.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the UK has an unbreakable connection to the Commonwealth and the democratic, inclusive values that it upholds—we discussed earlier the importance of maintaining a rules-based international order, particularly in these uncertain times. The Commonwealth also proudly represents some of the fastest-growing economies and accounts for one fifth of global trade. We shall of course continue to work closely with all members of the Commonwealth to ensure that it realises its full potential in that regard, and to ensure a more sustainable, prosperous and secure future.
Royal Yacht Britannia played a key role in promoting UK trade around the globe during her years of active service. More than 50 Members of this House believe that such a role would be enhanced post Brexit and that a new national yacht would help to promote our international humanitarian role. Will the Government now support our campaign in this brave endeavour?
I fear that I may have to disappoint my hon. Friend, who represents a coastal constituency. As a regular visitor to Broadstairs in his constituency, I know what a wonderful part of the country it is, but I have to inform him that there are no plans to commission a new royal yacht for the royal family.
Can we include in soft power the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union? Will the Minister help us to breathe life into those organisations so that we can get meaningful dialogue on the issues that really worry us, such as the rights of Christians, including the persecution of Christians in Pakistan? Why are we not having that sort of debate here?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that, with regard to the CPA and the IPU, we do. I appreciate that, for many Members who wish to get more engaged, travelling is obviously difficult because of the nature of the electoral arithmetic at the moment. May I also point out the incredibly hard work that goes on at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, particularly with regard to getting constitutional change in many parts of the world? Many of those programmes are done on a cross-party basis, which provides a very positive stance for UK democracy abroad and will, hopefully, enhance aspects of the soft power to which he refers.
Ironically, a recent UN report showed the UK rising up the happiness league, but I appreciate that some of these surveys cannot be relied on too much. On a serious note, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and it is a concern for all of us as Foreign Office Ministers who work abroad. It is very easy for us in this country to be a little bit self-deprecating about Britain and its brand abroad, but I am always very struck—certainly in Asia and the Pacific, and, with my new responsibilities, in the middle east—by just how respected the UK and its brand are. Those countries recognise that there are some uncertainties at the moment, but that view will continue.
I am glad that the Minister recognises the challenges, but as he might have said in “Jaws”, “You’re going to need a bigger yacht.” We have heard Pascal Lamy talk about the UK’s reputation being much diminished and Jürgen Maier from Siemens talk about the country’s tremendous reputation as an economic powerhouse being wrecked. We need to address that, as it is not good for any of us. Will the Minister recognise that before this Government take us down the route of a disastrous no deal?
It is incumbent on all of us not to talk the country down in what we appreciate are difficult times. We want to see progress—significant progress—in this regard. I am struck by the fact that we are experiencing slightly hyperbolic, frenzied activity in this House and, dare I say it, among some commentators. As I have said, what I see on the ground is that we have been respected for many, many decades and that a huge amount of work goes on, not least in the soft power area. I am sure that that will go from strength to strength in the years to come.
Lord Ricketts, the former head of the Foreign Office and an expert in soft power, said last month:
“The Foreign Secretary is making a big mistake if he thinks this…blame game over Brexit is going to change any minds in Europe.”
Does the Government accept that Lord Ricketts is right, and that the only ones responsible for this Brexit mess are this Government alone?
I had a chance to speak directly with Lord Ricketts in a radio studio a week ago. He recognises, I think, the difficulties that we face in dealing with the Brexit negotiations. I have been out not just to Brussels, but to the OECD in Paris recently. Again, I was very struck, as I worked with counterparts, by the fact that there is an important agenda, and that many European countries recognise the importance of the UK. We need to have the strongest of relationships. Clearly there are uncertainties about the precise nature of our departure from the European Union, but that is a part of it.
Will my right hon. Friend commit to speaking with his other partners in the Government to try to obtain more funding for the GREAT campaign, which plays an extraordinarily important role in promoting the UK—and our products and companies—globally?
The GREAT campaign is a fantastic success. Part of my role is to deal with communications, representing the Foreign Office on a cross-departmental basis. We recognise the importance of this particular campaign and work strongly on it, particularly with the Department for International Trade.
Thank you so much, Mr Speaker; I am ever grateful.
As I have previously made clear to the House, the situation in Catalonia is a matter for Spain. We remain clear that questions related to the issue of Catalan independence should be resolved within the proper constitutional and legal channels of Spain.
It is everyone’s responsibility—including this Government’s—to uphold human rights. Far from becoming the major global player that Brexiteers imagine, the UK appears more and more irrelevant on the world stage. Is it the case that the UK Government are not seeking to uphold self-determination for Catalonia because they need Spain’s help in further Brexit negotiations?
No, it is because we uphold the rule of law, as we have discussed earlier in questions. We uphold the rule of law here with Scotland and we uphold it in Spain with regards to Catalonia. Certain accusations that Spain somehow has political prisoners are absurd. It does not have political prisoners; it has prisoners who happen to be political.
Tolerance of people of different faiths and sexualities is incredibly important for the promotion of human rights. Does my right hon. Friend therefore share the disappointment of many that tomorrow the kingdom of Brunei—a key Commonwealth partner and long-term ally of the UK—is introducing the death penalty for homosexuality?
The UK remains fully committed to helping to promote Lebanon’s security and stability. The Prime Minister conveyed that message to Prime Minister Hariri as recently as 24 February. We provide direct support to Lebanon of over $200 million a year. These funds help to secure borders, to provide the opportunity of education and to strengthen service delivery.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, as I know he takes these matters extremely seriously. We have invested more than £60 million in Lebanese security since 2012. By 2020, we shall have trained over 11,000 soldiers in specialist and essential infantry skills and techniques for urban and rural security operations across the board. This assistance includes significant support for the land border regiments, and has helped to secure Lebanon’s border with Syria for the first time in its history.
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes these matters extremely seriously, and the House greatly respects him for that. Many of those refugees, and some Palestinian Christians, have been in Lebanon in waves going back 20 or 30 years. Obviously, a huge amount of Department for International Development work goes on in the area. We recognise that many people have been there for quite some time and will be there for quite some time to come, and we therefore try to enhance their economic opportunities. The UK has played a leading part in trying to ensure tariff-free access to EU markets for many of those individuals.
Prime Minister Tom Thabane and Minister John Maseribane both admitted to Channel 4 News that they had received payments into their personal bank accounts from Mr Arron Banks. Will the Minister meet me to discuss governance in Lesotho, its current position in the Commonwealth and the advice that she is giving to British companies operating in Lesotho about the Bribery Act 2010?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question, and the strong links that exist between people in Wales and people in Lesotho. Of course, I am always delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. Regarding the allegations made on Channel 4, we urge anyone with evidence to give it to the appropriate authorities.
I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who stepped down last week. He served twice as Minister for the Middle East and was immensely respected and liked both in the Foreign Office, which does not happen with all Ministers, and in this House for his integrity, wisdom and kindness.
Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran. I know that I speak for the whole House in hoping that the Iranian authorities will see beyond the differences between our two countries and allow this innocent woman to come home and join her family.
Today is the 107th day of İmam Sis’s hunger strike. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and I visited him in Newport East this weekend. He is one of 1,000 Kurds on hunger strike around the world, demanding that Abdullah Öcalan is allowed access to his lawyer and removed from solitary confinement. Turkey is a NATO member and has the highest number of MPs and journalists in prison in the world, following—
The UK was one of the funders of what is known as a parallel voter tabulation exercise, which is like an extensive BBC exit poll. It gave a result that was consistent with the officially declared results, and our Prime Minister called President Buhari to congratulate him on his re-election. However, we are aware of various reports from both our observers and others, and a strong stance against election-related violence was taken yesterday in my meetings with Nigerian opposition leaders, where I emphasised that concerns must be taken through the judicial process and that the independence of the judiciary in Nigeria is incredibly important.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) said in respect of Cameroon, if Brunei does not abandon its barbaric proposals to whip or stone LGBT+ individuals to death, will the Minister of State guarantee that the Government will ask their counterparts on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to consider Brunei’s immediate suspension?
I raised with the Bruneian Government my concerns over the introduction of the hudud punishment most recently in a letter to the deputy Foreign Minister on Friday 29 March, and I discussed the imminent introduction of the Sharia penal code when I was in Brunei last August. Our high commissioner Richard Lindsay in Bandar Seri Begawan has also received assurances that both common law and the sharia penal code will operate in parallel for all nationals and residents, including British citizens, and be the primary means of administering justice in Brunei. We will continue to lobby to ensure that any British citizens in Brunei will be subject to common law rather than the penal code.
I reiterate the earlier comments of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We welcome Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of a new resolution of the UNHRC in March, which continues its reconciliation and accountability commitments. However, I understand that my right hon. Friend speaks for many of her constituents who come from the Tamil part of Sri Lanka. As a penholder, the UK has played a leading role in trying to bring the parties together, but while we accept that positive steps have been taken, much faster progress is needed. We shall continue to urge Sri Lanka to implement fully its commitments under UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 34/1.
The hon. Gentleman is right; Iran’s human rights record remains a matter of serious concern. On 17 December, the UK co-sponsored a UN resolution on human rights in Iran, highlighting its failure to meet a whole range of international obligations in that area.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s question and reassure him that we are doing everything we can. We summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador to the UK to register our concerns about the human rights violations and abuses that were noted in the January fuel protests. I travelled to southern Africa and met a range of neighbours to encourage them to send the same message as Commonwealth countries to the Government of Zimbabwe. If the Government of Zimbabwe would only follow through with the things they have said they will do, we would not be in this situation.
Yes we can, and indeed we will. This November, we will host a major conference on the prevention of sexual violence as a tool of conflict. I have met Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel peace prize winners who have campaigned on this issue. Whether it is Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq or Burma, we are clear that this has to become an international taboo.
If I may, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). We are doing a lot, as a penholder, and playing a leading role in trying to bring parties together. We are pleased to see that Sri Lanka is co-sponsoring a new resolution at the Human Rights Council in March in Geneva, but I appreciate that we need to see some genuine progress, and I very much hope that the international community can come together and bring that about.
I know that the Foreign Secretary and I will both welcome the House’s decision last night to reject an EU customs union. What assessment has he made of the foreign policy implications of such an arrangement, were it ever entered into?
I think people would see it as very curious that a country that voted to take back control was choosing to cede control in a number of areas of vital national interest. I think they would also be concerned that it would not resolve the national debate on Brexit, because many of the people who voted for Brexit would not see this as delivering a true Brexit.
Will the Secretary of State recognise the incredible action by thousands of young people across our country in striking for action on climate change? Will he not only recognise that we are facing a global emergency on climate change, but declare a national emergency on climate change, just as the Labour party has done?
I very much welcome young people being involved in climate change issues; I do not welcome quite so much their missing school to do so. I would say that we are making a lot of progress in this country—in fact, I think we have done more than anyone else in the G20 on climate change—but it is not enough. As a global community, we still need to do more, which is why we want to host COP 26 and galvanise the world to take more action.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, already, another seven journalists have been killed in the course of their work this year, coming on top of the 80 who died last year? Two of those were in Mexico, which is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalism. Will he say what more can be done to press the Mexican Government to take action?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue, and indeed for raising it consistently. He is absolutely right: Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist. The Mexican Government have taken action, and we are in touch with them closely about what they are doing. However, we need to draw the world’s attention to this issue. According to the latest figures I have seen, 348 journalists were arrested or detained last year for doing their job. That is why this summer, jointly with Canada, we will be hosting the first ever international conference on media freedom at ministerial level.
What steps is the Foreign Office taking to guarantee the human rights of people in Sudan, especially since the President declared a year-long crisis in Sudan?
I am very glad the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to raise this, because it is a very serious situation, and we are engaging strongly with the Government of Sudan on the issues he raises. Most recently, I had a phone call with the Foreign Minister of Sudan in which I particularly drew attention to the women who were due to be flogged. I am very pleased to hear that they have subsequently been released.
Tomorrow, Brunei introduces a penal code that includes death for apostasy, death for adultery and stoning to death for homosexuality. I suppose at this point I should declare my interest on all three counts. Very much more seriously, what are we going to do with our super soft power to make it clear just how much this is a total violation of the standards we should share?
We have made and will continue to make representations. Obviously there are grave concerns about the nature of the sharia penal code, if it were brought into play. As I mentioned earlier, we are raising concerns about the introduction of the hudud punishment. We have a strong bilateral relationship—underpinned of course by our military presence in Brunei, as my hon. Friend will be aware—and we hope that will mitigate the potential impact of the sharia penal code on UK forces, associated civilians and their dependants.
What pressure can the Foreign Secretary bring to bear on the Indian Government to ensure that UK nationals in prison there have their human right to a fair trial respected? The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) has been a powerful advocate for Jagtar Singh Johal. I have a similar case of an elderly constituent who has been in prison since 2015, and his family are seriously concerned about his health.
I accept that the time for which the legal process drags on in many Indian consular cases is hugely frustrating. I am obviously very happy to meet the hon. Lady in relation to this particular case.
If I may, in relation to the Jagtar Singh Johal case, let me say that I know it has been an incredibly distressing for Mr Johal and his family. I very much respect the hard work of the constituency Member of Parliament. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) knows, we have met the family on three occasions since Mr Johal was imprisoned at the beginning of 2018. The hon. Gentleman is going to meet the Foreign Secretary on 24 April.
This Sunday is the 25th anniversary of the terrible genocide that took place in Rwanda, a country my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows well. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), the noble Lord Popat and I will be at the ceremonies on Sunday in Kigali, representing our Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend think that the UN doctrine of the responsibility to protect—R2P—which has been so well developed by Gareth Evans, is yet sufficient to ensure that such terrible events could never take place again?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I hope to join him in Kigali this Sunday as the UK Government representative. The world can never forget the events in Rwanda 25 years ago. The world has made progress in vowing to say never again to genocide, but we must remain alert and engaged in order to prevent such incidents from happening ever again.
First, it was not a ruling; it was an intermediate decision and non-binding. We are of course in discussions with Mauritius, but we fully uphold our right to take the position we have taken over many years.[Official Report, 3 April 2019, Vol. 657, c. 8MC.]
The UK has a duty to prevent under the genocide convention. Mass atrocities are invariably preceded by red flags. Early warning signs, such as the persecution of minorities, happened in Burma against the Rohingya and, indeed, in Rwanda. What is the FCO doing to help identify and act on such red flags?
We are doing lots, but the most important thing that we have to do is make sure that when there has been genocide or alleged genocide, there is accountability. Burma is a case in point, and we hosted a major meeting on that very issue at the UN General Assembly. If there is no accountability, people think they have a chance to get away with doing it again, and that must not happen.
Further to the earlier answers on Brunei, we are talking about people being stoned to death for being gay—having rocks thrown at their heads again and again to draw out the process of death by blunt trauma. Surely the Minister agrees that that is barbaric, inhumane and contrary to Commonwealth values. How can the Government reverse this appalling state of affairs?
As I have pointed out, the Sultan of Brunei has become more religious as he has grown older, and that is one of the reasons why he wanted to bring in the sharia penal code. I was out there last August and it was very clear to me, from speaking to him and his advisers, that they envisaged that the common law stream would continue as well. I appreciate that the headlines cause concern. I have written to their representative here in the UK and made it very clear to them that this was going to cause massive parliamentary and media concern, which obviously has come to pass over the past couple of days. Our excellent high commissioner to Brunei, Richard Lindsay, is, on a day-to-day basis, making clear those grave concerns, which have also been expressed during the course of this morning’s questions.
NATO has, I think, been the most successful military alliance ever, and it is the foundation of our rules-based international order. My message is very simple: we must not be complacent for the future, and there is a fundamental imbalance when one half of the alliance is spending 4% of its GDP on defence and the other half—the European side—is spending between 1% and 2%.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I gave you advance notice that I wished to raise this matter. I had a smear perpetrated against me when a snapshot of frozen film footage was printed in a tabloid paper, The Scottish Sun, suggesting that I was asleep during proceedings in this House. I contacted the journalist concerned, who had not shown the courtesy of contacting me before publishing this piece, to inform him that the film of the proceedings demonstrated categorically that I was not asleep but had for a second or two thrown my head back, appealing to the heavens in despair at chuntering in the Chamber while one of my colleagues was speaking.
As a result of this misleading article, I faced an outpouring of personal abuse against me over the weekend—and it continues—with words like “whore”, “bitch” and “lazy cow” being liberally sprinkled through messages, particularly on The Scottish Sun Facebook page. Those remarks are still online; they have not been removed, as far as I am aware.
Comments on a site in my own constituency—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, this is a matter of great importance.
Order. I absolutely accept the importance of the matter, and it is for that reason that I am very happy to hear the hon. Lady’s point of order, but, with the very greatest of respect, I will be the judge of how long a point of order lasts. Everything said in this Chamber is important. It is not for her to presume that she has as long as she wants. There are a lot of other colleagues who wish to speak and a lot of other matters to be debated. I am extremely sympathetic to her, and I already have in mind a very sympathetic response, but please do not say to me, “It is important,” meaning that you can go on for as long as you like. The answer to that, I am afraid, is no.
The point I wish to make, Mr Speaker, is that this story—if it can be called that—was printed in an atmosphere of febrile political tension, when MPs’ security is a matter of great concern. It has been reposted, and the comments online continue to sit. This is a matter of importance to us all, as an attack on one MP going about her duties—a false one at that—is an attack on us all. Whipping up hatred against any one of us plays into the narrative that we are not real people and can be attacked.
Order. I am sorry, but I must ask the hon. Lady upon what she is seeking an adjudication from the Chair. I cannot just have a speech on the subject. I will not have it. If she wants to ask me something in a sentence, I will respond, and if she wants an Adjournment debate on the subject, I can happily afford her that, but I am not having a speech now. It is not happening.
Given that these posts continue, Mr Speaker, to be available on that publication’s social media platforms and continue to perpetrate that untruth and given that the evidence shows otherwise, what course of action do you suggest I take to seek an end to this apparent campaign to perpetrate a dishonesty, and stop the tidal wave of abuse that has been unleashed, which is an attack on us all?
First, I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter and giving me advance notice of her intention to do so. I underline and reinforce her concern. It is indeed an extremely serious matter—not just for her personally, but for all colleagues and, institutionally, for the House of Commons. False allegations against Members should not be allowed to gain traction. It affects us all and the reputation of the House if such allegations are not robustly refuted. To be fair, she has just robustly refuted the allegation. Her concern would be serious at any time, but it is a particular concern in what I think she described as the current febrile political atmosphere. She has put her view on the matter very clearly on the record. If she considers that the allegations made against her might conceivably constitute a contempt of the House, she should write to me setting out the facts, and I will adjudicate upon that. That is the first answer.
The second answer to the hon. Lady is that, if she wishes to stage an Adjournment debate on such abuse, of which this is an example, but there are many others, she might find that a friendly Chair will facilitate an Adjournment debate for her, possibly of up to an hour and a half, in which other colleagues could take part and in which she would have a full opportunity to make such speech as she judged necessary. Thirdly, my advice to the hon. Lady in the short term is that she should get her hands on a copy of the Official Report of today’s proceedings without delay—I am sure she will do so—and ensure that it is circulated to all the outlets responsible for propagating this slur upon her good name.
Fourthly, I say to the hon. Lady in terms that leave no scope for misunderstanding that I have a good vantage point in the Chair—I say that to all Members and those observing our proceedings—and I have never in my time in the Chair observing her seen her fall asleep.
She is a veritable parliamentary Zebedee—she is constantly jumping up and down—and that, as she knows, is a compliment, not an insult. She is one of the most alert Members of Parliament. She is one of the most assiduous Chamber attendees and participants. She is without blemish, in so far as her parliamentary commitment is concerned.
I will let her into a secret. I was once—not in this Chamber—watching a tennis match at Wimbledon. It was one of the most exciting matches that I have ever watched. Momentarily, I closed my eyes, not because I had fallen asleep or had drunk alcohol, because neither of those things was true—I had momentarily closed my eyes in sheer suspense. The camera caught me and the next day it was suggested in a newspaper that perhaps I had fallen asleep. As the hon. Lady knows, the notion that I would fall asleep watching a tennis match is just inherently absurd.
I do not treat this with levity. It is extremely serious, but as far as I am concerned, it is monstrous and ridiculous, and she should circulate the Official Report, which testifies to the Chair’s view of the matter. I have a better idea than those other commentators for the very simple reason that I observe Members every day from the Chair, and she would not fall asleep—amen, end of subject, period.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific said that he wanted to correct me with regard to my question, saying that the UK did not have RAF personnel in Saudi control centres. Last year, the MOD responded to other Members saying that it did and it responded to me saying that it had squadron leaders and lieutenants. It even listed the names of personnel. How do I get the Minister, who has not responded to my letter asking him to correct the record, to come here and correct the record, and state that we do have RAF personnel in Saudi control centres?
As to whether the Minister corrects the record, it is incumbent upon a Minister who thinks that he or she has erred to do so, but it is not incumbent upon me to act as arbiter of whether a correction is required. I am afraid that that must remain a matter for the Minister. Meanwhile, the hon. Gentleman, by the sedulous use of a bogus point of order, has taken the opportunity to put his own interpretation of matters clearly on the record. If I may say so, he looks mightily relieved to have done so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At yesterday’s hearing of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I asked the Secretary of State for Wales why he had voted differently to some of his Cabinet colleagues on the extension of article 50. He informed me at that hearing that he had abstained because he had been elsewhere and had not been around at the time of the votes. It subsequently transpires that the right hon. Gentleman cast his vote by voting in both Lobbies, thereby abstaining. I ask you, Mr Speaker, whether the Secretary of State has declared any intention to you that he will come to make a personal statement on this matter. If he has not done so, can you offer me any advice on how to proceed and deal with this rather unusual discrepancy?
I have not received any indication from the Secretary of State for Wales that he intends to come to the House to make a statement on that matter. I was not entirely clear whether the hon. Lady was suggesting that the explanation that she had had from the Minister was outside the Chamber or inside it.
Oh, very well. If the Minister feels a responsibility to correct the record, he will do so. If not, knowing the eager beaver that the hon. Lady is, I have a feeling that she will be penning a letter and ensuring that it wings its way to the Secretary of State before very long. Whether he will await that letter with enormous enthusiasm is open to doubt.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek your guidance? The next business is the presentation of Bills, and it is to do with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill, which the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) will be presenting. Would it be appropriate for me to raise a point of order on it now or after she has presented the Bill?
European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Yvette Cooper, supported by Sir Oliver Letwin, Hilary Benn, Dame Caroline Spelman, Jack Dromey, Alison McGovern, Mr Dominic Grieve, Clive Efford, Stephen Doughty, Norman Lamb, Ben Lake and Stewart Hosie, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the period for negotiations for withdrawing from the European Union.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow; and to be printed (Bill 371).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on something that I raised yesterday in relation to the business motion and my very grave concern, I think shared by many people throughout the country—let alone in the House—about the idea of a Bill that is of such importance as this effectively being rammed through in one day. It is a Bill
“to make provision in connection with the period for negotiations for withdrawing from the European Union.”
In short, this is a reprehensible procedure in the context of the vitally important issue of our leaving the European Union. It is unconstitutional, and it is inconceivable that we should be presented with a Bill that could be rammed through in one day. In making this point of order, I want to ask you whether you have observations on the point that I just made.
My observation is threefold. First, that the hon. Gentleman is of this view was made very clear to me by his oration yesterday. Indeed, I say in no spirit of discourtesy to him that I rather imagine that anybody within a 50-mile radius of this place would be aware of his views on this important matter, given the force and frequency with which he has expressed them. Secondly, the House voted yesterday to give precedence tomorrow to a business of the House motion, which has not yet been tabled, so we await that. Thirdly, although this is of course an unusual state of affairs, it is not unknown for a Bill to be pushed through the House in one day. For a Bill brought forward by a Back-Bench Member, it is very unusual, but it is consequent upon a decision of the House. Bills being brought forward and taken through their various stages in one day in Government time are not particularly unusual at all. For example, Northern Ireland legislation has often been taken through the House on that basis. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not object to that in the way that he objects to this, but I do not think it is as unprecedented as he supposes. It is unusual and it is a bit different from those other examples, and it grates immensely with the hon. Gentleman, but that does not of itself render it disorderly. Upsetting the hon. Gentleman is displeasing but not disorderly. I think we will have to leave it there.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Bank of England to meet standards for the representation of ethnic minority persons on banknotes; and for connected purposes.
I present this Bill because I believe that the Governor of the Bank of England now has a unique opportunity to address an archaic stereotype—one that completely undermines the credible efforts towards diversity and inclusion that are indeed taking place the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.
I must first pay tribute to the inspirational Zehra Zaidi and Dr Patrick Vernon OBE for their excellent “Banknotes of Colour” campaign, and I am glad to say that they are sitting in the Gallery today. Their campaign aims to secure the first ever ethnic minority person on a British banknote, and their efforts have already won very broad support both inside and outside the House. The Bill seeks to persuade the Governor of the Bank of England to designate a black, Asian or minority ethnic person to feature on the new £50 note, a decision that he is due to announce this summer. There have been 24 banknotes featuring a notable person on the reverse since the first was issued in July 1970. Of these, all but three have been historic white men, the notable exceptions being three women: Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry and Jane Austen.
As you will know, Mr Speaker, the 2011 UK census showed that 14% of the UK population were from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. Like everywhere else around the globe, the UK population will become ever more diverse in the coming decades. We talk so much of cohesion and integration and of active, engaged citizens, but for this to be achieved people and communities need to see that their stake in Britain—in its past, present and future—is universally recognised. To include a person of diversity on our banknotes would show a fundamental shift from a national stereotype to a modern, socially inclusive attitude in one of our oldest and most traditional institutions.
Such positive action would underline the pride we have in this country’s great multi-culture and help to defeat the despicable influence of the hatred and division that seeks to destroy our libertarian way of life. The Bank of England has a duty to support and promote integration and diversity. Indeed, its own guidance states that its banknote characters should reflect the diversity of UK society. It is therefore surprising and disappointing that the Bank has so far failed to recognise the ethnic diversity of our population on our national currency. The Bill would change that.
Over the last century, our diverse communities in the UK have undoubtedly made a seismic contribution to the making of modern Britain—in business, in public services, in the NHS and even in politics. There are so many examples: Mary Seacole, the Jamaican-British nurse who supported British troops during the Crimean war and whose contribution has been recognised as equal to that of Florence Nightingale; Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim of Indian origin, who was the first female radio operator to infiltrate enemy occupied France in world war two; Sophia Duleep Singh, the prominent Indian suffragette and member of the Women’s Social and Political Union; and not forgetting Sir Charles Kao, the British-Chinese scientist who won the Nobel prize for physics and pioneered the use of fibre optics in telecommunications. There are, of course, many other examples, but all these individuals represent the very best of Britain.
The choice of the face of the new £50 note is a wonderful opportunity for the Bank of England. It would send a message from one of the greatest institutions in the land that the contribution of diverse communities to the building of Britain really does matter and is truly valued. In doing so, it would also ensure that the UK’s currency is reflective of the diverse, inclusive and tolerant modern Britain that I know and love.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mrs Helen Grant, Mrs Maria Miller, Janet Daby, Dame Caroline Spelman, Caroline Lucas, Eddie Hughes, Kate Green, Clive Lewis, Jeremy Lefroy, Preet Kaur Gill, Helen Whately and Rachel Maclean present the Bill.
Mrs Helen Grant accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 April, and to be printed (Bill 372).
[Relevant Document: Third Special Report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Failure of a witness to answer an Order of the Committee: conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings, HC 115.]
I beg to move,
That this House—
(i) approves the First Report from the Committee of Privileges (HC 1490); and
(ii) endorses the conclusions of the Committee in respect of the conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings that the evidence sought by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee from Mr Cummings was relevant to its inquiry and that his refusal to attend constituted a significant interference with the work of that Committee; concludes that Mr Cummings committed a contempt both by his refusal to obey the Committee’s order to attend it and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s Order of 7 June 2018; and therefore formally admonishes him for his conduct.
In a week of constitutional innovation, we have one more, whereby I am standing in for the Leader of the House, who sends her apologies. I understand that she has been in touch with the Chairs of the Committee of Privileges and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to explain the reason for her absence.
The House deeply respects the work of Select Committees across the House. They do incredibly important work on behalf of all the peoples of the United Kingdom, and the Government remains a strong supporter of the Select Committee system. In accordance with traditional practice, the Leader of the House brought forward motions on Thursday 7 June and Thursday 28 June 2018 to raise the activities of Dominic Cummings as a matter of privilege following his refusal to obey the DCMS Committee’s order to attend and his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s order of 7 June 2018.
It is vital to the work of Select Committees that they can obtain full and accurate evidence from witnesses as part of their inquiries. I thank the members of the Committee of Privileges for undertaking the report and the members of the DCMS Committee for their work on behalf of Parliament. The report from the Privileges Committee concluded that it accepted the DCMS Committee’s view that the evidence it sought from Mr Cummings was relevant to its inquiry and that his refusal to appear constituted a significant interference with its work. The report states that Mr Cummings committed a contempt both by his initial refusal to obey the DCMS Committee’s order to attend and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s order. The Committee recommended that the House admonish Mr Cummings for his contempt, and it is for the House to determine whether to endorse these conclusions.
Mr Cummings has raised questions about the enforceability of the House’s powers and those of its Committee’s to secure evidence. I know that the Committee of Privileges intends to consider this matter further, and we await its conclusions, but today’s debate underlines the right of Select Committees to undertake their duties as assigned to them by the House. The Government have full respect for the privileges of the House of Commons and will continue to uphold them. They are crucial to the independence of Parliament and the strength of our democracy. I therefore commend the motion to the House.
Before the debate gets under way, I want to say one thing. From experience, I am clear in my own mind—and I am reinforced in my view by the specialist advice of the Clerks—that the focus of this motion is narrow. The Minister rightly stuck to its proper focus. This is not an occasion—I repeat not an occasion—for airing all the arguments about the conduct of the referendum campaign, Vote Leave, tactics used, fake news, and so on. That is not for today—I repeat not for today. This is about the rights of this House and the appearance and non-appearance of witnesses, the issue of compliance with the express wishes of the House and the issue of consequences for violation of our rights. If people have got speeches prepared in which they want to rehearse again all the arguments about the referendum campaign, I suggest the speedy and liberal application of the blue pencil. It is not required; indeed, it is required not to happen. We must not play games with the House’s procedures. I am extremely grateful to the Minister who moved the motion.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for presenting the motion, and note that the Leader of the House is occupied with important matters elsewhere. I also thank the Committee of Privileges, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for all its work in producing the report.
This is not the first Committee report on the conduct of Mr Dominic Cummings. On 5 June 2018, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a special report stating that it had first invited, then ordered Mr Cummings to give oral evidence as part of its inquiry into fake news, and that he had failed to comply with that order. On 7 June 2018, the House resolved that Mr Cummings should
“give an undertaking to the Committee, no later than 6pm on 11 June 2018, to appear before that Committee at a time on or before 20 June 2018.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 492.]
However, on 20 June 2018 the Chair of the DCMS Committee, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), reported to the House that Mr Cummings had failed to comply with the order of 7 June. The Leader of the House tabled a motion on 28 June that the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges, and the House supported it.
In the annex to the report, on page 11, the Committee of Privileges helpfully set out the procedure that it would follow in inviting Mr Cummings to provide the DCMS Committee with oral and written evidence, so he has benefited from due process. It made a number of recommendations, and accepted the view of the DCMS Committee that the evidence that it sought from Mr Cummings was relevant to its inquiry and that his refusal to attend constituted a significant interference with its work. The Committee of Privileges
rejected Mr Cummings’s argument as to why he did not appear before the DCMS Committee. He had been offered a series of dates for a hearing, and had not supplied any evidence that suggested he was at significant risk of prosecution. The report states :
“The fact that a prospective witness takes a different view on policy or political issues from a select committee…does not constitute grounds to refuse to appear before that committee.”
Many of us who are members of Select Committees often hear evidence from all sides. It is the right of a Select Committee to do that, and to form a view based on the evidence.
The Committee of Privileges accepted the DCMS Committee’s view that in not giving it the evidence that it sought, Mr Cummings had committed a contempt both by his refusal to obey its order to attend and by his subsequent refusal to obey the House’s order of 7 June 2018. The report states:
“Attending the hearing and defending his position when called upon to do so would have been the right thing to do.”
The Committee recommends that the House should admonish Mr Cummings for his contempt, and that the admonishment should take the form of a resolution of the House. The resolution, if agreed to, should be communicated to Mr Cummings by the Clerk of the House.
I thank the Committee again for its work, and I support the motion.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his statement. I also thank the Leader of the House for giving me notice that she would be unable to attend the Chamber today, and for the words that the Deputy Leader of the House read out on behalf of the Government. I thank my fellow members of the DCMS Committee, and I thank the Chair of the Privileges Committee and her colleagues for their investigation.
We are not here today as a consequence of a rush of blood to the head and the “at whim” decision of a parliamentary Committee to order a private citizen to give evidence in front of us. Today we are at the end of a process that has run for the best part of 10 months, from the Committee’s first attempts to invite a witness to attend to the process of its ordering that witness to attend, to that being reported to the House and the House also ordering him to attend, and then to the matter being referred to the Committee of Privileges for it to investigate.
I am pleased that that Committee has agreed with the statement in our report that we were within our rights to call the witness, and that the witness should have attended. The witness himself, Mr Cummings, was critical of our Committee’s inquiry, of other witnesses who had attended, and of the evidence that they had given. Our main reason for wishing him to attend was so that he could respond to the allegations made by other witnesses. That is an important part of the inquiry, and also demonstrates the Committee’s desire to hear all sides of the story. We are frustrated in that process when witnesses refuse to confirm dates, put up spurious reasons why they cannot attend, and then, in correspondence with the Committee, seek to behave in a way that is contemptuous of its work and, therefore, of the work of the House.
This is the heart of the matter. The report states that many of Mr Cummings’s communications were highly inappropriate, including some outside the House. He did not do himself any favours in that respect. I personally wanted to hear what he had to say, and I honestly believe that many members of the Committee had open minds and wanted their questions to be answered. Is it not also true that we asked very probing questions when it came to the other side of the debate? We questioned Christopher Wylie very closely about his desire to hawk information to Vote Leave.
Indeed. The questions that we wished to put to Mr Cummings were highly relevant to our inquiry. They were also highly relevant to evidence presented by other people, including representatives of organisations that had worked with him in his capacity as director of Vote Leave. I think that we should have had an opportunity to put those questions, as a relevant part of our inquiry and the work of the Committee. As the Committee of Privileges says in its report, it cannot be for individuals to seek to interfere with the work of a parliamentary Committee. We should regard that as a very serious matter.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making, but is there not also an issue of consistency? I am told that Mark Zuckerberg also declined to give evidence to the Committee during the same inquiry. Moreover, it is quite common for Ministers to decline to give evidence to inquiries, including Ministers in some of the devolved Administrations and Assemblies. I think that the point my hon. Friend is making should be applied consistently and across the board to all potential witnesses, and that we should not fall into the trap of singling out one individual.
I do not believe that we are singling out one individual in this case. It is highly unusual for anyone to behave in the way in which Dominic Cummings behaved towards the Committee. My right hon. Friend is right in saying that we issued an invitation to Mark Zuckerberg, but that is all that we could do. We did not issue a summons or an order for him to appear, because we do not have the jurisdictional powers to do so. He is not a UK national, and is not resident in the UK. We can only issue summonses of that sort to foreign nationals if they happen to be in this country. We said that we would do that, but obviously we do not have an opportunity to do it. So the circumstances in that case are very different.
On the day that we issued the order for Dominic Cummings to appear before the Committee, we also issued an order to Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, and he chose to accept. The personal circumstances of Mr Nix at the time, in terms of the investigations of him and his former company, gave far greater reason for him not to attend than Dominic Cummings, who was not under personal investigation at all at that stage. There were no reasons in law why he should not appear. The normal sub judice rules that protect witnesses from incriminating themselves did not apply in his case. The Committee sought legal advice in that regard. I think that, when we have gone through a thorough process and there are no particular grounds for a witness not to appear, if the Committee and the House believe that it is important for that witness to appear, he should do so.
I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the privileges of Ministers, but the rules of the House in that regard are very different from those applying to private citizens.
The House does have rules relating to matters that are before UK courts and may prevent witnesses from giving evidence, but I agree with the principle that my hon. Friend has cited. I do not believe that Ministers should claim special privileges in order not to give evidence to a Committee, but they do have a different status. I do not think that that different status should give any individual in the country an opportunity to ignore an order from a Committee or a summons to appear before Parliament simply because they happen to take exception to the idea that Ministers have special privileges that they do not have—as, indeed, do Members of the House of Lords.
I want to pick up the point about consistency. It is not just my hon. Friend’s Select Committee that may have problems with calling witnesses—important witnesses—to take part in inquiries. The Women and Equalities Committee is currently going through a similar process, but we are only one month into requesting an individual to appear before us. Does my hon. Friend agree that it might be helpful if there were more explicit guidelines on the process to be followed, so that it could take place more speedily? I certainly would not want my inquiry on non- disclosure agreements to drag on for a further 10 months.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There needs to be more clarity about the process—clarity within the rules as they stand, and more clarity on what the powers of the House are. We have ancient powers, which in modern law cannot be enforced, and they have not been replaced with anything more suitable.
As Chair of a Select Committee, I am sure that my hon. Friend will have shared my experience that the difficulty in getting witnesses to appear is not necessarily around private citizens, who are usually very willing to appear before a Select Committee; it is around encouraging ministerial colleagues, on occasion, and public officials to come before Select Committees. That is where the resistance is. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be at least an equivalence of rules regarding the appearance of private citizens and elected individuals and publicly accountable individuals before Select Committees? We have not got that balance right yet.
As I said to other hon. Members, I am sympathetic to any Select Committee that seeks to interview a public official or Minister as part of their inquiry. In my three years’ experience as Chair of a Select Committee I have never had that problem, but others have. There is a big difference between a Minister of the Crown and a private citizen, in that a Minister is a Member of Parliament and can be questioned, in this House or in the House of Lords, as part of their ministerial duties. The only opportunity we have to question people outside Parliament, as part of an inquiry, is to invite them to appear before the Committee. There is no other avenue, be it a ministerial question time or debate, where we can pursue that person. That is why the rules concerning private citizens are particularly important. I would be very sympathetic to the idea of looking at the rules for Ministers, but at least other avenues are open for challenging a Minister as part of parliamentary process.
I recall, as a Minister, having agreed to give evidence to a Committee of the Welsh Assembly and being told that it was not Government policy for Ministers in Westminster to attend such Committees, since they had no rights to hold us to account. Does my hon. Friend think that, bearing in mind what he has just said, perhaps a different set of rules should apply to the devolved Administrations, and that Westminster Ministers should be required to attend such hearings in devolved assemblies?
As I said to my hon. Friend earlier, I think there is a basic principle and a presumption that witnesses, be they a Minister or not, should attend Committees conducting inquiries. Select Committees conduct such inquiries on behalf of the House, with powers delegated to them by the House. I also believe that if a Member of the House of Lords chose to use their special privileges as a parliamentarian not to be summoned in front of a Committee, that would not be appropriate if that Member of the House of Lords held an important public position, as many Members of the House of Lords do.
Other options are available to question Members of Parliament and Ministers that are not available to question a private citizen. The only forum we have to question a private citizen as part of a parliamentary inquiry is to invite them to appear before a Select Committee. That power is incredibly important, because the role of a Select Committee is not just to scrutinise the work of a Government Department or a public body, but to scrutinise other matters of public interest, where a Committee believes there is a case for Government intervention, new rules or new laws on something important. It is for the Committees to determine the scope of their inquiries, and witnesses should attend when required. It is very rare that witnesses choose not to attend.
The correspondence between me as Chair of the Committee and Mr Cummings is published in full in the Committee’s report, so any Member can read that and make their own judgment as to the case that Mr Cummings made. Obviously, the matter was also reviewed by the Privileges Committee, which also invited Mr Cummings to speak to it as part of its inquiry, which he declined. Mr Cummings stated that other cases were involved, and that he had been guided by the people he had spoken to not to appear, but there was no reason in law for that. He was not under personal investigation; he was not likely to be charged with an offence. He may have all sorts of private grounds for not wanting to do it, but unless there is a particular legal reason why witnesses should not appear, I do not believe it is good enough for them to create reasons why they would rather not give evidence; that would undermine the whole process. If a witness declines to give evidence simply because it is unsatisfactory to him to do so, I do not think we should accept it.
Does my hon. Friend not have at least some sympathy for the argument that Vote Leave was under investigation by the Electoral Commission—a full-scale legal investigation? Given that that was an ongoing investigation, a request to give evidence after that had concluded was not at all unreasonable.