House of Commons
Wednesday 10 April 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—
Leaving the EU: No Deal
Today is the 21st anniversary of the Belfast agreement. Our commitment to the agreement and its successor agreements remains steadfast. It has been instrumental in bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland and remains the bedrock of the significant progress that has been achieved since 1998.
We want and expect to leave the European Union with a negotiated agreement. However, as a responsible Government, we have been working intensively to ensure that all parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, are as prepared as possible in the event of a no-deal exit. We have been clear that the unique social, political and economic circumstances of Northern Ireland must be protected.
May I echo the Secretary of State’s words about the Belfast agreement?
Organised crime does not stop at the border, and the European arrest warrant is a vital tool in modern policing. What discussion has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary to ensure that we retain this crucial means of tackling crime in all circumstances of leaving the EU?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the European arrest warrant is vital, and it is used in Northern Ireland perhaps more than in any other part of the United Kingdom. It is a very important tool that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services need to have access to. There is, of course, a way to make sure that they have access to it, and that is to leave with a deal.
As the Secretary of State has said, the Good Friday agreement was signed 21 years ago today, and it was a landmark achievement of the Labour Government. It ensured ongoing equality between those in Northern Ireland who consider themselves British or Irish. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, those rights will need additional protection. What plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that those vital rights are undiluted and protected for all in Northern Ireland?
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement was a landmark achievement. It took many years and many people take credit for it, and quite rightly so. We have been clear that there will be no diminution of rights when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. That is set out very clearly in the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement, which means, as I said earlier, that the answer is to vote for the deal.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy that cutting corporation tax to the level enjoyed by businesses in the Republic of Ireland would more than compensate for any loss of attractiveness of Northern Ireland to foreign direct investors and the associated job losses?
This House gave the Northern Ireland Executive the power to cut the corporation tax rate. That is an achievement of this Government, and we believe it would help the economy of Northern Ireland. We need a functioning Executive—we will come on to that issue later—in order for that power to be used, and that is what we all want to happen.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are already differential rates of duties and VAT between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and that, whether we leave with a deal or no deal, co-operation and ensuring that there is no hard border is in everyone’s interests?
I agree that it is in everyone’s interests that we co-operate with all our friends in the European Union, and in particular with Ireland. My hon. Friend is right. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—a separate jurisdiction and a separate sovereign country—and therefore there are differences. As I have said, the best way for us to leave the European Union—the way that will protect so many of the things that have been achieved in the past 21 years—is to leave with a negotiated agreement.
Of course everybody wants to get a deal that can get through this House of Commons. I remind the Secretary of State that she, along with us and Members from her own party, voted for an amendment saying that the backstop had to be replaced with alternative arrangements. Will she confirm that she still stands by that, and will she encourage her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to adopt that approach, which the Leader of the House referred to yesterday?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there was a majority—the only majority in this House for anything—for the Brady amendment. I was one of those who voted for it, because I want to see changes to the backstop. Of course, that is something we have achieved through the agreement that alternative arrangements could be part of the way in which the backstop is replaced. As I have said, we all want a negotiated exit that works for the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming on the record in the House today that she agrees that changes do need to be made to the backstop—it is important to recognise that. With regard to a no-deal outcome, she will have heard the Irish Taoiseach, and indeed Michel Barnier, say that in the event of a no deal there will not be any hard border on the island of Ireland and that arrangements will be made to ensure that checks and controls are made operationally away from the border. Does she understand the frustration, therefore, with people who say that, in the event of a no deal, there will be no hard border, but who are insisting on a backstop, which could actually bring about the conditions that they say they want to avoid?
I understand the many frustrations that there are around this process. I voted for the withdrawal agreement—I voted for it three times. I believe that it is a fair and balanced way for the whole United Kingdom to leave the European Union in a way that respects fully the Belfast agreement and its successor agreements, and that is what I want to see us deliver.
On 26 March, I laid before Parliament a statutory instrument that extends the period for Executive formation until 25 August. This follows the recent engagement that I have had with the five main political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government. On the basis of those conversations, I have proposed a short, focused set of five-party talks aimed at restoring devolution and the other institutions at the earliest opportunity.
I think it is fair to say that the Secretary of State has lost the confidence of many political leaders in Northern Ireland over recent months, so will she at least concede that she is probably not the best person to be chairing those talks? Will she repeat the best practice of previous Secretaries of State and appoint an independent chair to lead those talks on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks, but I do want to look at what is the best way to achieve a successful outcome from the talks, and I am open to looking at all options for how to achieve that.
In the absence of local rule and the absence of direct rule there remains a vacuum. Will the Secretary of State now look at the possibility of Members of this House asking written questions about issues of devolved responsibility to give someaccountability to the local civil service?
The right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in this field and who will, I am determined, remain the last direct rule Minister, knows that there are some constitutional arrangements. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 was very carefully drafted so that it respected the separation and independence of the Northern Ireland civil service, and we mess with that at our peril.
Has my right hon. Friend set a timetable for these talks so that she can bring the various leaders together and make sure that we restore devolved government?
I would like to see talks resume as soon as possible, but I am acutely aware that there are issues, including the fact that local government elections are now being fought in Northern Ireland and that we are in purdah, that create difficulties for what can be achieved, but I do want to see as soon as possible a short, focused set of five-party talks.
The Secretary of State has previously said that formal talks could not take place until after the local elections on 2 May, which she has just referred to, but given the Brexit developments, or a lack thereof, is she now proposing that all-party talks will now not happen until after the European elections at the end of May, which would bring us into the heart of the marching season? How can she possibly justify yet another delay in attempting to restore the Assembly that nearly 80% of the Northern Irish public are crying out for?
The hon. Gentleman refers to a number of issues that may be making it more difficult for parties to find an accommodation to enable them to restore devolution. I know that he is a supporter of devolution, and therefore I suggest to him that the best way that we can all help on that is to vote for the deal.
More than two years ago, Sinn Féin collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since then, rather than looking for its restoration, it has been fixated on getting a border poll and on stirring up sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland at the expense of people who want decisions made on education, health, infrastructure, job promotion and so on. In the face of Sinn Féin opposition to setting up the Assembly again, what plans has the Secretary of State considered to get decisions made in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland is devolved government in Stormont, with local politicians making decisions for the people who elected them. That is what we are all determined to see, and I am as determined as anybody to make sure that I put the conditions in place so that we can enable that to happen.
May I join the Secretary of State in commemorating the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement? One of the casualties of the lack of devolved governance is the compensation scheme recommended by Sir Anthony Hart some five years ago. In the time since that report, 30 victims of historical institutional abuse have died. Only one person can now resolve the issue, rather than pushing it further down the road. Let me make a heartfelt plea to the Secretary of State. Will she now announce to the House that she will take the power to ensure that compensation is paid, and announce a date when those compensation payments will begin?
I do not wish to correct the hon. Gentleman unnecessarily, but the recommendations of the Hart inquiry came two years ago, just after the Executive collapsed. Since that time, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, has completed a consultation, and we await its results; that would need to be done in any event. I stand ready to look at the appropriate action that needs to be taken when the consultation recommendations are brought forward and I hear from David Sterling.
As I set out previously, the statutory instrument that I laid before Parliament on 26 March extends the period for Executive formation until 25 August. I have proposed a short, focused set of five-party talks aimed at restoring devolution at the earliest opportunity.
Given that the Secretary of State has previously stated that she wishes to ensure the best chance of restoring devolution, is she concerned that no opportunity to successfully bring the parties together has yet presented itself?
We have tried on a number of occasions to bring the parties together. My hon. Friend will know that we had an intensive period of talks last year that were very close to a successful outcome, but it has just not been possible to do that. I would not wish to say to the people of Northern Ireland that we were able to do something if I did not genuinely believe that we could. I therefore need to ensure that the conditions are right to have the best chance of success, because that is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing £350 million for the Belfast city deal, but does she agree that it is vital that we do similar for Londonderry?
I was delighted to co-sign the heads of terms for the Belfast region city deal with partners last month. It is a significant milestone, which will ultimately deliver the first city deal in Northern Ireland. Let me be clear that there is no room for complacency. I have committed to delivering a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals right across Northern Ireland, and I am now working hard with local partners and colleagues across Government to make progress on the Derry and Strabane city deal. Negotiations are progressing well, and I am hopeful that Cabinet colleagues will be in a position to agree a deal following the conclusions of local council elections in May.
As the Secretary of State outlined, the statutory instrument that extends the period for Executive formation in Northern Ireland runs out on 25 August. What steps will she take if we get closer to that deadline and do not see any devolved government being restored?
We are looking at all options, but clearly the only sustainable way forward for Northern Ireland lies in getting the institutions back up and running. The restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland is my absolute priority, and the willingness to restore the Executive is there among the political parties. I will do everything in my power to get the Executive back up and running as soon as possible.
Given that Northern Ireland has now reached the world record for the longest period ever without a Government, would the Minister consider forming an Assembly of the willing to return devolved government to Northern Ireland?
We remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors, including the provisions setting out an inclusive, power-sharing Government. An approach that excludes representatives of either part of the community is not a sustainable way forward for Northern Ireland.
In the absence of Ministers at Stormont, how has my right hon. Friend engaged with public authorities and local authorities in Northern Ireland to ensure political stability and good governance?
As I have said, I have already laid the SI to extend the period during which an Executive can be formed. We need to ensure that we are doing everything we can to get the politicians back into Stormont, running devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland, but of course I work closely with local councils and others—including on city deals, as I set out earlier.
Will the Secretary of State outline for the House what fresh thinking or fresh ideas she has in order to try to break the impasse we have had for well over two years now?
As I said earlier, I rule nothing out. I am looking at all the options that are available in terms of getting the conditions right and getting those successful talks. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions, I would be very grateful to receive them. I rule nothing out. I will of course let this House know at the earliest opportunity when I do have developments in that area.
There is always a DUP contest between seniority and youth. On this occasion, I call Mr David Simpson.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
With all the discussions that the Secretary of State has had with the various parties, I am sure she has come to the conclusion that the only party that is holding progress back is Sinn Féin. We in this part of the House would form a Government in the morning.
You are probably not aware, Mr Speaker, that I managed to offend the hon. Gentleman in the Tea Room earlier, so I will point out that you allowed youth to win on this occasion.
Of course I have met all the party leaders and all the main parties in Northern Ireland. I do believe that there is a willingness to see devolution restored, and I want to see that at the earliest opportunity.
I call Gavin Robinson.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—I will always defer to my junior colleagues. The Secretary of State knows that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland would restore the Executive tomorrow, without preconditions. Sinn Féin is the only party that has allowed its political prejudice to get in the way of progress in Northern Ireland. Will she commit, at end of the time-bound period of discussions, to call the Assembly and put the parties to the test?
As I say, I want to see devolution restored at the earliest opportunity. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the willingness of his party. I am convinced that the other four parties are determined to see devolution restored, and we need to get the conditions right to allow that to happen.
I do not think it is right for the hon. Lady to make that assertion. There are unique circumstances and pressures in Northern Ireland. The Government respect that and want to make sure that it is reflected in the financial settlement.
In the absence of devolved government, the direct decisions being made by Westminster for Northern Ireland are increasing every day, whether on the Offensive Weapons Bill, the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, the two-child policy, or even what will happen with the Open golf tournament. The Secretary of State tells us that she respects devolution, but these decisions are being made behind closed doors with civil servants and without the involvement of the people or representatives of Northern Ireland. If she thinks that is acceptable, will she publish in full a list of all the policy decisions she has made under this new legislation, including the legislative consent motions and who has signed them off, so that we know who is really running Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady did very well to get through the question and still have some voice left.
The decisions that are taken by the civil servants in Northern Ireland—the permanent secretaries—are published. That is part of the conditions of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. But to be clear, that Act does not allow new major policy decisions to be made; it allows for policy decisions taken when the Executive was still in place to be continued. As I say, no new policy decisions are being taken under that Act.
Devolution and peace in Northern Ireland is precious and hard won. That is brilliantly captured with great humour and poignancy in the latest series of “Derry Girls”, which I know the Secretary of State is a fan of. Will she join me in congratulating Lisa McGee and the entire production team on another brilliant series?
I am absolutely delighted to congratulate everybody involved in “Derry Girls”. I have not yet seen the final episode, so I do not want any spoilers.
Both the Secretary of State and I were delighted by the recent announcement by the Work and Pensions Secretary that parents who had their third child before the two-child limit was introduced in April 2017 would not face the cap. This will help thousands of families across the UK, including Northern Ireland. The administration and implementation of universal credit is a devolved matter, but Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities knows of no complaints, issues or problems experienced by claimants in the operation of the two-child policy.
The cruelty of this policy, as was confirmed by the UN rapporteur, is most acute in Northern Ireland, where families are bigger and abortion is illegal, which has been condemned by the Supreme Court. Surely in the case of non-consensual conception, women who seek to exercise the already humiliating rape clause will risk the prosecution of professionals who assist under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Can we have some clarity on this human rights double whammy?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that concern, which has been raised on previous occasions because of the depth of worry. I would just reassure her that in the 52 years since section 5 was passed, there have been no prosecutions for failure to report a rape in Northern Ireland. I would add that an outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland said that it is very unlikely that anyone will face prosecution in future.
The Minister appears to be presenting some new legislation to us. We are not familiar with the information he has just given, and I hope we can have a bit more detail.
I rise in sorrow and in anger to say that the roll-out of universal credit has had an unmitigated devastating impact on the poorest people in Northern Ireland. If universal credit is not good enough for the Minister’s constituents or my constituents, why is it good enough for Northern Ireland, where the level of long-term unemployment is twice the national average? Does he believe that making the worst-off worse off is acceptable?
I politely disagree with the hon. Gentleman, not least because unemployment in Northern Ireland has been falling steadily, which is one of the huge success stories of Northern Ireland’s economic progress since the troubles. The previous Assembly introduced some rather important legislation, which is still in operation, that mitigates some of the local concerns about the operation of universal credit in Northern Ireland.
The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland. Our top priority is to keep people safe and secure. Vigilance against this continuing threat is essential and we remain determined to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
It is 21 years to the day since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday agreement. I will always remember the devastating bomb that ripped through Omagh, the town of my birth, just months before. Does my hon. Friend agree that the agreement has been vital in delivering the relative peace in Northern Ireland and that it must not be jeopardised?
I do. As the Secretary of State rightly mentioned earlier, the Belfast agreement was a landmark moment for Northern Ireland and all its neighbours. The peace that it has helped deliver is the foundation of so much of the economic and social progress that has been made since. Of course, the terrorists know that, which is why it is essential that we never let them win.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Police Service of Northern Ireland does a fantastic job? Will he confirm that the Government will continue to do all they can to support it?
Yes, I do. The Police Service of Northern Ireland does a terrific job of keeping everyone safe across the community in Northern Ireland. I am sure I speak for everybody here in expressing our admiration and thanks for the work it does.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I am very glad that the Prime Minister has just taken her seat, because the question relates to dissident republicans. Has the Minister been made aware by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that dissident republicans are responsible for the recent spate of thefts of ATMs across Northern Ireland and are intent on using the stolen money to purchase weaponry to attack police officers and others along the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
There has been a great deal of speculation about this matter. I hope the hon. Lady will understand that all I can say in my response here is that policing is an operational matter. There are ongoing live police investigations into this matter and therefore I cannot go any further into it. However, I am sure that everybody here will have heard her concerns and registered them clearly.
Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State made a statement saying that the threat level for January was at “severe”, will the Minister outline what efforts have been made to increase police presence in local community policing to build relationships within communities? How much extra funding has he secured for the police?
I am happy to report that there has been a great deal of extra funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There was £230 million of extra security funding over the 2010 Parliament and there has been £131 million over the current spending review period, plus £25 million to tackle paramilitary activity. In December, we announced another £16.5 million to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland prepare for EU exit.
What action are the Government taking to tackle delays in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland? That is essential to ensuring we do more to bring to justice people responsible for terrorism.
My right hon. Friend, as a former Secretary of State, will appreciate that that is predominantly a devolved matter and that many things would be on the plate of a restored Stormont Assembly and Executive. I am sure that that would be one of them, but first it is essential to get that Executive and Assembly back to work.
In these heightened times of threats against politicians, anyone standing for a council election in England this May does not need to have their home details published. In Northern Ireland, that is not the case, which has led to the Social Democratic and Labour party councillor Máiría Cahill having to withdraw from fighting her seat. Will the Minister tell the House why in England legislation changed but we did not do that in Northern Ireland? When will that change be made?
This matter has come up in the press recently and I know it is causing concern to all parts of the House and in all communities in Northern Ireland. We are tremendously sympathetic. The difficulty is that changing the laws in Northern Ireland in time for the local elections will probably be impossible. We all want to try to ensure that this is dealt with so that the law is in line as soon as we can.
Open Championship 2019
As a former tourism Minister, I am delighted that in July the Open championship is making an historic return to Northern Ireland after 68 years. Tourism Northern Ireland expects up to 190,000 spectators will attend the event at the Royal Portrush golf club and estimates that the benefit to the Northern Ireland economy will be £80 million. Tourism in Northern Ireland is going from strength to strength. During the first quarter of 2018, visitors spent an unprecedented £180 million.
What steps is the Minister taking to capitalise on this top international sporting event to promote Northern Irish tourism and showcase business opportunities?
My hon. Friend will know that tourism is a devolved matter, which is yet another reason for the Stormont Executive to reform quickly. I also urge businesses to use the event as a huge marketing opportunity. Portrush will be a target-rich environment for them, full of potential customers, suppliers and contacts for all sectors of Northern Ireland’s economy—not just tourism. I am sure they will grab it with both hands.
If the hon. Gentleman intends favourably to reference Rory McIlroy, I will call him. If he does not, I will not.
I will, Mr Speaker.
He is one of the best golfers in the world. Will the Minister meet Invest Northern Ireland, as I have, to ensure that we maximise every potential investment opportunity on the back of the Open returning to Royal Portrush after an absence of almost 70 years?
I am happy to meet Invest Northern Ireland and anyone else who wants to bring more investment into Northern Ireland.
Colleagues, I am pleased to announce that after a fair and open recruitment process, Her Majesty the Queen has approved the appointment of Sarah Davies as Clerk Assistant and Managing Director of the Chamber and Committees Team with effect from 29 April 2019. Sarah Davies is Principal Clerk of Select Committees and the first woman to hold permanently the position of Clerk Assistant. She is a superb servant of the House of Commons. We unite in congratulating her and we wish her well for the period that lies ahead.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I add my congratulations to Sarah Davies on achieving this position, and say how good it always is to see women in high office?
The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history. As Her Majesty the Queen said before visiting Jallianwala Bagh in 1997, it is a “distressing example” of our history with India. We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused. I am pleased that today the UK-India relationship is one of collaboration, partnership, prosperity and security. Indian diaspora make an enormous contribution to British society, and I am sure the whole House wishes to see the UK’s relationship with India continue to flourish.
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.
I fully agree with the Prime Minister when she has repeatedly said that we need to honour both the result of the referendum and our manifesto commitments, which mean leaving the customs union and the single market. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that if the best way to do that, rather than delivering a diluted deal that is unrecognisable to many of those who voted to leave, is to go under World Trade Organisation rules, we should grab that opportunity and believe in the ability of the British people and a Conservative Government to make a success of it?
I agree with my hon. Friend that I believe a Conservative Government will make a success of whatever the situation is in relation to Brexit. But I still believe that the best Brexit for the UK is to be able to leave in an orderly way, to be able to leave with a deal, and I want to ensure that that Brexit does indeed honour the result of the referendum. There are Members of this House who do not want to honour the result of the referendum; I do.
I am very pleased that the Prime Minister mentioned what happened in Jallianwala Bagh and the issues of the massacre at Amritsar 100 years ago. I think that the people, in memory of those who lost their lives and the brutality of what happened, deserve a full, clear and unequivocal apology for what took place on that occasion.
I join the Prime Minister and yourself, Mr Speaker, in welcoming Sarah Davies to her appointment. I am sure she is going to be absolutely brilliant. I remember the day she started work in the House, and she has done incredibly well.
I also welcome my hon. Friend the new Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) who is here today. I believe that she is a very worthy successor to the late Paul Flynn.
Today marks the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, a defining moment in Irish history, which allowed peace to prevail. It was a great achievement, and I pay tribute to the work done by the Labour Government at that time, as well as those on all sides in Ireland, north and south, and in this House in achieving the crucial breakthrough in the peace process, which we have to ensure is maintained.
As we continue discussions to find a compromise over the Brexit deal that could shape our future economic relationship with Europe—protecting jobs, rights and our economy—we should not forget the communities across this country that have been abandoned by this Government in the here and now. Official figures show that nine of the 10 most deprived council areas in this country have seen cuts that are almost three times the average of any other council. Why has the Prime Minister decided to cut the worst-off areas in our country more than the most well-off?
First, the right hon. Gentleman is right to reference the 21st anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was indeed an important moment in Northern Irish history and which has led to the peace that we have seen subsequently. May I welcome the actions that were taken by politicians of all parties, in this House and elsewhere, to ensure that that peace was possible and that that agreement was possible as well?
May I say to the right hon. Gentleman in relation to the issue of council funding that actually councils do have more money available this year? [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, a real-terms increase. The right hon. Gentleman voted against that money being available. But what we have also done is listen to councils, and given them extra flexibility. For example, they have called for a long time to have the borrowing cap lifted so that they could build more homes, and we have done exactly that—listened to councils and given them what they wanted.
The problem is that child poverty is rising. In councils with the highest levels of child poverty, over £1,000 per household has been taken in funding cuts in the past decade. Some of the wealthiest areas of our country have lost only £5. Take Swindon, for example, where Honda recently announced 3,500 job cuts. Child poverty is over one third higher in Swindon than it is in Surrey, but Swindon will have lost £235 per household in Government funding cuts, whereas a household in Surrey will see more money from central Government. Can the Prime Minister explain why Swindon faces cuts while Surrey gets more money?
Actually, what we see in terms of spending power per home is that the average spending power per home for the most deprived local authorities is over 20% higher than for the least deprived local authorities. That is Conservatives delivering for local councils.
Homelessness is three times higher in Swindon than in Surrey. Today, we learn that two-thirds of councils do not have the funding necessary to comply with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. In Stoke-on-Trent, the council has lost £640 per household, yet child poverty is more than double the rate in Surrey, which has seen an increase in funding. Does the Prime Minister think that areas with the highest levels of child poverty deserve to be facing the largest cuts in their budgets?
What I think is that Members across the House who are concerned about child poverty should take action to ensure that we help families to get more money into their pockets. It is this Government that have frozen fuel duty. It is this Government that have introduced the national living wage. It is this Government that have given lower paid workers the highest increase. It is this Government that on Saturday saw 32 million households see a tax cut. If the right hon. Gentleman really wants to help people out there with money in their pockets he should be backing these measures by the Government instead of voting against them.
The reality is that under this Government 500,000 more children have gone into relative poverty. In Stoke-on-Trent alone, 4,000 food bank parcels were handed out to children last year. If that was not bad enough, it is about to get worse. Tory proposals on the new funding formula for councils will make poorer areas even poorer. They are removing the word “deprivation” from the funding criteria. In a phrase that George Orwell would have been very proud of they have called this the fairer funding formula. Areas like Stoke will lose out even more. Will the Prime Minister explain why she wants to give less funding to the most deprived parts of our country?
No, that is not what we are doing. What we are doing is ensuring that we have a fairer funding formula across local authorities. We are also ensuring that we are making more money available for local authorities to spend. Let us just see what we see from council after council up and down the country. If people want to ensure that they have good local services and pay less in council tax, that is what they see under Conservative councils. There is a clear message: if you want to pay less council tax and have good local services, vote Conservative.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister the truth is that when Labour controls local councils, households pay on average £350 less than those living in Tory areas. The average council tax per dwelling in Labour council areas is £1,169 comparedto £1,520 in Tory council areas. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives has called the fairer funding formula decision “perverse”. Even before this new formula kicks in, councils are losing out now. A Conservative council leader said earlier this year:
“we are really, really short of money...I mean there is no money”
for him to run his services. What does the Prime Minister say to local authorities struggling to make ends meet while her Government continue to underfund the vital services they deliver?
We have over the years asked local councils to take some difficult decisions in relation to living within our means. Why did we have to do that? We had to do that because we were left the biggest deficit in our peacetime history by the last Labour Government.
A political choice to impose austerity on local government has hit the poorest and worst-off the hardest in every one of our communities across the country. Since 2010, 50p of every £1 has been stripped from local authorities by her Government. That is the reality of what life is like for those trying to deliver services.
The evidence is clear: the Tories have abandoned communities across the country. They have left towns and cities to fend for themselves after nine years of vindictive, damaging austerity: 1,000 fewer Sure Start centres—one of the greatest achievements of the last Government; 760 fewer youth centres; and a social care system in absolute crisis. Child poverty is up. Violent crime is up. Homelessness and rough sleeping is also up. This Government stand for tax cuts for the richest and swingeing cuts for the rest. Will the Prime Minister now admit that far from tackling the “burning injustices” that she talked about, her Government’s cruel and unfair policies have pushed councils to the brink and left those “just about managing” not being able to manage at all? That is her legacy.
I am proud to lead a Government who have seen more children in good schools, more doctors, more jobs, lower borrowing, lower unemployment and lower taxes—that is Conservatives delivering across the country for everyone. What would we see with a Labour Government under the right hon. Gentleman? We would see them destroying our defences and abandoning our allies, billions more in borrowing, fewer opportunities and higher taxes for everyone. That is a Labour future and we will never let it happen.
My hon. Friend has raised a very important point that matters to people up and down the country. The internet can be absolutely brilliant at connecting people and providing them with information, and connecting people not just nationally but across the world, but for too long the companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content. That is not good enough, and that is why we have listened to campaigners and parents. We are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Culture Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the work that they have done on this issue. Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms and help restore public trust in their technology.
Today, as we know, is the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement—a peace accord that not only ended violence in Northern Ireland but brought stability for all of us living throughout the United Kingdom. Brexit threatens to undermine that—to drag us out of the most successful peace project in history: the European Union. What a tragedy. It is now one week since talks began between the Tory Government and the Labour party. I want to ask the Prime Minister: at any point during these talks, has a second referendum been offered on the Government side of the negotiating table—yes or no, Prime Minister?
My position on a second referendum and the Government’s position has not changed. The House has rejected a second referendum two times. When we come to a deal, we will have to ensure that legislation goes through this House. Of course, it may be that there are those in this House who wish to press that issue as that legislation goes through, but my position on this has not changed.
It was a very simple question: has a referendum been offered—yes or no? People cannot have faith in a backroom deal cooked up by two leaders who do not possess the ingredients to hold their parties together, never mind hold these islands together. Scotland will not be forced to accept what these two Brexit parties are preparing to serve up. There is no such thing as a good Brexit. There is no such thing as a good Tory-Labour Brexit deal. The Prime Minister must recognise the difference between what she believes is duty, but what the rest of us see as delusion. In her final days as Prime Minister, will she accept the EU offer of a long extension, accept that she has run out of road, and accept that the only choice now is to put this back to the people?
As I have said, I have made my position clear. I think it is a little difficult for many of us in the House to see the right hon. Gentleman, week after week, stand up and say that the UK should stay in the European Union, given that Scottish independence would have meant taking Scotland out of the European Union. [Interruption.]
Order. There is a lot of noise. Let us hear the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and for highlighting the fact that we are bidding to host COP26. The issue of incineration is crucial, particularly in certain local areas. We want to maximise the amount of waste that is sent to recycling rather than to incineration and landfill. Waste plants continue to play an important role in reducing the amount of rubbish that is sent to landfill, and we welcome the efforts to drive it down further. but if wider policies do not deliver our waste ambitions in the future—including those higher recycling rates—we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste, which would operate in conjunction with the landfill tax and would take into account the possible impact on local authorities.
Let me say first that I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with Charlie and his family.
We recognise the significant concerns about access to this drug. On 11 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health held a meeting with the company Vertex, NHS England and NICE, and they discussed how best to reach a deal so that people with cystic fibrosis and their families could benefit as soon as possible. They met again later in March and they are continuing those discussions, but I will ensure that the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and the importance of the issue, are once again brought to the attention of the Department of Health.
I thank the Select Committee for its report, and I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has championed housing issues. His Act is already having an effect on homelessness reduction.
We have committed ourselves to legislation to reduce ground rent on future leases to a peppercorn. As for current leaseholders, we have been working with the industry to ensure that existing leases with onerous ground rent terms are changed to a better deal. Leaseholders of flats have a right of first refusal when their freeholders are planning to sell the properties, and we are considering introducing a right of first refusal for house lessees as well. Last year we made a commitment to consider a range of charges facing leaseholders and freeholders, including permission fees, and to consider in what circumstances they are justified and whether they should be capped or banned. I have asked Lord Best to chair a working group to look into the regulating and professionalising of property agents.
We are considering the Committee’s report carefully, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: if we believe that a market is not working properly, we should act to deal with that.
We have one of the toughest regimes in relation to the export of arms across the world. The hon. Lady references the situation in Yemen. We are very clear that that cannot go on. It is four years since the beginning of that devastating conflict, and there needs to be a political settlement. We are working with and backing work that is being done by the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. The parties have made significant progress towards an agreement to implement phase 1 of the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah, and we are urging all parties to honour the agreements that were made in Stockholm. Our total bilateral commitment to Yemen since the start of the conflict now stands at £717 million. We are backing the UN peace process. The coalition is there and, as has been acknowledged by the United Nations, it is there at the request of the Government of Yemen. We have been backing the United Nations peace process and will continue to do so, and we will continue to provide humanitarian support to the people of Yemen.
We are obviously working to improve education for every child, regardless of what part of the country they live in or their background. As I made clear earlier, we are putting more funding into our schools through to 2020. We have recently announced an extra £250 million over two years for the high needs budget, together with extra money for children with special educational needs. My hon. Friend references the funding formula and the distribution of funds. The new national funding formula is about distributing funds more fairly, and historically underfunded schools will be receiving the biggest increases, of up to 6% per pupil, this year through the schools formula. We will also be allocating additional funding to small, remote schools that play an essential part in rural communities. We have recognised the need to introduce a fairer funding formula, and that is what we are doing.
The way to ensure that we develop a sustainable solution to poverty is to have a strong economy and a welfare system that helps people into work. That is what universal credit does—200,000 more people in work as a result of introducing universal credit. Work is the best route out of poverty. The evidence is 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 from a home where nobody works. We are making sure that we encourage people into the workplace. There are more jobs out there, more people in work, a record level of people in employment. Work is the best route out of poverty.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that decisions about the closure of police stations across London are a matter for the Mayor of London. We have been protecting police funding. This year, there will be almost £1 billion extra available for the police, and the Metropolitan police are receiving up to £2.7 billion in funding in 2019-20—an increase on last year. We will always ensure that the police have the powers and resources that they need, but it is important that people recognise the responsibilities of the police and crime commissioners and the decisions they take. In London, that is the Labour Mayor of London.
I recognise that this must be a time of concern for staff at Dounreay. It is important that we recognise the skills that have been developed there and make sure we take every opportunity to put them to the benefit not just of local people but, as the hon. Gentleman says, of the United Kingdom. We welcome Dounreay Site Restoration’s statement of support for its staff and its intention to support them through a transition into other employment. I understand that it will develop training and support programmes to put individuals in the strongest possible position to move into another local job in one of the growing local industries, such as space, which the hon. Gentleman has referenced in previous Prime Minister’s questions, or renewable energy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Government’s commitment. We remain absolutely committed to supporting the region and the staff affected. We will continue to work with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd, Cavendish Nuclear, Jacobs and AECOM during this time.
The “Access for All” programme championed by this Conservative Government is helping more disabled people, elderly people and people with prams and pushchairs to access our stations with greater ease. After my campaign in Southport, Hillside station was the successful recipient of some of that funding. Will my right hon. Friend do more in that area so more of our stations right across the country truly give access for all?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his successful campaign to get that access at Hillside station. We need to continue the programme of opening up routes for disabled people by ensuring they have access to stations. We are moving closer to a transport sector that is truly accessible. The changes that will take place at Hillside are an example of that. If the programme continues to be delivered successfully, the Department for Transport will make submissions for further funding in due course. It is absolutely clear that we are providing extra opportunities for disabled people. I am pleased to say that 900,000 more disabled people are now in the workplace. Access is important for them. The campaigns that my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Friends have run to get access to their stations are an important part of that.
In wishing the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday, I call Luke Pollard.
Of course no year contains 53 weeks, so if somebody pays a 53rd rent payment in a year, it will cover some days in the subsequent year and mean that the following month has only four payment dates. As such, the claimant will be overpaid for their housing, and a shortfall is immediately recovered. It is about the way in which the days fall and making sure the system works for everybody.
If the Prime Minister is seeking a year-long extension to Brexit, does she not recognise that that would cost the British taxpayer over £1 billion a month in subscriptions to the EU? Does she not agree that that funding would be better spent on tackling crime, or funding schools and even tax cuts for my constituents and others up and down the country?
I am pressing the case for the extension that I wrote to Donald Tusk about last week, which was in fact endorsed by Parliament last night. We could actually have been outside the European Union by now, if we had managed to get the deal through. I am continuing to work to ensure that we can deliver Brexit in a way that works for people across the country.
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I am proud of the Government achieving. We see more people in work than ever before. We have seen tax cuts for 32 million people, we are seeing wages rising, the deficit falling and debt coming down. We are restoring this country’s finances to build a brighter future for all our constituents.
I would like to see more women on the boards of big business, so will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Ruth Cairnie, who has recently been appointed the chair of Babcock International, the first female chair it has ever had. Hopefully, she will improve the company’s fortunes.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I am very happy to congratulate Ruth Cairnie on achieving that role as chairman of Babcock. The Government have been working and have done a lot since 2010 to see more women on the boards of companies, as that is very important. The greater the diversity we have on those boards, the better those companies will do.
We have been protecting police funding since 2015. This financial year, nearly £1 billion extra is available to police, and we have indeed put extra money into police. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced the £100 million extra that is going into key areas in relation to dealing with knife crime, and we have been protecting police funding since 2015.
The Prime Minister earlier made reference to the British Indian diaspora. Does she agree that the diaspora should be commended for the fact that, despite comprising 4% of the UK population, they contribute some 10% of taxes to the Treasury?
I am happy to welcome the contribution that the Indian diaspora make to our country. My hon. Friend has referenced the economic contribution they make through their taxes, but many of them run successful businesses that employ people up and down the country, many of them are successfully exporting from this country and supporting our economy, and they also play an important role in our society. I am very happy to welcome that and to congratulate them on it.
The hon. Lady asks whether I will meet and hear direct from young people about the issues they are concerned about in relation to the environment and climate change. I do that, and this gives me an opportunity to congratulate a school in my own constituency, St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, which has won five green flag awards in the past 10 years and last year won the first ever national green heart hero award. I assure her that I often hear young people tell of the importance of climate change. This Government have a fine record on climate change. One day, the hon. Lady will actually stand up in this House and welcome the efforts that this Government have made.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still this Government’s firm commitment to leave the common fisheries policy and to negotiate as an independent coastal state no later than December 2020?
I thank my hon. Friend; he has been consistent in his campaigning on this issue, which I know is of great importance to his constituents. We remain committed to establishing fairer fishing policies that truly work for coastal communities. The deal that we have agreed with the European Union would see the UK leave the common fisheries policy, providing the UK with full control of its waters as an independent coastal state. We remain committed to coming out of the common fisheries policy.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers I gave earlier in relation to universal credit and the importance of this system, which is encouraging people into work—200,000 more people are in work under universal credit and 700,000 people are getting money that they were entitled to but not receiving before. Universal credit is helping people into work and making sure that work pays.
My constituents, Mark and Panna Wilson, have a little son, Aadi, who has the terrible condition of spinal muscular atrophy. He desperately needs the life-changing drug Spinraza, which is available in many other countries. I know that the Health Secretary is working on this urgently. Will the Prime Minister intervene to create a new route to market for this important drug, so that my constituents can get the life-saving treatment that their son needs?
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. Obviously, as he will appreciate, it is important that we ensure, first, that patients get access to cost-effective innovative medicines, but at a price that is fair and makes best use of NHS resources. That is the independent system that we have through the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which reviews the evidence. I understand that Biogen has submitted a revised submission to NICE in relation to Spinraza and that a meeting of NICE’s independent appraisal committee took place early in March to consider its recommendations. It is clear that everyone at the Department of Health and Social Care and in NICE recognises the significance of this drug, but we need to ensure that the decision taken is made on the basis of the clinical aspects, together with cost-effectiveness. That is what NICE will do in looking at the new offer.
When Melrose Industries took over GKN last year, it promised Ministers that it would back British manufacturing and not reduce the company’s defence capacity without the Government’s permission. Last week, GKN announced that it intended to close the Kings Norton plant, which makes windscreens for military and civilian aircraft. Will the Prime Minister tell GKN that the Government expect the company to abide by both the spirit and the letter of the undertakings given by Melrose last year?
I was not aware of the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. If I may, I will look into it and respond to him in writing.
Hong Kong: Pro-Democracy Activists
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the conviction of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
I call Minister Mark Field. We are very accustomed to seeing the right hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box recently. He is well and truly earning his keep.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I seem to be here to discuss either this area, the middle east or, indeed, Turkey, a debate to which I was responding in Westminster Hall earlier today.
I emphasise at the outset both to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that the UK Government are acutely aware of our enduring responsibilities to Hong Kong. We were a joint signatory to upholding the joint declaration between the UK and China some 35 years ago, and the joint declaration is of course lodged with the United Nations. As such, we remain absolutely committed to monitoring and ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration and the principle of one country, two systems. I reassure the House that we clearly and consistently raise our concerns with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. Parliament is updated on developments in Hong Kong through our six-monthly reports submitted by the Foreign Secretary, the most recent of which was published on 27 March. We always stand ready to comment publicly and robustly when appropriate.
Yesterday, the Hong Kong courts gave their verdict on the nine key figures in the Hong Kong Occupy movement. The protesters were arrested after large-scale protests in 2014. Each was found guilty of at least one public nuisance offence, and such offences carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. We shall have a better understanding of the severity of the sentence, and therefore the signal that the decision purports to send to others who choose to exercise their rights under Hong Kong’s Basic Law and Bill of Rights, once sentences have been handed down. Sentencing is due on 24 April, and the defendants have the right to appeal. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment further or in detail on the ongoing legal cases, but suffice it to say that this is a potentially protracted legal process that may take years rather than months.
I have visited Hong Kong twice as a Foreign Office Minister and have held meetings with a number of senior legal figures. On my most recent visit in November, I raised the issue of the rule of law directly with the deputy chief justice, as well as with representatives from the legal, political and business communities. All staunchly defended the independence of the judiciary and it remains our position that Hong Kong’s rule of law remains robust, largely thanks to its world-class independent judiciary. Many Members will know that Baroness Hale, Lord Hoffmann and others are part and parcel of the panel that is based in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law, and it is essential that those rights are properly respected in a democracy. Hong Kong’s success and stability depend on its high degree of enduring autonomy and its respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and the Basic Law. The Foreign Secretary recently pronounced that he was
“concerned that on civil and political freedoms, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced.”
It would be deeply concerning if the ruling discourages legitimate protest in future or discourages Hong Kong citizens from engaging in political activity.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I hope that he will be as robust in his tone when speaking to the Chinese Government as he has been in his remarks to the House today.
The prosecution and now conviction of nine leaders of the Umbrella movement is the latest in a series of egregious human rights abuses by the Government in China. Using the criminal justice system and public order offences in this way is an abuse of fundamental and internationally protected human rights. Amnesty International points out that the convictions all stem solely from non-violent direct actions in largely peaceful protests. As the Minister’s noble friend Lord Patten said, it is
“appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014”.
Will the Minister make the strongest possible representations to the Chinese Government that these convictions are an abuse not just of the activists’ human rights but of China’s treaty obligations? This country has both a moral and a legal responsibility to pursue this matter with all vigour. We made commitments to the people of Hong Kong at the time of the handover to China and we still have those commitments under the Sino-British joint declaration.
The one country, two systems framework promised the people of Hong Kong progress towards democracy, but these convictions are not an isolated incident. Over the past five years, we have seen the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who published titles critical of China’s rulers; a political party banned; a senior Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet, expelled from the city; and, now, proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws to enable suspected criminals to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, which is something that not only political activists but businesspeople fear, as they believe they could be in danger if the change goes ahead.
Will the Government stand by the people of Hong Kong and their human rights, and will the Minister ensure that we in this country do not allow the Chinese Government to break the promises that this country made to the people of Hong Kong?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his considered comments, and I fully accept and agree with the concerns he has raised. We take very seriously our responsibilities under one country, two systems, and we have expressed concerns in consecutive six-monthly reports that there has been a tightening of individual rights. We also feel that commerce and the independence of the judicial system have remained true to one country, two systems.
It is in China’s interest that Hong Kong continues to succeed under the framework. The joint declaration must remain as valid today as it was when it was signed three and a half decades ago. It is a legally binding treaty that is registered with the United Nations. I have raised this, and will continue to raise it, with my Chinese counterparts. Some criticism has been addressed to the FCO in relation to the idea of having a six-monthly report, which we feel is a particularly important foundation for ongoing confidence within Hong Kong that we take very seriously the responsibilities to which we have signed up.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the change to the extradition laws. We are aware that the Hong Kong Government have proposed changes to legislation. We are seriously considering the potential implications of those changes, including how the proposals might affect UK citizens and, indeed, our current extradition arrangements with Hong Kong.
The British consul general to Hong Kong, the very talented Andy Heyn, has spoken to senior figures in Hong Kong’s Administration to seek clarity on what the proposals will mean for UK citizens, for our law enforcement co-operation and for the current extradition arraignments. He has raised the potential impact of the proposals on business confidence in Hong Kong and has explained our concern that, given the sensitivity of the issues raised by these extradition proposals, considerably more time should be given for a full and wide consultation with interested parties before the Hong Kong authorities seek to put it into law.
In his excellent statement, my right hon. Friend emphasised the importance of the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong, with judges of the calibre of Baroness Hale and Lord Hoffmann. If the Chinese Government really wish it to be believed that they are upholding the highest standards of human rights, is it not essential that the court is allowed to do its duty with full independence?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has worked hard on these matters, which he takes seriously. Indeed, he headed a delegation when I first went to mainland China some 15 years ago, and I am well aware that he keeps an eagle eye on what is happening, particularly in Hong Kong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I was most recently in Hong Kong, I had a chance to speak to senior legal figures, and they do feel that the judicial system and its independence are being upheld but, clearly, the sense in which other rights are being questioned and eroded by the Chinese authorities raises some concerns in that regard. Hitherto, we have been confident that cases coming before the Hong Kong judiciary have been dealt with in a fair way and without political interference.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing it, and I share his profound concern at yesterday’s verdict.
A serious discussion in this House on the situation in Hong Kong is overdue. China’s erosion of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Hong Kong Basic Law has been growing since the pro-democracy Umbrella protests in 2014. The last few years have seen an increasing crackdown on dissent and protest, with political parties banned, pro-democracy candidates blocked and journalists expelled. The conviction of nine leaders of the Hong Kong Umbrella movement yesterday—they could face seven years in prison for organising peaceful protests—is totally disproportionate and clearly politically motivated. The proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition law means they could serve sentences thousands of miles away in mainland China.
The Sino-British joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations, and the British Government are a joint guarantor, with China, of the rights of Hong Kong citizens. I have one simple question for the Minister: how will the Government fulfil their legal responsibilities to the citizens of Hong Kong?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution, and I am sorry to hear that her constituency office was attacked over the weekend, which is unacceptable in the world in which we live. It is a salutary reminder that some of the concerns we deal with across the world are becoming quite prevalent closer to home.
We take one country, two systems very seriously, and we will continue to do so. The fact that we are the guarantor is important. As I have said, the six-monthly reports come not without criticism from our Chinese counterparts, but they provide a detailed opportunity. I encourage Members who have an interest in Hong Kong, and perhaps even those who do not have a strong interest, to read the reports when they come out every six months. The reports address specific concerns and cases, including a number of those raised by the hon. Lady.
Our continuing work from London, Hong Kong and, indeed, Beijing is important as we try to maintain the one country, two systems approach. Our view is that the approach is very much in China’s interests, and China has implicitly recognised the importance of Hong Kong as a financial capital market and business centre. It is therefore equally important that we impress upon China that the uniqueness of Hong Kong will be properly maintained, with Hong Kong reaching its full potential, only if we ensure that “two systems,” as set out in the joint declaration, is every bit as important as “one country.”
A noted Sinologist, linguist and cerebral denizen of the House, Mr Richard Graham.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The six-monthly Foreign Office report on Hong Kong, which is circulated by the all-party China group that I have the honour to chair, recognises the close bilateral Hong Kong-UK relations on culture and trade in many sectors, but the Minister is right to highlight the continuing pressures on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. Will he confirm that, in relation to the pro-democracy activists found guilty of public nuisance, the appeal process is still very much open and that the higher courts including, if needed, the Court of Final Appeal must take into consideration the freedoms of assembly and speech guaranteed under the joint declaration?
I am happy to confirm that. As I said, we have highlighted our hope that a range of recent court rulings do not discourage lawful protest in the future. I stress that Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the rights to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the joint declaration and the Basic Law.
May I express my solidarity with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and in particular her constituency staff? I also thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for raising this important matter. We share his concerns about democracy and human rights. As the Minister said, the UK has a particular responsibility for Hong Kong in our ongoing commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Amnesty International has said that this case is
“a crushing blow for freedom of expression and peaceful protest in Hong Kong.”
Does the Minister agree that judicial independence is absolutely critical to commercial investment and certainty, and that it is in the interests of China as well? Secondly, what Hong Kong-related discussions have he and his colleagues had with regard to trade talks, and what reassurances have Ministers sought over China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and the independence of the legal system?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his comments. We are often criticised for speaking endlessly about trade and other opportunities. Clearly, Hong Kong was very much a mercantile base for the UK from the 1840s onwards. However, we do not in any way take lightly the importance of addressing human rights issues, particularly for those living in Hong Kong.
We have made it very clear that for Hong Kong to fulfil its potential—and, indeed, for China to do so in areas such as the belt and road initiative—the independence of, dare I say it, a common law system such as the British legal system is seen as more reliable for investors than perhaps the more doubtful, or at least less orthodox, systems in Shanghai and elsewhere. Although Pudong in Shanghai is a very important financial centre for China and does a lot of domestic work, Hong Kong still enjoys the confidence of many international capital markets.
On the specifics of free trade agreements in a post-Brexit world, clearly Hong Kong would be towards the top of the list, given the strength of our relationship. We have made it very clear to China that one of the reasons we want one country, two systems to be properly promoted is that it is very much in the interests of China’s plans for its own economic development in the years to come. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his focus on that particular issue, but we should not deny that human rights issues will remain extremely important as far as our own commitment to one country, two systems is concerned.
Yesterday’s convictions are extremely concerning, involving as they do a 75-year-old pastor, Rev. Chu, who declared himself as a peaceful protester, and Benny Tai, whom I invited to a fringe event at last year’s Conservative party conference and who spoke of the erosion of academic freedoms in Hong Kong.
Does the Minister agree that Hong Kong’s proposed new extradition laws, which may result in political activists and even international business people being in danger of extradition to mainland China, would fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, do irreparable damage to one country, two systems, and destroy business confidence in Hong Kong as a result? Is it not in all our interests, especially business, to defend Hong Kong’s freedom, autonomy and rule of law, which underpin its status as an open, international financial centre?
I thank my hon. Friend, who speaks so knowledgably about these issues, particularly in relation to Hong Kong but also China as a whole. I reassure her that it remains the UK Government’s view that for Hong Kong’s future success it is absolutely essential that it enjoys, and is seen to enjoy, the full measure of the high degree of autonomy and the rule of law, as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law, and in keeping with the commitment to one country, two systems.
In my earlier response to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), I referred to issues regarding the planned extradition law, which is a good example of how difficult cases make for tough law. As my hon. Friend may be aware, it has come about because of an important case where an individual was murdered in Taiwan and the accused has ended up in Hong Kong but there is no extradition treaty in place. For that reason, given that Taiwan is regarded as part of One China, the issue suddenly has far greater implications.
I believe, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that it is important that any changes to extradition arrangements from Hong Kong to mainland China must respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and cannot and must not affect the rights and freedoms set out in the joint declaration.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said so far, but may I press him further on the Sino-British joint declaration? How confident is he that China is respecting it as legally binding? If he feels that it is not doing so—which is my observation—what steps is the Department taking to represent the UK Government’s view that it should be legally binding on the Chinese Government?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will see her later this afternoon for a Westminster Hall debate on other matters—it is one of those busy days. Obviously, we are concerned by some of the Chinese Government’s comments about the joint declaration. Our view is that it is and must remain as valid today as it was when it was signed more than 35 years ago. It is a legally binding treaty, as has been pointed out, registered at the United Nations, and it continues therefore to be in force. We are committed to monitoring closely its implementation and we will continue to do so.
Of course we are concerned. We only need to look at the last half a dozen or so six-monthly reports to recognise that we think there is a deterioration in the way in which China is looking at this particular issue, but we will stand up for the rights of all Hong Kong people. As I have said, this is also in the interests of China, and it is an important part of the process to make that very clear to ensure that one country, two systems prevails.
About 100 years after the first Chinese legation was established in London in 1877, I was at a gathering with the then Chinese chargé where he made an elegant joke in Greenwich about how east meets west. I think the same could be true about Hong Kong.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that if the sentence is more than nominal, and if there is no chance to appeal against the convictions, people will think that the declarations and matters of principle agreed with the Chinese are not being properly fulfilled, which will affect both the future prosperity of Hong Kong and how people see China?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am not sure what I was doing 42 years ago, but I know that he was already a Member of this House at that time. He makes a valid and fair point. He is absolutely correct that it is vital that we maintain that for the interests of all Hong Kong citizens today and in the future. We will continue to make the robust case, which is absolutely essential.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that in 2014, at the height of the Umbrella movement protests, the Chinese embassy prevented a delegation from this country’s Select Committee on Foreign Affairs from going to Hong Kong. It is clear that the Chinese Communist authorities are extremely sensitive about any scrutiny and any questions asked by this House and its Committees. When the Minister meets his Chinese Government counterparts, will he emphasise to them that this country has a pluralistic parliamentary democracy, which is what the people of Hong Kong also wish to have?
I rather remember that the Chinese Government’s obstruction at that time was regarded across the House as thoroughly reprehensible. I also recall that the Chinese embassy had the greatest possible difficulty in grasping the concept of an independent Parliament. I think some re-education was required.
I think some of us get rather concerned by an independent Parliament, particularly members of the Executive at any one time, but that is another matter. I remember being on the Back Benches for many years, so I do not in any way criticise you, Mr Speaker.
I very much agree with the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). We need to do our level best to ensure that we stand up for our rights. I do not think that the Chinese are entirely unknowing of that. Of course, they know exactly what is going on and want to squeeze those rights. It is interesting, however, that in a significant number of areas they recognise the benefit of two systems, including commercially, where the idea of a settled rule of law will allow capital to go into Hong Kong. We need to do our level best to ensure that all aspects are maintained, and we shall do so.
Following on from what you said, Mr Speaker, I was heartened by the Minister’s earlier comments about the correlation between future free trade negotiations and our continuing pressure regarding human rights. Will the Minister confirm that, when we talk about the rule of law with Chinese interlocutors, we mean our international definition of the rule of law rather than theirs?
My hon. Friend is obviously trying to get herself onto the next trip that I take to Hong Kong. We need that matter explained in a much more succinct style than I am used to doing. None the less, she is absolutely right: we do recognise that at a time when—dare I say it—the rules-based international order is coming under increasing threat, indeed from some unexpected quarters as well, we need to work together with many of our counterparts to ensure that we make that argument as robustly as we can.
In his opening remarks, the Minister made it clear that the Hong Kong judicial system had integrity and was robust, and he evidenced that through the talks that he had when he visited the area with senior legal figures. In the same breath, though, he is saying that the system is being undermined. Will he tell me how the system is being undermined and what evidence he has for that?
The hon. Gentleman and I were on a trip to Hong Kong more years ago than I care to imagine—I think it was about 13 years ago. Obviously, it was the first time that I had been to the area as a parliamentarian. Our concerns are over the right to protest and press rights. Members have already referred to the issue of the very sudden withdrawal of the visa of Victor Mallet, the Financial Times journalist. There are a number of issues in the area that we would call civil rights, but, as far as the legal system is concerned, there is a sense that that remains independent. Equally, though, we are concerned. In relation to the judgments that took place yesterday, there is likely to be a long and winding road of appeals that will take place over some considerable time. It is one reason why we are not commenting directly on this, because, obviously, we want to read the full judgments, but we recognise that there will be appeals from virtually all the defendants.
Peaceful protest and the right of free expression are fundamental parts of democracy. Recently, China has put pressure not only on Hong Kong, but on Taiwan. Will my right hon. Friend impress on the Chinese Government that it is totally and utterly unacceptable to try to distort the position in Hong Kong and that, as Hong Kong acts almost as an investment gateway for China, it is important that they understand that we will stand up for the people whom we seek to protect?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I very much agree with what he has to say. It is important to make a distinction between Taiwan and Hong Kong. Much as we are concerned about increasing pressure being put on Taiwan, the Hong Kong situation is different, as it is set out in a joint declaration. Indeed, the whole idea of one country, two systems that came into place in July 1997 absolutely protects the position of Hong Kong. There is a slight danger—dare I say it—in trying to equate the situation in Taiwan with that in Hong Kong. It may well be in the Chinese Government’s interest so to do as we then potentially undermine the Hong Kong situation. Hong Kong’s rights are set out and it is the UK Government’s responsibility, as we have all pointed out, to make sure that they are maintained.
The Minister says that, along with our counterparts, he and we will do what we can to defend human rights, but does he accept that our ability and strength in defending our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which we share across Europe, will be less in the event of Brexit? People who voted in 2016 did not anticipate the muscular, aggressive, authoritarian approach of China, which means that we are now seeing extraditions, the arrests of people engaged in peaceful protest, Canadian nationals facing the death sentence, and Britain in a much more vulnerable position, as it will have to rely on trade with China and therefore turn a blind eye to human rights. Does he not think that, in light of this emerging evidence of abuse, the people should have the right now to a public vote on the deal?
Just when we thought that we had got away from the Brexit debate, here we are. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in this regard: we must not take our eye off the ball when it comes to standing up for human rights as we come to make trade agreements. I am actually much more optimistic and hopeful than he is, and I say that from the perspective of a Foreign Office Minister. As we leave the European Union, we will have to work hard—and we are working hard—and redouble our efforts to make sure that the strongest relationship in a range of multilateral organisations is maintained—whether it be in the United Nations in New York and Geneva, or in organisations such as the World Bank, the IMF and the OECD. I am very confident that we will rise to that challenge. It is certainly important that we keep the connection open as much as we can. For example, in the UN, we are working extremely closely—and will continue to do so for some considerable time—with France, which is a permanent member of the Security Council, and with Germany and Poland, which are important partners in the European Union and also now on the Security Council this year.
It is deeply concerning that the Hong Kong Government recently rejected the renewal of the visa of the Financial Times journalist. Does my right hon. Friend agree that upholding freedom of speech and of the press is essential for Hong Kong’s way of life?
Absolutely. We were particularly concerned by the Hong Kong authorities’ unprecedented rejection of a visa extension—it was actually a small visa extension for the senior British journalist Victor Mallet who is now the Paris correspondent. It was simply a matter of the last two or three months of his time in Hong Kong that was at stake. In the absence of an explanation from the authorities, we can only conclude, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, that this move was politically motivated. I believe that it undermines the basic idea of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Hong Kong, which, as I have said, are guaranteed by that joint declaration.
The creation of Hong Kong was a fantastic example of British-Sino co-operation in building a global city that is a massive player in the global economy. Indeed the Sino-British joint declaration itself was a great achievement of co-operation and it was done with great sacrifice from the British side, as Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, had been part of the British territories in perpetuity. It was done for practical and diplomatic reasons. Can the Minister reassert the continuing mandate that Britain has to ensure that the Sino-British declaration is respected until July 2047? What practical steps will he take to achieve that?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In many ways, the joint declaration and the Sino-UK discussions were a fantastic template for broader co-operation and it is to our regret that that is now under pressure, and we will continue to stand up for it. I will, if I may, make this point. Obviously, there has been speculation in relation to what might happen in the broader region around Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which may be linked together as a particular region along with Hong Kong. Again, we will keep our eye on exactly what changes are being made in that regard, although one can see the importance of the interconnections economically within the broader region. I shall certainly be noting what happens in the Greater Bay Area, which is an area that I am looking to visit later this year. I will be going to Guangzhou and Shenzhen and then to Hong Kong at the same time. Obviously, we will report back to the House after that time.
As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I am concerned about the progression of extradition that may occur to these people who are currently seeking some kind of appeal. What can the Foreign Office do to stop any extradition from Hong Kong to China?
As I mentioned earlier, this is a live debate at the moment because of a particular case, which is very much at a preliminary stage. The lobbying that our own consul general has received from business connections makes it very clear that there is a reduction in broader confidence. On the rights of British national (overseas) passport holders, my hon. Friend will be aware that the right of abode in the UK is defined under the Immigration Act 1971 and only British citizens and certain British subjects have that right. However, we have ongoing responsibilities to Hong Kong citizens, and even to those who do not enjoy that right of abode, and we will continue to make the strongest of cases to ensure that, up to 2047 and potentially beyond, such rights are properly upheld.
I thank the Minister for his responses. China is guilty of some of the worst human rights abuses and religious persecution in the world. Minister, in discussions with the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments regarding the recent guilty verdict, what was done to secure the trio’s release, and what will be done to secure the release of the other six who face impending imprisonment? Their only crime was to promote democracy as part of the 50 years of autonomy and freedom that were promised by the Chinese Government when Hong Kong was handed over in 1997. China often says no, but acts in a different way.
We very much hope and understand that, given the nature of the alleged offences and the protracted legal process, any individuals will not be held in custody but have a right to a reasonable bail within short order. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, three people have already been released, and I very much hope the other six will be. We will be keeping an eagle eye on this matter. Above all, we trust that the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will continue to make every effort to ensure that the environment in which the media and individuals operate is conducive to freedom, including freedom from self-censorship or the like. Our officials in Hong Kong, London and Beijing—we have a number of consulates general in China that are nearer to Hong Kong—will continue to monitor these issues very closely.
I echo the concerns expressed on both sides of the House that, in the light of recent developments, the rights of citizens of Hong Kong are being eroded. What is the Government’s view of the steps that the Chinese authorities should now take to allay such concerns, and to restore faith that these fundamental freedoms—and, indeed, democracy—in Hong Kong are not under threat?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful contribution. I am working on this issue in many ways with our Hong Kong desk at the Foreign Office and with our consul general. It is rather important that we try to work through a pathway, rather than just stepping back and taking a view that we do not like what is going on; let us try to work together constructively. As I alluded to earlier, the belt and road initiative is a good example of where working together to ensure that Hong Kong’s freedoms are maintained will actually be in China’s own interests—not just in trading terms. If I were Chinese, I might also think that there is an important opportunity to utilise Hong Kong as a chance for experimental changes in freedoms that may or may not be in the mind of this regime or future Chinese regimes. There is a lot of work in progress, and I am working closely with my counterparts on the issue.
Voter ID Pilots
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the Government’s voter ID trials ahead of local government elections.
I should say at the outset that I am afraid my voice might give out, but I hope that everybody will bear with me.
Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy—that is, that everybody’s vote matters. There is undeniable potential for electoral fraud in our current system, and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy. We need only to walk up to the polling station and say our name and address, which is an identity check from the 19th century, based on the assumption that everyone in the community knows each other and can dispute somebody’s identity. Dare I say it, if we really wanted to go back to 19th-century politics, neither I nor the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) would even be in this House. The voter ID pilots, which are supported by the independent Electoral Commission, are a reasonable way to ensure that voter ID works for everybody ahead of a national roll-out.
Showing ID is something that people of all backgrounds already do every day—when we take out a library book, claim benefits or pick up a parcel from the post office. Proving who we are before we make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different. I can reassure the House that both last year’s pilots and the decades of experience in Northern Ireland show that voter ID does not have an adverse effect on election turnout or participation. Furthermore, the Government have consulted a range of civil society groups to ensure that voter ID will work for everybody. Crucially, local authorities will provide alternative methods of ID free of charge to electors who do not have a specified form of ID, ensuring that everybody who is registered has the opportunity to vote.
At next month’s local elections, voters in 10 diverse areas across the country will be asked to show ID before they place their vote. Let us remember that those votes will have a real effect on communities, so these elections are important. People should be confident in our democracy. If they are, they are more likely to participate in it. My message to the voters in the pilot areas is that these pilots are about protecting their vote. We want them to go out and use that vote, and to take part in these elections. I ask hon. Members here today to ask their constituents to do so. Voter ID is part of how this Government are strengthening the integrity of our electoral system to give the public confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Next month, voters in 10 local authorities across England will be using the voter ID pilots in local elections. These schemes have been the focus of significant controversy. At last year’s local elections, where there were five pilot areas, the Minister appeared to celebrate the fact that at least 350 citizens were excluded from voting for not having valid ID. This included people who had voted legitimately for their entire lives.
The Government claim that voter ID is designed to tackle electoral fraud in polling stations. However, during an evidence session with the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, the Minister could not even say whether the pilots had had any impact on voter fraud. Given that the Minister was unable to draw any conclusions from the last set of pilots, what does she expect to gain and how will she measure success this year?
Civil society groups and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have warned that voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters from ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and disabled people. Has the Minister failed to notice the Windrush scandal, which demonstrated that it can be more difficult for some communities to provide official documentation than for others? We all know that voter ID will have significant ramifications for our democracy, because 3.5 million citizens—7.5% of the electorate—do not have access to photo ID. If voter identification requirements are restricted to passports or driving licences, as they are in some areas, that number rises to 11 million people, which is 24% of the electorate.
Following last year’s pilots, it was revealed that rolling out voter ID nationwide would increase the cost of each general election by as much as £20 million. Is this an effective use of taxpayers’ money when local authorities are already on their knees? If the Minister thinks that these pilots schemes are value for money, why has she refused to tell the House how much they will cost?
Electoral fraud is a serious crime, which is why we would support any effective measures to combat it. However, this Government are not focusing on the real issues. There is no evidence of widespread voter personation in the UK. The latest figures by the Electoral Commission show that, of the 266 cases of electoral fraud investigated by police last year, 140 related to campaign offences and just eight related to personation fraud at the polling station, which is what the Minister claims this trial is designed to tackle. Does she think her Government have the right priorities when, despite most electoral offences being committed by political candidates, it is actually the innocent voters who are being excluded from our politics because of this ill thought-out policy?
With local elections fast approaching and the Government planning a roll-out at the next general election, it is only right that Members of this House have the opportunity to scrutinise and comment on the Government’s plans. We are therefore requesting that the Government allow time for a parliamentary debate to discuss these pilot schemes ahead of local elections next month.
I am sorry to have to start in this tone, but almost everything the hon. Lady said has just been wrong. She suggested that we were unable to draw conclusions from last year’s pilots. That is simply not the case. Both the Cabinet Office’s evaluation and that of the independent Electoral Commission—which she may wish to dispute but it is, none the less, that of the independent Electoral Commission—concluded that the pilots did what they set out to do. The pilots were a success, in that the overwhelming majority of people were able to cast their vote with no impediment. What is more—here is the really important point—the evidence showed that no particular demographic group was affected by the requirement to bring ID.
The hon. Lady is shaking her head, but she knows that it is true. Perhaps this is part of the pattern we have seen from the Labour party of saying one thing and doing another. She still cannot explain why many constituency Labour parties require voter ID for their own selection meetings. She cannot explain why these were acceptable powers when they were passed by the last Labour Government; and she cannot explain why the last Labour Government did this in Northern Ireland, and why the Minister at that time said that this measure would
“tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 740.]
The Opposition cannot explain any of these things, and that is just not good enough.
Let me turn to the detail of what the hon. Lady has tried to put forward. Among her scaremongering and, frankly, conspiracy theorising, she made reference to the costs of these measures. I would like to make it clear to the House that, through correspondence with the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I have been clear about how those costs will be able to be accounted for. She asks whether we can allow time for a full debate on this in Parliament. I would beg advice from the Chair, perhaps, but I suggest that this is that debate. Moreover, the powers that the previous Labour Government put in place allow for this process to be done in this way, without any such debate, so if she has that problem she ought to have taken it up with her colleagues of that time.
The hon. Lady asks what we are expecting to see this year. We are expecting to see that voters will be able to cast their ballots in a way that is protected. She does down voters by suggesting that this is in some way an attack on them and—I think this was her phrase—some kind of privileging of the political class. That is simply not the case. We are engaged in the breadth of the work that we need to do to keep our elections safe and secure, and to update them for the 21st century. If she thinks that we should not be doing that, she is welcome to live back in the 19th century, but I do not think we should be doing so. We should be making sure that voters can cast their votes in a way that is protected and means that they can have confidence that they are not being usurped in their role.
The hon. Lady asks whether we should be focusing on crime that involves small numbers. Well, really—I ask her whether she would have said that decades ago about, for example, rape. Would she have said that about a crime that was under-reported? Would she have said that about a crime that involves small numbers simply for that reason? Of course she would not. Nobody would do so, because it would of course be disgraceful. It would be disgraceful to make that argument about small numbers, and that is the argument that Labour Members are making. Crimes with small numbers should not be ignored—people should none the less be protected against them, and that is what we are doing.
When I was first elected, I used to come and go from this Palace unchallenged. Now I am required to show ID even within its precincts—but is that a big deal?
I think my right hon. Friend makes the point, quite rightly, that we expect to show who we are in every walk of everyday life. It is quite fair enough that we do so at our workplace, and quite fair enough that we do so when we pick up a parcel from the post office, when we apply for benefits, or when we do many types of things that involve interacting with public services or just going about our everyday life. It is therefore right that we do that in our elections as well.
There is one instance of voter fraud in this country for every 1.6 million votes cast. It is a problem that is so minor as really not to exist at all, and yet it continues to be the focus of the Government’s policy in this area. One can only conclude that it is a policy driven by suspicion based on prejudice rather than hard facts and evidence. We know that forcing people to produce ID in order to vote will put people off. So is it not time that the Government stopped concentrating on putting hurdles in front of people who do vote and tackled the real problem, which is the 14.5 million people who are registered to vote but do not do so? When are the Government going to prioritise measures to improve participation through public education, extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, and piloting new ways to allow people to vote, including electronically?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, also, is not talking on the basis of the evidence. He should be able to do so from the evaluation that we published last year, which clearly said that there was no such negative impact on people turning out and participating in voting. That is crucially important. I am very pleased to have been able to bolster that work from last year with work this year to speak to groups across civil society who may have concerns that people they represent would be less able than others to deal with this requirement. I am absolutely confident that the equalities aspects of this work have been thoroughly considered, both by us in central Government and by the local authorities that are piloting it. I am afraid that he is not speaking from the evidence when he says that we know this is not going to work. Had he read the academic literature, looked into the Northern Ireland example and looked at the evaluation, he would know that that is not the case.
We need to make sure that this work is part of encouraging people to go to vote. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that, of course; we should be doing it hand in hand with encouraging people to vote. That is why I am proud that we have only recently refreshed our democratic engagement plan, which is full of the ways that we will be continuing to do that work, as we have always done. We are working closely with the Electoral Commission, and all the local authorities that are relevant at these elections, to encourage people to vote. I would hope that hon. Members would join me in doing so in a way that prioritises the security of those votes alongside participation in them.
I am glad that the range of councils taking part in voter ID pilots this time is broad—more than 10—in about three or four different ways.
May I suggest that in agreeing that we should do more to get voter registration up to much higher levels, we should have a debate when the Electoral Commission has done a study on the result of these voter ID pilots, and then we can really hear what the proper policy of the Labour party and the SNP is to be?
Those are words of wisdom. I would be happy to confirm to the House what I have said in other contexts, which is that it is the intention of this Government to move from having done pilots to being able to have a nationwide policy at the next general election. We think that is important, so that is our intention for 2022. We are looking forward to the information that comes from these pilots, on top of last year’s work, to be able to inform that, and to make sure that the scheme works for voters and any concerns can be addressed.
Does the Minister think that perhaps more people might be put off voting not because they might have to show ID but because they have realised that sometimes their vote is totally ignored by people in this House?
This system has worked perfectly well in Northern Ireland, and I have seen it for myself. I really do think that we are talking about common sense. If I have to go to the post office and show something to be able to pick up my parcel, I cannot see, particularly with the extra things that the Minister has put in to ensure that people can be identified, how anyone could think that this is anything other than common sense.
I thoroughly welcome those comments. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. This is simply a matter of common sense. It is a quite reasonable and proportionate thing to ask people to do that is in line with what we do elsewhere in the UK and throughout everyday life.
Madam Deputy Speaker,
“How will we check people’s ID? We will be using a two-level check to verify the person attending is who we have on our membership list. Named Photo ID: This is for branch officers to see photographic ID which has a name that matches the name on the list and is of the person who has presented to the meeting…Proof of Address”.
That is from the Tottenham constituency Labour party website with regard to its own meetings. If Labour Members think that two forms of proof are needed to vote in their own elections, why do they think that is not appropriate for national elections?
I quite agree, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has laid it out so clearly. It is not good enough to say one thing and do another, and then come to this House and lecture others on it.
The Minister will not be surprised that I do not share her enthusiasm for this new system. Will she look to what the Welsh Government are doing to expand the franchise and the inclusivity of voting, including consulting on e-voting? Will she consider that in future? If we are to make voting more accessible and expand the ways that people are able to vote, we need to learn from good practice. The Welsh Government are looking at e-voting pilots in local government elections in 2022, and the UK Government could learn from that for future general elections.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s characteristically thoughtful way of addressing this matter and welcome his engagement with the substance of it. He raised a number of things. First, I am a supporter of the franchise having been devolved to Wales, and I look forward to seeing what my counterparts in Wales will be doing with that shortly. I work closely with them and, indeed, with colleagues in Scotland to make sure that we are, together, operating a system that works for voters.
Secondly, behind the hon. Gentleman’s example of e-voting is a point about the powers under which we are doing these pilots, which is those that were passed by the previous Labour Government, as I mentioned. Indeed, in the past those powers had also been used by that Government to test e-voting. That is an interesting reflection on the history of how we have been able to come to this point of using powers to look at ways to make the voting system relevant to voters and protect their votes. I am here today principally to talk about how we are protecting their votes. I do not think this is going to turn into a general debate on e-voting, although I should confirm that the Government’s manifesto was not in favour of that.
At the last general election, the Labour candidate in Morecambe and Lunesdale lived in Blackpool and registered herself from her parents’ front room in Morecambe. Her husband had actually been the Labour party manager for the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) in the previous election. Is it not time that we had voter ID in Lancaster?
I would be delighted to see interest from Lancaster City Council in participating in the pilots. I would like to put on record again how grateful I am to all the local councils that are taking part in them. Some very hard work is being done by administrators to test this important move in our voting system. The example my hon. Friend gives reminds us that there are concerns up and down the country about how well protected our electoral system is, and it is right that we address those.
I pursued the issue of electoral registration for 18 years in this place. The hundreds of questions that I put down showed that there is no issue with voter fraud. These are tactics that are used by the right wing in America for voter suppression. May I offer an alternative use for the £20 million that has been allocated for this policy? It should be transferred into getting the missing millions who are not even on the register on to the register.
If this is about voter suppression, the Labour party clearly does not want any members, because it uses it for its own party membership. This is not about voter suppression, nor is it about disenfranchisement. I object strongly to the use of those words to describe what is being done. This is a reasonable step to protect voters’ choices. It is simple common sense, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said, that people should be able to show who they are at the polling station.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his campaigning over time on these issues, because he is right to keep consistent scrutiny on how we can help as many people as possible to be registered in this country. I hope he knows that I share his determination to make our registers as complete and accurate as they can be, and to have as many people taking part in our elections as possible. Recent figures suggest that we have record levels of electoral registration in this country. They fluctuate slightly throughout electoral cycles, as he will know because he looks at these things closely. The point is that we do have a thriving democracy in this country—let’s keep it that way.
One of the many things about Stirling constituency that I am really proud of is the level of democratic engagement. Turnouts in my constituency are always well above any kind of average that can be picked out of all the statistics that are available on elections. When will the Minister be able to update the House on the specifics of how her Department is trying to drive up engagement in the democratic process across all parts of our society?
I look forward very much to being able to do that. I will do it in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) in the coming months, because as Members may know, I shall be taking maternity leave shortly.
In the first instance, I direct my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) to our democratic engagement plan, which sets out the principles of how we intend to engage people and how we will work with partners across the electoral community to do so. Of course, we have to work with colleagues in the devolved Administrations and local councils up and down the country. We are doing that and have set out a range of plans. We will update the House regularly when we have the opportunity to do so. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we will come back with an evaluation of these pilots in due course, as we did last year. We expect the independent Electoral Commission to do the same thing again in the summer period, after the elections.
Let’s get this right: the privileged class of MPs can register once in London and once in their constituency and vote twice at local elections, but should this House foolishly allow a second referendum, my constituents who do not have a car and do not have a passport could turn up to vote, having voted in the first referendum, and be sent away to walk back a mile because they do not have a driving licence or a passport, having been told, “You can’t vote.” And the Government call that democracy. Why is it that I have constituents who have to come to me to get passports? They have no ID of any kind and have been refused a passport, and the only way they can get one is if I intervene. That is the price that will be paid for this absurdity.
No, it is not. As I have set out, every council that participates in the pilots will make ID arrangements that are free of charge. That is as the House would expect it to be. Frankly, if the situation were as the hon. Gentleman describes it, I would agree with him, but it is not. He is simply not giving an accurate picture of the pilots. Crucially, the 10 pilots, which are being done in slightly different ways across the country, are operating a broader list of ID than only driving licences or passports, and as I have emphasised, there will be a free-of-charge alternative. What I would say to his constituents and to anybody else who is listening is that they need not have that concern. This policy has been well planned, with them at its heart.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—it all comes to those who wait. I was here in 2003, not in the Chamber but up in the Press Gallery, and I listened to the Labour Minister explain why there needed to be voter ID in Northern Ireland. There was a debate in the Chamber at that time. I do not think that that Government could be called right-wing—it was led by Tony Blair, so it could not possibly have been right-wing. At the end of the day, has that been a huge success in Northern Ireland? I can say as a former Minister of State for Northern Ireland, yes it has. Why is it different in Northern Ireland? Why can we not protect votes from being stolen in England, Scotland and Wales?
That is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend helpfully reminds us of the history of how we got to this place, and I am grateful to him for placing it on the record. He makes the crucial point that this is about protecting voters. Why should it be acceptable for a voter potentially to be subject to having their vote stolen? That would be a dreadful crime—it is hardly some kind of victimless crime. It is a crime that, unfortunately, does happen in this country, albeit not in large numbers. That means that we have to act. These are the actions of a responsible Government to make sure that voters have their voice protected.
Following on from the comment of the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), I endorse the remarks that the Minister has made in relation to Northern Ireland. It is absolutely abominable that someone should steal another person’s vote. Vote stealing is a serious crime. In the general election of 2001, it was identified that voter fraud in Northern Ireland was a significant issue. It was the Labour Government who—thank goodness—the very next year, in 2002, introduced photographic ID for all elections in Northern Ireland.
Many people in Northern Ireland did not have a passport and many still do not, although because of Brexit people are applying for Irish passports in large numbers. For those who do not have a passport or a driving licence, the Electoral Office supplies electoral identity cards free of charge. They are a great idea. Will the Minister confirm that electoral identity cards will be made available free of charge and will be valid for 10 years? They can be used for other purposes, so there is an incentive for voters to acquire them. Given that they are free of charge and are valid for 10 years, people do not have to go for a passport. If people want to meet their constituency MP, of course they can go for a passport, but electoral identity cards are a useful alternative as ID for all sorts of things, such as Flybe and various other airlines. I am not advertising for Flybe—it might not accept them. However, valid ID cards for electoral purposes are enormously useful.
I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has contributed the voice of experience, has contributed. She is correct about the experience in Northern Ireland. She is also correct that such cards have other uses. I give an example from last year’s pilots: in one pilot a group of homeless electors—I hope right hon. and hon. Members are aware that it can be difficult for homeless people to vote, which in itself is a separate disgrace that the Government are working to improve—were able to take advantage of the council-issued alternative and go to claim other benefits and take other steps in their lives that they felt were really helpful. She is right that that can happen.
On how we will take the pilots forward into a broader scheme, we are open to looking at what the next steps may be. They may not be identical to the Northern Ireland card, but as I have already emphasised all councils taking part in the pilots will provide a free-of-charge alternative ID that provides some form of verification that voters are who they say they are. That will certainly be a feature, and I will look at all the experiences around the UK as a guide towards the next steps of the programme.
Is the Minister aware that the percentage of convictions for ID fraud in votes cast last year—I will read this so that I do not forget a zero—was 0.000002%? While it is clear that we need to treat electoral fraud seriously, will she explain why the same degree of enthusiasm is not shown, for instance, for inquiring into the wide-scale cheating that took place during the EU referendum campaign?
The right hon. Gentleman is ever predictable; I thought that might be where his argument would end. I have already touched on the fallacious argument that we should not go after crimes of small numbers. It is a terrible argument.
I didn’t say that.
The right hon. Gentleman emphasised how many zeroes came after a decimal point, so I think he was making a point about small numbers. The important thing is this: we need to be able to reassure voters that their votes matter, that their votes are protected and that they can have confidence in the votes they cast.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to make an important point about other elections. People want to have confidence in the result of any election. I say in passing, because this is not about the European referendum, that the Electoral Commission has investigated the allegations to which he refers, and that is part of the system in which voters can have confidence. We have those rules, we have an independent regulator, and we have those investigations. That is what voters should expect of the electoral system, and that independent regulator has also long argued for this reform because it will improve the security of our elections.
Democracy works best when it is easy to participate. The Government are engaged in voter suppression here, so why can we not have more pilots to help people on to the electoral register?
I have already said that the Government are absolutely committed to wanting to have as many people as possible registered to vote. I have focused on that relentlessly through the two occasions on which I have held this ministerial post with responsibility for electoral regulation. We need to be able to work with a range of people to do that, and we need to use a range of tools. Yes, we are using pilots to look at ways to secure people’s votes, but that goes alongside a very large other body of work to ensure that our democracy thrives and is fit for the 21st century. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support in that.
My constituency had the lowest turnout of any UK constituency at the last general election, so for me this is a question of priorities. The Government should be spending much more time and effort on driving up participation in elections, particularly in constituencies like mine that have a higher than average level of deprivation, rather than spending so much money, resource, time and effort on a relatively trifling issue. We need to focus on the main issue of what the Government will do about driving up voter participation, instead of fannying around with this issue.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s words might have spoken for themselves. I simply do not agree, nor do I think his constituents or mine would agree, that electoral fraud is trifling, or that we should not be, to use his words, “fannying around” trying to put a crime right. I am sorry; I think he let himself down with his choice of language. The point underneath it is equally poor. We ought to be able to focus on tackling crime. Voters would expect us to do that. Electoral fraud is a crime, and we are focusing on tackling it. That is to the good of our democracy.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was touching on an argument about costs and the choice of expenditure in an electoral system. We would be foolish to try to put a price on democracy. We would be foolish to try to isolate the cost of one measure to protect our overall system compared to any other. I say to him, as I have said to other hon. Members, that all these things together give us a thriving democracy. I have happily committed through the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to ensuring that the costs are available for scrutiny as soon as possible, which is reassuring to all of our constituents.
The hon. Lady probably wonders why she is left to the end. I will explain very simply: she came into the Chamber after—quite a long time after—the Minister had started speaking. Strictly, I could say that the hon. Lady should not have an opportunity to put her question, but I do not believe we need to be utterly strict. I am sure she has an important question to ask, so of course she has an opportunity to ask it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Participating in voting should be a right for everybody, and I want to ensure that disabled people do not face any barriers to voting, be that in the upcoming local elections or the potential European elections. I understand that tactile voting devices must be ordered by the deadline, which is today. Will the Minister confirm whether that deadline could be extended to ensure that all disabled people can participate in voting?
That is a really good question. To be able to honour the spirit of it properly in answering it, I will confirm to the hon. Lady in writing the precise situation about the ordering deadlines for those devices, should that apply to any potential upcoming elections. I think the House will be well aware of the situation regarding the European parliamentary elections, and I do not think the question is generally about those, but I will be happy to take up that question in more detail.
More broadly, the hon. Lady is right: disabled voters should be as welcome in our system as anyone else. That is a crucial, fundamental tenet of our democracy. I was pleased to meet her to talk through some of these issues, just as I have been keen to meet charities and civil society groups working on behalf of people with disabilities as part of our work to make elections more accessible. The tactile voting devices are but one part of that landscape, but these are vital issues that I want to get right, and I reassure the House that they have been well considered in these pilots.
I would like to point out that the Minister has been extremely good, bouncing up and down to the Dispatch Box, given the imminent arrival of her next child. We all wish her well and hope that it is soon.
Not too soon.
No, not too soon.
Parental Rights (Rapists) and Family Courts
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 remove the parental rights of fathers of children conceived through rape; to make provision for an inquiry into the handling by family courts of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in child arrangement cases; and for connected purposes.
My Bill is to remove the automatic parental right of men who have fathered a child through rape and to establish an inquiry into the treatment of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in the family courts. The measures I am presenting today were borne out of the terrible case of Sammy Woodhouse, which this House is well aware of. Sammy bravely testified against Arshid Hussain in a criminal trial in 2016, and helped expose the Rotherham grooming scandal. Hussain was convicted, alongside two of his brothers and his uncle, of rape, indecent assault, abduction, false imprisonment and making threats to kill. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
During the trial, Sammy voluntarily placed her son under a care order. Because of the stress she was experiencing, she recognised that she was not, at the time, fully capable of looking after him. When the trial concluded, she believed her ordeal with the men who had groomed her as a child was over, but she was wrong. Last year, at a routine variation of her son’s care order, Sammy was sitting in court when her social worker turned to her and informed her that notification had been given to Hussain, in prison, informing him of the proceedings and of his right to apply for access to her son. Sammy described to me how she felt at the time: paralysed with fear that the man she thought she would never have to lay eyes on again might walk into the room, and terrified of what her own reaction would be if he did. She genuinely could not guarantee that she would not attack him.
Sammy actually considers herself lucky, if such a word can be used of someone who has been through what she has, because Hussain did not attend court that day, although months after the court process had finished, Rotherham council once again approached Hussain in prison to encourage contact with her son, without even notifying Sammy it was doing so. It is inconceivable to anyone with any sympathy, empathy or a drop of common sense that Hussain was in effect encouraged to apply to the court. Had he been so minded, he could have used the court as a weapon to cross-examine Sammy and to traumatise her and her children all over again.
Sammy and I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer). Sammy has met Rotherham council, and we have sought legal advice on whether it acted appropriately and within the law. Astonishingly, the received view is that her case would not have been considered exceptional enough, despite the fact that case law states the court can rule that individuals should not be notified if they present a safeguarding risk to parent or child. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could have posed a greater threat to Sammy or her son than Arshid Hussain. That is why the law clearly needs to change. We need to flip the presumption that anyone who has fathered a child through rape should be encouraged to apply for access regardless of the risk they present by removing that automatic right and allowing the courts to grant access, in exceptional circumstances, only if it is in the clear interest of the welfare of the child.
In my initial response to this case, I recommended to the Government an amendment to the Children Act 1989 to remove the parental right of any man who has fathered a child through rape. The Government’s argument, regrettably, was that this would undermine the convicted rapist’s article 8 right to a family life. I am afraid that this is nonsense. This is a qualified right, and no one could conclude that his rights should supersede the safeguarding concerns of mother or child.
I do, however, understand the concerns raised about how my suggestion could undermine the vital principle that the welfare of the child should always be paramount, so, in consultation with Sir James Munby, the former president of the family court, we have developed alternative proposals that would maintain the paramountcy principle while protecting victims of rape and their children. Requiring a father who has fathered a child though rape to obtain the permission of the court before applying for a section 8 order, or requiring the court to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of such an individual will be contrary to the child’s welfare should satisfy those two tests. You would not think we had to be so explicit in primary legislation with the courts, but the sad fact is that Sammy’s and other women’s experience demonstrates to us that we must. I am incredibly grateful to Sir James and survivors alongside Sammy who have worked with me on these proposals, and I believe that there is now simply no reason why the Government should not urgently accept them.
My Bill goes further than this specific legislative change. The family courts are private—and rightly so, to protect the children that they must safeguard—but it is precisely this privacy that puts some women at risk. Sammy herself risked contempt of court in speaking out about her story. I have had constituents told by their solicitors that they will no longer represent them because they have been to their MP to ask for help. I have sought to establish how widespread a problem the issue of convicted rapists gaining access to their children is, but no data is collected to allow scrutiny of the courts and their decisions. This is not the case in the criminal courts, where we know outcomes, we can scrutinise data and we can establish if legislation is being properly upheld, but we cannot know that in the family courts.
Pioneering research by Women’s Aid found clear examples of family courts prioritising domestic abusers’ rights over survivors’ and children’s rights to life and to be free from degrading treatment. Its report, “Nineteen Child Homicides”, revealed the deaths of 19 children following contact granted to men who were known abusers. This research led to the updating of practice direction 12J, which provides protection for victims of domestic abuse and harm. This should be sufficient and it should be followed, but campaigners and survivors have concerns that it is not being followed, and that contact is still being granted inappropriately. It should not be down to charities to expose these issues at the heart of our justice system, so I believe we need an independent inquiry to establish the level of this discrimination in the courts and what needs to be done to address it.
We, as politicians, must never interfere with the independence of the judiciary. We must trust that it will always follow the spirit of the law that we make in this place and that it will take decisions that will protect victims and their children. However, just last week comments by Mr Justice Hayden came to light that were deeply concerning and betrayed an attitude that we had hoped was safely buried in the judiciary—that women are somehow owned by their partners, that we are inferior to men and that we do not have the same rights and certainly cannot exercise them through the courts. He said:
“I cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife”.
This view will, I am confident, not be shared by the vast majority of the judiciary, but it points to wider concerns about attitudes and understanding on violence against women and girls that are clearly barriers to improving the court’s response to these crimes.
While secrecy in institutions prevails, it is the very health of our democracy and the rights of our citizens that are at risk. The relationship between those who make decisions and those whom decisions are made about need not rest on blind trust. In fact, a healthy scepticism—challenging, scrutinising, protesting—is the hallmark of a democracy in good health. However, in order to achieve that, the scales need to be, as much as possible, evenly weighted between the people and those in power—between the institutions of the state and those that are subject to them. That is why, periodically, when there is deep public concern, it is appropriate to launch an inquiry on behalf of the public to get to the truth.
For family courts and cases involving domestic abuse, there is a fear that, beneath the shroud of secrecy, there is injustice. The women and children we are talking about are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Women such as Sammy have already been let down by the state time and again. We, as public servants, owe it to them to reward the bravery of those who have dared to speak out. We cannot allow their voices to continue to go unheard, silenced and ignored, and we cannot perpetuate a system that discriminates against them and potentially places them and their children in harm’s way. It is time for the voices of those who have suffered in silence for too long to finally be heard.
Question put and agreed to.
That Louise Haigh, Sir Nicholas Soames, Eddie Hughes, Mrs Maria Miller, Glyn Davies, Kevin Hollinrake, Jess Phillips, Philip Davies, Layla Moran, Sir Mike Penning, Jim Shannon and Sir Kevin Barron present the Bill.
Louise Haigh accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 378).
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. During the excellent 10-minute rule Bill speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) there was commentary going on not from inside the Chamber itself, but from somewhere else. That was completely inappropriate considering the importance of the Bill. Can you investigate—I am sure you are already—why that was going on and make sure it does not happen again?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He is correct. I was also aware that there were voices somewhere in this Chamber which I could not see. I know it was not any disruption in the Public Gallery and there was no one in the side Galleries. I have already asked for an investigation to take place, but if he, or indeed anyone else in the Chamber, has seen parts of this Chamber which I am unable to see and has an idea of where that noise is coming from, I would be grateful if they would tell me. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. It is totally inappropriate, especially when a Member is speaking on a sensitive subject and there is silence in the Chamber because everybody in here is listening intently to the hon. Lady, as they were a few minutes ago, that there should be noise from some other part of this Chamber. If I find out what exactly happened I will inform the Chamber, the hon. Lady and the right hon. Gentleman.
I beg to move,
That the draft Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2019, which was laid before this House on 4 March, be approved.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to debate this order this afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker. The order is made in consequence of the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, which I shall refer to as the 2014 Act and which received Royal Assent on 19 February 2014. Some may say the matter we are debating—essentially regulatory alignment between two routes of appeal under two separate pieces of legislation—is very minor, but the provisions have come from the Scottish Government’s very welcome distinctive Better Regulation agenda, which is based on principles of requiring regulation to be transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted. If we assent to the regulations today, we will remove a disparity that could cause delay and cost to people seeking remedies under particular Acts.
The order is made under section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998, which allows for necessary or expedient legislative provision in consequence of an Act of the Scottish Parliament. In this case, a provision is required in consequence of the aforementioned 2014 Act. I have talked about what has driven the requirement for better regulation. We have seen in all four nations a desire for better and more proportionate regulation. I think we all agree that that is required and it creates a more benign business environment for investors. In this case, which pertains to energy installations, it can deliver benefits for the environment.
The 2014 Act accelerated the procedure by which certain appeals are determined: first, appeals in respect of decisions taken on applications for consent for energy-generating station development; and, secondly, appeals against a decision to hold a public inquiry with respect to such applications for consent. If there is a challenge on those particular issues, the order will ensure that the same appeal mechanism applies whether there is a challenge against a decision of the Scottish Ministers on either an application for a marine licence or on an application for a section 36 consent for energy developments within Scottish internal waters, territorial sea and the Scottish part of the renewable energy zone—REZ. The order ensures that by making two amendments to the Electricity Act 1989 to extend a statutory appeals procedure to the Scottish part of the REZ. It does so by substituting a new definition of “relevant waters” to include those waters in the Scottish part of the REZ.
I note that a change to the definition of “relevant waters” was inserted into the 1989 Act by an earlier order in 2015, with the intention of providing for the statutory appeal. However, the change related only to renewable energy installations to be sited in Scottish internal waters and the territorial sea adjacent to Scotland, not the REZ.
Can the Minister confirm that the geographical location is based on where the turbine or renewable energy is located, rather than the company, the licence holder or any applicant?
I believe that it is based on the location of the site, but I will double-check that and write to the hon. Gentleman to confirm it.
The order ensures that the statutory appeal is now also available to the section 36 consent applications in the Scottish part of the REZ, thereby fulfilling the policy of providing the expedited appeals procedure for decisions on section 36 consents on which Scottish Ministers have executively devolved functions and control. The order therefore might seem very small but is actually an important amendment and correction to the 2015 order.
For information, the instrument was laid one week after another related instrument, the Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 2019.
That order was passed by the House of Commons on 2 April. The effect of that order is to confirm that environmental impact assessment regulatory functions connected to energy consent within the Scottish part of the REZ are available to Scottish Ministers.
The UK Government and the Scottish Government, as is always our desire and intent, have worked closely together to ensure that the order makes the necessary amendments in consequence of the 2014 Act. I believe it demonstrates once again that the UK Government remain committed to strengthening the devolution settlement and that Scotland’s two Governments are working well together. As indicated, the order might be small, but it is absolutely necessary. I hope all Members agree that the practical result is something to be welcomed. I therefore commend the order to the House.
I do not plan to detain the House for long, as the order before us is purely technical in nature. It is necessary to amend previous legislation with regards to the Scottish section of the renewable energy zone and to correct amendments that were previously made to the Electricity Act 1989 by the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2015.
As part of the 2015 order, there was an oversight in its definition of “relevant waters”. It did not include the Scottish section of the renewable energy zone. The order before us today corrects that oversight and will ensure that the same appeals mechanism applies where there is a challenge against a decision of Scottish Ministers on application for a marine licence in relation to an energy-generating station or site development that would be situated in Scottish internal waters, territorial sea or the Scottish section of the REZ.
We all know the benefits that renewable energy can bring to our society and ultimately our planet, which is why I am delighted that the Labour party is committed to a green industrial revolution and fully committed to our target of net zero emissions by 2050. In Scotland, we are all too familiar with what happens when infra- structure projects of a crucial nature, such as renewable energy, are delayed due to court challenges. In fact, the man who now sits in the Oval Office of the White House and is known as the President of the United States is among the more prominent individuals who have challenged offshore renewable infrastructure projects because they happen to dislike the physical or visual impact of them on their golf courses. The order should prevent court challenges of this kind being dragged out and accelerate the procedure by which appeals are determined by fast-tracking legal challenges to minimise the impact of delays on such infrastructure projects.
The Labour party will not oppose the order as, like I said, it is a necessary but simple technical amendment and correction to the 2015 order.
I rise to give my support to this statutory instrument, brought before the House in the name of the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is important because it is about facilitating twin areas of vital national interest: the need for us to continue to support the efficient development of cheap, clean energy generation; and the crying-out-loud need for us to double down on our efforts to stick to hitting our legally binding carbon reduction budgets. Scotland is playing a massive role in giving the UK a lead on clean energy in the G7. That is not just something to take quiet satisfaction from; it is something to shout from the rooftops. In short, that is why I wanted to speak in support of this SI. Yes, it is about a couple of technical amendments, but they point towards a couple of greater things that need to be highlighted.
The first is perhaps a little subtle, but it is significant—it is a political and constitutional point. The SNP in this place and elsewhere—in fact, everywhere that it is given a platform or a microphone—will go on and on about how outrageous everything is and how blatant the UK Government are in their dealings with Scottish interests, saying that they do not listen, they do not co-operate, and so on. My Scottish Conservative and Unionist colleagues in this House and I bear the brunt of this kind of rhetoric through the vile abuse that we receive from fundamentalist nationalists. A Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government even called all of us traitors—yes, a Cabinet Secretary.
The truth is a very long way away from that kind of bare-faced politicking. It needs to be said and this SI illustrates it well: there is actually a very good working relationship between the SNP Scottish Government and the Conservative and Unionist UK Government. Privately, the Scottish Government’s Ministers get on with getting on with the UK Government. While things can always be improved upon—as Members will know, I have many ideas about how that might be done—the day-to-day business of co-operating and collaborating is going on, largely insulated from the faux rage and grievance manufacturing of the SNP.
I was talking to an SNP Member the other day—someone I quite like and respect —who said something to the effect that we always disagree on everything. I said, “No, we actually agree on a lot of things a lot of the time.” That Member said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t tell my supporters in my constituency that.” That sums up the SNP attitude for me.
How is the hon. Gentleman getting on with encouraging his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to ensure that Ministers are rolling back on the cuts to onshore wind subsidies, which is obviously a crucial industry for Scotland and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency?
I will come on to say something specifically about the importance of this sector, particularly for the Scottish economy, but the important thing that I am trying to say about this SI is that it brings about harmonisation. Harmonisation is something that I am very much in favour of—I say, up with that sort of thing. Whenever it is possible—and it nearly always is, despite what we would imagine from listening to the noises from those on the SNP Benches—the people of Scotland expect their two Governments to work together for the commonweal and they want to see that partnering in action. This SI is a good example of that. It might not go down well with the SNP fundamentalists in the conference hall, but I am afraid that the reality is not always the perception that people want to hold on to for the sake of stoking political prejudice.
The second thing I want to mention is how strategically important the offshore wind energy sector is in Scotland, and this SI facilitates it. May I say how much I welcomed last month’s announcement of the offshore wind sector deal? It spells out the ambition of the industry and the UK Government to produce a third of British electricity from offshore wind by 2030. Environmentalists in my Stirling constituency say that the UK Government do not get enough credit for the work that they are doing on sustainable energy sources.
The sector deal clearly states the ambition to make the UK a global leader in renewables, with more investment potential than any other country in the world, as a part of our modern industrial strategy. It spells out the ambition of the offshore wind energy industry, with its investment of £250 million—including a new offshore wind growth partnership—to develop the UK supply chain, as global exports are set to increase fivefold to £2.6 billion by 2030. That deal will mean for the first time in our history that more electricity will be generated from renewables than fossil fuels, with 70% of British electricity predicted to be from low carbon sources by 2030 and over £40 billion of infrastructure investment in the UK. I am proud that Scotland is at the forefront of it all.
The UK offshore energy sector has massive potential. There is a significant appetite for new offshore wind energy, and investors are willing to put their money to work investing in Scotland. We need infrastructure and policies that allow development, and we need all levels of Government—local, Scottish and UK-wide—to be fully seized of the opportunity and the moment. The fact that this SI brings the different levels of Government together to ensure a smooth process for applicants and a fair process for interested parties is to be welcomed. It is to the credit of the UK Government and the Scottish Government, who are working together because by working together we can achieve great things for the people of Scotland. Seeing this SI through is what this Government ultimately stand for, in terms of our attitude towards making the Union work for all its people. I welcome the SI’s passage through the House today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). He has made my day and cheered me up—honestly, I had to check my notes to see whether I was in the right debate or whether he was, because we seemed to go slightly off topic. It also seems strange to complain about SNP complaints while continuing to put the boot into the SNP—so, that was hypocrisy writ large. However, I take his point: where they can, it is good that the two Governments work well together. He kept talking about this good working relationship. He did not answer the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) about how the Secretary of State for Scotland is currently blocking the development of onshore wind in Scotland. I want to challenge the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, who is at the Dispatch Box—if she could look up, please. Her Department and the Secretary of State for Scotland have refused to release correspondence between the two Departments where it is quite clear that he has voiced his objections. For full transparency, will they release this information so that what the Scottish Secretary is doing to block onshore wind in Scotland is out there in the public domain?
Let me turn to the SI. Its title on the Order Paper is “Constitutional Law (Motion)”—how grand does that sound? No wonder a constitutional law motion is in the main Chamber. Then we look at paragraph 2.1 of the explanatory notes:
“The purpose of this…is…to correct amendments made to the Electricity Act 1989”.
Paragraph 6.3 states:
“This instrument is made to correct an oversight in the 2015 Order by amending the definition of ‘relevant waters’ in section 36D(6) of, and paragraph 5B(6) of Schedule 8 to, the 1989 Act”.
Paragraph 14.1 on monitoring and review states:
“The instrument will achieve its policy objective of amending a legislative oversight and therefore monitoring and review are not required.”
This is a simple, technical amendment, as has been said, so why it is in the main Chamber? It is a complete farce and another indication of this zombie Government who have nothing to do because everything is stalled because of Brexit. We keep hearing about getting on with the day job, but it is quite clear that the Government are not getting on with their day job and that everything is stalled. We had a similar SI in a normal Delegated Legislation Committee and it took 10 minutes. Partly because the hon. Member for Stirling talked longer than the two Front-Bench spokespersons, we have thankfully managed to drag this out, and I am doing my wee bit to drag it out in the main Chamber as well.
That said, we welcome the streamlining of this process for challenging Scottish Ministers’ decisions about marine licence applications. As the hon. Gentleman was good enough to say, the Scottish Government are a world leader in the fight against climate change and in advancing renewable energy. The Scottish Government want to have 50% of all energy sources supplied by renewables by 2030. It does figure that it would be much better for the Scottish Government to have even greater powers over energy policy and for that not be blocked by the likes of the Secretary of State for Scotland.
In Scotland, we have the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, which is also a world leader, with the world’s largest tidal steam array and the world’s most powerful tidal steam turbine. A recent announcement heralds the world’s first centre aimed at accelerating the development of materials and structures for tidal energy, which will be based in Rosyth. It is a collaboration between Babcock and the University of Edinburgh. The FASTBLADE project is worth £2.4 million, so we look forward to seeing that being developed. What funds, if any, will the Government provide for that and for future projects? I note that the offshore wind sector deal gives the University of Hull £5.5 million for its technology development. We should like to see the same provision for marine development in Scotland.
When will the Government change the regulations on the Electricity Act 1989 to define electricity storage as a distinct subset of generation? That change will facilitate the co-location of batteries with renewable energy, as the Minister acknowledged in a parliamentary answer in March and in another last week. She described the amendment as “an important measure”, and said that it would be implemented “when parliamentary time allows.” I suggest that a full debate in the main Chamber provides sufficient parliamentary time to amend the regulations. That is part of the day job that the Government should be getting on with.
The Government also need to move away from their obsession with nuclear power. It is too dear, it is a dead duck, and it is clear that investors are walking away from it. I do not understand why they continue down that path.
We welcome the corrections of the previous oversight. They should mean that the appeal process is clear, within the remit of Scottish Ministers, and within the remit of the Scottish legal jurisdiction. The intention of the 2014 Act was to streamline the planning application and appeal process for renewable energy to facilitate business deployment and to give investors more certainty. We therefore welcome this measure, which has been agreed with Scottish Ministers. As the Minister said in her opening remarks, better regulation is good for everyone.
I think we have seen an outbreak of consensus, which is always welcome on the Floor of the House. I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), and commend him on his tartan tie: I feel that I am a little underdressed for this debate.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who is no longer in the Chamber, asked me to confirm that the Act applies to the geography of the site and not to the business location. I can confirm that to the House.
I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) raised our eyes beyond this narrow definition of the law to the real prize, asking what we could do to facilitate our ongoing leadership in the decarbonisation agenda. The answer is much more. I was also delighted by his support for the offshore wind sector deal, which is utterly transformational. We have the best location in the world for offshore wind generation in terms of wind speed and the shallowness of the marine basin. As he knows, there is an important opportunity for the transfer of skills from the world-leading oil and gas industry to offshore wind generation as part of the transition.
There is, of course, a series of questions to be asked about onshore wind. One concerns the size of wind farms. I have debated that subject many times with Opposition Members, but I should point out that the Scottish Government’s own analysis shows that more than 2GW of wind is already at the planning stage. Not all of that will come to fruition, but we are engaged in an enormous process of re-powering and upgrading existing onshore wind farms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling also mentioned—and this is absolutely my experience as well—that the day-to-day working relationships with the Ministers in the devolved Administration are excellent. I chair a quadrilateral meeting which we hold regularly to discuss Brexit preparations, and our conversations are professional and focus on working together. There is a great deal of trust. Like the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), I would far rather see harmonisation than dissent in such conversations. It is always dispiriting that we almost never hear his party welcome any of the progress that the UK Government are making. [Interruption.] I am afraid that his speech was delivered in such a welter of negativity that I may not have picked it up.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman and allow him to congratulate our four nations on the progress that they have made.
The Minister is obviously not familiar with my personality. That is how I deliver compliments—in amongst that wave of negativity.
What I was going to ask the Minister was this. Will the Government release the correspondence between the Secretary of State for Scotland and her Department rather than hiding behind the freedom of information exemption, claiming that it is Government policy formulation?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will regain his usual sunny nature should we have an Easter break next week. As he will know, what he has asked is not for me to decide. These observations are made to the Secretary of State, and it would be wrong for me to comment.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way again briefly, but I sense that the House would like me to wrap up, and I also want to give way to the Leader of the Opposition. [Laughter.] I mean the potential future Leader of the Opposition, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East.
If the Minister was so keen for the correspondence to be released, she could just release it and publish it now. She does not have to wait for an FOI inquiry.
As I have said, it not my decision, and it is not correspondence of which I have been informed.
I will now give way to my shadow—in this particular instance—on the Opposition Front Bench.
We should not tempt fate.
The Minister has made an important point: it is frustrating that the Secretary of State for Scotland is not here to make his comments directly and, perhaps, shed more light on the issues that Members have raised. She also made an important point about the opportunity to exploit renewable potential in the coastal waters of the United Kingdom. However, that is not being matched with an effort to build the British industrial base on renewables. We are seeing significant threats to major industrial capacity such as a BiFab project in Scotland for the industrial development of renewables. We may be in danger of losing that opportunity altogether. Is it not incumbent on the Minister, and indeed, on her Scottish counterparts, to redouble their efforts to maximise British industrial content and renewable manufacturing projects?
I welcome the opportunity to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the offshore wind sector deal focuses on exactly that. What had happened historically was that we had essentially given out contracts for difference without requiring developers who were taking advantage of them to commit themselves to UK supply chain investment. What I have set out in the sector deal is that in return for terming out the auctions to a 10-year look ahead, which will give us the most secure market look-ahead in this sector in the world, we expect UK content to rise to more than 60% of the supply chain. The hon. Gentleman made an important point about BiFab. We have, of course, worked closely with the Scottish Government throughout that process. It has been another example of very co-operative working.
There is another important point to be made about the sector deal: I should like workforce diversity to improve dramatically. We have set a target of over 30% of the jobs in that sector going to women.
I think I have covered all the points that I wanted to cover. I commend the order, but I also commend what I think will be a marvellous slogan for politics in the future. Up with harmonisation, and down with dissent!
I do not know whether the Minister will secure total agreement with that one.
Question put and agreed to.
Continuous At-Sea Deterrent
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 50th anniversary of the continuous at sea deterrent.
Half a century ago, HMS Resolution glided into the Clyde and sailed into the history books. That was the start of our longest sustained military operation—Operation Relentless—and the beginning of our continuous at-sea deterrent. Since then, there has always been a Royal Navy ballistic missile submarine at sea protecting our nation, and thousands of submariners have followed in the wake of Resolution’s crew conducting vital work, unseen and undetected, every minute of every day. Today it is for the House to pay tribute to those brave men and women, past and present, who have helped to make this operation so successful.
We already honour our submariners with a deterrent patrol pin—often known as the bomber pin—giving recognition to their enormous efforts, but we want to go further still. Consequently, we are going to ensure that those who complete 10 patrols will now be recognised with the new silver bomber pin. Future bomber pins will be made from metal taken from HMS Resolution, linking today’s submariners with their forefathers and emphasising the longevity and the significance of the 50-year mission.
I congratulate the Defence Secretary on bringing such an important debate to the House at this time. Does he recognise that there is a case for going even further and making all those who served on bomber patrol eligible for a service medal, given the extraordinary nature of what they have contributed?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and it is something that I would be willing to look at. I am sure he is aware that it is not, sadly, a decision purely for the Ministry of Defence, but we would certainly be happy to look at the merits of that and how we give full recognition to all the crews that have served over such a long period.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, for his welcome announcement, and for his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). I am not cavilling, but will he try to ensure that these medals are made in the UK, please?
I would be very disappointed if they were not to be made in the United Kingdom. My understanding is that the bomber pins are manufactured here in the United Kingdom.
Even as we pay tribute to the submariners, it is equally important that we think of their families, too—those who often have to go for months on end without hearing from their loved ones. We must also pay tribute to the thousands of industry experts who have played a vital role in this national endeavour.
I wonder how the Secretary of State thinks we can possibly lecture other countries about not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. What moral high ground do we have to do that if we ourselves not only possess them but are upgrading them? Does he really think the world would be a safer place if every country had nuclear weapons, and if that is not the case, how on earth do we justify what we are doing?
I firmly believe that the world is a safer place because we have a nuclear deterrent, and because of the responsible way that it is deployed.
But would the world be safer if all countries had them?
The hon. Lady and I will probably always find room for disagreement on this. I will come on to the issue of deterrence later.
I want to make progress, because it would be remiss of me not to mention the town of Barrow-in-Furness and give our thanks to the people of Barrow, who have crafted these giants of the deep and continue to do so, ensuring that we have the right technology and the right vessels to deliver our nuclear deterrent.
I thank the Secretary of State for the way in which he is introducing the debate. The question about other countries possessing nuclear weapons takes me back to the old arguments where we used to ask people to name a single country that would either acquire nuclear weapons because we had got them, or get rid of them if we decided unilaterally to get rid of ours. Do you know what? They never came up with the name of one country.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is going to mention such a country, but I give way to him.
I am certainly not going to mention such a country. I was going to ask the Secretary of State about the welfare of the ex-submariners and how they are looked after. Specifically, is it covered by the covenant, which a Labour Government introduced?
I think we on the Government side of the House can be duly proud of the work that has been done since 2010 on ensuring that veterans of all three services are properly looked after; submariners are equally covered by that.
It is important to understand the remarkable engineering that goes into these remarkably sophisticated submarines, whose level of sophistication matches that of a spacecraft. It is only fitting that this debate marks the start of a series of events designed to commemorate such dedicated and continuous service not only from the submariners, but from the industry and the communities that have supported the deterrent.
As a son of a submariner, I know how important it is that we thank those people who served on submarines. Speaking as the MP for Devonport, however, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he agrees that we should pay special thanks to all those people in Devonport who have, over many decades, refitted our nuclear submarines and ensured that they are operational, so that they can continue to provide the at-sea deterrent? Without the work of those specialist skilled engineers, we would not have CASD today.
If I recall correctly, 1,000 people in Plymouth are dependent for their jobs and livelihoods on supporting our nuclear submarines. I would very much like to add my thanks to them for the work that they do. That also demonstrates the important benefit that our nuclear deterrent provides for the whole country in jobs and skills.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend, in this geographic tour of areas that support the at-sea deterrent, was coming on to talk about Aldermaston, in the part of west Berkshire that I represent, and the surrounding area. Thousands of people work in that centre of excellence for science and engineering, the benefits of which spread into the economy, into areas that have nothing to do with the nuclear deterrent. That has been of huge benefit to this country.
It is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend mentions Aldermaston and the work that it does on our continued ability to develop our nuclear deterrent, to ensure that we remain ahead of the game. That also has an enormous benefit to the whole wider economy, and not only in the development of skills. This investment has an impact on science and technology, keeping us ahead of the game and ahead of our rivals.
The Secretary of State makes an important point about the industrial contribution that our shipbuilding industry makes; I have worked for the company that builds our nation’s submarines and naval ships, so I am all too aware of how important that impact is. However, the construction of these ships and submarines is dependent on in-year financing, which really disrupts the ability to build the infrastructure that will serve these ships throughout their life cycle. How are we going to change the way in which ships are financed by the Treasury to ensure that we give them proper project financing, so that the companies involved can build the world-class infrastructure needed to build submarines and ships for the future?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will deal with it and then make some progress, because there is a lot of interest in the House and many hon. Members want to speak. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and it is why the Government have set aside £31 billion to deliver the Dreadnought programme and ensure that we have continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence. We have also built in a contingency, because we are very conscious that we want to provide security confidence that the programme will deliver within budget and on time.
It is important that we pay our thanks to those who have served on the submarines, to families, and to the whole industry. Next month there will be the Westminster Abbey service recognising the commitment of our submariners. In July there will be a parade at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, and at the end of the November there will be a special memorial commemoration at Edinburgh Castle.
However, today’s debate is important because it gives us the opportunity to underline why the deterrent still matters so much to the United Kingdom, why it remains very much at the heart of our national security policy, and why it has been one of the rare issues to command popular support across both sides of the House. It is an important point to make that the continuous at-sea deterrent has been supported by both Conservative and Labour Governments continuously over the last few decades; I certainly hope that it will be for many decades into the future.
The doubters who persist in believing that the deterrent is simply a cold war relic need to be reminded of three salient points. First and foremost, the nuclear dangers have not gone away; on the contrary, the geopolitical situation is more unstable than ever before. We are facing challenges that are growing in scale, complexity and diversity. Russia is rebuilding its nuclear arsenal. It has breached the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and, in Europe, has now deployed new nuclear-capable missile systems to target and threaten the West. It also continues to develop and adapt its doctrine to give primacy to nuclear weapons. North Korea is the only state to have detonated a nuclear weapon in the 21st century. Despite positive dialogue, its weapons remain intact. We hope it will return to compliance with its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. The point is that both Russia and North Korea have shown their willingness to rattle the nuclear sabre in the past.
There are no indications that those dangers will disappear any time soon, so we cannot relax our guard. While there is the risk of other states developing weapons, we must have a credible response to that threat. Our independent nuclear deterrent—our nuclear weapons posture—gives us defences against such actions. It is our ultimate insurance policy. It protects us every day from the most extreme threats to our national security and our way of life. Beyond that, it gives future generations greater strategic options and the power to protect themselves into the 2060s and beyond, whatever may lie round the corner.
As was recognised at last year’s NATO summit in Brussels, the UK’s nuclear deterrent provides a critical contribution to our alliance. Since 1962, the UK has assigned all our nuclear forces to NATO’s defence. That 50-year commitment to the defence and security of every member of that great alliance is as strong today as it has ever been in the past. All member states benefit from that capability, which gives the alliance another centre of decision making to complicate the calculations of our adversaries.
In fact, many allies signed the non-proliferation treaty in the late 1960s safe in knowledge they would be covered by the nuclear umbrella that the United Kingdom provides for them. Those who argue that we should disarm should consider whether such a move would actually make nuclear proliferation more, rather than less, likely. We cannot blame others, such as the United States, for questioning why they should be paying the price for protecting us from nuclear threats.
My constituency is the home of GCHQ, which has unprecedented and unparalleled security co-operation and intelligence sharing with the United States. Does the Secretary of State agree that the UK’s commitment to the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent is one of the foundation stones of that strong relationship, which keeps our people safe?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will touch on later. Our nuclear deterrent is a cornerstone of that long and enduring relationship. The United States does not have such a relationship with another country anywhere on this Earth. That close collaboration makes us and our allies safer.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will make some progress. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that.
The extent to which our deterrent underpins our special relationship with the United States must never be underplayed. We should be proud of the fact we are one of the few nations with both strategic nuclear and conventional carrier capabilities. We should be proud that those strengths give the United Kingdom influence not just in NATO but across the world, giving us the capability to influence events in our interest and stand up for our values and the United Kingdom.
My third point is that there are simply no credible alternatives to the submarine-based deterrent. Some claim that there are cheaper and more effective ways of providing a similar effect to the Trident system, but we have been down that road many times before. Successive studies by both Labour and Conservative Administrations have shown that there are no other alternatives. Most recently, the Trident alternatives review of 2013 found that submarines are less vulnerable to attack than silos or aircraft and can maintain a continuous posture in a way that aircraft and land-based alternatives cannot. Their missiles have greater range and capability than other alternative delivery systems. Overall, the review concluded that a minimum, credible, assured and independent deterrent requires nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles.
The Secretary of State is making a very compelling argument. Does he not therefore regret the dithering and delay that took place in the renewal of the submarine programme when the Conservatives were in coalition, at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, who have not even bothered to turn up today?
We could spend a long time debating the Liberal Democrats, but it would probably be a waste of time. I am exceptionally proud of the fact that this Government have committed to a nuclear deterrent, and that in 2015 so many colleagues from both sides of the House united in one Lobby to make sure we delivered it.
I see that a very excitable member of the SNP is keen to make a point.