House of Commons
Wednesday 24 April 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Government Subcontractors and Suppliers: Payment
It is important to all suppliers, not least small businesses, that they are paid on time. That is why I have announced that, from this September, we will exclude suppliers from winning contracts if they fail to pay their subcontractors on time. Just this month, I contacted all suppliers to remind them of this intention.
I welcome what the Minister has just said, but a significant proportion of Government procurement is on construction projects, where there are often poor payment practices, such as those exposed during the collapse of Carillion. The Federation of Small Businesses’ “Fair Pay Fair Play” campaign, which carries the message that everyone deserves to be paid on time, is asking for those projects to be made the subject of separate project bank accounts. Is the Minister considering that?
Yes. My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government already use project bank accounts on all construction projects, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. That is just one way of ensuring our underlying objective of prompt and fair payment. It sits alongside initiatives such as paying our suppliers on time, excluding late payers and appointing prompt payment non-executive directors in all Departments.
Bearing in mind that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, will the Minister outline when we can expect to see the follow-through of the proposed policy whereby suppliers will be unable to win Government contracts unless they are seen to be making prompt payments?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to remind the House of that commitment. I announced in November that we will be bringing that policy into practice from September this year. The policy will mean that companies will face being excluded from Government contracts if they fail to pay their suppliers on time in two consecutive quarters.
I can tell my hon. Friend that the latest data shows that 10 of the 16 Government Departments were meeting the target of paying 90% of suppliers within five days, and 10 were also meeting the target of at least 96% of invoices within the 30-day target, so there is a good record overall.
The Minister’s own Department has seen a threefold increase in late payments over the last couple of years. As we know, the Government are diverted from their day jobs with daydreams of a new Prime Minister, and this distracted Government are raising incompetence to a completely new level. We have seen that they are careless when paying small and medium-sized enterprises that provide services to the public, and those SMEs are the backbone of our economy. Yet the Government are very careful when it comes to outsourcing to wounded giants such as Interserve or failed dinosaurs such as Carillion. Is it not time that the Minister and his Department got their act together?
Sadly, I do not have a note on that point.
I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman on his point regarding prompt payments in my own Department, the Cabinet Office. According to the latest figures, in March we paid 88% of all our suppliers within five days and 98% within 30 days—a perfectly credible record.
Nancy Astor: Centenary of Election
We are all indebted to this groundbreaking Conservative Member of Parliament, who won her seat the year after women first got the vote. The Government are using the suffrage centenary fund to support some 350 projects, including training in political leadership in Bradford and Birmingham, and skills sessions in the east midlands, west midlands and London.
Absolutely. I welcome the extraordinary efforts of the campaigners who have achieved funding for a statue of Nancy Astor through public donations, particularly as there are—let us be frank—too few statues celebrating and commemorating the amazing contribution that women have made in helping to shape our nation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done to support this project.
Absolutely—I am happy to do that. As I said, there are too few memorials and commemorations of the great efforts and contributions made to society by women throughout the ages, and I am very happy to congratulate all those who do their bit for public service.
Two years ago, we celebrated 50 years since Winnie Ewing was elected to the House of Commons; perhaps that should be reflected here. I do not know what the Government would do to celebrate Nancy Astor that they would not do to celebrate Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. The Scottish Government recently held a consultation on electoral reform that specifically included ways to improve gender and minority representation. Will this Government do the same thing and bring forward real proposals?
If I remember correctly, Constance Markievicz did not take her seat, but as I said, I congratulate anyone who contributes to public life. We must all work to highlight and promote the fantastic work done by women across our country over the years in range of public service roles, which would be a good way to encourage more people to contribute in the future.
While the Government can manage and have been managing the security risk, it is essential that the cyber-security and engineering flaws in Huawei products are fixed. The National Cyber Security Centre has set out the improvements we expect the company to make and will not compromise on the improvements we need to see, in particular sustained evidence of better software engineering and cyber-security.
We have the independent Huawei cyber-security evaluation centre to look at what the company is doing to meet the commitments we require of it. Looking to the future, the Government are committed to taking decisions on the 5G supply chain based on evidence and a hard-headed assessment of the risk. We have undertaken a thorough review of that supply chain; the decisions based on that review will be announced in due course, and to this House first.
From the Government’s point of view, the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks are of paramount importance. We think we have robust procedures in place to manage any risks to national security today. Looking forward to the roll-out of 5G, we have three clear priorities: stronger cyber-security practices across the entire telecoms sector, greater resilience within individual telecoms networks, and—crucially—diversity in the supply chain for 5G. These are matters that go beyond any single company.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know that the Government are about to award a £300 million contract including requirements to host British citizens’ biometric data. To protect the security and privacy of British citizens, can he guarantee that that data will not be held by foreign companies subject to foreign Government laws giving foreign Government access to British citizens’ private data?
Clearly, any tendering exercise that the Government undertake has to be subject to the normal rules on open public procurement, but I know that the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the proposed database, will give the highest priority to ensuring the security of that sensitive personal data.
It has been reported that the Prime Minister has given Huawei the green light to help to build the UK’s 5G network, against the advice of Ministers, our international allies and our security services, yet Huawei has itself said that it will take up to five years to secure its equipment. Why do the Government have more confidence than Huawei has in its ability to build our 5G network safely and securely?
As I said in response to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the security and resilience of our telecommunications networks are of paramount importance in every decision the Government take on these matters. We have undertaken a thorough review of the entire 5G supply chain, which is designed to ensure that we can roll out 5G in a secure and resilient way. We will announce our decisions about that to this House in due course.
House of Lords Membership
The Government are committed to supporting measures to reduce the size of the other place on which they can command a consensus across both Houses, such as the positive trend in retirements. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is also committed to maintaining her restrained approach to appointments.
The Minister mentioned consensus, but the reality is that due to Brexit and the PM’s failed leadership, this House is completely gridlocked, which gives the bishops and hereditary peers in the unelected Lords more power than ever and a greater say in Scotland’s future than the Scottish Parliament itself. Does he agree with his Scottish Tory colleague, MSP Murdo Fraser, that the other place needs to be scrapped?
In the last week we sat, the Scottish National party was praising the House of peers. This week it is calling for it to be scrapped again. The focus now, with the issues facing this country, is to get on with delivering a Brexit deal that works for the whole United Kingdom, rather than spend our time building constitutional grievances, as the separatists wish to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the Front Bench and his outstanding responses so far. Notwithstanding any reservations we may have about the unelected place, is it not the case that on occasion, the standard of debate there can be a lot higher than here?
I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that over his 27 years in this House he has seen plenty of very high-standard debates. In fact, he has contributed to raising that standard on many occasions. The House of Lords plays a special part in our constitution as a revising Chamber, subject, as always, to the supremacy of this elected House.
I welcome the Minister to his place. Unelected, out of touch, unresponsive—the House of Lords is not only a relic from a bygone era; it is a stain on our modern democracy. When will the Cabinet team live up to its public duty and lead a serious constitutional debate in this country to modernise our democracy and get rid of the House of Lords?
As I touched on earlier, the vast majority of people in this country—certainly in Torbay, and across the rest of the UK—would not see this House spending months on constitutional navel-gazing as the top priority at the moment. Many people have talked about reforming the House of Lords over the last century, and the Government will look at proposals that could enjoy a broad consensus, but for now, with the pressures on the legislative programme, few would understand if we decided to dedicate months to this.
Government Departments: Real Living Wage
I am pleased to tell the House that from 1 April, the Government increased the national living wage by almost 5% to £8.21 per hour, which gives an annual pay rise of almost £700 to full-time workers on the national living wage. That is our preferred approach to addressing low pay across both the public and private sectors.
Of course, the national living wage is not a real living wage, and it does not apply to under-25s, so that is a load of mince, frankly. Why would the Government want to perpetuate age inequality in terms of pay? Is the Minister proud of the fact that this Government actively discriminate against young people, including his own civil servants?
I find it extraordinary how the hon. Gentleman denigrates the national living wage. The national living wage has handed a pay rise of £3,000 to the lowest-paid workers since it was introduced, and it is rising faster than the real living wage. In respect of under-25s, we need flexibility for younger workers, to help them get into the labour market. That is a sensible compromise.
The reality is that the Government’s living wage is not the living wage set by the Living Wage Commission, but putting that aside, can the Minister set out what representations he has made to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to ensure that Members of this House can become living wage employers? My understanding is that it will not let us do that.
What I can add, which I hope will be of some reassurance to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), is that the House of Commons is indeed an accredited living wage employer and has been for some time. I hope that that warms the cockles of the hon. Gentleman’s heart.
European Parliament Elections: Candidate Intimidation
The Government will work closely with the police and electoral administrators to tackle any reports or allegations of intimidation, as we do in the run-up to all elections.
I am very glad that the Minister is taking this seriously. There will be so many of us in this House who have seen an escalation of threats and abuse in the current political climate, and there is a real fear—when we have the likes of Nigel Farage saying that the European elections are an opportunity to put the “fear of God” into politicians—that such people run the risk of stoking up that kind of intimidation and aggressive behaviour. What can the Minister do to try to ensure that everyone conducts the European elections in a moderate, temperate, professional way?
I think there is a responsibility on politicians of all political parties—left, right and centre—to try to conduct elections in a spirit, yes, of democratic argument and debate, but also in a spirit of mutual respect for the fact that, in a pluralist democracy, we are entitled to disagree and to express our disagreement; and then to accept the election result however that turns out and to get on with people of other parties, who have an equal democratic mandate to our own.
I recently had the honour to co-host a conference on misogyny and antisemitism. May I urge the Government to do everything they can to make sure these two forms of hate crime do not prevent women from participating in elections and making their voices heard in the democratic process?
I agree wholly with what my right hon. Friend has just said. I think one of the most shocking features I have found about life in the House of Commons in the last few years is to learn, in particular from women MPs of different political parties, how they have often been singled out for the sort of misogynistic, brutal abuse that far too many have suffered.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been consulting on creating a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. As far as the staff are concerned, any intimidation or abuse is prima facie a breach of existing criminal law, and I hope that political party representatives and presiding officers would have no hesitation in reporting such things to the police.
I am very clear and I think the Government are very clear that it is the duty of all politicians of all parties to call out abuse and intimidation wherever and whenever it happens. However, in this particular instance, would it not just be better to keep our promises, and call off these farcical elections?
It would indeed be the Government’s hope that, even now, we could agree and ratify the withdrawal agreement and give effect to it, which would make it possible for these elections not to take place, but the only way to stop these elections taking place is to bring into effect the withdrawal agreement or to pass primary legislation through Parliament disapplying our international obligations.
I am very worried about the fact that other candidates are already trying to intimidate candidates. Using language like “fear of God” is not a good way to go about our democracy. I was at a conference this morning at which a country, Eritrea, was trying to discuss how to build a democracy. Surely the Minister for the Cabinet Office will wish to be stronger in his language in condemning the outrageous language of other candidates using words such as “fear of God”?
May I start by welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) to his new ministerial role, and by wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) the best of luck as she starts her maternity leave and thanking her for the work she has championed to stop intimidation in public life?
The CyberUK 2019 cyber-security conference begins today in Glasgow. I am pleased that I will address that conference tomorrow, where I will outline our work to ensure that the UK remains a global leader in cyber-security.
Ministers will know that I never miss an opportunity to talk about jobs and opportunities for my Southampton, Itchen constituents. More people are in work than ever before, but not all jobs are well paid with good opportunities. A Government relocation to Southampton would help to give my constituents more opportunities. Has the Minister considered relocation to Southampton as part of the Places for Growth programme? If not, why not?
I know what a strong champion my hon. Friend is for the city of Southampton. I have heard his representations and am very happy to extend him an invitation: officials from my Department can meet him and representatives from Southampton to see what we can do in that area.
There are currently 2 million European citizens registered to vote in the UK, many of whom will be using their votes in the local elections next Thursday. However, in order to be eligible to vote in the European elections on 23 May, they will need to complete some paperwork. So far, fewer than 300 of those citizens have completed the paperwork, which would usually have been distributed by electoral registration officers from January onwards. Due to the short timescale for the administration of the European elections, I have heard that many European citizens are considering taking legal action against the Government. What consideration has the Minister given to that, and what measures could the Government take to help European citizens use their vote in the European elections here in the UK?
I appreciate that the shadow Minister’s point is about the time to make a declaration rather than the registration deadline. She will appreciate that the Government’s approach needs to be determined by the law and what affects it, but I am happy to look at the issue, respond to her in writing and lay a copy of that response in the House Library.
This is a major priority for the Cabinet Office, which is why earlier this month I announced £1.5 million in funding for 10 projects that will use location-based data to improve public services, and why I will shortly publish a strategy outlining how we will harness the power of innovative technology across the whole of Government.
This is the Government who introduced online registration, which has made it much easier for people to get on the register and has resulted in among the highest numbers of registrations, so the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is completely wrong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight those recent comments, which were clear that Labour’s outsourcing policy risks creating major implementation problems and losing the benefits that outsourcing has brought for taxpayers, without any guarantee that services would improve. This Government will continue to make decisions on outsourcing based on the evidence, not on ideology.
I think the young woman to whom the hon. Gentleman refers spoke for her generation. All of us who go into schools and colleges in our constituencies know how the issue of climate change inspires and drives political priorities among many of our young constituents. Every Department in this Government is committed to delivering the ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions and secure our environmental objectives by the 2050 deadline. There is no difference between any Ministers about the need to get on with that.
It is vital that those who stand for office are representative of our society. As a Government, we are taking action to achieve that through a £250,000 fund for disabled candidates in the forthcoming English local election in May. That will help to create a level playing field for disabled and non-disabled candidates.
The hon. Gentleman alludes to the fact that there is a delicate balance to strike between ensuring that people can freely express opinions and ensuring that the Government do not get involved in regulating opinions. It is about making sure that facts are accurate. That is why we are working with colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the online harms White Paper to ensure that we can tackle those challenges and strike the right balance on freedom of speech.
I have met several innovative small businesses in Fareham recently, for example the IT business Silver Lining. Many such small and medium-size enterprises would like more opportunities to work closely with the Government. What steps are the Government taking to enable greater contracting with SMEs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important challenge. We have set a demanding target of 33% of all Government business going to SMEs, and our forthcoming innovation strategy will look at exactly that point—how we can make it easier for SMEs to win innovative Government work.
The Government take disinformation very seriously. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading cross-Government work to tackle it, including through the online harms White Paper. The role of Government is to make sure that electors have the facts in public debate, not to regulate opinions people may form on them.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is today in Belfast attending the funeral of Lyra McKee. This was a brutal, cowardly murder of a young woman, a brilliant journalist, who represented all that is good in Northern Ireland. Those responsible for her murder have nothing to offer anyone from any community in Northern Ireland. I am sure that Members right across the House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to Lyra’s partner Sara, her other family members and her friends. As her family have asked, we today say that we stand with Lyra. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
The attack on three Christian churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday was a horrific and cowardly act. The House will know that a number of British citizens were killed. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to send her condolences to all affected and to offer his Government any assistance they may need. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending sympathy and condolences to all who were caught in that horrific attack, but I hope, too, that the House will perhaps reflect on the fact that that atrocity, committed on Easter Sunday, came just a couple of weeks after an equally brutal and appalling attack in Christchurch, New Zealand upon the Muslim community worshipping there. As we stand today between Easter and, next week, the beginning of the solemn month of Ramadan for our Muslim fellow citizens, I hope that this will be a time for not just Members, but all our fellow citizens of all faiths and none, to come together and stand up for the values of mutual respect, tolerance and religious diversity, which embody what is best about our country.
I echo those thoughts of sympathy and condolence.
Rejuvenating our town centres in Stoke-on-Trent is absolutely essential. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Open Doors pilot that was recently announced for Fenton in my constituency and agree that our future high streets fund bid for Longton must also succeed?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the Open Doors pilot in his constituency. We very much welcome bids from places such as Longton town centre for this fund. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary is going to study all the bids carefully before making a decision later this year, but he and I know that my hon. Friend will be a doughty champion of the claims of his constituency in particular.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and I usually enjoy trading a few jokes at these sessions, but sadly, this really is not a week for laughter. We on the Opposition side join him in standing in solidarity and shared grief with the people of Sri Lanka and all those who lost loved ones in the Easter Sunday slaughter of peaceful worshippers and innocent tourists, at least 45 of them children. Among them was the eight-year-old cousin of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). It was an act of utter depravity and evil, which stands in sharp contrast to the words of love written by Ben Nicholson about his wife and the children that he lost.
Yesterday we also celebrated the life, but mourned the loss, of Billy McNeill, the first Briton to lift the European cup and a man who spent his life fighting against sectarian hatred. And last Thursday, we mourned the senseless murder of the brilliant young journalist Lyra McKee, whose funeral the Prime Minister is right to attend and whose death was a horrific reminder of where sectarian hatred ultimately leads. We stand with Lyra. In her name, can I ask the Minister to tell us what the Government are doing to bring her killers to justice and protect Northern Ireland from a return to terror?
I very much welcome both the tone and the words of the right hon. Lady. I also share in her tribute to Billy McNeill, who died on Monday. He made no fewer than 790 appearances for Celtic, and it is a testament to an extraordinary career that he also won 31 major trophies as a manager and a player. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family and friends.
As the right hon. Lady will fully understand, decisions about criminal investigations in Northern Ireland are a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the independent Public Prosecution Service. We very much hope as a Government that any member of the public who has information that will lead to Lyra’s murderers being brought to justice will come forward. I am hopeful, given the sense of community solidarity that there has been in Londonderry/Derry and in Northern Ireland generally, that that information will be forthcoming.
I thank the Minister for his answer, and I know that he speaks with huge authority and passion on this issue. Reading the statement from the so-called New IRA last week, with its talk of “attacking enemy forces” and its “sincere condolences” for Lyra’s death, was a sickening throwback to the days that we thought that we had left behind 20 years ago, from despicable individuals whose only desire is to turn back the clock and destroy the progress that has been made. Does the Minister agree that that is one of the central reasons why we must find an answer to the Northern Ireland border question rather than give these evil terrorists the divisions that they crave?
I would draw a distinction. I regard both issues that the right hon. Lady raises as important, but I do not think those murderers in Derry were motivated by any thoughts about the border or customs arrangements, important though those issues are. I agreed, however, with what she said about the utter unacceptability of references to police officers in Northern Ireland as if they were somehow a legitimate target. One of the great achievements of the peace-building process in Northern Ireland has been the very difficult and controversial reform of the police service whereby young men and women from both Unionist and nationalist communities now serve gladly together, upholding law and justice in Northern Ireland. All of us in this House should continue to send every officer in the PSNI our full support.
I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, but can I bring him back to the issue of the border? I agree with the ends he is trying to achieve, but the fundamental problem remains the means. We all know that his own party and the Democratic Unionist party will not accept the current backstop, but the only way the Government plan to avoid that backstop is by delivering a so-called invisible border. Last week, we saw a leaked Home Office presentation stating: “No government worldwide” currently has such a system in place; that current
“realisation for a…technological solution in the UK is 2030”;
and that there
“is currently no budget for either a pilot or the programme itself.”
Is the Home Office wrong?
I will not comment on alleged leaks from Government Departments, but I can tell the House that the Government have allocated £20 million to invest in work on alternative measures that would bring benefits in terms of seamless trade to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and that, if successful, could be applied more generally to give us smart borders on all the United Kingdom’s external borders, and perhaps offer us some export opportunities for that technology as well.
It is interesting what the Minister says, but the Home Office also says there are six problems with deploying these technological solutions: one, it is expensive and there is no budget; two, it has to operate with 28 different UK Government agencies; three, it needs to operate on both sides of the border; four, it will not be deliverable until 2030; five, the Government have a poor track record—to say the least—on big tech projects; and six, no one in the world has done anything similar. That is hardly a recipe for success.
The real answer to the Northern Ireland border question is staring the Government in the face. Twenty-eight months and two Brexit Secretaries ago, I told the Minister from this Dispatch Box that the only way to avoid a hard border was to stay in the customs union and to align all rules and regulations. He himself said three years ago that for anyone to pretend otherwise
“flies in the face of reality”.
That was the truth then, and it remains the truth today, so why will the Government not wake up to it?
I told the right hon. Lady in my previous answer that a £20 million budget had already been earmarked for this work. Whatever she may be reading in the newspapers about timetables, it is also the case that not just the United Kingdom but the European Union has committed itself to trying to get these alternative measures agreed by 2020. The European Commission has not entered into that undertaking and commitment lightly or without some thought and analysis of the chances of achieving it. The solution she identifies for a frictionless border on the island of Ireland would be delivered by the Government’s withdrawal agreement, so she should be urging her right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the Government’s proposal, instead of rejecting it and therefore blocking the Brexit that her party’s manifesto commits her to.
Let’s face it: we have heard it all before. The only point that the Minister did not make this time was that Britain must be able to establish her own international trade agreements. Perhaps he was listening to Nancy Pelosi last week, when she made it clear that if the UK Government disrupted the open border in Northern Ireland, we could forget all about a free trade deal with the United States.
So the Government are going to spend millions on giving Donald Trump the red-carpet, golden-carriage treatment in June. Perhaps the state banquet might even be worth it, so long as he is forced to sit next to Greta Thunberg—or how about this? He could have Greta on one side and David Attenborough on the other. That would be three hours well spent. The truth is, however, that it will all be a giant waste of taxpayers’ money, because the US Congress will never agree to a trade deal unless we have a solution to the Irish border issue that will actually work, and this Government simply do not have one.
Just two short years ago, the right hon. Lady said that we should
“welcome the American President…We have to work with him.”
I wonder whether something has changed about the United States Administration or something has changed about the right hon. Lady’s own leadership ambitions to alter her words in this way.
I thought that both the Government and the Labour party wanted to see no tariffs, no quotas, no rules of origin checks and a seamless border on the island of Ireland, yet on three occasions the right hon. Lady and her colleagues have voted against a deal that would deliver those things to which they claim to be committed. It is about time that she put principle and the national interest ahead of party advantage.
I think we will find that there is only one side of the House that is engaged in a leadership contest at the moment, and it is very active as we speak.
In a week like this, when we have all been shocked and saddened by horrific acts of terrorism at home and abroad, we remember that the first job of any Government is to keep our country and our citizens safe. Even before our concerns about the economy, the main reason we need to keep an open border with Ireland is to preserve the peace and security on which millions of British and Irish citizens have come to depend, but which, in a week like this, seem to hang by a thread. If the Government are serious about putting the country first—the whole of our country—will the Minister accept that that means finally getting serious about the cross-party negotiations, and putting the option of a customs union on the table?
I appreciate that the right hon. Lady has not been in the room at times—I think she is now being described as being in the “outer inner circle” around the Labour leadership—but I can say to her that the substance and the tone of the conversations between the Government and Opposition teams have been constructive. I think that there is a genuine attempt to find a way through. However, I will not hide the fact that this is very difficult, because if it is going to work it will mean both parties making compromises and our ending up with a solution which, unlike any other proposed so far, will secure a majority in the House. So far, the House has rejected our deal; it has rejected the Opposition’s proposals; it has rejected a referendum; it has rejected revocation; it has rejected a customs union; and it has rejected common market 2.0.
This is not just a matter for the Government, or even for the Opposition Front Bench. It is a matter for every Member of the House to take our responsibilities to the country seriously, and to find a way in which to agree on an outcome that will enable us to deliver on the referendum result and take this country forward.
The Government are very clear indeed that we do not agree with a second referendum, and we have voted against a second referendum. All of us recall telling our electors in 2016 that their decision was going to be final and would be accepted, whatever the outcome of that referendum would be. I think it would do harm to the fragile confidence in our political institutions, were that commitment to be set aside.
The Scottish National party joins in saying that we are horrified by the atrocious attacks in Sri Lanka. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is right to say that all of us, from all religions and none, should be considering religious tolerance and ensuring that we champion it. Also, as her funeral commences shortly, our thoughts are with the family and friends of Lyra McKee, and we would like to make it clear that we stand with Lyra. We would also like to join the celebration of Billy McNeill’s life and work. Of course, in addition to being the manager of Celtic, he was previously the manager of Aberdeen in his time.
Climate change is the biggest crisis facing the world today. Even the Environment Secretary has admitted that this Government have failed to do enough. Yesterday, he promised that the UK Government would take action. This Government have spent millions on nuclear power, cut support for renewable energy projects and continued to pursue fracking. Does taking action include reversing those damaging policies?
As my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary said yesterday, there is clearly more that needs to be done. All of us who are of an age to be here would probably recognise that our generations have not done sufficient to meet this challenge, but I think the hon. Lady underestimates how much work has been done by the United Kingdom. Since 2010, we have reduced CO2 emissions faster than any other G20 nation. Between 2010 and 2018, we reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about a quarter overall. Our renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, and the proportion of our electricity coming from low-carbon resources has increased from 19% to more than half in 2018, a record year for renewables. There is a lot more to do, but I think that that is a good record on which to base that future action.
I do not think that that answer recognises the scale of the challenge that we face. The Scottish Government have already brought forward a Climate Change Bill with some of the most ambitious statutory targets of any country in the world, with the aim of Scotland being carbon neutral by 2050. If we need to go further, we will. The UK Government commissioned new advice from the UK Committee on Climate Change on what the UK’s targets should be, and that advice is due next week. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that when the advice is published next week, the UK Government will adopt the recommended targets immediately and in full?
I am going to wait to see what the advice is, and I am sure that the House could want to do that, as well as to learn from the Government directly what their decisions are going to be. Passing legislation can get us so far, but actually we need not just legislation but a change in attitudes and approach that runs right across society and industry. The UK has cut its emissions by 40% since 1990, but I am encouraged that in that same period our economy has grown by two thirds. Greater prosperity and green policies are not incompatible; they can and should be made to work together.
As I would have expected, my hon. Friend rightly champions both the produce of his constituency and the needs of businesses there. We have established a two-year pilot that provides for a six-month scheme for non-EU migrants to work on UK farms. Although specifically designed to help the horticultural sector, the pilot was never designed to meet its full labour needs, so we will need to evaluate what happens in practice. However, the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be looking closely at the impact on the north-east of Scotland.
The facts are that the Government have increased police funding by more than £970 million for the next year, and the Labour party voted against that increase when the order came before the House. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that this situation is not only about policing and new laws, but about early intervention. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has secured £220 million for early intervention projects to try to steer young people at risk of knife crime and other violent crime away from the gangs that can seduce them into that appalling way of life.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which she has championed this and other environmental issues during her time in the House. I can certainly say that a Minister—I do not know whether it will be the Prime Minister—will be happy to see her and other parliamentary colleagues. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that we will want to look at the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change to understand what would be needed to achieve that net zero emissions target early and the practical steps that that would involve. However, I can assure her that we are investing more that £2.5 billion to support low-carbon innovation in the UK over the next six years alone. Clean growth is a priority for the Government and will remain so.
I completely understand the concern, particularly among hard-working civil servants in Cumbernauld who expected to be reassigned. There is now a difference in the way in which citizens choose to interact with HMRC, with fewer people wanting or needing to access an office and more people being willing and choosing to work with the taxman online, which is clearly going to have implications. It seems to me that the priority has to be to maintain a high quality of service for businesses and individual taxpayers.
The Minister will be aware of the wildfires burning across the country, including one in Moray that started near Knockando on Monday and continues despite the efforts of more than 50 firefighters. Will he join me in congratulating and praising incident commander Bruce Farquharson, all the teams involved and the other emergency services that have made this a multi-agency response? Will he also urge people to assist the fire service by keeping away from the area to allow the dedicated and committed firefighters to bring this blaze under control?
The problem with that proposal is that, so far, whenever the idea of a second referendum has been brought before the House there has been a majority against it. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal would actually deliver the outcome he seeks.
I associate myself with the remarks about Sri Lanka. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he thinks it likely that we will leave the European Union by 22 May? Does he agree with me that both the major political parties are likely to suffer at the polls if we do not? What does it say to my Leicestershire constituents about the democratic process if this House cannot get the withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union over the line?
I completely understand and share the sense of exasperation that my hon. Friend expresses. It has been made very clear from this Dispatch Box on several occasions that the consequence of the House voting to reject the withdrawal agreement and in favour of an extension is that the Government would need to make preparations, as required by law, for those European elections. The way in which we solve this problem is for Parliament to assemble a majority behind a deal, to vote for it, to get the legislation through and to give effect to our departure from the EU.
There has been, because of the scale of the deficit that was inherited in 2010, a need for severe restraints on public expenditure, including public sector pay. Where we are today is that there is flexibility within the overall pay ceiling, Department by Department, for Departments to negotiate arrangements with their workforces that permit higher wage increases than the ones to which the hon. Lady refers.
On Sunday, more than 40,000 people will take part in the London marathon. Many of them will be supporting the dementia revolution on behalf of Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, and some of them are sitting on the Government Benches. The UK is the world leader in dementia research. I visited the Dementia Research Institute with members of the Science and Technology Committee today. Will the Government continue to support dementia research, encourage more people—especially those in their 30s, 40s and 50s—to take part in research trials, and wish the very best of luck to everyone in the marathon on Sunday?
I join my hon. Friend in wishing success and strength to everybody taking part in the marathon on Sunday, particularly to Members from all parts of the House and, I suspect, one or two people in the Press Gallery as well. My hon. Friend makes an important point about dementia. One of the welcome changes we are seeing is that as a society we are more open about the fact that many of us will live with dementia at some stage in our lives. The Government commitment to which she referred, to dementia research and to trying to remove the stigma from dementia, will be maintained.
At the last count, I was aware of no fewer than 16 hon. and right hon. Members of the House intending to take part in the London marathon, including the Secretary of State for Wales and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), from whom we heard earlier, but who was too modest or self-effacing to mention her prospective involvement.
The aid budget and the Foreign Office diplomatic expenditure budget give, and will continue to give, priority to human rights, including the rights of Christians and people of other faiths. The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct in saying that in many countries Christians face persecution and discrimination. We work to try to improve standards of justice and civil rights in those countries, and we work with Christian and other religious communities who are under threat. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has recently commissioned a review of our work to help persecuted Christians overseas, to make sure that we are focusing the right degree of resource and effort on delivering the improvements in outcome that the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly seeks.
Current immigration requirements oblige Commonwealth service- men and women to pay £2,389 to apply for indefinite leave to remain after four years’ service, or almost £10,000 for a family of four. That considerable cost does not reflect the nation’s respect for those who are prepared, in extremis, to give their lives for our country. I have therefore written a cross-party letter with the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), signed by 130 Members of Parliament, to the Home Secretary to seek his support to abolish these visa fees. At a time when the UK is chair of the Commonwealth, will my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister give their support to this great non-party political cause, which is supported by the Royal British Legion?
I want to pay tribute to men and women from Commonwealth countries who serve in our armed services. That service is something that this and previous Governments have valued enormously. On the particular point that my hon. Friend makes about immigration requirements, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will take very seriously, and look very carefully at, the representations that my hon. Friend is making.
Every Member of this House will condemn without reservation the behaviour to which the hon. Gentleman referred; it should be regarded as completely beyond the bounds of acceptability in our society. My hon. Friend the Sport Minister will want to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and any other colleagues in the House who make this issue a priority, to discuss what more might be done.
Yesterday, Jane Golding, who chairs British in Europe, which represents more than 1.3 million British nationals in the EU27, reminded me that Michel Barnier’s letter in response to the House’s requirement that we carve out the citizens’ rights element of the withdrawal agreement is almost one month old. Given the absence of the passage of a withdrawal agreement, will my right hon. Friend inform the House of what actions the Government have taken since they received Michel Barnier’s letter?
As I recall, my hon. Friend was successful in seeking that the Government should make representations to the European Commission to ask it to carve the citizens’ rights elements out of the overall withdrawal agreement. There are legal problems with that, in that the withdrawal agreement stands together as a package, and as a package has been submitted to the European Parliament, having been formally and legally approved by the European Council. To separate elements of the agreement might therefore mean having to go through those European procedures again, assuming the political willingness to do so were there. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to speak urgently to my hon. Friend to update him on where we are on the issue.
The rules on emissions from shipping are not unique to the United Kingdom: the standards of measurement are global. As I said in earlier exchanges, the Government are the first to say that more needs to be done, but the hon. Gentleman does us an injustice in not acknowledging that we have a better track record on this issue than any other member of the G7. He asked about investment: our annual support for renewables will be more than £10 billion by 2021. We have opened the world’s largest offshore wind farm, which is capable of powering 600,000 homes, and the world’s first ever floating offshore wind farm. Some 99% of the solar power we have in the UK has been deployed since 2010. That is a good track record.
Legally speaking, Huawei is a private firm, not a Government-owned company, but my right hon. Friend takes us to the question about the proposed roll-out of 5G networks. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has commissioned a wide-ranging and thorough review of this matter. We are giving priority to stronger cyber-security practice across the entire telecommunications sector, greater resilience in telecommunications networks and, critically, diversity in the entire 5G supply chain, because this question goes beyond any single company. When we have taken decisions about that review, we will announce them to the House in the proper way.
We are investing record amounts in Wales’s railway infrastructure. Network Rail investment in the Wales route for control period 6, which takes us up to 2024, will be more than £1.5 billion. It will deliver improved journeys for passengers in Wales on the most advanced new trains. In south Wales, passengers and commuters are already experiencing real improvements thanks to the new Intercity express trains, each of which have 130 extra seats compared with the typical high-speed train. I really wish that the hon. Gentleman had paid tribute to that achievement, rather than carping.
I will, if I may, add a few words of tribute of my own to Billy McNeill, who was a childhood hero of mine and a truly legendary Celt. His family have described his brave struggle with dementia—a subject reminiscent of the question that was asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). My own mother passed away earlier this year owing to the effects of dementia. Scottish universities are doing world-leading research into the prevention of dementia and they currently receive about £100 million of funding each year from the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that funding will be maintained and that this research will be protected as we leave the European Union?
If we get the implementation period that is envisaged by the withdrawal agreement then those funding arrangements will continue until the end of that period. At that point, there will need to be decisions by Government as a whole about their spending priorities, including on medical research, but, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the Government’s commitment to dementia research and to ending the stigma of dementia is something that will continue.
What we are seeing in this country is not only the £10 billion that I spoke about in the earlier exchange, but enterprising innovative companies—large and small—seizing the opportunities of developing green technology and renewable energy technology in a way that will take advantage not just of the change in the domestic market, but of that growing export market globally as well. Through their industrial strategy, the Government will continue to work for green growth, and I hope very much that businesses in Midlothian and elsewhere in the UK will benefit from that.
At the most recent indicative votes, the Opposition did move one of their key red lines and supported a proposal that did not specify a permanent customs union. In fact, they supported customs arrangements—a temporary customs union followed by alternative arrangements. Now that the Government and Opposition are virtually on the same page, is it not time to put party politics to one side and agree a deal in the national interest?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we look to the future relationship with the European Union, we are looking at the customs arrangement that would be in place as part of that future relationship. We have already indicated—as reflected in the existing text of the political declaration—that we want to retain the benefits of a customs union, with no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin checks. We remain focused on agreeing an approach that delivers on the result of the referendum, which was for the UK to leave. I hope that it would be possible to bring Members from all parties of the House together in support of a customs arrangement as part of a wider approach to our future relationship with the European Union that enables us to get on with this task in the way in which the British people expect.
Let me go back to the subject that the Minister started this session with. In a few minutes, the funeral of Lyra McKee will begin in Belfast. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are both there, and rightly so. We extend our deepest sympathies to Lyra’s partner Sara, and to her family and friends, at this terrible time. The message across Northern Ireland is that violence is not acceptable and will never succeed; it has never been acceptable and it never will be. Does the Minister agree that it was an utterly repulsive statement from those who carried out this terrible atrocity that, somehow, the murder of police officers is totally legitimate and it was just an accident that Lyra was killed? In standing with Lyra today, we stand with everyone—journalists, police officers and all who serve the community in Northern Ireland. An attack on any one of them is an attack on us all.
I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman just said. I thought that the finest riposte to those sickening claims by the terrorists was that the leaders of both the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin came together, there in the Creggan estate in Derry, and put aside the real differences between them to reject the path towards violence and terror—the joint statement by all party leaders in Northern Ireland rejecting terrorism. The visible expressions of grief and anger towards the terrorists by the communities both of nationalists and of Unionists in the city of Derry/Londonderry has been a visible riposte—but also the most compelling and moving one—to the evil claims of those behind that terrorist act. Those political leaders and communities in Derry spoke for the reality and for the heart of the people of Northern Ireland.
Saudi Arabia: Mass Executions
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if he will make a statement on what representations he has made to the Saudi Government with respect to the mass execution of 37 people yesterday.
We are very concerned by the executions of 37 men in Saudi Arabia, and the Foreign Office is working to establish the full facts. The Foreign Secretary will be raising this matter with the Saudi authorities at the earliest opportunity. The UK Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including in Saudi Arabia. We regularly raise human rights concerns, including the use of the death penalty, at the highest levels with the Saudi Arabian authorities.
May I ask the Minister specifically what representations were made in respect of the 12 condemned men I referred to the Prime Minister’s attention on 3 December, including Abbas al-Hassan, who was executed yesterday?
Does the Minister recall his predecessor’s statement on 7 March 2018 that the Foreign Office was
“concerned with those cases where minors might have been indicted”—[Official Report, 7 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 319.]
but that he had received assurances on that matter? Is the Minister now aware of the fact that three of the executed people, and possibly more, were indeed juveniles, and that in most of these cases—again, in flagrant disregard for international law—most appear to have been tortured prior to the extraction of confessions? Does he acknowledge that there have been around 100 executions so far this year and that, according to the campaigning group Reprieve, Saudi Arabia is on track to execute 300 people by the end of this year? Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of Reprieve to go through the list of condemned people and see how representations could most effectively be made?
Finally, does he accept that Britain’s moral position on this issue is somewhat compromised by the continued supply of arms, fuelling atrocities in the civil war in Yemen, and that we are in urgent need of a reappraisal of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, given that the continued medieval barbarism of the regime does not constitute the basis for a friendly alliance, and indeed makes it an enemy of our values and our human rights?
I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this situation does raise the gravest imaginable concerns. Executing 37 people is a deeply backwards step, which we deplore. In response to the specific question about representations that have been made in the past, I can confirm that British embassy representatives in Riyadh did make representations regarding specific individuals last November.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that one of the grave concerns about these executions is that they would appear to include minors, or those who were minors at the time that the charges were made. This is of course totally unacceptable and we deplore it. I can advise the House that in just the last few minutes, the European Union—and we have put our name fully to this—has issued a very strong statement of condemnation through the European External Action Service, pointing out that these executions are a regressive step and specifically raising concerns that some of the 37 people executed were minors.
I fully appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman is saying regarding our arms exports. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faces a number of threats; the issue of arms is not just about using arms in Yemen. We ensure that any arms exports fully comply with the consolidated criteria that govern any such sales.
I share the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box. The security and stability of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia matters a great deal in the region, and is indeed the basis of our relationship. Notwithstanding our shared concerns with regards to terror, will my right hon. Friend confirm that we do everything we can to use our influence to impress upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that that relationship carries with it obligations? When he and the House express themselves in such strong terms, there is usually a very good reason why those concerns are being expressed, and they should be listened to.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said. He speaks with the utmost authority in this House and was an excellent Minister for the Middle East; I have to say that, at a moment like this, I rather wish that he still was. I can say in all honesty that, despite always being polite, he never held back from telling his counterparts in Saudi Arabia where he thought they were making mistakes and where he thought their record on human rights fell short. It is by having access of that sort and having trusted Ministers on our side that we can best get that message over—and I hope, over time, make a difference.
As we have heard, yesterday saw the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia since January 2016, in which 37 people were killed. According to the official Saudi press agency, the men were executed:
“for adopting terrorist and extremist thinking and for forming terrorist cells to corrupt and destabilise security”.
They were arrested after four Islamic State gunmen attacked a Saudi security compound in Riyadh, but the Saudi authorities have still not made clear whether those arrested were linked to the attacks.
Publicly pinning one of the headless bodies to a pole as a warning is not only disturbingly barbaric and medieval in nature, but an abhorrent violation of human rights. According to the families of those executed, there was no prior notice that the executions would be carried out. That is a blatant flouting of international standards set out by even the most brutal of regimes that still use the death penalty. We know that some, if not all, of those executed were convicted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court, which has been widely condemned by human rights groups as secretive, and which has in the past been used to try human rights activists, whom the state often wrongly regards as terrorists.
We also know that at least three of those executed were juveniles—a clear violation of international law, which the Saudi regime appears to care very little about. Abdulkarim al-Hawaj was charged with participating in demonstrations, incitement via social media and preparing banners with anti-state slogans. Reports from human rights watchdogs in the country claim that he was beaten and the so-called confessions extracted from him through various means of torture. Mujtaba al-Sweikat was a student about to begin his studies at Western Michigan University when he was arrested at King Fahd airport, beaten and so-called confessions extracted through torture. Salman Qureish was just 18 when he was executed, but he was convicted of crimes that allegedly took place when he was still a child. The UN has condemned his sentencing and the use of the death penalty against him after he was denied basic legal rights, such as access to a lawyer.
Saudi Arabia has executed more than 100 people already this year. If it continues, the number of executions this year alone will reach over 300. Human rights group Reprieve says that five of the prisoners it supported were executed yesterday. Many were forced to stand in stress positions for hours and deprived of sleep until a confession was extracted.
These executions have caused a breakdown in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran and has the potential to destabilise the region further, so what discussions has the Minister had with his Saudi counterpart since the executions took place? Will the Government condemn the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia today? Will the Government call for an immediate end to executions in Saudi Arabia? Finally, what plans do the Government have to tackle the use of violence against human rights activists in Saudi Arabia?
I yield to none in my affection and admiration for the hon. Gentleman, but he is fortunate that I am in a generous mood. I note in passing that he was due to speak for two minutes, spoke for a little over three, and the first of his four questions was posed after three minutes and one second. It was a volley of unsurpassable eloquence, but it was a tad too long.
I will happily confirm that you always win, but I will not say in which direction I am pointing, Mr Speaker.
I do not think anyone in this House would disagree with what the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) has said. All Members want to defend human rights, and we abhor executions of this sort. We really do genuinely disapprove in the strongest possible terms of what has happened, particularly when it is reported that one of those executed was displayed on a cross—something that anyone in this House just a few days after Easter will find more repulsive than anything we could have pictured.
We have to be sure of our facts, however. We need to find out directly what precisely were the supposed crimes and what was the due process used. Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can legitimately use its law to bear down on genuine extremist threats, its Government must appreciate that there will be growing international pressure on them to accept that the sort of action we are discussing is utterly unacceptable in the modern world. It does them no credit and it does not support the basis of law that any proper country should be working on.
I have worked with the hon. Members for Stockton South (Dr Williams) and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on a detention review panel of the female human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Does my right hon. Friend accept that these executions and the accelerating pace of executions in Saudi Arabia cannot be seen in isolation from the wider criminal justice policy—if that is what one should call it—that relates to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of civil society activists in Saudi Arabia? If Saudi Arabian civil society space is closed down as it has been, the security and stability of the country, which is after all our ally, will be the victim.
My hon. Friend makes a serious point: any country needs to realise that using such methods will eventually backfire. Although I think there are greater arguments for pointing out how unacceptable such methods are, rulers are wise to be mindful of such dangers.
I did not answer the question put by the hon. Member for Leeds North East about human rights defenders. Yes, we will raise the issue of freedom and protection for those who defend human rights. It is not acceptable to attack non-governmental organisations when what they are doing is trying to defend justice.
I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this urgent question.
We are here to discuss yet more appalling human rights violations. There is huge concern about this latest mass execution. Not only is it reported that a number of those executed were from the Shi’a minority, but, critically, and as has been pointed out, a number of those put to death were minors at the time of the alleged crimes.
We have been here rather frequently to discuss human rights violations, what is happening in Yemen, the murder of Mr Khashoggi, and so on. The issues are raised, and when we talk about arms sales and our relations with Saudi Arabia we are told that we have influence, but it is difficult to see that influence at the moment. Does the Minister agree that we must reassess the relationship with Saudi Arabia? Also, instead of us coming back time after time to discuss more issues of concern, will the right hon. Gentleman commit to returning to the House to tell us what has been done about that reassessment?
I will be discussing this with the Foreign Secretary, and he will be calling his counterpart, the relatively new Foreign Minister in Saudi Arabia. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point that we should all take on board: the broader picture gives growing cause for concern. We can look at those who have been executed and their number—Shi’a, minors and those whose crimes we do not know, as well as the Khashoggi incident—and I am sure that we will be robust in our embassy and Minister-to-Minister representations. It is important that the regime in Saudi Arabia appreciates that the voice of world opinion can only get louder in its condemnation.
The King of Saudi Arabia is reported as being interested in ensuring that there is prison reform in his kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that prison conditions will be on the agenda next time he raises human rights with the Saudis?
This is an important agenda. When I was a Minister at the Department for International Development, I always wanted prison visiting and access to be a condition of any aid that we gave to a country, although I did not exactly succeed in my objective. My hon. Friend illustrates the important point that when people are hidden and no one can get to them, we do not know what is going on. The ability for decent people to inspect prisons and visit prisoners, as is the case in this country, is a very important aspect of any judicial system and the human rights that ought to go alongside it.
Saudi Arabia is now one of the world’s top executioners, behind only China and Iran. Amnesty International called the recent executions
“a chilling demonstration of the Saudi Arabian authorities’ callous disregard for human life. It is also yet another gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shi’a minority.”
These Shi’a men apparently were convicted after sham trials that involved torture. We must condemn this in the strongest possible terms and take some kind of action. Words are easy, but the UK must give a direct indication that we will not put up with this kind of thing.
No one can question the right hon. Lady’s track record on defending human rights. We hear loudly what she says. One of the questions we need to ask the Saudi Government is what on earth they think this will achieve. The practical benefit seems entirely negative, and I hope that the rational argument that the death penalty achieves nothing in the modern world will eventually sink in.
Does the Minister feel, as I do, that the feebleness of the response to the Khashoggi murder and the butchering of his body has in some way encouraged the Saudi authorities to think they can get away with anything, no matter how brutal and borderline insane?
I do not quite agree with my right hon. Friend. The international reaction was pretty robust, and a collective voice condemned it, led by Turkey, where it happened. I would like to think that that incident had a dividend and it got through to people that it was unacceptable, and they were taken aback by the fact that the murder of one person counted for so much elsewhere in the world. I hope it will never be repeated.
Three more juveniles who were arrested after the Arab spring for peaceful protest—Dawood al-Marhoon, Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah Hasan al-Zaher—have gone through the same process and are on death row awaiting execution by beheading, which could happen at any time with no notice. Will the Government make specific representations for those three? Otherwise, we will see more executions as the year progresses.
These 37 executions will spur us to take a deep interest in not only the general concept and principle of the death penalty but individual cases. Given the robustness of the statement just issued by the European Union, I am confident that we will not be alone in making our opinions clear.
I remind the House that I chair the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group and am an officer of the all-party group on Kuwait, so I hope the Minister will accept that he does not need to persuade me of the importance of creating good relations with our friends in the Gulf. But when I read about the use of not only capital punishment but torture to obtain confessions, on the basis of which the executions were carried out—including the torture of Munir al-Adam, who was beaten so badly that he lost his hearing in one ear—I find myself asking, why do the Government of my country want to regard these people as our friends? Surely this is the time for a fundamental reappraisal of our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
We unreservedly condemn torture in all circumstances. I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is asking for. We have to look at the broader picture of the entire Gulf and the dangers around it. That is always taken into consideration when looking at who we work with across the world.
I know how much my right hon. Friend cares and how hard he works on these matters of human rights. The European Union has also condemned what is happening. Can we ensure that this is not just the ritual condemnation that happens immediately after an event and then is forgotten, but that at every opportunity in his dialogue with Saudi counterparts, he stresses the value that this country and our European partners place on freedom, human rights, religious freedom and all those areas that would be of great benefit to Saudi Arabia if it were to embrace them?
My hon. Friend is right. It is no good just having a day’s anger after an event such as this. It has to be persistent and consistent, and the condemnation of executions of this sort and any abuse of human rights has to be built into our policy and actions at all time.
Human rights abuses, executions, airstrikes in Yemen killing 100 in March alone, including 19 children—if the Saudis continue to fail to listen to the Minister’s pleading, why does he extend to them the veneer of respectability?
The hon. Lady mentions Yemen. I have spent many decades taking an interest in Yemen. I hope we will now see some progress towards a political settlement. We have to give our full support to Martin Griffiths, our UN representative. Part of the message we have to send to the Saudi Government is that bombings in Yemen do not achieve any of the objectives they have set out to achieve, and we need a political settlement as a matter of urgency.
It is difficult to fathom the logic of such senseless barbarism in Saudi Arabia’s policies, and this has wider implications, particularly in relation to Iran and the geopolitical stability of the middle east. At what point will this country’s commercial and geopolitical interests come second to the need to demonstrate moral courage and real economic consequences of Saudi Arabia’s continued behaviour?
As the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said, the vast majority of those executed yesterday were Shi’a Muslims. To what degree do the British Government consider that the Saudi regime is using the death penalty as a means of quashing dissent among a persecuted religious minority within its borders?
I do not think that this is the moment for me to give an extended thesis on such matters, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. In many parts of the middle east, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is very intensive and creates enormous tension, difficulty and strife. I very much hope that in the years ahead, we will see the temperature settle and good relations between Sunni and Shi’a communities everywhere.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this point. As a Government, we tend to attend internationally important trials in all countries, where of course it is permitted by the host Government. We have been denied access to trials in certain circumstances in Saudi Arabia. I think that defending human rights activists and NGOs is very important. To that end, our embassy is very active, and some of its engagement with the Government may not be popular with them, but that is what our embassies should be doing. They are defending justice, decency and human rights, and that is what our foreign policy is designed to do.
These men could not have been convicted in any court worthy of the name, because a conviction that relies on evidence obtained through torture is no conviction. In the eyes of any law, these men were innocent: they were not executed; they were murdered for dissenting from the policies of the dictatorship that runs the country.
The Minister has listed a lot of things the Government have done previously that have made no difference. If anything, Saudi Arabia is going in the wrong direction. He has ruled out a fundamental rethink of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, and he has ruled out a fundamental rethink of our multibillion-pound arms trade with Saudi Arabia. Will the Minister tell us what else is left that the Government have not already tried, and which has failed to persuade these people that the regime does not belong in the 21st century?
First, we do have to be certain about establishing the facts in these cases. I know that a lot of suggestions have been made about many things that may have happened with the 37, but before we speak with the authority of Government, we do very much feel obliged to establish all the facts first and to engage with the Saudi Government in doing so. On what can be done, I again go back to the point about growing international pressure. I hope that, by acting in concert with other countries, we can, perhaps on the back of these executions, make a difference to future policy and behaviour in the kingdom.
This is an ally whose behaviour is as bad, if not worse, than most of the regimes around the globe that we would regard as hostile. I guess that ordinary constituents listening to this and reacting to the barbarism will want to know whether there is a bottom line. Is there a point at which this becomes a friendship not worth having?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is a moral dilemma here. Moral dilemmas are never a choice between black and white; they are a choice between different shades of grey, and there is deep murkiness here that we do not like. I hear exactly what the hon. Gentleman says, and we will continue to make the points and keep up the pressure I have been describing today.
Amnesty International has said that there was a welcome reduction last year in the number of executions worldwide, but clearly what Saudi Arabia is doing is going in the opposite direction. The worst offenders are China with more than 1,000, Iran with several hundred, and then Saudi, Vietnam and Iraq. What steps can we take internationally, in the UN and elsewhere, to get back to the good trend of a reduction in the number of executions?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the trend has been thrown into reverse gear. That is what the EU statement today says specifically in respect of Saudi Arabia. We do not just want the trajectory to be going downwards; we want it to be down at zero. That is our ambition and I hope, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that the UN can play its part in making a resounding noise of condemnation in relation to those who use the death penalty in any circumstances.
While it is always a pleasure to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box, it really is nonsense that the Prime Minister has not been able to replace the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) in such a key role for the Government at this time.
These reports are highly distressing. Does the Minister agree, however, that the UK will undermine its efforts to persuade our security allies such as Saudi Arabia to reform this draconian justice system if it does not itself apply the fundamental values of British liberty and fair due process to its own citizens, even those—perhaps particularly those—who have been radicalised in the UK and have gone abroad to commit terrorist acts in other countries? Should they not be brought back here to be tried, rather than be subjected to a judicial process way below the standards we would accept here in the UK?
I accept that we are one Minister down in the Foreign Office at the moment, and that may well be because my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is in fact irreplaceable.
On due process, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is straying slightly from the focus of this urgent question, but when someone is subject to the law and the process of the courts in the UK, I think we can be proud of our judicial system and the fairness it contains.
I thank the Minister for his very helpful responses. The Minister will know that Saudi Arabia has a death penalty in law for those who convert from Islam to Christianity. Freedom of religious belief has been very much in the minds of all of us in this House—including the Minister, I know—and of those outside this House as well. The death penalty for someone pursuing their religious belief and conviction is unbelievable in this day and age, especially in the light of the murderous intent of those against Christians in Sri Lanka. What discussions has the Minister had with the Saudi Arabian Government about removing the death penalty for changing religion?
Our objective is for the Saudi Arabian Government to remove the death penalty for absolutely everything. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made very clear statements in defence of religious freedom everywhere, particularly in defence of Christians, who are increasingly being persecuted across the world. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the atrocities in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were, to a large extent, against Christians who were worshipping on Easter Day. I hope that the voice of the Foreign Office and the application of our foreign policy will be to defend human rights, religious freedom and—as my right hon. Friend has said as well, and importantly—media freedom.
I have received a communication this afternoon from Southwark Crown court informing me that Chris Davies, the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, has been convicted of providing false or misleading information for a parliamentary allowances claim. Since Mr Davies pleaded guilty, there can be no appeal against conviction. This notification accordingly triggers the provisions of the Recall of MPs Act 2015, and I will accordingly be writing to the relevant petition officer to inform that person that Chris Davies is therefore subject to a recall petition process. It will be for that officer to make the arrangements for the petition.
Gambling (Industry Levy Review and Protections for Vulnerable People)
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 establish a review of the case for a levy on the gross revenues of gambling firms and to require that review to make recommendations on the possible uses of revenue from such a levy in connection with research on gambling addiction, protections for children and other vulnerable people at risk of being harmed by gambling, and gambling addiction clinics; and for connected purposes.
There is very little, if anything, more important for MPs to do than supporting and protecting the most vulnerable in our nation. Typically, that is reflected in the huge amount of our public spending rightly spent on welfare and pensions, in using science and technology for remarkable solutions to health issues, including mental health issues, and in much greater awareness of and legislation against hatred and prejudices of all kinds. This Bill, however, aims to help with a different sort of vulnerability—that resulting from the increasing amount of addiction to gambling, which, in extreme circumstances, has led, and does lead, to suicide. There is nothing more sad than meeting a constituent, or non-constituent, who has lost a child to suicide as a result of the pressures of gambling debts. Even one life destroyed by gambling is too many. The depressing thing is that we simply do not know how many people have committed suicide as a result of gambling.
The only statistics available suggest that last year, between 250 and 650 gamblers committed suicide. I know of at least one case where the family ensured that gambling was not the reason given at the inquest. For how many more is that true? What is the real figure of suicide gamblers? Whether it is 250 or 650, it surely tells us forcefully that the assumptions in the Gambling Act 2005 about gambling being harmless for the vast majority of people need to be challenged; that existing protections are not working as they should; and that we—Government, Parliament, the regulator, the gambling sector, charities, us as a society—need to do a lot more to protect those vulnerable to gambling addiction.
This is urgent, because the problem is getting worse. More than 55,000 young people under the age of 14 are already addicted—a figure up sharply on even two years ago and rising fast. That is alongside 430,000 adults with a serious gambling issue—what we would in normal English call addicts—and 2 million at risk. That, above all, is why I seek leave today to bring in a Bill to ask the Government to review the case for a levy. I cannot in a ten-minute rule Bill ask directly for a specific levy, although as Simon and Garfunkel once put it, if I could, I surely would.
The main aim of such a levy would be to research what causes gambling addiction. How does it start? Who is it most likely to impact? Who is most vulnerable? How can we spot the signs, and what can we do to prevent it? Although prevention is always better than cure, what more can we do through gambling clinics and other means to help those already addicted? What can we learn from those who have almost become addicted and pulled back successfully, on their own or with help?
This needs immediate and deep investment in research to analyse the extent of gambling addiction, including looking at all aspects of marketing and advertising by gambling companies. The chair of the regulator, the Gambling Commission, has said that
“problem gambling has a real cost to the economy and to the individuals and families affected by it, although the scale of the adverse impact is currently poorly understood.”
That is a huge understatement. The damage done not just to individual lives but to families and friends, with strains on relationships, marriages, jobs and mental health, is already considerable and getting worse.
Let me say something about a potential levy on gambling company gross profits. The industry’s gross profits of £14 billion, tax receipts of £3 billion, 100,000 employees and £200 million of advertising revenues give an idea of the volume of gambling. Although the regulator requires a voluntary contribution, the current amount raised— £9 million a year—is tiny compared with the size of the industry. A reasonable levy could generate significant revenue to fund new independent research to recommend much greater protection for children and other vulnerable people at risk, including university students, often lonely and mentally unconfident in new surroundings. Such a levy could also fund jointly commissioned gambling clinics, like the new one in London and the one coming soon in Leeds. At the moment, just 2% of those who need help get it, and that cannot be right. The Gordon Moody Association rehabilitation centres have long waiting lists; a levy could bring them down and provide help as soon as possible. In short, addiction is a public health issue, but gambling addiction involves every aspect of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. A levy on the gambling sector to fund the help needed has to be right.
Research could also inform my belief that more action is needed to protect the young from gambling advertising. That means eliminating gambling advertising on live sports programmes. More than 90 minutes of betting adverts were shown during the football World cup, and no live sport on non-BBC channels is free of gambling advertising. Three big companies have already agreed in principle to do that, and I believe it should be implemented as soon as possible, but we should go further and the Gambling Commission should ban gambling advertising during live sport altogether.
The levy could also be used to build on much stronger self-exclusion, with real commitments from banks. How can gamblers access credit that they clearly cannot afford, racking up massive debts, without gambling companies, banks or the regulator being able to prevent it? Why cannot banks identify the issue earlier, and how easy is it for gamblers to completely self-exclude, to stop getting emails or texts highlighting the latest improbable deal? There is currently no easy way for gamblers to put effective blocks on debit card transactions. That is why I fully endorse the Gambling Commission’s discussions with banks about how to improve protection for problem gamblers, and I urge both to move fast on taking real action. I hope that research would echo that.
There has been progress on the software used by some gambling companies to allow for effective self-exclusion, but I have also been shown how easy it is to get around that; some gamblers will go to great lengths to get around self-exclusion blockages. I have seen evidence of how difficult it can be to contact a human in the gambling companies, and I have seen how once a company has an individual’s contact details it will pump out attractive, if sometimes misleading, special offers, day and night. The review could look at how self-exclusion can become an absolute guaranteed 100% opt-out—no ifs, no buts.
I presume such a levy would go to the Gambling Commission, which could also recommend how we can best use technology to protect more people, not just to expand the amount of gambling. Using software such as gamban to block gambling sites can help with self-exclusion, and it should surely be mandatory for all gambling companies to have such systems. Other tools could be developed to help protect the young, such as facial recognition to block under-age gambling more effectively.
This ten-minute rule Bill cannot solve all the problems thrown up by the opening up of the gambling sector through the 2005 Act, nor is it remotely an attempt to ban all gambling. Ultimately, however, it was Parliament that opened the door to online gambling, and with it has come a growing number of citizens vulnerable to gambling addiction. It is no good imagining that the regulator can manage all of the problems alone. We here have a special responsibility, and I believe that a review of the mandatory levy, to fund vital research, protection strategies, changes to policies on credit and access to money that have led in some cases to tragic deaths, and new policies, clinics and rehabilitation centres to help cure those addicted, would make a real difference.
As I said at the beginning, we—society—need to consider our approach to gambling. Will it be the tobacco of this generation—something once widely advertised, then restricted and finally banned from advertising altogether? Will those damaged or even killed by gambling be our legacy, or is this our chance to get the right balance between funding sport, using technology and having the right protections to prevent tragedy? I believe that this Bill, which would require a review of a mandatory levy, would, were the Government to go ahead with it, result in recommendations across different aspects of gambling and protection and would be a major step forward, for we need action now.
Question put and agreed to.
That Richard Graham, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Peter Bottomley, Simon Hart, Andrew Selous, Alex Burghart, Tom Watson, Carolyn Harris, Graham P. Jones, Christine Jardine, Ronnie Cowan and Jim Shannon present the Bill.
Richard Graham accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 May, and to be presented (Bill 380).
Local Government and Social Care Funding
I beg to move,
That this House notes that despite the Prime Minister announcing that austerity is over, local authorities’ spending power per household is on course to fall by an average of 23 per cent by 2020, and that nine of the 10 most deprived council areas in this country have seen reductions that are almost three times the average of any other council under this Government; recognises that this has resulted in social care budgets in England losing £7 billion; further notes that at the last General Election Labour committed to a fully costed plan to invest an additional £8 billion in social care over this Parliament; and calls on the Government to ensure that local authorities and social care are properly and sustainably funded.
If I may, I seek the indulgence of the House to briefly place on record, as shadow Communities Secretary, my utter shock and revulsion at the recent terrorist atrocities, both in Northern Ireland and in Sri Lanka, over the Easter break. We send our condolences to the families affected and to their communities. Coming so soon after the terrible events in Christchurch, New Zealand, just before Easter, they serve as a bleak reminder of how fragile our human rights and freedoms are, and how we must redouble our efforts in this place and outside to hold our communities together.
The whole House will be grateful for the way the hon. Gentleman has introduced the debate and for those sentiments. Does he agree that people do such things for publicity and public reaction, and that we should take care to ensure that our publicity and our public reaction confronts and confounds their aims, so that what they do will be in vain, even though it has taken a terrible toll on those directly affected?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We should stand firm against terrorist atrocities wherever they are perpetrated. We should stand strong as a community, both in the United Kingdom and in the global community, against such acts of terror. We should call them out wherever they take place.
I welcome the opportunity to raise the important matter of local government funding in an Opposition day debate, especially considering how scarce the opportunities are for the Opposition to raise matters in such debates. I pay tribute to the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), whose dogged pursuit of that issue has allowed us to debate this important matter today.
In this place our discussion has been dominated by Brexit, but across the country our local councils, and the local services people rely on, are straining at the seams. I pay tribute to councillors of all political persuasions and none for the work they do in serving their communities. I pay tribute to the council officers and dedicated public servants who deliver neighbourhood and care services on the frontline. Years of uncertainty and unfair funding have created a quiet crisis that is now impossible to ignore. Under this Government, the facts speak for themselves: local authorities have faced a reduction to core funding of nearly £16 billion since 2010. That means that councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 that the previous Labour Government provided to spend on local services.
When the Prime Minister entered Downing Street, she promised to build a country that works for everyone, and she then promised an end to austerity. As her time in office probably comes to an end, we are able to reflect on both of those promises. Like in many areas of her leadership, I am sure we will all find that in both those areas she has been sorely lacking.
As usual, my hon. Friend is making a very clear statement about the situation local government finds itself in today. My council is one of the 10 councils to have suffered the heaviest cuts, yet I represent a constituency and a city that is one of the most disadvantaged in the country. It is clear that the decisions that were made about where the cuts should fall have meant that they have been put on the shoulders of the poorest and the most vulnerable, not the richest in society.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She champions the cause of the communities of Kingston upon Hull. It is one of the most deprived local authorities in England, yet it is one of the areas that have received the heaviest cuts to their spending power since 2010. That was a political choice, and one that has decimated many communities, including the one she represents, across England.
I am sure my hon. Friend will come on to this argument, but does he agree that cuts to essential local government services in many areas inevitably lead to additional expenditure elsewhere? I think particularly of the decimation of youth services and early years prevention, which has undoubtedly contributed to the extra stress and extreme youth violence on our streets.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We used to have something called Total Place, which was all the public sector bodies working together towards a single strategy for a local area. What we have seen as a consequence of the austerity since 2010 is a complete breakdown of that collaborative working. It is worse than that, however, because rather than public bodies working together collaboratively, pooling resources and getting the best possible levels of services for communities, we have seen cost-shunting. For the sake of saving money on youth services, we are seeing a rise in crime that is pushing up costs for the police. Because of the cuts to police budgets, those costs are shunted on to other public bodies. That is not a common-sense approach to dealing with people’s needs and services, to building stronger communities or to spending public money wisely.
On cost-shunting, just this morning we heard from representatives of families with children with special educational needs and disabilities. They were talking about their needs not being met through the education budget, the high needs block from local government or the health needs budget, because each is trying to get the other to pay the bill. Children with special needs and disabilities are falling through the gap and remaining unsupported.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are too many instances across the public sector where cost-shunting is resulting in precisely what my hon. Friend says: vulnerable people falling through gaps that should not exist. I think that in their heart of hearts, Conservative Members, who clearly deal with casework that is similar to ours, will know that that is happening in their areas too.