House of Commons
Tuesday 14 May 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Security Situation in Sri Lanka
We remember the appalling terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday with enormous sadness and continue to assess the security situation. Operations are ongoing, and we assess that it is very likely that terrorists will try to mount further attacks.
What steps would the Secretary of State like to see the British media take to report more responsibly on terrorist attacks, especially following the decision by The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror to publish edited footage of the Christchurch murders despite a public request from the New Zealand police authorities not to do so?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. All Members of this House are proud that the media in this country are among the freest and most vibrant in the world, but it is important that they exercise that freedom with responsibility when reporting terrorist incidents. The broadcasting of the Christchurch footage was regrettable, and I very much support the comment by the Prime Minister of New Zealand that we should not use the name of the perpetrator of the attacks to give him the glory that he was seeking.
One way to improve the security situation is to raise prosperity through trade. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on improving our trading relationship with Sri Lanka after Brexit?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade on trade issues nearly every day, and Sri Lanka is one of the many countries where we want to be able to continue with tariff-free and quota-free trade. We look forward to pursuing those opportunities post Brexit.
If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about people with security concerns in this country, they should obviously talk to their local police force about their concerns. In terms of what we are doing in Sri Lanka, we have sent a team from the Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command to help families affected by the atrocity, and we have also sent the Foreign Office’s rapid deployment team to help families who wish to cut short their holidays.
The unity we saw after the Easter Sunday bombings has sadly been threatened by reprisal attacks against ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and refugee communities from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State do everything possible to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to provide those innocent people with the shelter and protection they need?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. We all have to recognise that the purpose of that attack—and, indeed, the attack in Christchurch—was to stir up hatred between people of different faiths. That is why it is important for all leaders, both political and religious, to promote a message of tolerance. I thank the hon. Gentleman for doing that, but he is absolutely right to say that the Sri Lankan authorities need to do it as well.
I had a productive meeting with the United Nations Cyprus consultant Jane Holl Lute on 8 January this year, and my officials are in regular contact with her. I welcome the meeting of the two Cypriot leaders on 26 February, and we are supporting those efforts. In March, the Prime Minister met the Cypriot President, and the Foreign Secretary met Cypriot Foreign Minister Christodoulides to discuss how the UK can further support any future settlement.
Will the Minister join me in condemning the decision of the Turkish Government to begin drilling for oil and gas in the territorial waters of Cyprus, which not only jeopardises the chances of a successful resumption of the peace talks but risks a return to open conflict? Will he call on Turkey to immediately withdraw its drill ships from Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone?
Yesterday, I met the Turkish ambassador and had very constructive discussions with him. The position of the UK is that, in line with the UN convention on the law of the sea, exploratory drilling should not proceed in any area where sovereignty is under dispute.
We would obviously like to see the de-escalation of any tensions and constructive talks to resume. We are doing our utmost as a guarantor power to play our role in that, and I hope that all the participants can get together and talk seriously once again about how some kind of settlement can be reached.
Yes, I did have such discussions, and I sought assurances from the ambassador that an invitation to election observers would soon be forthcoming, so that the election in Istanbul can be seen by the world to be free, fair and transparent. I believe that we have made good progress on securing such an invitation.
I have a constituent who was assaulted by bouncers at a club in Cyprus and is now in the regional neurological centre with severe injuries. The authorities in Cyprus have dragged their feet during the investigation, but they have suggested that the perpetrators may have melted away across the border into northern Cyprus, where they are out of touch. Does the Minister agree that the continued division poses a threat to British tourists in Cyprus?
I extend my sympathy and concern following that assault. It is not the first such case in which people who are believed to have perpetrated a violent crime have fled to the north in order to exclude themselves from Cyprus’s jurisdiction. I hope that we are offering sufficient consular support, where appropriate, and we will of course follow up any other diplomatic efforts that we can make to pursue those who committed the crime.
Chagos Islands: International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion
The Foreign Secretary spoke to Mauritian Prime Minister Jugnauth about the British Indian Ocean Territory on 27 April. The Prime Minister met Prime Minister Jugnauth and the Mauritian permanent representative to the United Nations in New York in March to discuss a range of issues, including the British Indian Ocean Territory.
It must be difficult for Foreign Office Ministers to find the UK’s colonial legacy landing inconveniently in their laps, but what is at stake here is not just Chagossian justice, but the UK’s standing in the new post-Brexit world order. The UK must get on board and work with, not against, the UN, the ICJ and the rules-based order. It has to recognise that it cannot throw its weight around anymore. Will the Department engage constructively with the UN to determine where sovereignty really lies for the Chagossians and, ultimately, accept that sovereignty should lie with the people?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that has never been the UK Government’s position. In fact, the Chagos archipelago has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. But he can deduce from my earlier answer that conversations are ongoing and that we are making strong representations. The whole world benefits from the security provided by having this base in the Indian ocean.
Whatever the outcome of the sovereignty situation, another issue is that the marine preservation zone has made it possible to protect fish stocks for large parts of the eastern coast of Africa. Wherever we end up, we must preserve the marine preservation zone.
We are proud of the UK’s record in creating not just that zone, but others around the world. They are incredibly important for the world’s oceans and demonstrate the importance of working together both globally and through the Commonwealth to preserve oceans and fish stocks.
Oman: Shihuh Tribe
The Government are aware of the concern surrounding the imprisonment of members of the Shihuh tribe in Oman. Her Majesty’s ambassador has raised this with the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Muscat. We continue to monitor the matter closely and are exploring the allegations further. Discussions on human rights form part of our bilateral exchanges with our close ally and partner Oman, including at the recent joint working group on 25 April. I look forward to meeting the Omani ambassador for the first time next week to discuss a wide range of issues.
I welcome the Minister to his place for his first Question Time. I am glad he is aware of the case of the Shihuh tribesmen from Musandam who have been given life sentences for something as trivial as communicating with human rights groups. Amnesty International has said that the convictions are “grossly unfair,” with credible claims that torture has been used to extract confessions. Will he undertake to speak to his Omani counterpart about this particular case and make it clear that the UK expects to see all citizens of Oman treated equally and fairly?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This Government take their obligations in respect of human rights extremely seriously. When speaking to our friends and allies, we make this point and share best practice all the time. As I said, I will be seeing the Omani ambassador shortly and have no doubt that we will discuss a range of issues. I suspect this case may form part of that discussion.
Spanish Parliamentary Election: Gibraltar
We look forward to working with the next Spanish Government to enhance the prosperity of Gibraltar and, indeed, the neighbouring regions of Spain. Whichever Government are in office in Spain, we will remain steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and will not discuss or agree any proposals that compromise British sovereignty.
Given the recent attempts by the Spanish Government, with the backing of others in the EU, to exploit the Brexit negotiations with illegitimate sovereignty claims, can the Minister reassure the House that, whatever the political developments in Spain, the UK or the EU, we will categorically reject any attempt to erode UK sovereignty over the Rock?
Yes, I can give that assurance. Indeed, we completely disagree with the language that has been put into recent EU documents describing Gibraltar as a “colony.” Gibraltar is a full part of the UK family and has mature and modern constitutional relationships with the United Kingdom.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit Gibraltar with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which made me very aware of Spain’s dependence on Gibraltar for job opportunities and economic interactions. Has the Minister had the opportunity to remind Spain of the importance to it of Gibraltar’s economy?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that this is a symbiotic relationship with mutual benefits. If one side tries to do harm to the other, both will find themselves harmed. I hope that the good relationships—economic, tourist access and everything else—can continue harmoniously once we have left the European Union.
So illustrious is the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that, in addition to chairing with distinction the Select Committee on Justice, he also chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar. His burden is a heavy one, and he should be heard.
I am deeply flattered and touched, Mr Speaker. For completeness, I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I know that the people and Government of Gibraltar will very much welcome the firm commitment of my right hon. Friend the Minister to our continuing support for British sovereignty. Will he also confirm that, whatever form of government is arranged in Spain after the elections, we will stress that it is in the interests of Spain, Gibraltar and the United Kingdom that we depart from the European Union in an orderly fashion that preserves the free flow of goods and people across the border and our strong economic ties? That will be to the advantage of all sides. A deal is necessary for Gibraltar’s sake, as it is for the sake of Spain and the UK.
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend does an excellent job as chairman of the all-party group. Indeed, we were in Gibraltar together for its national day, thus allowing me to be the second shortest Member of Parliament attending the events. As he rightly says, I hope that the good relationship between Gibraltar and Spain can continue after Brexit, to the advantage of everybody.
Of course, SNP Members very much support the rights of the people of Gibraltar to self-determination. Their sovereignty should rest with them—and the sovereignty of the people of the Chagos Islands should rest with them. What conversations is the Minister having with other EU states to ensure that Gibraltar is not left behind in the carving out of any deal?
We very strongly defend Gibraltar’s rights—indeed, I work closely and personally with Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister, and his excellent team. Through the Department for Exiting the European Union, regular meetings take place and we make sure we fully defend Gibraltar’s interests. I can happily and readily give the hon. Lady the assurance she is seeking that we will not let them down.
Saudi Arabia: Diplomatic Relations
I most recently met Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs al-Jubeir on 25 April and I also visited Saudi Arabia on 2 March. We have a long history of co-operation in support of regional stability, alongside frank conversations on areas of concern, including Khashoggi and human rights.
According to his Minister, the Saudi Government’s execution of 37 people was simply
“a deeply backwards step, which we deplore.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 749.]
But that is only one of many of the Saudi regime’s crimes, including responsibility for up to 60% of civilian deaths in Yemen. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with my concerned constituents that, when it comes to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UK should put morality before profit and end these sales?
Well, we do, which is why we have some of the strictest arms export restrictions of any country in the EU; last year, 226 export requests were refused. The executions to which the hon. Gentleman referred are barbaric. I referred to them and discussed them at some length with the Saudi Foreign Minister when he came here on 25 April. This remains a human rights priority country and we do raise these issues regularly.
There are many things that concern us about the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, and we call them out. This year, for the first time, we are hosting a ministerial-level conference on media freedom, which was in part prompted by the appalling murder of Khashoggi. We also have to recognise that we have to work with a number of countries in that region if there is to be peace and stability, and Saudi influence has been very important in the ceasefire that is beginning to take root in Yemen; it started last weekend.
Ministers repeatedly reassure the House of the representations they make to Saudi Arabia on human rights and, in particular, on the execution of dissidents. Can the Foreign Secretary give us one or two examples of where these representations have been successful: of lives that have been saved?
What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that in the case of Saudi Arabia there is a big domestic reform agenda, the Vision 2030 process, which has involved, for example, allowing women to drive for the first time and allowing women to travel abroad more freely. There have also been some releases of women’s rights activists. Whether that is as a direct result of British pressure or not, I cannot say. But do we make those representations? Yes, we do.
Perhaps the greatest role for the Foreign Office is to be peacemakers. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with Saudi Foreign Ministers, and indeed with the Iranian Government and other Governments in the middle east, to try to encourage ecumenical dialogue between the Shi’a and Sunni traditions within Islam?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the UK, because of our historical links in the region, can play a positive role in bringing peace to troubled corners. The best example of that is what has happened in Yemen. Despite the fact that the conflict was started by the Houthis four years ago, I was the first western Foreign Minister to meet the Houthis—I met them on both 13 December and on 1 March. I was also the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen to see the other side, the Government of Yemen. We have played a constructive role in a ceasefire that appears to be taking root.
Following on from the earlier answer, I am glad that the Foreign Secretary appreciates the Labour Government’s achievement in bringing in the strictest rules on arms exports, but my constituents will want to know why, given the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the fact that it is one of the countries of concern for his own office, we are granting any export licences at all.
Let me explain to the hon. Lady what those rules are that Robin Cook introduced in 2001. They are stricter than the European guidelines and say that we do not give arms export licences if there is a risk of a breach of international humanitarian law. That judgment is made by someone at arm’s length, not by a politician, and the Foreign Secretary and Trade Secretary then take that assessment into account when they make the decisions. That is a better system than one that politicises these decisions. It is a Labour process that we are sticking to and the hon. Lady should be proud of it.
Given the continuing crisis in the Mediterranean sea, with many hundreds still fleeing and making the perilous journey across that seascape, what issues are the Government raising with Saudi Arabia to try to ensure that it offers some practical and sensible help for people in the Mediterranean?
We do have discussions on that issue, particularly in respect of Libya. In fact, I met the Libyan Prime Minister at the end of last week, and Saudi Arabia has made generous offers when it comes to financial assistance to try to stabilise the situation in both Libya and Yemen. That is another example of the benefits of having a practical relationship with a country like Saudi Arabia.
The UK remains deeply concerned about Hezbollah’s actions and behaviour in the region. As the Home Secretary outlined in February, Hezbollah’s destabilising role in the middle east led to our proscription of the group in its entirety. We continue to condemn Hezbollah and all armed militia groups for seeking to amass illegal weapons and arms, and for putting the security of Lebanon and Israel at risk, in direct contradiction of UN Security Council resolution 1701.
I offer my strong congratulations to the Minister on his new role; he is a good man.
I strongly welcome the Government’s decision to proscribe Hezbollah in full earlier this year. Israel recently revealed that it has exposed Hezbollah cells in border villages on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Does the Minister share my grave concern and agree that were the Golan Heights to be under Syrian control, the security risk would be catastrophic, not only for Israel but for the entire region?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his generous words, and I share his concerns about this matter. We condemn Hezbollah—we could not be clearer than that—and have gone further than most countries in doing so. However, we consider the Golan Heights to be occupied territory, which is contrary to international law. We do not believe that the Golan Heights are part of the territory of the state of Israel.
I too congratulate the Minister on his new appointment.
I welcome the Government’s recent decision to proscribe the whole of Hezbollah, but will the Minister tell me what more we are doing to confront people in this country who encourage the group’s terrorism?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments.
We have proscribed Hezbollah, so it will not be able to demonstrate and spread its message of hate, contrary to the interests and values of this country. I do not think we could have done much more, immediately, to make it clear that the organisation is beyond the law and that people who campaign for or show support for it are committing a criminal act.
Hezbollah, as a proxy for Iran, promotes terrorism and instability right throughout the middle east. Last year, Hezbollah built six terror tunnels between the border of Lebanon and Israel, for the purpose of promoting terrorism and ruining any chances of peace; why has all that not been taken more seriously?
I hope the hon. Lady will understand that it is most definitely being taken seriously. Hezbollah is a clear and present danger: it destabilises the region and also offers instability in this country, which is why we have proscribed it in its entirety. That proscription has now taken effect—it happened in March—and I very much hope not only that it will assist in ensuring that activity in this country is curtailed but, more particularly, that when we are dealing with the region we make it absolutely clear that Hezbollah has no place in the middle east’s future.
Hezbollah is arguably the most successful export to come out of revolutionary Iran. Does the Minister share my serious concern that we are talking not just about Hezbollah but about the presence of the Revolutionary Guard of Iran in Syria today? Does he share my serious concerns about the new threat this poses on the northern borders of Israel?
We need to understand what is happening in Syria and the fact that so many proxies of one sort or another are active and engaged in it—it is a maelstrom of such activity, and we need to deal with that. I think we know which countries are behind support for this in Syria, and all we can do is do what we can to maintain good relationships, as far as we possibly can, with those countries in the hope that our good counsel will prevail and that we will be able to curtail some of these unpleasant groups.
President Trump: State Visit
The Prime Minister and I are delighted that the President of the United States will come to the UK for a state visit in June. It will be an opportunity to celebrate our close and special relationship in areas such as trade, investment, security and defence, and Venezuela.
Many would say that the President should not be getting a state visit at all. In this country, when a bully elbows their way to the front of the queue, we might remonstrate in a politely British way, but we certainly do not reward that bad behaviour by inviting them back for tea. Could the Government perhaps be tactful and polite about this and say that we are all going to be rather busy in June—especially the Foreign Secretary, perhaps—and say that it might be better to reschedule for a later date, preferably long after the President is slung out?
Can we just deal with this ridiculous anti-Americanism on the Opposition Benches? One million jobs in this country depend on US inward investment, more than 400,000 American troops died in the second world war, and the President is coming here to mark the anniversary of D-day. We should honour that relationship, which goes far beyond differences in partisan politics.
One of the first foreign Heads of State I remember seeing address our Parliament was President Xi, who came here in October 2015, shortly after I was elected. This was an opportunity for us to listen to a Head of State from an important partner in the economic community. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that listening to partners and allies, particularly those with whom we share important intelligence and defence relationships, is how diplomacy is done?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I just think that as we celebrate 75 years since the end of the second world war, we should remember that we have the freedoms we enjoy in this House, which we exercise on a daily basis, because America was prepared to stand by our side at a critical moment. That eclipses all other short-term considerations.
Yesterday, three historical allies of the United States—France, Germany and the United Kingdom—made a statement on Syria that was extraordinarily disturbing. Has the Foreign Secretary made it his priority, whatever happens and whatever kind of visit this is, to seek partners in the US to take on the forces that have seen 120 people killed in Syria in recent days and 180,000 people displaced as this conflict goes on and on and on?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing to the House’s attention the extremely concerning situation in Idlib. We had an agreement that we hoped would hold in order to avoid brutal bloodshed there, and we are very concerned—she is absolutely right about what is happening. I met the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not only when he came to London last week but yesterday in Brussels, and we talk about all the issues concerning the middle east. We must recognise that America is trying to create stability and security in the middle east, and a lot of the malign forces and the problems we have in Syria are caused by the intervention of Russia, which made it difficult to conclude that conflict in the way that I think we would have wanted on both sides of the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on assuming the role of Minister for the Middle East. I wish him well, and I hope that he has rather more success than I had in solving some of the problems in the region.
In his assessment of diplomatic priorities with the United States, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary ask that at all levels the US gives rather more support to the UK’s efforts at the UN to bring an end to the crisis in Libya? Would he welcome greater support through the Inter-Parliamentary Union from parliamentarians around the world, including friends in Canada, who are seeking to help? We could do with more support from United States friends.
My right hon. Friend is very modest about his time in the Foreign Office, as he did an enormous amount of patient diplomacy behind the scenes to try to solve these intractable problems, not least in Libya. I discussed the Libyan situation with Mike Pompeo yesterday, and I agree that this is an area where we all need to work together closely at the UN.
This House supports and values our relationship with the American people, but that does not equate to a free pass for President Trump’s unacceptable behaviour. When the Secretary of State puts together the agenda for this state visit, may I suggest that he begins with a training course on bullying and harassment, follows up with a science lecture on the climate emergency, and finishes off with a crash course in diplomacy?
I just point out to the hon. Lady that the person who is coming to this country for a state visit is the Head of State of the United States of America. There is no free pass for policies on which we disagree with the Trump Administration—climate change is one, and the Iran nuclear deal is another. We discuss all of them the whole time, but that does not mean that we should not respect the office or the country.
My right hon. Friend is precisely right, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on his new ministerial post, which he will fulfil very well. May I perhaps gently remind those who do not accept this that America remains, and is likely to remain, our most important ally in the world? We may not agree with everything that it does or everything that it says, but this invitation is from our Head of State to its Head of State. We should accept that—we should not be condescending—and these barbed comments, driven by anti-Americanism, are extremely embarrassing.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is very important to recognise that even today, even under this Administration—we are very open; we do not agree with them on everything—about a third of the cost of defending Europe is met by American taxpayers. We should recognise that contribution, and recognise that the security blanket that the United States has provided for the world over the past 70 years or so has been absolutely fundamental to our prosperity.
I too congratulate the Minister for the Middle East on his appointment.
This Parliament has followed the lead of Scotland’s First Minister in declaring a climate emergency. That was the right thing to do and should be a diplomatic priority for this visit, so will the Foreign Secretary express our concerns about US actions at the recent Arctic Council that meant that an accord could not be signed because the US wanted to water down the commitment?
As so many Members have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on taking up his new post, I need to do the same. He is an outstanding colleague, and we are delighted to have him with us on the Front Bench.
We share the concerns of the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) about what happened at the Arctic Council. This is an area where we have a number of disagreements with the approach taken by the US Administration. That is one reason why we think it is important that the UK win its bid to host COP 26—the big climate change conference that is due to take place next year—to demonstrate European unity on this issue.
In areas like climate change, trade and defending the NHS, we must continue to work with our European partners in the European Parliament and other institutions to counter the damaging policies pursued by the Trump Administration. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the President that those are backward steps, not the forward-thinking steps that we should pursue in Europe?
I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the whole picture of America’s contribution to peace and security around the world. There is enormously destructive behaviour by states such as North Korea, Iran and Russia. American has led the charge in expelling more diplomats post Salisbury than any other country in the world; it is trying to create a peaceful accord with North Korea; and it is taking action against some of Iran’s activities. That is immensely important. We enjoy the benefits of that security, and we should not take it for granted.
Last month we saw the Trump Administration threatening to veto a UN resolution against the use of rape as a weapon of law unless all references to the reproductive rights of women were removed. Even more disgracefully, we saw the UN accept their demands. Can the Secretary of State explain why a President like that deserves the honour of a state visit?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, who makes excellent contributions to debates in this House, I just wish that Labour got its priorities right. This is a party whose leader says that Hamas and Hezbollah are friends and refuses to go to a state banquet with the President of the United States. The resolution she talked about actually passed. The United Kingdom supported it. We do not agree with America on everything, but we do think we should show respect for its enormous contribution to world peace.
Persecution of Christians Overseas
I think that today the whole House will want to remember the six people killed on Sunday at mass in a Catholic church in Burkina Faso when a gunman arrived, stormed the church, killed the priest and then set fire to the church. That shows why this is such an important issue to address.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and associate myself with his comments. I further thank him for the work that he has done by personally raising on his recent travels abroad the appalling persecution of Christians abroad, especially in countries like Nigeria. What has he learned from those trips about what more we can do, as a Government, to tackle the appalling persecution of Christians in the region?
I had a roundtable of faith leaders at the British high commissioner’s residence in Nigeria, and we had a very good discussion on this issue. The main thing that I took away from that discussion is the immensely important role that politicians have in developing countries in not fanning populism and hatred between religions in election campaigns, which is a very easy route to go down but can have immensely damaging consequences.
I welcome the recent publication of the Bishop of Truro’s interim report on the persecution of Christians. Does my right hon. Friend feel that there is now a strong case, based on the bishop’s early findings, for the Government to be even more public and more forceful in calling out persecution where it is identified?
I think there is. We will obviously await the bishop’s final report. The concern we had, and the reason that we commissioned the report, was a sense that while we have, rightly, called out persecution of people of other religions—the Rohingya in Burma, for example—we have been more reticent in doing that when it is Christians, yet 80% of all the religious persecution in the world happens to Christians.
Will the Foreign Secretary pay tribute to the work that Christian Churches do in helping, across Africa and across the world, countries that need help? This is Christian Aid Week. Christian Aid does wonderful things, working in clinics and so on. Perhaps we could use our soft power to widen the perception of that work.
I had the privilege, the week before last, of seeing the work done by a Catholic charity in the slums of Kenya. I know that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was incredibly moved by the work of the Churches when he did his big trip to Africa, so in Christian Aid Week, along with everyone in this House, I salute the tremendous work of the Churches in poorer countries.
According to the recent report by Open Doors UK, 3,731 Christians were killed in Nigeria last year—the highest number in any country. This is a matter of huge concern for all of us, and it has an impact on community relations within the UK as well. What specific steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that there are not negative consequences for community relations—for example, within the Nigerian diaspora? What steps is he taking with the Home Office to ensure that it is aware of this when considering applications for asylum from Nigerian Christians?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The best the UK can do is to try to address that problem at source. I visited Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria the week before last. There is a big security issue and a big poverty issue, and because of organisations such as Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram, there is an enormous amount of fear in local populations. We are working with the Nigerian Government and have offered them more help to try to resolve those problems, so that we do not face problems back here.
UK Soft Power
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Questions 10, 11, 14, 15 and 19 together. [Interruption.] What a terrible bunch they are on the Opposition Benches!
Needless to say, our engagement with Europe goes well beyond EU membership. To ensure that the UK’s soft power potential is maximised after Brexit, we have already strengthened our diplomatic network, increased programme funding and produced bilateral strategies for each and every EU country. Globally, the FCO continues to support funding for, among others, the BBC World Service, the British Council and Chevening scholarships. We regard that as a key part of post-Brexit diplomacy.
With around 350 million people each week tuning into BBC radio and television programmes worldwide, and with the British Council, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, we no doubt have far greater soft power than other countries of our size—perhaps the biggest in the world—but is there more, even more, that the Government could be doing?
We could always be doing much more. From our tradition of democracy and our internationally acclaimed justice system, to our inclusive values of free speech, freedom of religion and gender equality, many of which have been raised in questions today, we hope that we are promoting our values globally through the influence and reach of our diplomatic network.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. We believe the UK is at the forefront of international efforts to tackle antimicrobial resistance through a variety of UN agencies. We were instrumental in drafting a UN political declaration on AMR, agreed by no fewer than 193 member states at the General Assembly in September 2016.
The British Council all-party group, which I chair, is conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into our future soft power relationship with our European partners. Does the Minister agree with our early finding that we could better co-ordinate our efforts, and will he meet the all-party group as part of our inquiry?
We have strengthened our diplomatic network, increased programme funding and produced bilateral strategies for each and every EU country, as I mentioned. I am happy to engage with the British Council APPG, which my hon. Friend so skilfully chairs—or at least, that is what it says here. [Laughter.] I am being a little unfair to my hon. Friend. He is a fantastic chair of the group, and of course I will co-operate with the inquiry in every way he wishes.
Our soft power influence globally on climate change is extremely strong and—I think we all would recognise—extremely important. The Climate Change Act 2008 has inspired numerous other countries, not least New Zealand, which is promoting its own legislation in this area along those lines. We are working with Canada and have launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance, and the UK has hosted international zero-emissions vehicles and carbon capture, utilisation and storage summits in recent months.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Somerset on reaching the final of the one-day cup? With the cricket world cup here in the UK just a fortnight away, does he agree that sport is one way in which we can promote British values and strengthen relationships around the world?
I congratulate Somerset on reaching the Royal London cup final, Obviously, that comes alongside commiserations to my hon. Friend’s local football club. Those of us who follow league two will realise that Yeovil Town has gone this season, but I hope it will bounce back very shortly. That will make the headlines in the Yeovil Express, I am afraid.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: sport is a major soft-power asset. We believe it does help to project and connect the UK internationally, not least with the cricket world cup that is imminently upon us.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the flight, and it is worth pointing out, as I have said—I am the City of London MP—that some jobs have of course been lost, but not to one particular place; they have actually gone to places such as Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Dublin and others. The truth of the matter is that financial services will work very closely together and there will be a mutuality of interests and an equivalence, not least because of the importance of London as Europe’s capital market, regardless of Brexit.
The British Council is a key agency of the Foreign Office. My constituent Aras Amiri was yesterday given a 10-year sentence on trumped-up charges by Iran. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me urgently this week, and will he update the House in a statement on what can be done in this terrible situation?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. I know this matter is very close to her heart, not least because of a constituency interest. The Foreign Secretary will meet the family during the course of this week. I personally believe, as I am sure everyone does, that the sentencing of any individual purely on the basis of their employment with an entirely legitimate institution is entirely unacceptable. We deeply regret Iran’s attitude towards entirely legitimate organisations such as the British Council.
Will the UK use its soft power with India in particular to raise the case of a group of Christians who were beaten during a prayer meeting on 3 May? What are the Government going to do to raise the escalating number of cases of Christians being persecuted, particularly in India?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says. The earlier exchanges made it very clear how seriously we take the issue of the persecution of Christians. India is one of many countries where there has been an increased worsening in recent years, and we will obviously take up at consular level all the cases to which he refers.
May I ask the Minister of State to use all his soft power and diplomatic skills with the French Government over the next three weeks, and urge them to ensure that the 71 veterans of la Libération who are still waiting to receive the Légion d’Honneur to which they are entitled get those honours before the 75th anniversary of D-day on 6 June?
The UK remains committed to a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we maintain a regular dialogue with our international counterparts about the peace process. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific met Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev on 30 April, and raised our concerns about recent Israeli comments on west bank annexation. We wholly condemn rocket fire by Hamas and other militants. We urge the parties to make progress towards a long-term agreement, and we look forward to the details of Mr Jared Kushner’s proposals.
The successful conclusion of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is absolutely key to peace in the region; we accept that. Does the Minister not agree that the continued rejection of peace talks by Hamas and its continued commitment to the destruction of the state of Israel are real problems, and that until that is addressed it is very difficult for Israel to sit down and negotiate with Hamas?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I strongly urge Hamas to desist from its activities. There is no way we can proceed towards a two-state solution until we have revocation of violence. Particularly from his position of strength as a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament and somebody who is well used to these matters, he speaks extremely wisely.
I welcome the Minister’s condemnation of any proposals to annex Occupied Palestinian Territories, but we know that President Trump will announce the “deal of the century” shortly after he visits this country next month. It might include proposals that support the Netanyahu Administration’s idea of going ahead with annexation, so what will the Minister do to prevent that, and what will he do if they do?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question, but I am certainly not going to speculate on the matter he raises. Apropos the Foreign Secretary’s remarks a few moments ago, we are America’s closest friend and ally, but that does not prevent us from criticising it from time to time; that is what being friends is all about. [Interruption.] The shadow Foreign Secretary is chuntering from a sedentary position, but I gently point out that on 26 March officials in our embassy in Washington raised concerns directly with US counterparts regarding the United States’s decision to recognise the Golan Heights as part of the state of Israel, which is unacceptable.
A perception that the west applies the rule of law partially undermines our ability to broker peace, so what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the international rule of law is applied equally to the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and to terrorist elements within Palestine?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right that we need to be fair and equitable, and nowhere more so than in the middle east. I point to the postponed demolition of Khan al-Ahmar in area C of the west bank as an example of a positive intervention. We urge Israel to convert that postponement into something permanent. Although we are clearly friends with Israel, and indeed equally, I hope, with the Palestinians, that enables us from time to time to give a word to the wise, and that is what we will continue to do on both sides.
While unemployment in Gaza is at 50% and two thirds of Gazans live in poverty, over half of Hamas’s budget goes on military expenditure. Would not the lives of civilians in Gaza be improved, and the prospects for the peace process enhanced, were Hamas to spend its money, time and effort on the civilian population, rather than on building up its rocket arsenal?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Good governance means doing the things he describes. If Hamas aspires to run its territory as a good Government, it must address the concerns of its population. I will just point out that we have supported Gazans recently by addressing critical water and sanitation needs through a £2 million grant to UNICEF, and we have announced £2 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross for medicines and surgical supplies, so we are doing our bit.
I join colleagues in welcoming the new Minister for the Middle East to his post. Although I applaud the sterling work that other Foreign Office Ministers have been doing to cover the absence, it really is a disgrace that, at a time like this, we should have 50 days without a dedicated Minister for such a critical region. Does he agree that it is also a disgrace that Prime Minister Netanyahu is proposing to give the Israeli Government and Parliament the legal authority to ignore rulings from the Israeli Supreme Court and to put himself personally above the law?
I have to say to the right hon. Lady that in general we would support the Israeli Government, who are the only democracy in the middle east and a firm friend of this country. Where we find that our friends are doing something that we consider to be edgy or with which we disagree, we will certainly be keen to discuss that with them. I will meet the Israeli ambassador shortly to discuss a range of issues, and that matter might form part of our discussions, given that the right hon. Lady has raised it on the Floor of the House.
We of course support Israel, but we also support the rule of law. We can all see where this is going. Exactly one year on from the slaughter on the Gaza border, Netanyahu is taking a further giant step away from democracy and the rule of law by giving himself immunity against prosecution and complete impunity when it comes to attacking the freedoms of Israeli Arabs, ignoring the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and completing the annexation of the west bank. Does the Minister agree that now is finally the time for the British Government to take a different step by recognising the state of Palestine while there is still a state left to recognise?
The crux of the right hon. Lady’s question is whether the British Government would recognise the state of Palestine, and I think she can anticipate my response. We support the two-state solution, when the time is right. That inevitably implies that we will support—recognise—the state of Palestine, but in the meantime we are engaged in building institutions that are necessary to sustain such a state. As I said earlier, that means building institutions across the piece, and we will continue to do that.
Time is short, so I have three brief one-sentence updates for the House. First, following my trip to Africa, I can announce that the Africa investment summit will happen on 20 January 2020.
Secondly, I know that the whole House was greatly relieved by the pardoning of the Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and I thank the Burmese Government for listening to representations made by us and many others.
Thirdly, I think the whole House will want to congratulate and thank United Nations envoy, Martin Griffiths, and the head of the UN monitors, General Michael Lollesgaard, for their extraordinary efforts in Yemen, which have led to the Houthis redeploying out of Hodeidah, which is the first real ray of sunlight since the Stockholm talks.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. That is a very good example of some important lobbying by both me and the Minister of State for Asia, because that law is totally repugnant to us and our values. We recognise Brunei is a sovereign state, and it is for it to make its own laws, but that is contrary to British values.
Last year, the Foreign Office provided rent-free accommodation in a £20 million mansion to the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor and bought a £12 million luxury penthouse flat in New York, but in April failed to pay the cleaners at King Charles Street on time. When they did get the money, it was at the wrong rate. How can the Foreign Office claim, as it does on its website, that it supports
“our citizens…around the globe”,
if it cannot even pay them at home?
If we failed to pay any of our staff on time, I take full responsibility. It is the first I have heard of that issue and I will look into it rapidly. But I do think it is important that Britain has residences around the world, where we entertain foreign Governments and do our diplomacy, that we can be proud of and that reflect our role in the world.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work, both as the former Minister for prisons, with all-party groups and in raising the issue regularly with me. He is right that we have a range of different programmes. Our new Secretary of State for International Development, having recently been prisons Minister, is casting a fresh eye on that important issue.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and we have noted with great concern the widespread concern in Hong Kong about the proposed changes, including the protests of 28 April and the disorder on the floor of LegCo in relation to the extradition laws that are currently going through. We are considering the potential implications, including how they may affect UK citizens, and will push to ensure that one country, two systems remains intact.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The honest answer to the demonstrations organised by Greta Thunberg and others is that while we have done more than many countries on climate change, we have not done enough. The biggest single thing we can do is to host a really impactful COP 26—the next big climate change conference—in 2020 to demonstrate global leadership on this very important issue.
Yes, there was. The hon. Lady has campaigned consistently on this issue, but I must be honest with her. There is a security emergency in Libya, with a very unstable situation on the ground, so that took up the bulk of our time. I did say that when the security issues have been resolved, it is a priority for us to return to that issue.
Does the Foreign Secretary share concerns that the proposed new arrangements to allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China will undermine confidence in Hong Kong as an international financial centre, break the firewall between the two legal systems and significantly contradict the Sino-British declaration?
As my hon. Friend is aware, we are deeply concerned in that regard. We are dealing with and speaking about potential extradition implications, not least with our outstanding consul general, Andy Heyn, out there in Hong Kong. The one country, two systems model needs to work well, and it is in China’s interest for that to happen, not least for the reasons she pointed out about the importance of Hong Kong as an international financial capital.
I thank the hon. Lady. She can be sure that I will visit Iraq again—it is a long time since I was there, in 2003. I support the points she made.
The thing with Iraq at the moment is that we appear to have rolled back Daesh, but there is a lot of work still to be done, particularly in and around Irbil, to ensure that those who perpetrated these dreadful crimes on the Iraqi people are brought to account. Work in that respect is ongoing. I look forward to seeing it on the ground.
I congratulate the new Minister and thank him for agreeing to meet me and my constituent this afternoon, so early in his tenure. What assessment has he made of the chances of the ceasefire in Yemen bearing success and opportunities to help people such as my constituent, Luke Symons, who is being held captive there?
I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman and his constituent later. The news from Hodeidah is good in relation to prosecuting the Stockholm proposal, but it is early days yet and of course we await the UN certification that there has in fact been an improvement in the situation—we expect news later today perhaps. We should welcome the progress made, however, and I look forward to seeing him later.
While recognising our own challenges here, the Foreign Secretary has rightly championed democratic values all over the world, so will Ministers join me, even as we await the formal results of the winners, in congratulating the 193 million Indonesians who participated, on an 80% turnout, in the presidential and general elections recently?
I would be delighted. They are lucky also to have an excellent trade envoy. I look forward to going to Indonesia later in the year and meeting counterparts in the new Government. We have a tremendous opportunity to do a huge amount of work with that very important country.
The human rights of Palestinians are quite clearly very close to the top of our list of priorities. The hon. Lady touched on Israel, the annexation of territory and the involvement of the US. Let us be clear. We want to see a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. I hope that makes our position clear.
At the start of Christian Aid Week, the focus of the organisation is on its maternal health work in Sierra Leone, where, since the Ebola crisis, 10 women die every day in childbirth and one in nine children die before their fifth birthday. Will the Foreign Secretary put Britain’s weight behind the campaign calling on the IMF to write off the loans it made to the African country to fight the Ebola outbreak?
My hon. Friend was a superb Public Health Minister, and it is good to hear he is still leading by example with his cycling. On maternal health in Sierra Leone, he will be glad to know that our bilateral programme there will deliver health services to 2 million women and children by 2020.
The ongoing tensions between Iran and the US concern many of my constituents, particularly those who would like to see a world without nuclear weapons. Is the Secretary of State considering making the UK a signatory to the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons?
We are strong supporters of nuclear non-proliferation. We think it is one of the biggest and most important things achieved since the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of 1970. In this area, we take a different approach from the US, and I raised those concerns very openly with Mike Pompeo yesterday.
We have not implemented all elements of the Stockholm agreement—that is one reason why it has taken so long since the meeting on 13 December. The UN special envoy decided that the best way to break the logjam was to identify the most important part of it, which was the redeployment of troops from Hodeidah. Now that is happening, we will seek to implement the rest of the agreement as quickly as possible.
Azerbaijan, a country with a terrible human rights record, will soon be welcoming Chelsea and Arsenal football fans. What advice does the Foreign Office offer on the likelihood of their experiencing racism, homophobia or other hate crimes?
I advise all travelling fans to study the published travel advice, which is always very carefully prepared and which is available on the Foreign Office website.
It is good to hear of the role played by the Churches in establishing the UK’s soft power, but could it work the other way round? We have a great many vacancies in the highlands. As and when someone from overseas applies to become a minister or a priest, may I look to the Foreign Office and the Home Office to assist that applicant in every possible way?
I am extremely grateful to the Foreign Secretary. As ever, we have observed one simple fact today: Foreign Office is box office. The level of interest is great; the number of questions continues to rise; and Ministers can go about their business with an additional glint in their eye and spring in their step.
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 prohibit the killing or taking of hares during the breeding season; to repeal the Hares Preservation Act 1892; and for connected purposes.
One of the things that we all need to learn when we are first elected to the House is that it can be surprisingly difficult to get things done. A Minister who remains in one place for long enough will, slowly but surely, get important issues over the line, but not everything. For me, following my time in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, modernising our rules relating to hare preservation and, in particular, a close season on the shooting of hares remains unfinished business.
Hares are an iconic and much-loved species, famed for their boxing behaviour in March. However, their population has fallen to an estimated 800,000, from what was thought to be about 4 million in the mid to late 19th century. Our hare population is under increasing pressure from disease—including the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus, which was identified in hares in January this year—and also from illegal hare coursing.
Let me take this opportunity to commend the work that the police are doing to tackle the illegal gangs who are responsible for hare coursing. Yesterday, I spoke to Phil Vickers, the national lead on these issues. We are now seeing far more police co-operation and co-ordination nationally. Police forces in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Humberside and North Yorkshire are working together and sharing intelligence. The police estimate that about 150 hardened individuals are responsible for the majority of these illegal hare coursing events. Last year, the police prosecuted 47 individuals in Lincolnshire alone, so progress is being made. The police would welcome some changes in the law, such as a provision to make it easier for them to seize dogs and recover the cost of kennelling them, but that will be a matter for a different piece of legislation on a different day. My Bill addresses the shooting of hares.
The Government estimate that about 300,000 hares are shot each year, mostly during February and March. That figure sounds quite high, so when I first heard it, I felt some scepticism, and I took the liberty of talking to a gamekeeper on the Babworth estate, Jonathan Davis, about how it was possible for it to have become so high.
The figures are broadly as follows. There are 3,900 registered shooting estates in the UK. It is estimated that about 80% of them do not shoot hares, mainly because those in the shooting community increasingly recognise the plight of our hares and want to play their part in protecting them. However, around 20% of shooting estates—that is 780—still run organised hare shoots. They typically run across three days and the average take per day is 100 hares. If we add to that some of the more informal hare shoots that take place on farms, especially in Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire, we quickly realise that an assessment of 300,000 hares killed per year is indeed realistic, and if we set that against the estimated population of just 800,000 hares nationally, we see that that is of great concern.
A key tenet of all game and wildlife conservation is that we should protect species during their breeding season. That is why we have statutory close seasons on everything from ducks and pheasants through to deer, woodcock and geese. There are also animal welfare issues in targeting species during their breeding season. A baby hare—a leveret—will be dependent on its mother for typically four weeks after it is born, and if its mother is killed, the leveret will perish, which is a welfare concern.
As long ago as 1892, our Victorian forebears recognised the need to protect hares during their breeding season. The Hares Preservation Act 1892 introduced what was called a close time during the breeding season and it delivered this close time in those days through implementing a ban on the sale of hares or hare meat during the months of March to July inclusive. This 127-year-old law remains in force today, but it predates the advent of refrigeration and freezer technology, and it was also introduced in an era when hares were hunted predominantly for food, not shot, as now, for sport. As a result, the 1892 Act is hopelessly out of date; it is no longer effective. It is, indeed, no longer even enforced. It also leaves in place a peculiar anomaly and legal uncertainty in some areas that a game pie sold from the freezer by a pub cannot be sold during the months of March to July inclusive even though the hare may have been killed during the winter months.
My Bill would replace the 1892 Act with its ban on sale with a modern-day close season prohibiting the killing or taking of hares during the breeding season. Northern Ireland and Scotland already have such legislation in place; indeed, virtually every other European country that has a brown hare population protects its hares. We in England and Wales are unique so far in failing to do so, and this is an oversight that must be addressed.
In Scotland, the close season runs from the beginning of February, and I am open to discussion about precisely when the close season should be for England and Wales. My starting point is that at the very least it must replicate the provisions of the 1892 Act and cover the months from the beginning of March to the end of July, but there is a very strong case to have protection at least from the beginning of February, possibly even earlier, since we know that hares are capable of breeding during February, and in practice the shooting estates that still run hare shoots do not really shoot hares during the winter months because they are targeting game birds, and there are also safety concerns in shooting hares in a shoot if they are targeting, for instance, pheasants. What they actually do, when the close season for game birds begins at the end of January or beginning of February, is have another month or two when they run hare shoots; that gives them a commercial income during February and March.
I should add that I am also open to making provision to license culling in certain circumstances to prevent severe damage to crops, or to have some kind of limited farmers’ defence as provided in other legislation such as the Deer Acts.
Occasionally, this House passes small but important legislation, which can get forgotten or even neglected over time. Despite multiple better regulation initiatives by Governments of all colours over the decades, Ministers and Whitehall have collectively repeatedly decided that now is not the time to take action. This House has chosen not to repeal this hare legislation because it recognises that its intent and purposes are as valid, or more valid, today than ever before, yet this House and successive Governments have failed to take the action necessary to make this legislation effective in a modern era.
I want to persuade the House that now, finally, is the time to put this right and introduce a modern close season to safeguard our hares, because in January this year the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs identified the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus 2, which has devastated our rabbit population, in hares for the first time, and estates right across East Anglia are reporting a worrying concern. With the instant die-off of hares and many hare carcases being found, it is clear that the RHDV2 is having a devastating effect.
As our hare population—what is left of it—faces this threat, it is essential that we act now to reduce the mortality of our hare population and to afford our hares the protection they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
That Neil Parish, Jim Fitzpatrick, Norman Lamb, Sir Roger Gale, Henry Smith, Theresa Villiers, Helen Goodman, Simon Hoare, Sir Greg Knight, James Cartlidge, Jeremy Lefroy and George Eustice present the Bill.
George Eustice accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 390).
Prisons and Probation
[Relevant document: Ninety-fourth report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Transforming Rehabilitation: Progress Review.]
Order. For the avoidance of doubt, I should make it clear that under the Order of the House of yesterday the debate on the two Opposition day motions can last up to six hours; in other words the second of those debates must finish by shortly before 7 pm—my guestimate is 6.58—not at 7 pm as stated in error on the printed copies of today’s Order Paper. A correction has been issued and the online Order Paper is correct.
I beg to move,
That this House notes HM Chief Inspector of Probation’s recent conclusion that the privatised probation system is irredeemably flawed and that public ownership is the safer option; recognises that the Public Accounts Committee concluded that probation services are in a worse position than they were in before the Government embarked on its reforms; further notes the Government’s decision to return HMP Birmingham to public ownership following repeated failures under G4S; is concerned by the Government’s plans for at least two new prisons to be privately run; and calls on the Government to end its plans to sign new private probation contracts and contracts for new privately-run prisons.
Today’s debate will address the widespread failures that affect our justice system as a result of privatisation. Over the past 12 months this issue has shot up the justice agenda after two flagship privatisations ran aground. The Government had to cancel the privatised probation contract two years early. The failing probation companies had proved incapable of tackling reoffending and were financially unsustainable despite the Government handing a £500 million bail-out to them. There was also the decision to return HMP Birmingham to the public sector after unprecedented failures by the contractor G4S.
Yet despite the recent high-profile failings in the privatised justice sector the Government are on the verge of signing yet more private prison contracts and yet more probation contracts, throwing more good money after bad. But just how bad does it have to get before the Conservative party ends its obsession with the private sector? Today, Members have a chance to show their rejection of this flawed policy. The Opposition motion has one simple demand: it calls on the Government to scrap their plans to sign new private probation contracts and contracts for new privately run prisons. As usual, the Government will probably claim that we in the Opposition are driven by ideology in our commitment to ridding the justice system of the scourge of privatisation, but the reality is that only one party in this debate is driven by ideology. It is the Conservative party, whose insistence that the market is always best has proved so costly to our railways and our utilities and so dangerous to our justice system.
My hon. Friend is right to say that these reforms—as the Government call them; I call them destructive measures—are driven by ideology, including the completely misguided idea of splitting the probation service into higher risk services being covered by the National Probation Service and lower risk ones being covered by private companies? Does he agree that, although the Government were warned from the outset that that split would be disastrous, they proceeded with it in any event, in the teeth of all the evidence?
My hon. Friend makes an important point very eloquently. As she says, splitting probation into two and part-privatising it has been a disaster. From the outset, the Labour party was among those warning the Government not to take that dangerous road.
If Conservative Members will not listen to the views expressed today on the Opposition Benches, I respectfully encourage them to take seriously the words of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Secretary of State under Margaret Thatcher. Just last month, he wrote in the Financial Times that
“contracting out prisons to the private sector has been a serious mistake.”
He also made a point about the incarceration of human beings for profit—which I wholeheartedly share—when he said:
“The physical deprivation of the citizen’s liberty should not be the responsibility of a private company or of its employees.”
Even if Conservative Members do not share those moral principles, the record of privatisation in leaving the public less safe and the taxpayer out of pocket should put an end to this failed experiment. That is why change is needed: privatisation has been proven not to work.
Nowhere has the experiment of justice privatisation been so thoroughly tested as in the United States of America. Members might be surprised to learn that we have a greater proportion of prisoners in private prisons than the United States federal Government prison system does. That is quite astounding. Concern over safety and value for money in private prisons was one of the reasons behind the Obama Administration’s 2016 decision to plan a gradual phase-out of private prisons by letting contracts expire. Sadly, that decision was overturned by Trump. In the memorandum announcing the plans to phase out private prisons, the US Department of Justice said that
“time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services…and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and…they do not maintain the same level of safety and security. The rehabilitative services…such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource”.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument. He has referred to the United States of America, and I would like to refer briefly to the prison estate in Wales, which presently has 800 more places than necessary for Welsh offenders, many of whom are none the less imprisoned in England. All our female offenders are sent to England. In no way can it be said that the prison estate in Wales has been designed with the rehabilitation needs of Wales as a priority. Will the hon. Gentleman join me and his colleagues in the Welsh Government in calling for the full devolution of criminal justice, and especially of prisons and probation? Join your colleagues in the Welsh Government.
The UK Government are looking at creating new women’s centres. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the priorities in developing policy for women offenders should ideally be the far more practical solution of installing a women’s centre in Wales so that our female offenders do not have to be imprisoned in England? Does he agree that that would be a far better policy response by the UK Government?
I tend to agree with my hon. Friend on that point, as on virtually everything else.
There is so much wrong with our prisons and with our wider justice system. It is overcrowded and too reliant on ineffective short prison sentences. It is also too punitive, and insufficiently focused on turning lives around. Slashing hundreds of millions of pounds from prison budgets and axing thousands of staff members have also been key drivers in what we must now call this justice emergency. Across the board, the scale of justice cuts is eye-watering, totalling 40% under the Conservatives. These cuts often go hand in hand with privatisation and, as budgets fall, there is a greater push for the private sector to step in.
About 20 years ago when I was on the Home Affairs Committee, we visited private prisons in the United States. In those days, boot camps were in vogue; they were going to save a lot of money. They never worked in the United States, however, and that should have been a lesson for the Government here when they privatised the Prison Service. The same thing has happened in our benefits system. Does my hon. Friend agree that this just does not work in social policy and rehabilitation?
I certainly do. I do not think that this Government or our society should see the United States of America as the example to follow in relation to incarceration and justice. People on both sides of the House should take note of the expanding campaign among progressives in the Democratic party in the United States against private prisons.
Under the Conservatives, the driving down of prison staffing levels and prison budgets was an attempt by the current Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling)—who will feature again in this debate, as he does in so many others—to lower the cost of public sector prisons to those in the private sector. That has proven to be a dangerous race to the bottom, and private and public prisons are now far too dangerous.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That fact should weigh heavily with the Government. It means that they should not dismiss this debate as being ideological driven and that they should instead look at the objective facts and think about what can be done to turn this situation around. Violence is at record levels, with an assault being recorded every 20 minutes in our prisons. The number of prisons labelled as being of “serious concern” is the highest for years. It is not enough simply to end prison and probation privatisation, but it is a necessary step if we are going to create a justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and public safety—values that are not consistent with maximising private profit.
We heard earlier about the need for a women’s centre in Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a tragedy that women, including those who have faced abuse in their lives, are leaving prison today with no accommodation to go to? Too many women are in that position, which is why the network of women’s centres is so important.
Women’s centres play a crucial role, and their work needs to be expanded. The female prison estate is a case study in illustrating that short-term custodial sentences do more harm than good to the individual, to wider society and to the public purse. My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point.
Returning to private prisons, I want to focus on staffing levels, disproportionate violence, overcrowding, the lack of accountability, the extra costs incurred by the taxpayer, and the funds that could go towards public investment that actually go into private profits.
The hon. Gentleman has been making a case predicated on ideology. To be clear, is it his view that there should be no private involvement in the prison estate whatsoever as a matter of principle, or is he arguing for a mixed economy but merely better management and supervision of private providers to ensure equity of service?
We are looking for an evidence-based approach. Given that privatisation in the justice system has been such a failure, it seems rather strange that the Government’s response seems to be to carry on digging while in a hole. As I will say later, even answers to parliamentary questions on private prisons often do not provide statistics and answers about, for example, the necessary staffing levels to sort out the crisis in our prison system.