House of Commons
Monday 20 May 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
UK-Saudi Arabia Joint Military Exercises
I would like to pay tribute to Guardsman Mathew Talbot of the Coldstream Guards, who was killed on duty on 5 May in Malawi while taking part in a counter-poaching patrol. Our thoughts remain with his family and friends at this difficult time. I also wish to pay tribute to my predecessor for all the work he did for our armed forces, and to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In the past three years, UK armed forces have conducted four exercises with Saudi Arabia: in 2017 and again this year, Exercise Desert Soldier; and in 2018 a Gulf Co-operation Council exercise, Gulf Shield, and an exercise, Saudi-British Green Flag.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks and welcome her to her place? Saudi officers are being trained in the UK. Any UK steps to stop Saudi committing further human rights abuses must be seen in that context. Thousands have already been killed by Saudi forces—the UK influence did not stop them. Does she agree with me and with her colleague , the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who is the Minister for Europe and the Americas, that Saudi actions are “deplorable”? Will she review our training and co-operation with Saudi armed forces?
I would say that all we do with the Saudi military is in compliance with and promoting compliance with international humanitarian law. I would ask the hon. Lady: does she think the world would be a better place if we did not do that?
May I be the first from the Conservative Benches to congratulate my right hon. Friend on her very well-merited promotion and to wish her well for the future? Does she agree that it is in the UK’s interests to continue intelligence and security co-operation with Saudi Arabia, as with any other Gulf allies that feel threatened by Iran or Iranian proxies?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words. I was Minister for the Armed Forces while he was Secretary of State and I learned a great deal from him. He is absolutely right to say that we have joint interests, and it is quite right that the UK continues our defence partnership with Saudi Arabia.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her place—the first woman to hold the post. May I also associate my party with the comments she made about Mr Talbot and his family?
Saudi Arabia is one of the most human rights-abusing countries on the face of the earth, particularly for women and for other minorities. Of course, the right hon. Lady remains the Minister for Women and Equalities. Is it not time to start unpicking this close relationship, not least in the light of today’s revelations on the front page of The Times, which tell us that her Department is freelancing when it comes to torture policy?
An urgent question has been granted on the last point and I hope to provide the House with some reassurances at that time. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I feel very keenly that women around the world who need our support—human rights advocates and human rights defenders who are out there trying to get reform in their nations—need the UK to lean in to those nations, not retreat from our relationship with those nations.
The problem is that we are leaning in with the arms trade to those nations. All the stuff the Secretary of State has just outlined about continuing the nature of the relationship has not led to any change on women’s rights or gay rights, or for those who are members of different faiths, so is it not time that she stood at that Dispatch Box, nailed her colours to the mast, restated our values, unpicked that relationship and said that we will have no part with a regime that chops the heads and hands off people for simple crimes?
I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman with my track record in my previous post, when I went to Djibouti, got the shipping records of the traffic that was being held at Hodeidah port and then presented those findings to the commander of Saudi forces. Only by engaging and having dialogue with those individuals and those nations will we get better things to happen.
When I was in the Saudi air operations centre recently, I spoke to Saudi pilots, who were a very impressive lot. I asked them about their rules of engagement. I looked at those rules and they looked remarkably similar to rules of engagement the Royal Air Force would use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they are pretty strict?
That concurs with what I have seen and, indeed, with reports that are in the public domain. We know that our training has assisted individuals in making judgments, while operations are going on, that have prevented civilian casualties. There is more to do with other nations as well, but it is absolutely right that the Royal Air Force and others in our armed forces are trying to get good practice to happen in targeting and other areas.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and echo her comments about Guardsman Mathew Talbot—all our thoughts are with his family at this sad time.
One reason why Labour opposes any future joint exercises with Saudi Arabia is what Amnesty International calls the “widespread” and “common” use of torture in the kingdom. As we have heard, today’s Times newspaper reveals that the MOD is willing to share intelligence with states like Saudi Arabia, where there is a real risk of torture, provided that
“the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences”.
Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position urgently and state categorically that the MOD is opposed to torture in all circumstances?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. I will go into more detail on the matter when I respond to the urgent question later, but that is the Government’s policy. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about our training with Saudi Arabia, just as the leader of the Labour party has been wrong on the Falklands, on Sierra Leone, on Syria, on Kosovo, on Russia and on Crimea, and wrong about Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the IRA. That is why decisions about national security should remain with a Conservative Government.
Income Tax Rate: Scotland
Thanks to the surprising decision by the Scottish Government, our valiant armed forces are obliged to pay a higher rate of income tax than people in other parts of the country. As I hope the whole House would agree, the MOD sees armed forces personnel as a national asset, so we have introduced mitigation payments for eligible personnel to offset the unfair burden placed on our valiant soldiers, sailors and air personnel.
That is all very well, but I thought that the Minister was seeking to group this question with Question 14.
So enthusiastic was I to answer the question, I failed to ask your permission to group this question with Question 14, Sir.
The Minister was very enthusiastic to make his point, at any rate.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response and, indeed, for the Government’s policy of ensuring that our brave armed forces men and women are not left out of pocket by the SNP Scottish Government’s bad decision to put up Scottish taxes—it has become known as the “nat tax” in Scotland—but I believe the damage has already been done. I have received anecdotal evidence from the spouses of armed forces men and women who are now not coming to Scotland because they fear paying higher taxes in Scotland if their spouses are serving there.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this issue affects not just those in uniform for whom we have responsibility, costing the MOD £4 million a year, but their spouses, partners and so forth. We are pleased to say that around three quarters of those partners, spouses and so forth are in employment—that is on a par with the civilian sector—but that means that they, too, face that tax burden if they move to Scotland.
My right hon. Friend answers his own question.
Very droll; well done.
As a member of the Defence Committee, I welcome the Secretary of State to their new post.
It has now been a year and no payment has been made, so as the Minister is not paying so-called mitigation to armed forces personnel, will he say how long it took to pay the £17,000 golden bye-bye to the former Secretary of State?
I will not get drawn into the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will clarify the first part. [Interruption.] If he can hold on to his seat for a second, I will answer the first part. It is a retrospective payment, and because the taxes have gone up even more, we have now increased the amount from £1,500 to £2,200. Taxes in Scotland are going up.
But of course about a third of armed forces personnel based in England, notably the lowest paid members of the armed forces, are paying more income tax than their counterparts in Scotland. Will the Minister give some information to the House on what plans there are to mitigate the lowest paid armed forces personnel in England?
There is a question later on armed forces pay, and I will touch on that matter then. Let me make it clear: we see our armed forces as a national asset. If they are to be based in Scotland, they should not have to feel that they need to question whether they should go there because of the increased taxes that they will face.
Armed Forces Personnel
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces and we have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention. Those measures are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her post. Last year, a National Audit Office report stated that it would be another 20 years before the RAF has enough pilots. Recent reports have shown that this problem has still not been fixed. With many trainee pilots stuck awaiting advanced training, how will the Minister commit to resolving this desperate situation?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. There is currently a review under the Military Flying Training System. We have, in part, been victims of our own success in this area, but the Minister for defence procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), has already answered questions on this. We are absolutely committed to streamlining this process to ensure that pilots are not waiting too long for that training. I can reassure the House that, while they are waiting, they are being suitably employed by the Royal Air Force; none the less, we are committed to speeding up that training.
The Welsh Guards 1st Battalion are 30% below their target strength. Overall, the Army has shrunk. How does that fit with the Conservative manifesto commitment to
“maintain the overall size of the armed forces”?
I have good news for the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, I hope for the House. In January, the total size of the Army, including trained and untrained strength, was 81,750. At the end of April, the total size of the Regular Army, both trained and untrained, had risen to 82,770. That is a rise of more than 1,000 personnel.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The issue is not only the application process, but the time of flight from doing that application to actually loading people onto training. I am pleased to say that there has been a recent trial in London and elsewhere looking at this very issue. We have managed to reduce the median time for that time of flight from above 200 days down to a median 109 days. That is a dramatic improvement, and it is just one of the things we are doing to speed up that process.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that those who are considering a career in our armed forces do not see old men in their communities being dragged into investigations for things that happened decades ago? For the sake of those who have served, who do serve and who will serve in the future, does he agree that these investigations must stop now?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. He will have seen the Secretary of State’s comments on this over recent days. I am pleased to say that a written ministerial statement on this subject will be tabled tomorrow.
For the avoidance of doubt, I do normally sit on this side of the House.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her place. There are people holding down good jobs and contributing to society who are on the spectrum and might have Asperger’s. They are, as I say, contributing to society yet if they try to join the armed forces they are stopped at square one. Will the Government reconsider that policy because these people might make a very considerable contribution to the defence of the UK?
This is one of the areas—not specifically related to that condition but I am happy to look at it—on which we have had a series of medical symposiums. We feel that perhaps some of the medical requirements for joining the armed forces are out of date. One example that I have used before is childhood asthma. If it were to reoccur, it is unlikely to do so until the late 40s or 50s, at which point most people will have already left the armed forces. But I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board and will ensure that that is part of the study.
In Moray, we have seen a positive increase in the number of military personnel, which is down to the significant investment by the UK Government in the Poseidon P-8 aircraft at RAF Lossiemouth. Will the Minister take this opportunity to welcome those coming to my constituency in the next few years because of the arrival of the P-8 aircraft?
Indeed; the purchase of the nine P-8s was a very welcome step that this Government have made. It will significantly enhance our capability, and the investment that we have seen in Scotland ahead of those aircraft is significant and welcome.
The Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, HMS Protector, has an icebreaking capability and can operate in the Arctic. We are aware of the importance of the high north region to our environment, security, prosperity and energy supply, and keep our requirements—including further icebreaking capability—under review.
Far too few women are engaged in defence, so may I welcome the Secretary of State to her position, as a fellow woman who has served with her on the Select Committee on Defence? The Arctic ice is melting, but during the winter its capability to freeze is still present. Both Russia and China are building large numbers of icebreakers. Will the Minister look at forward planning so that Britain can also have icebreaker capability in the north to protect British shipping when those sea routes begin to open up, as they will?
As I mentioned, HMS Protector does have an icebreaking capability. However, I take the hon. Lady’s points on board. As she will be aware, we will shortly be publishing the Arctic strategy, which builds on the House of Commons Defence Committee’s “On Thin Ice” investigation last year. The hon. Lady is quite right; we are looking very carefully at the Arctic—not least at potential trade routes—and her point is a reasonable one.
The report “On Thin Ice”, to which the Minister referred, plainly laid out the threat from Russia, which has significantly increased in the Arctic in recent years. Therefore, the call for either ice-strengthened or ice class ships—together with, for example, ice-strengthened submarines and increased training, such as the first-class training offered to our Royal Marines in the high north—is extremely important. In that context, when will the Ministry of Defence be publishing its long-awaited report, and will it take quite a robust attitude towards encouraging NATO to taking the Arctic very seriously indeed?
The report will be published shortly. I apologise to the House for the delay and ask that hon. Members do not read anything into it. Of course, my hon. Friend is quite right and has shown a keen interest in this part of the world for many years. This point precisely ties into the earlier question about the purchase of the P-8 aircraft. Only last year, I attended the Ice Exercise—ICEX—up in the high north, where I had the honour to go on board HMS Trenchant and spend two days under the ice. We are showing an increasing interest in this part of the world for the reasons expressed by the House.
Capita Army Recruitment
The Army continues to work closely with Capita with multiple interventions in place, and is delivering improvements. The year 2018-19 was the best for applications in five years. As expected, we are now starting to see those applications move through the pipeline. The last quarter of 2018-19 was the best performing quarter for enlistments since 2012-13. Although we cannot be complacent and continue to maintain close oversight of this contract’s performance, this does demonstrate early signs for cautious—I repeat, cautious—positivity.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. There is no denying that the Capita contract is an appalling failure, when the Army is still 8% below its par. This issue has been repeatedly raised during Defence questions, but the situation keeps worsening. Does that not show that the Minister’s Department has zero desire to resolve the problem?
I think I tried to address this point earlier. Obviously, we have seen a rise in applications, and we have now seen a rise—taking the Regular Army as an example—in people entering training, with an extra 1,000 in the first quarter of this year. It can take up to two years for a fully trained member of the armed forces to count as being trained and therefore to qualify as part of the figure we always use at the end, but the early signs are positive. Not only are applications up; we now have more people joining, wearing a uniform and being trained, and those people will slowly filter their way through the process.
I have been waiting two months now for an answer to a fairly straightforward parliamentary question about the number of applicants being rejected on medical grounds. Given the deeply unsatisfactory way that Capita seems to handle applications where a medical issue has been flagged, especially in the area of mental illness, will the Minister please look further into this to ensure that there is fairness in the system and the Army does not lose talent?
My right hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the fact that the one thing we do not want to do is to lose talent. I made reference earlier to the medical review process that we are looking at. We have already found areas where we think we can improve, and I look forward to those improvements being implemented shortly.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her post?
It is scarcely credible that after all Capita’s incompetence on the recruitment contract, its failure on the defence estate’s management contract and the assessment by experts that this company carried the highest possible risk factor, the Minister is still pushing ahead with plans to outsource the Defence Fire and Rescue Service to Capita. To make matters worse, his Department is now spending hard-earned taxpayers’ money on an expensive legal battle with rival company Serco. Is it not high time that the Government stopped throwing good money after bad in pursuit of an ideological fixation with privatisation, did the right thing and abandoned plans to outsource the Defence Fire and Rescue Service?
I do not think there is any ideological belief about having to use Capita. For reasons I have already explained, we are seeing progress in the one particular contract that I am responsible for. With regard to the Defence Fire and Rescue Service, which also falls under the Army, there has been a court case that is currently under review, as the hon. Lady knows.
Iranian Military Action: Deterrence
The United Kingdom shares United States, European and Gulf partners’ concerns about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region. We continue to work closely with our allies and partners to mitigate the threats to regional security.
If the balloon goes up, are we ready and will we help our allies?
Yes, we are, and we are already deployed in the region. This is a region where we have huge stakes and a huge amount invested. We are working with our allies and partners, first, to try to de-escalate things in the region, but also to truly understand the facts behind recent events.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new job? Some of us will miss her at the Department for International Development, where she really ploughed her own furrow and was very refreshing.
Are our defence forces capable of helping any of our allies, either in the middle east or if someone invaded one of our allies in Europe? We have a minuscule armed forces. The 75-year D-day celebration is in June. We could not defend anyone with the size of the defence force we have at the moment.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I am sure he will continue his campaign on road traffic accidents and all that Britain can do to prevent them around the world.
I think that our armed forces are getting increasingly more capable, looking what we are doing in terms of operations. Increasingly, we are forward-deploying people. The Royal Navy is undertaking more activity. However, we must ensure that the budget, or what we are doing with the budget, is absolutely linked to the tasks that we require our armed forces to do because of the mission that we give them.
Last week, the British deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve stated that
“there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
He was then rebuked by US Central Command. The Foreign Secretary later went on to declare that the UK and the US share
“the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran”,
and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office changed its travel advice for Iran. Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position, and will she confirm that the UK will oppose any escalation of tensions in the middle east?
We want the increasing tensions to de-escalate. I think that the major general’s remarks have been clarified; he was speaking in a particular context. We are absolutely on the same page as the United States in terms of the assessment of risk, and we have always been clear-eyed about the threats that Iran poses.
Competition remains the cornerstone of defence procurement policy, except where other strategic considerations need to be taken into account—for example, national security, operational advantage and freedom of action.
I thank the Minister for his visit to defence companies in my constituency and for his helpful and inclusive approach when he visits. Does he agree that the ability of those companies in my constituency and of British companies in general will be greatly damaged by a hard Brexit?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments. It was a pleasure to meet a number of businesses in his constituency. We have been engaging a lot with the small and medium-sized enterprise supply chain. In fact, on 9 May, I held a roundtable with small businesses in north Wales, and they felt very optimistic about the future. Through our equipment plan, we are actively engaging with the supply chain to ensure that the opportunities in each of our projects will maximise the input that they can have.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. It is a pleasure to see such an amazing woman on the Front Bench, standing up for defence.
Last Thursday, myself and colleagues from across the House on the all-party parliamentary group on shipbuilding and ship repair launched our report on the national shipbuilding strategy. We have real concerns that competition, particularly for naval shipbuilding, is based on a model that does not include the economic benefits to the UK being recycled back in when we spend UK taxpayers’ money. Can the Minister give me an assurance that the Ministry is looking at that and will work with the Treasury to change our model, so that we can get the best value and ensure that our shipbuilding pipeline lasts in the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that Sir John Parker is currently doing a review of his initial report. International competition is also about encouraging UK industry and UK shipyards to be as competitive as possible, so that they can not only maximise the opportunities that UK defence offers, but take advantage of competition around the globe, too.
The Minister said that this is to make UK yards more efficient, but what they need is throughput of work. His Department has chosen to put the contract for the fleet solid support vessel into international competition. What weight was given in that decision to his Government’s prosperity agenda, our sovereign capability and the need to protect UK shipbuilding?
That is precisely why the Type 26s, Type 31s and aircraft carriers were built in the UK, so that we could maintain that capability here in the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman might be aware of the speech that the Secretary of State recently made, and part of what she is doing is a review into the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—tankers, to ensure that we look at the exact experiences with that and take lessons from it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises in defence procurement is essential in promoting innovation in the sector?
My right hon. Friend is right. One of the things I have noticed in this role and as I go around the country is that innovation really exists in the SME sector. We have to ensure that more SMEs feel they can do business with the Ministry of Defence, so that we can take advantage of that for our armed forces.
The Government’s procurement process for military equipment is a shambles, and nowhere is that better seen than in the way it is handling the procurement of the Type 31e frigates. Having started, then stopped, then restarted the procurement process for the Type 31s last year and imposed a totally unrealistic price ceiling of £250 million per frigate, will the Minister confirm that he has now effectively removed that financial ceiling?
I do not actually recognise the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of the competition. This is a challenging competition for the very reason that we want to ensure that UK industry is competitive—not just in the UK, but around the globe. We have taken a pragmatic approach to change the parameters to ensure consistency with all other competitions that have been happening. This is a challenge to industry, but we want it to be competitive. That was the whole point of the national shipbuilding strategy.
Commonwealth Servicemen and Women
As we discussed in an excellent Westminster Hall debate in the week before last, Commonwealth servicemen and women make an important contribution to our armed forces capability. The visa application process is Home Office-led, but I do agree that there is a moral case for abolishing the visa application fees, and we continue to have discussions with the Home Office to make this case.
In her first departmental questions, may I warmly congratulate our first ever female Defence Secretary?
I thank the Minister for his continued support on this cross-party cause, about which my letter has been signed by almost 150 MPs from five parties in this House. While I recognise what he has said about the possibility of precedents being set by changes to the immigration legislation, does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be perfectly possible to make an amendment to the armed forces provision in the Immigration Act 1971 so that our Commonwealth servicemen and women can apply free of charge?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and we are certainly looking at that Act. The starting salary that someone receives when they come in to join the armed forces does meet the threshold that the Home Office requires. The trouble is when they wish to bring in a spouse or partner, or indeed their children, as that is when they run into the additional minimum income thresholds. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that the over 4,500 Commonwealth members of our armed forces and the over 3,000 Gurkhas make such a valid and important contribution to our capability.
I agree with everything that has just been said by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). Could the Minister talk to his opposite number at the Home Office? I have had cases of constituents who have travelled halfway across the world, signed up for the armed forces and then, when they leave the armed forces, are not entitled to benefits because their immigration status has not been sorted out. That seems to me to be a fairly miserable way to treat people.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which also came up in the debate. It is important when such people embark on this journey—when they sign the papers and endeavour to come to the UK—that they are fully aware of the current situation. The families federations, with which we work very closely, have made the case that it is not even clear to those actually embarking on the journey that, although it is okay for them to come across, they will bump into a financial burden should they wish to bring in their family, and we need to move forward on that.
The RAF remains absolutely committed to Lincolnshire as part of our defence rationalisation programme. My hon. Friend is aware that we have had to restructure some of the assets in that county, but we do expect to see considerable investment in the near future.
I apologise to the Minister for banging on about RAF Scampton and its closure, but I will not be satisfied until it is engraved on his heart. Can he relieve the acute distress in Lincolnshire caused by the closure of RAF Scampton by announcing, very shortly, that he will keep the Red Arrows in Lincolnshire at one of the three remaining superb RAF bases—Coningsby, Waddington or Cranwell—and can he help the local community by continuing the heritage centre associated with the Dambusters raid?
I will take those points in reverse order, if I may. First, may I pay tribute to that incredible endeavour that took place in May 1943, with Barnes Wallis and Guy Gibson? Every child grows up knowing what the RAF is all about because of what those brave heroes did back in the middle of the war.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that this is also the home of the RAF Red Arrows. That gives me licence to say, if I may, that we look forward to seeing them participate in the air component of the land, sea and air effort to pay tribute on the 75th anniversary of D-day, starting from the Defence Secretary’s constituency.
My hon. Friend is also aware that we have had to rationalise, and Scampton will close, but let us not forget that Lincolnshire very much remains at the heart of the RAF. We have RAF Digby; Cranwell, where the training takes place; Coningsby, of course, where our fast jet component is; and RAF Waddington, which is home to our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability.
Well, we are certainly better informed, but it looks as though we can look forward to a good deal more banging on from the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on this important matter.
The Government already do much to support our brave veterans and their families, but for the first time we are mapping out a 10-year strategy to give greater clarity on how we want that support to develop.
I thank the Minister for that answer. What role does he see the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee playing in the development of better care for our veterans? Is there not a case for renewing and revitalising the committee—after all, it is nearly 100 years old—so that it can play a more prominent and effective role?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He almost suggested—I am sure that he did not mean to—that the original members of the committee were still serving, but it has advanced and reformed, and I work with it very closely. It is important that when someone leaves the armed forces, they are supported by our country, which is indebted to them for their service. It is important that we use that committee and others to provide veterans with the support they expect.
Can my right hon. Friend tell the House the level of spending on veterans in all parts of the United Kingdom?
It is difficult to put an exact figure on it, but we estimate that the MOD spends around £7 billion on our veterans. It is so important that we provide that support wherever it is needed across the country, whether through pensions, mental health support or simply comradeship, to recognise their service and thank them for it.
Can the Minister give some indication of how he intends to monitor the delivery of the covenant, given the recent report by the charity SSAFA, which said that only 16% of veterans actually believed that it was being delivered effectively?
The right hon. Gentleman must not mean the veterans strategy, because we have not yet started it. We put it out to consultation and received over 4,000 replies, which we are now collating. I hope to make a statement to the House in the near future on how we intend to move forward with the 10-year strategy.
As my party’s defence spokesperson, may I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on her new position?
The Minister knows my frustration about the unequal and inconsistent approach to implementing the armed forces covenant across this United Kingdom. As part of the veterans strategy, will he look again at the ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced to try to ensure a duty of compliance across the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman touches on two important aspects. First, there is the obligation to honour the covenant, which is still in its infancy. There is so much work still to be done, because implementation is very disparate across the country. Secondly, there are specific challenges in Northern Ireland. I have had the pleasure of visiting Northern Ireland with him to see how we can ensure that the covenant is honoured there, given the very sensitive issues faced there.
On behalf of the Defence Committee, may I welcome the Secretary of State to her new position, for which she is well qualified indeed? May I also pay tribute to her predecessor, who not only saved our amphibious forces from premature dissolution, but won considerable battles with one of our real adversaries in defence: the Treasury?
Does the Minister, as a veteran himself, agree that part of the veterans strategy ought to be the protection of former service personnel against repeated re-investigation for their activities in past conflicts? I welcome the fact that the Government seem to be moving towards some sort of qualified statute of limitations approach, but may I urge them to bring their announcement to the Floor of the House, rather than simply putting it out as a written statement, as at the moment they are suggesting they intend to do?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. I am afraid that I cannot provide a full answer because, as he suggests, the Secretary of State will be providing more information on this tomorrow.
Yes, but I think that I can say with confidence from the Chair that a written statement will simply not meet the needs of the case, given the appetite—I am grateful for the nod of affirmation from the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), the former Secretary of State for Defence. The House will clearly wish to question Ministers on the matter, and therefore it needs to be done in the Chamber.
I join the Chairman of the Defence Committee, as a fellow Committee member, in welcoming the Secretary of State to her new responsibilities, not least as she carries the Queen’s commission. May I emphasise the point made by the Chairman of the Committee—and indeed by you, Mr Speaker—that the most important issue with regard to veterans is protecting them from lawfare and legal witch-hunting? It is absolutely imperative that the Secretary of State makes an oral statement to the House tomorrow, so that all Members from across the House can question her on her proposals, which I am sure we will welcome given half a chance.
So many Members have rightly congratulated the Defence Secretary, but this is the first time that the fact that she is a reservist in the naval reserve has been credited. That leaves just one member of the Defence Front Bench team who is not in uniform at the moment, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew). So, no pressure on him to join one element of the forces. On my right hon. Friend’s substantive question, the point has been made and the Defence Secretary will be in her place tomorrow.
Safeguarding Military Technology
It is clearly important that we provide appropriate protection for sensitive research with defence or security applications, whether conducted in our universities or in industry. That is why we work closely with other Government Departments, agencies and international partners to ensure suitably robust arrangements which keep pace with developments in technology and the wider global context.
Recent media reports have highlighted increasing concerns about scientists linked to the People’s Liberation Army working in UK universities on research relevant to the development of sensitive military technologies. Does the Minister share that concern? Is he working with universities to mitigate the risk of financial dependency on, or the sharing of sensitive technologies with, China? Will clearer guidance be developed on academic areas deemed relevant to national security?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue. I can confirm that we work very closely with universities to inform them of the risk posed by military-civilian research fusion. Universities are subject to the UK’s strategic export controls, as is everyone else in the UK, and should consult the Department for International Trade before engaging in any relationships focusing on technology that could have a military application. Further guidance is available on the gov.uk website.
The 2015 strategic defence and security review introduced a new national security objective to promote UK prosperity. We subsequently published strategies for shipbuilding and combat air, and refreshed our defence industrial policy with a new emphasis on supporting growth and competitiveness. On 14 March, we provided an update to Parliament on our ambitious defence prosperity programme.
Last week, the Secretary of State described our Type 26 frigates as the envy of the world. They are powered by the most capable and quietest electric drive motors, which are designed and made by GE in Rugby. Is the Minister as delighted as I am at today’s news that the Ministry of Defence is bringing forward orders for the motors for the second batch of those vessels, which will enable this vital facility to remain here in the UK?
May I first praise my hon. Friend for the work he has done to fight for the factory in his constituency? I could not walk down a corridor without bumping into him and him lobbying hard. That was why I made sure that I met GE. I am pleased to inform him that this morning GE announced to its staff that it has reached an agreement with the Ministry of Defence that will enable the company to continue its work in his constituency. I also pay tribute to my officials, who have worked incredibly hard on this matter to ensure that the machines continue in Rugby.
Delivery of the Tempest programme, as driven by BAE Systems in Warton, is essential to managing the future military air requirements of the United Kingdom. Can the Minister confirm continued Government support for the combat air strategy, as outlined by the Prime Minister at Farnborough?
My hon. Friend secured a debate just last week on this very issue and is obviously fighting very hard for his constituents who work at BAE Systems. The Government continue to deliver the combat air strategy which, as he says, was launched at Farnborough last year. That is a big piece of work, which is looking at the future air combat system technology initiative. The Government will continue to look at all innovative technologies that will need to be available, while we explore a broad range of options to deliver capability.
The cross-party report on shipbuilding recommended that the new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships are built in British shipyards—that is absolutely vital and enjoys cross-party support. Has the Minister read the report, and will he meet the officers of the all-party group to take forward our recommendations?
I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and others who have shown an interest in this. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently conducting a review into the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—tankers to see how we can learn from that and maximise the opportunities that will exist for the supply chain in the UK.
In recent days, we have heard of foreign shipbuilders pulling out of the bidding process for the fleet solid support ships. If the Government are being true to the national shipbuilding strategy, will the Minister accept that time is of the essence for not only the support ships but the bidding process for the Type 31 frigates? I know of a yard that has the skills, experience, talent and infrastructure to build those ships for the UK—we are good to go in Rosyth, so, for the sake of jobs and the industry, will the Minister start signing the contracts?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Type 31. Of course, that is a UK-only competition and we will wait for the results later this year. On the fleet solid support ships, I am pleased that a UK consortium is in there. I can confirm that Fincantieri has withdrawn from the competition, but I am not going to comment on any other entrants, because it is purely speculation at this stage.
Full and effective global compliance with the chemical weapons convention remains a priority for the Ministry of Defence. The use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime has caused extreme human suffering. A leader who uses chemical weapons against their own people should face the consequences, and we remain firm in our resolve to respond appropriately to any use of chemical weapons by that regime.
I too welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role and wish her every success. Will she update the House on the timetable for bringing forward the legislation needed to renew our Trident nuclear and missile capabilities?
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. No legislation is required, despite what she suggests. In 2016, this House, by an overwhelming majority, supported the assessment that the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrence posture will remain essential to the UK’s security.
Further to welcoming the Secretary of State to her position, I pay tribute to her for her service in our Royal Navy. Moreover, we on the Opposition Benches are committed to working constructively with her in areas where there is a clear consensus. One of those is personnel numbers. Every service is now smaller than it was this time last year. The Army alone has seen a drop of 2,000 trained personnel, which is a staggering failure after all the promises we have heard at the Government Dispatch Box. His predecessors completely failed to get to grips with this, so what is she going to do differently to turn things around?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks and for indicating that she wants to work constructively on issues on which we agree. I particularly thank her for her remarks following the announcement that I made about ending vexatious litigation and other such activity against our veteran community and members of the armed forces. I know that she took a huge amount of abuse for saying that, but I ask her to stick to her guns and not wobble on that, and I thank her for it.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces has outlined the work that is being done to increase recruitment and retention in our armed forces, but part of that is about talking up and explaining what our armed forces do. I sincerely wish that more people followed the hon. Lady’s lead and supported our armed forces, saying why they are important to society, social mobility and everything that this great nation stands for.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Another area where we have a consensus is spending. She said recently that she is determined that the commitments made in the 2015 SDSR should remain on track, yet according to the National Audit Office, the huge shortfall in the defence equipment plan is putting several programmes at risk. Despite her immediate predecessor’s well publicised theatrics, he failed to deliver sufficient additional funds to plug the gap. What will she do to guarantee the investment in defence that we want to see?
In addition to the budget, we need to look at the behaviours that have resulted in previous SDSRs not being fulfilled—I dwelled on that in my speech at the sea power conference. We need more honesty about the costs and what it will take to deepen our partnership with industry to ensure the long order books that reduce the cost of procurement. We know what needs to be done, and that should be our focus, as well as talking to the Treasury.
If my hon. Friend has particular suggestions, I would be interested to hear them. Where the MOD recognises that things have not previously been done as they should have, it has a track record of rectifying those situations, so I would be happy to discuss this with him if he has particular proposals in mind.
I will not comment on future deployments, but I would say, having visited Somalia, though not Somaliland, that we need to understand the strategic importance to the UK of that part of the world, not least given its position on our trade routes—much of our trade does indeed go past that part of the world. That is why we remain committed to supporting the troop-contributing nations and the training for the peacekeeping mission.
I can absolutely confirm that, hence why we put an “e” on the end—to show that this is a ship we want to export. We want to show what UK industry can do and the capability it can provide to other nations. I am sure the Type 31 will follow the success of the Type 26.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. When I served, there was no transition process; now, when someone puts their hand up and says they are departing, they go through what can be a two-year programme to get ready for civilian street. Thankfully, 95% of those who go through the programme end up either in work or back in education. That is a great statistic. He is absolutely right about mental health as well, and there is a focus on that. Mental Health Awareness Week last week was an opportunity to make veterans aware that if they required support it was there to be found.
I am grateful for that question, because it highlights the fact that it is not the MOD that provides veterans support but NHS services across the country. Each NHS authority should have a transition, intervention and liaison service designed to help those who require mental health support. If they need advanced support, there are complex mental health facilities as well.
Off the top of my head, I would say that about 75,000 will be trained and 7,000 untrained. However, it is important to understand that people begin by being trained to be infantry soldiers and then go beyond that. If, for example, they are joining a technical corps such as the Royal Engineers or the Royal Corps of Signals, the point at which they become fully trained can be even further down the line.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Aircraft such as Poseidon and Rivet Joint that are coming onstream rely on a boom refuelling system. What assessment have Ministers made of the requirement for fitting a boom refuelling capability to the aircraft refuelling fleet at Brize Norton, either through retrofitting or with new airframes?
These aircraft have an endurance that will enable them to meet the requirement for core UK missions without the need for air-to-air refuelling. For extended endurance missions, they are fitted with boom refuelling receptacles, and our allies can also provide air-to-air refuelling as required.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, following the issues involving Galileo the Government announced that £95 million would be spent on exploring exactly what our future options and capabilities might be, and that work is still ongoing.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), was good enough to meet representatives of Rock2Recovery, which specialises in providing mental health coaching for veterans and current service personnel. How does he intend to use that solution as part of any future treatment?
I pay tribute to Rock2Recovery, and to my hon. Friend for his support for it. It is one of the more than 400 service-facing military charities that do such an excellent job, not only in providing activities such as sport but in giving veterans who require support a new chapter and a focus. I give thanks to it for the work that it has done, and I thank all the other charities that do exactly the same.
The Royal United Services Institute has confirmed that the UK will not be able to replicate many of the security benefits of EU membership if we leave. It has also been confirmed that Russian hackers have attacked media, telecoms and energy companies. Will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of the capacity that we will lose as a result of leaving the EU, and outline the Government’s costed proposals?
Although we are leaving the EU, European defence co-operation does not end. Recent deployments in Poland and Estonia demonstrate that we are continuing that co-operation, and it will be enhanced.
As my right hon. Friend knows, Care after Combat does amazing and successful work in rehabilitating veterans who find themselves in the criminal justice system. What role does she see for that organisation as part of the veterans strategy? How can we enable it to continue its work, and boost it as much as we can?
My hon. Friend has mentioned another of the excellent charities that do such a great job. The focus that the new Defence Secretary has given us is on seeing what more we can do to get veterans to support other veterans, and that is exactly what Care after Combat does. I am also pleased to see such charities working together more closely through the co-ordination of Cobseo.
Our armed forces personnel, like all public servants, have been undervalued for too long by this Tory Government. The value of their pay has plummeted in recent years, and now we are seeing another delay in their pay award. When will the Government recognise that those who are in the frontline of protecting our people can do without money worries? When will they lift the public sector pay cut and sort out this mess?
The Armed Forces Pay Review Body is about to report, and we will obviously look at that issue, but let me gently say to the hon. Gentleman that esteem for our armed forces is evident in all parts of the House, and I wish it were slightly more evident among some of his hon. Friends.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post, and thank her for all the work that she has done for the Navy in Portsmouth, from which Fareham has benefited greatly.
I recently met serving members of our forces in Fareham, who raised serious concerns about service family accommodation and, in particular, problems with CarillionAmey and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. Will the Minister meet me so that we can review these matters and our brave servicemen and women can be housed appropriately and with dignity?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. If we are to look after our armed forces, if we want to achieve our recruitment numbers, and if we want to ensure that we have the armed forces we want and the country expects, we must look after them not just on the battlefield and not just through training, but off the battlefield and through welfare, and that means building the right accommodation for them.
A very small number of Members more wish to speak; one sentence each.
Just last week I read that another veteran in Hull had taken his own life after failing to be supported adequately. Please will the Minister look to publish the statistics on veteran suicide on a regional basis, so that we can see the extent of the problem and how we can best support people who have given so much for us?
Every suicide is a tragedy, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right: we need to better understand the numbers that are coming through. I am pleased to say that those who join the armed forces are less likely to consider suicide and to be affected by mental health issues and drug issues and so forth, but if someone goes down that road—if they are affected by those issues—help must be available, and that comes with understanding the situation. We are working with Manchester University to better understand the statistics, and I will also be speaking to Justice Ministers to see how we can get the numbers from coroners, match them with our databases and see for sure the exact background of those who have taken their lives.
Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the men and women of the King’s Royal Hussars battle group in Estonia for the terrific work they are doing in reassuring our NATO allies of our full commitment to the NATO alliance?
I had the enormous pleasure of visiting that battle group only last week in Estonia and was tremendously impressed not least by the way it is demonstrating our interoperability with our NATO allies.
What steps is the Secretary of State going to take to minimise or indeed eradicate the practice of double counting spending in both the 0.7% aid target and the 2% NATO military spending target?
I think I will have to issue an explanatory note for the hon. Gentleman on this. If we are trying to spend ODA money on things that are not ODA eligible, it is not ODA; it is as simple as that. We do not mark our own homework on either ODA spend or the NATO 2% commitment, and instead of asking these questions repeatedly at both International Development and Defence questions the hon. Gentleman should take some pride in the fact that the United Kingdom makes both those commitments.
These are extremely important matters, and in the name of their intelligibility to people who are not Members of the House I should point out that ODA in this context is not “odour,” but rather ODA—official development assistance—for the avoidance of a scintilla of doubt.
What assessment has the Minister made of the mental health care services for veterans available in South Leicestershire and the wider east midlands?
Part of the purpose of Mental Health Awareness Week was to raise awareness of where veterans can seek help. As I touched on earlier, every regional NHS authority must have a transition, intervention and liaison service programme in place. What we need to do better is communicating that to our veterans so that when they are down in a very dark place they know where help can be found. We are working with the charities on that to make sure we can further improve the communication.
In Cranhill this morning I met an Afghanistan veteran who has profound mental health issues but has been found to be on the low rate of personal independence payment. Will the Minister work with me to make representations to the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that we look after this veteran and get him justice and what he really deserves from the DWP?
First, we now keep track of those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq in a way that we have not done before, so we are having a much better relationship with veterans after they depart service. I will be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue in more detail. It is important that those who are affected by any aspects of mental health issues receive support from this country—from a very grateful nation.
Two notable parliamentary celebrities have risen to their feet: the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and a former Minister for the Armed Forces. It is very awkward—[Interruption.] No, you are too modest, Dr Lewis; I call Dr Julian Lewis.
As a naval reservist herself, will the Secretary of State personally look into the removal of the captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth, apparently on the grounds of what might have been a misunderstanding about the use of a car supplied by the Ministry of Defence? If we lose talented people like this, surely it is not only unjust but a waste of all the investment made in someone’s 29-year unblemished career in the Royal Navy.
I can assure my right hon. Friend that I am fully aware of the situation and that I understand his concern when we have invested in an individual and they are unable to carry out the tasks for which they have trained. The officer remains within the Royal Navy and it is a matter for the Royal Navy to deal with, which it is doing.
The Secretary of State is very familiar with Portsmouth, but will she make sure that one of her first Royal Navy visits is to Devonport so that she can maintain a similar familiarity with the expertise and skills that we have in Plymouth?
If you are Royal Navy reservist, you cannot avoid being familiar with Plymouth. I would be very happy also to visit Faslane and Plymouth, our other navy bases besides Portsmouth.
We are well out of time, but we have to hear the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois).
Bless you, Mr Speaker. Several weeks ago, I tabled a named-day question to the Department asking how many soldiers were enlisted into the Regular Army in 2018-19 but, unless I have missed it, I have not even had a holding reply. As this relates to my great friends Crapita, when can I expect an answer to that question, even though we all know that the answer will be embarrassing?
Yes—that is a matter of interpretation. We are grateful.
Use of Torture Overseas
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if she will make a statement on the Ministry of Defence’s policy on co-operating with the use of torture overseas.
The UK Government stand firmly against torture and do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose. Our policy and activities in this area are in accordance with domestic and international law. The Ministry of Defence’s policy is aligned with the Government’s policy on sharing and receiving intelligence, and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner has been satisfied with our activities and has not identified issues of concern. However, the Prime Minister has asked the commissioner to review the Government’s consolidated guidance and submit proposals on how it could be improved. Once it has done so and the Government have had the chance to consider them—I anticipate that this will be a matter of weeks—the MOD will review its internal guidance as necessary in the light of any updated guidance that is published.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Our most senior living soldier, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, said 10 years ago:
“Torture is illegal. It is a crime in both peace and war that no exceptional circumstances can permit…We need to distinguish ourselves from our enemies. We must not, in the false name of moral equivalence, degrade ourselves to their level.”
He was right. The prohibition of torture is one of our few absolute incontrovertible rights. There can never be a reason or justification for torture; what is more, it does not work. It leads to bad intelligence and bad decisions. The decision to undertake the Iraq war, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, the destruction of the stability of the region and the destruction of the reputation of the west, was based on so-called evidence obtained on the basis of torture.
We cannot ignore the morality or the law. Paragraph 15.9 of the Ministry of Defence’s policy document states that information sharing should not proceed
“unless ministers agree that the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences that may follow”.
The fundamental problem with paragraph 15.9 is that it presumes that Ministers can overrule the law, even international law, including that on absolute rights such as the prohibition of torture: they cannot, they must not, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that they do not.
Given the Ministry of Defence’s claim that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, the investigatory powers oversight body, approves of this, will she publish the documents showing that? It seems to me that the IPCO might have approved the overall approach but not the precise policy document that I refer to, which I understand was published after the consultation. Will she ensure that that document, which appears to give Ministers the right to overrule the law, is published along with any commentary on it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for applying for this urgent question. It is a critical issue. I agree 100% with what he said, and it is worth reminding ourselves that these laws and norms protect not just the enemy but our own armed forces. We cannot overrule the law, nor can Ministers be advised to overrule or disregard the law.
As I said, we have an opportunity to review the matter. I want to wait until the commissioner’s advice has been received. I understand that will take only a few weeks, so I will update the House as we review our guidance.
I understand that following a freedom of information request one of the policy iterations has been placed in the public domain. The latest iteration, from 2018, introduces not any substantial changes but a minor change at the request of the IPCO. These matters should receive the full light of day and full transparency. If my right hon. Friend will bear with me, once I receive the advice I will of course update the House on these important issues.
Today’s revelations that the MOD has discreetly rewritten Government policy on torture are extremely concerning. Torture is not only morally reprehensible but prohibited under international law in the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the convention against torture.
There can be no justification whatsoever for torture. None the less, today’s reports suggest that, according to the Ministry of Defence, torture is acceptable if, and I quote from the policy document,
“ministers agree that the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences that may follow”.
Will the Secretary of State confirm what the Government consider those “potential benefits” to be?
In response to the reports, the MOD has denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that the
“policy and activities in this area comply with the Cabinet Office’s consolidated guidance”
However, that guidance clearly sets out that
“in no circumstance will UK personnel ever take action amounting to torture”.
It further maintains that where the Government cannot mitigate the
“serious risk of torture at the hands of a third party”,
“presumption would be that we will not proceed”.
Will the Secretary of State therefore clarify how her Department has come to its conclusion? What legal advice has it received? Will she now publish this advice, if any?
We understand that the policy came into effect in November 2018. How many times since then has a Minister decided to authorise the transmission of intelligence that may have led to torture? No Minister should authorise any action where there is a serious risk of it leading to torture. Will the Secretary of State therefore now do the right thing and commit to scrapping the policy immediately, so as to ensure that basic human rights and international law are universally respected and upheld?
I can give the hon. Lady the assurances that she wants. It is not our policy to condone torture or to facilitate it—quite the reverse, as I set out earlier. No Ministers have been involved in decisions that would have led to that, and it is clear that that is not our intention. Again, I can check that, but that is the assurance that I have received from the Department. I can understand the concerns that have been expressed across the House. People will appreciate that I understand well why such laws and norms are in place. As I said, they are for everyone’s benefit, not just our enemies’.
I undertake to look at the guidance and review it, but it is prudent to wait for the commissioner’s feedback. If it was going to take a long time to arrive, I would take a different view, but it is imminent—a few weeks’ time.
Surely my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has done the House a big service in securing this urgent question because it touches on the reputation of our country.
You, Mr Speaker, will remember that on 2 July 2018 my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) led Members from both sides of the House in asking for a judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture, and the Government promised to update the House within 60 days. Now, it is day 323 and, in spite of that promise the House has not been given the explanation it requires.
Last Friday, the United Nations Committee Against Torture called on the UK
“to establish without further delay an inquiry on alleged acts of torture and other ill treatment of detainees held overseas committed by, at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of British officials.”
Given Britain’s leadership at the United Nations, it is a very sad day when the UN has felt it necessary to pass such a motion. I urge the Government to deliver on their promise to the House and come back on the issue of a judicial inquiry. As I say, it was promised within 60 days and we are now on day 323.
My right hon. Friend raises some important points. Although I completely agree with what has been said by everyone who has spoken so far, it is right to point out that we hold our armed forces, and the agencies that work with them, to high standards —we hold them all to high standards. We understand why that is important, we understand why people must be compliant and we understand why there must be accountability and transparency in these policies not just on matters of intelligence but in targeting them to reduce the number of civilian casualties.
Part of the reason we are grappling with the issue of “lawfare” is that we want to uphold the primacy of international humanitarian law. These things are incredibly important to us.
I have undertaken to review this policy, and I will look at things more widely and in the round, but I reassure the House that what I do not want to come from the scrutiny of MOD policy, which is quite right, is any suggestion that our armed forces are somehow not upholding international humanitarian law.
I know that Members on both sides of the House will know how much that is embedded in our armed forces’ education and training, and how it is given with rigour in everything they do before deployment. Where there is wrongdoing, they are held to account, and it is quite right that we should hold them and officials to account for wrongdoing where it happens. This is not a regular occurrence, and it is not something that occurs within our armed forces—they operate to the highest standards.
A tangled web has been woven that needs to be unpicked with the greatest transparency. Why did it fall to the non-governmental organisation Reprieve to get this information into the public domain? Why did no one in Government think it appropriate to pass it to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner?
The Secretary of State says she will review the policy, but will she not go one step further and rescind it? Will she clarify the MOD statement, which she repeated at the Dispatch Box today, that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner is “entirely satisfied” with the Department’s activities and standards in this area? Given that the commissioner had not seen the document until last month, how on earth can he be completely satisfied with something he knew nothing about?
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm whether she believes that, as per the guidance we are discussing, Ministers can authorise UK action where there is a serious risk it will contribute to torture? In the authorship of this policy, was the Attorney General consulted at any time? It is quite clear that the House will not accept any deviation from the strictest observance of domestic and international law.
Finally, with last month seeing a UK Defence Secretary sacked for leaking from the National Security Council, this month we find out that the MOD is potentially freelancing on torture and potentially breaking the law. Many of us are left asking, what on earth is going on in the Secretary of State’s Department?
I can understand the concerns that have been expressed about a policy, but it cannot be drawn from that that action is being taken or incidents have happened. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that this policy is not new, nor has it been secret. The Prime Minister asked the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to review the guidance, and the commissioner has seen the MOD’s policy. What I said is that he has no issue and believes the MOD’s current policy is consistent with that guidance.
I repeat that no Minister could break the law or be advised to break the law by an official—that could not happen. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman on that point. The Attorney General is routinely and regularly involved in forming policies of this nature, and is also a member of the National Security Council.
I endorse what my right hon. Friend has said: the idea that this is some extraordinary leak displaying some novel policy is wholly erroneous. If anybody wishes to read the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on detention and rendition, they will find a lengthy section on current issues that deals with this precise matter, setting out the consolidated guidance in virtually identical form to that which exists and, I understand, is currently being used in the MOD.
That said, I welcome the Secretary of State’s review, and I point out that in the detention and rendition report my Committee made it clear that this was one of those exceptional areas dealing with serious risk. You can never authorise or sanction the use of torture—it is wholly contrary to international law—but we pointed out that where there is a serious risk there was a need for some form of process by which an evaluation could be made. It was noteworthy that there appeared to be differences, at the time we reported, between the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the MOD on what criteria might be applied by individual Secretaries of State. May I urge my right hon. Friend, first, enthusiastically to rebut those who suggest that this is an extraordinary revelation and, secondly, to move to respond to what the Committee suggested in its report?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that contribution, and I completely agree with what he says. In addition to the review of the policy, I will certainly give the matters he raises my urgent attention.
This matter might not be news to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and his Committee, but it does appear to have been news to IPCO, which had to be informed about it by freedom of information requests through Reprieve. Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain that. Does it not show that the lessons from the whole so-called “war on terror” have not been learned? She gave a long answer to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), but she did not answer his actual question: when are we going to have the announcement on the judge-led inquiry?
First, the change to the policy introduced in 2018 was an amendment at the request of the IPCO. As I say, it is only a short number of weeks before we will get the review back from the Commissioner, and the Government will be able to look at the recommendations made. I will look at this in the round, as Members would expect of a new Secretary of State coming into the Department, and I will update the House. I fully hear what all Members in all parts of the House are saying. I understand, and I hope the House has confidence in the fact that I understand, how critically important these issues are, for, as I say again, the safety of our own armed forces, as well as other people, and I will give this my urgent attention.
If anyone ever tries to tempt the Secretary of State with the maxim that the end justifies the means, will she bear in mind the wise words of Sir Robert Thompson? He was probably the leading counter-insurgency expert of the 1960s and wrote about torture and other extrajudicial means:
“Not only is this morally wrong, but, over a period, it will create more practical difficulties for a government than it solves. A government which does not act in accordance with the law forfeits the right to be called a government and cannot then expect its people to obey the law.”
I quite agree with my right hon. Friend: it is absolutely fundamental to everything that we stand for and everything that our armed forces represent that we uphold the law, that we uphold international humanitarian law and that we abide by the rules. I could not agree with him more.
Although they are no longer with us today, in my time, I have known several people who suffered torture, both in the far east and in Europe. Although I was a young man when they recounted their tales, and they did want to tell me what happened, I have never—well, it was ghastly, let us just put it that way.
I want to be clear that I have every faith that our armed forces observe the very highest standards of conduct. I have no doubt about that whatsoever. Unfortunately, though, we are perceived—I use that word carefully—to be in a difficult situation at this point, so let me broaden this issue out. The UK talks about exerting its soft power; were we to be seen in the world as the champion of outlawing torture, we could strike a mighty blow for the getting rid of this horrible crime. It would do our reputation in the world no harm at all. Many years ago, we led the charge against the slave trade. Why do we not do exactly the same for torture?
I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. The Royal Navy played a huge role in the ending of the slave trade; our nation has a huge heritage in that respect. I should add to what has been said that this matter shows why we have also to tackle, in conjunction with this issue, which I will deal with, the wider issue of lawfare—that basket of issues that is corrupting our operational effectiveness and putting huge pressure on our armed forces in the field to take decisions that are the wrong thing to do. Let me give just one example from, I believe, Afghanistan. A member of our armed forces was sued for detaining a prisoner for longer than the prescribed amount of time in order to keep that prisoner safe from being put into a prison where they would have been tortured. That was the right decision to take. Currently, members of our armed forces are pursued for taking such decisions and upholding international humanitarian law, so we have to get that right, too. Our armed forces resist the immense pressures that are put on them when they are making those decisions in theatre, but we have to get that right too, and that is also receiving my urgent attention.
It is sickening that we have this guidance on torture, but I am reassured by the Secretary of State’s words this afternoon. Will she confirm that we will not use or act on intelligence that is gathered from third-party torture?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We do not condone torture, we will not be implicit in it and we are fully aware of our obligations in terms of third parties.
To follow on from what the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said about the United Nations criticism, was the review prompted by that criticism, or by something else? Lots of my constituents are concerned about this issue and the direction in which it is going. Does the Secretary of State have a date for when she will come forward and tell us what the proposals are?
Just to clarify, it was the Prime Minister who asked the commissioner to review the Government’s guidance, which our MOD guidance follows—it is absolutely in line with that. I am told that it will be a couple of weeks before the commissioner is ready to report. When they do report, the Government will review it and I will review the MOD’s policy.
I invite the Secretary of State to respond specifically to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) about the Government’s response to the call for a judicial review. We cannot blame her for the failures of her predecessor, but we heard that the promise of a response within 60 days was made about 320 days ago. Will she make it clear that she will now put that right and that the House will hear her view on that and let us know when we should expect to hear it?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am a couple of weeks into this role. I am looking at this situation, but I will not make pronouncements at the Dispatch Box until I am apprised of all the issues. I do not think that hon. Members would expect me to do anything else. I can assure the House that I am looking at the issue and at policy in relation to that. From what I have seen and from the inquiries that I have made in the Department so far, I think that the House would be reassured about our conduct. I think that the decisions that have been taken in the Department have been correct and that hon. Members would be reassured by that fact. But I fully appreciate that the House wants to have an update as swiftly as possible and I undertake to do that.
Will the Secretary of State outline her understanding of the definition of torture, underline the position in a civilised society and, coming from a position of clean hands, confirm that the end does not and will not always justify the means?
I hope that I have given the House every reassurance. There is a legal definition of torture. At the beginning of my statement, I outlined all the descriptions and forms that that might take. It is never justified. It is also, as we know, not a reliable way of getting information or of being able to act on that information. We must not do it. Ministers should not do it, or allow it to be done. It is a breach of the law and no official could advise a Minister to take that course of action.
The Secretary of State seeks to reassure the House, but Members may be aware that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office consultation into the Cabinet Office consolidated guidance on intelligence sharing relating to detainees closed on 28 November 2018, yet the MOD policy was simply dated November 2018. Therefore, was it introduced on 28, 29, or 30 November to avoid being included in the IPCO consultation?
My understanding is that it followed that updated advice and the changes made to the 2018 document were at the request of the IPCO. That is my understanding of the situation, but that should not be confused with the piece of work that has been ongoing with the commissioner and on which a report back is due, as I have said, in a few weeks.
As we heard from the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), in the course of its inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee asked a number of Secretaries of State whether they believed the policy allowed them to authorise action where there was a serious risk of torture and each gave significantly different answers. Can the Secretary of State explain how she will be able to ensure that there is a consistent approach to this from all Secretaries of State?
The confidence that the right hon. Gentleman and other Members can get is that the processes in the Department have to be right. Clearly, different people coming into office and holding ministerial office will have different views on a raft of subjects. They may have different experiences that they bring to bear in making a decision, but the key thing that should give us confidence is that no member of our armed forces and no civil servant working in defence could give advice that would get a Minister to decide on a course of action that could lead to an individual being knowingly tortured. That, I think, is very clear. That has been my experience of the calibre of individuals working in the Department, both in the past few weeks and also in my time as Minister of the Armed Forces. Those are the people we have to trust. A duty on Ministers, especially the Secretary of State, is to reinforce that in the Department through policies, transparency and clarity on what it is that we are trying to achieve and the law that we are trying to uphold.
Ebola Outbreak: DRC
Ebola is back—this time in the eastern DRC. This is the largest outbreak in the country’s history, the second largest in the world and the first in a conflict zone. So far, 1,209 people have died, and we must do much more to grip the situation. It is not a simple question of virus control. If it were, we could simply repeat what we were able, at huge cost and risk, to do in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and even to some extent what the DRC Government and the World Health Organisation were able to do in Équateur and western DRC over the first six months of last year—that is, to get out into village after village, identify all the cases, trace all their contacts and the contacts of those contacts, and contain the outbreak through preventing further chains of transmission. But this situation is not like that.
This outbreak is in North Kivu, which is the centre of a conflict and is dominated by dozens of separate armed groups, largely outside Government control. Such groups have begun to attack and kill health workers, meaning that key international experts have had to be withdrawn from the epicentre of the virus. The decision not to allow this province to participate in the recent elections—partly on the grounds that it was an Ebola area—has fuelled suspicion that Ebola is a fabrication developed by hostile political forces. As a result, communities are reluctant to come forward when they have symptoms, to change burial practices or to accept the highly effective trial vaccine. The Congolese army and Government, which have successfully contained nine previous Ebola outbreaks over the last 45 years, are struggling to operate in the epicentre of this outbreak, as are the UN peacekeepers and the WHO. Although this area is dangerous and difficult to access, it is not sparsely populated. The epicentre of the outbreak is Butembo, which has a population of 1 million people, and the surrounding areas contain almost 18 million people.
According to all our expert analysis here, the current disease profile poses only a low to negligible risk to the United Kingdom, so this statement should not be a cause for panic here at home. However, this outbreak is potentially devastating for the region. It could spread easily to neighbouring provinces and even to neighbouring countries. I commend all those—both in the Congolese Government and the international community—who are working in very difficult situations to bring this disease under control. My predecessor, the current Defence Secretary, paid tribute to Dr Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, who was killed in an attack by an armed group on 19 April while working on the frontline for the WHO’s Ebola response. I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Dr Richard and to all those who have lost loved ones as a result of this outbreak.
We now need to grip this situation and ensure that the disease is contained. As Members can imagine, this has been my key priority in the emergency field since I was appointed to this role just over two weeks ago. I spent the weekend in discussions with UN humanitarian co-ordinator Sir Mark Lowcock and with the Director General of the WHO, Dr Tedros, who has personally paid eight visits to the affected area so far. I have also spoken about the response to the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, Amina Mohammed. I am pleased to see that there has been a real step-up in terms of the UN staff on the ground regarding co-ordination and the seniority of those staff, particularly in places such as Butembo. Both the Health Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have been supporting this agenda in meetings over the past four days—the G7 health ministry meeting and the WHO meetings in Geneva.
I have convened a meeting with a number of international experts in the field, including Brigadier Kevin Beaton, who helped to lead the UK military response in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the chief medical adviser to the UK Government. I have concluded, on the basis of their advice, that we need to provide more money immediately, not only to support the frontline response—the health workers—but to support the vaccination strategy and to put more of our expert staff on the ground into the response. This is not just about recruiting doctors. We need people who understand and can work with the DRC Government, the military and even the opposition forces in order to create the space for us to work. We need people who know the UN system well so that they can drive and shape the UN response.
These people need to be not in London but on the ground, because they need to be able to learn and adapt very quickly as the disease spreads. We are already deploying epidemiologists through our public health rapid support teams, in partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care. I am also now considering deploying officials with specialities in information management, adaptive management, anthropology and strategic communications. It is, however, important for us all to understand that this is not a problem that the international community can solve from a distance. This is a political and security crisis as much as a health crisis, and the response must, in the end, be driven by local health workers and leaders.
There are some positive signs. DFID has been a key player in developing a new experimental vaccine for Ebola that is proving highly effective. Over 119,000 doses have been administered in eastern DRC—an achievement that has probably saved thousands of lives. Modelling from Yale suggests that the use of the vaccine has reduced the geographic spread of Ebola by nearly 70%. This is not just about statistics. It is about, for example, Danielle, a 42-day-old baby in eastern Congo who survived Ebola last week thanks to the inspiring work of community volunteers, themselves Ebola survivors, and frontline health workers, supported by UK Aid.
Of course, we cannot do this alone. It needs grip and urgency, but it also needs humility. One of the reasons I have been talking in detail about this issue to Mark Green, my US opposite number, is not only that we share the US’s analysis but that the Americans will inevitably be major players in this response in terms of finance and expertise, as indeed they were in the Liberia Ebola outbreak. We need many more international donors to match our financial contributions and to sustain the international and local health operations in the field. That is why the UK has just hosted an event specifically on Ebola to build support for the response in the World Health Assembly in Geneva. It is also why I have agreed that my colleague, the Africa Minister, should visit eastern DRC immediately.
This is a very dangerous situation where the Ebola virus is only one ingredient in a crisis that is fuelled by politics, community suspicion and armed violence. We need to act fast and we need to act generously. But above all, we need the right people on the ground who are completely on top of the situation and able to come up with quick solutions and to guide us in keeping up the support for—and, yes, sometimes the pressure on—the UN system, on non-governmental organisation, on opposition politicians and on the Government of the DRC to get this done. The stakes are very high. I will keep the House updated on our response.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for its comprehensive nature. I would like to start by joining him in commending all those who are working to fight this outbreak, honouring Dr Richard Kiboung, who was killed last month, and expressing our deepest sympathies to all those who have lost their lives to the latest Ebola outbreak in the DRC.
The death toll currently exceeds 1,000 people, and as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, this deadly and cruel virus is certain to claim more lives in the days and weeks to come. The World Health Organisation has said it is unlikely that the virus will be contained, so its spread into neighbouring countries is not only possible but likely. This assessment from the WHO means that the world must act fast to prevent catastrophic outcomes, given the speed with which Ebola can contaminate and kill. David Miliband, who recently visited the region, confirmed that
“the Ebola outbreak is getting worse, not better, despite a proven vaccine and treatment.”
Through the Department for International Development, the UK is already playing its role in the response and making a difference on the ground, as it has done in previous outbreaks. Real credit is due to DFID’s staff and all responders for their tireless work and commitment. I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is discussing further action that DFID can take with other donor countries. Every day is crucial, and getting the response right is imperative. It is not simply a matter of issuing more money or resources. Given the complex security context laid out by the Secretary of State, a more hands-on and strategic approach is urgently needed.
It has been widely reported that one of the major barriers to delivering the necessary response is the breakdown of trust between the affected community and those trying to lead the response. A quarter of people in the region believe that the Ebola virus does not exist, and a third think that it was fabricated for financial gain. Foreigners have been accused of bringing Ebola to the DRC, and armed groups have stormed health centres and killed staff members.
Medical humanitarian agencies, such as Médecins sans Frontières, that have the expertise and experience to fight Ebola are being forced to suspend activities in the face of threats of further violent attacks. As a result, people are left untreated, vaccines are not administered, and the majority of Ebola-related deaths are now occurring within the community rather than health clinics. Lack of infection control and safe burials only speeds up the spread of the virus. In April, the country recorded its highest number of cases since the outbreak began, and we can expect this month’s caseload to be higher. Transmission is occurring in highly populated areas where health systems are weak and hundreds of armed groups operate.
What specific steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all agencies prioritise working with the Congolese community in their response? What urgent steps is he taking to gain the trust of the Congolese community? Can he tell us more about his discussions on supporting efforts to stop the current rumour mill of misinformation and secure negotiated access to the affected population?
What more can the Secretary of State do to reduce the problematic dependence on armed escorts and military involvement in the implementation of humanitarian activities? Agencies active on the ground report a major difficulty being that actors involved in the Ebola response are the very same actors who have played a long-standing role in the ongoing conflict in the region. Can he give an assurance that he will uphold the principles laid out in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines, which state that military and civil defence assets should only ever be employed by humanitarian agencies as a last resort? Crucially, while we want to see everything done to get this emergency situation under control, does he agree that prevention is better than emergency response and that we must provide long-term support to ensure that the DRC can build appropriate public health systems for the future?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his moving and well-informed response to the statement; it is clearly very well informed by some of the actors on the ground. I will reply specifically to two of his questions.
On stepping up co-ordination, an assistant secretary-general of the UN is now operating out of Butembo with a broader co-ordination role for the different UN agencies. We have reached out to opposition leaders, who yesterday made the first in a series of statements to communities to encourage them to come forward to report cases. This is really important because those opposition leaders were at least complicit passively in allowing the rumours to spread that Ebola was somehow an invention of the Government, so there has been a very important shift. We want to thank those opposition leaders for coming forward and making those statements, and we would encourage them to make more such statements. Clearly, the Ebola response should not be politicised and should not be caught up in people’s disagreements with this particular Government in Kinshasa.
On the military-security relationship, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should be using military personnel only as a last resort, but it is very difficult situation. Nearly 200 separate insurgencies are taking place in the DRC—in particular, the Allied Democratic Forces and the Mai-Mai groups, which are operating in North Kivu and the surrounding areas—which, as we have said, have killed a doctor, mounted at least two attacks on Médecins sans Frontières facilities and attacked up to 40 other health facilities. With these kinds of problems, and when we are protecting our health workers not just from the risk of getting Ebola itself—health workers are of course among the individuals most at risk of contracting Ebola—but literally protecting them from being shot or attacked, it is understandable that in certain cases we have to work either with UN troops or the army of the DRC to address this outbreak.
We need to be very realistic about what this whole situation means. Part of that is resilience and, absolutely, investment in the public health facilities in the DRC. However, we should remember that the DRC Government have dealt with nine previous outbreaks. In fact, Ebola is named after a river in the DRC, and it was first discovered because of an outbreak in the DRC. The Congolese army and the DRC Government actually have a huge amount of experience in dealing with this. Their failure to grip it here is specifically about the conflict in North Kivu, rather than necessarily about their having the skills and experience to deal with it.
Finally, we need to invest in resilience in the neighbouring countries to make sure that were the disease—God forbid— to move into Uganda, Burundi or Rwanda, we have the proper response in place to contain it in each of them.
Last time I was in Uganda, I was shown the preparations that were being made in case Ebola did come across the border, but I did not feel they were adequate enough. There was one bed, as part of a health facility, which just had a curtain around it. Will my right hon. Friend explain what we are doing to help, because this will not respect the border of a country and it will cross? Will the Secretary of State explain exactly what we are doing to help the countries bordering the DRC to stop it spreading into their country?
The answer is that we have much more experience now than we did 10 years ago of dealing with this, particularly because of the experience in Sierra Leone and Liberia. That means partly that we are giving money to agencies such as Oxfam so that it can provide its own experts in the field and support to the WHO both in resilience preparedness and in work with the public health authorities in those countries. We know what we are doing; we have the skills; and we know how to run a good technical Ebola clinic. I am very concerned to hear this news from Uganda and I am very happy to look at the individual case, but we certainly can do much better than that and we generally are doing much better than that.
May I thank the Secretary of State for pre-sight of his oral statement? Thanks are due in no small measure to those who are already working on the ground. That point was made by the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), and indeed by the Secretary of State.
With 1,600 cases and almost 1,200 deaths, the outbreak in the DRC is the second largest in history. It has a 67% fatality rate 10 months after it began, and the case numbers are still rising and escalating as we speak. As we know, the disease disproportionately affects women, in 55% of cases, and children, in 28% of cases. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has warned that it may have to scale back operations dramatically in the DRC because of underfunding and some of the security issues that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement.
I have two questions for the Secretary of State. First, on vaccines, he might remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) noted in a recent article for The BMJ that
“modern air travel means it is not possible to ignore infectious diseases that occur ‘far away’ as of no concern here”.
Does he agree that vaccines are a key weapon in the fight against this disease, at home and abroad, and if so, what steps is his Department taking to combat the disinformation about vaccines worldwide? I think that problem is bigger than what we are dealing with today.
Secondly, during the west Africa epidemic of 2014 to 2016, funerals were a major source of Ebola transmission, causing almost 80% of infections in Sierra Leone. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that safe and speedy burials are provided across the worst affected areas?
There are three issues. First, I absolutely agree that we need to work very closely with everyone, including all Members of this House, to combat the very dangerous lies about vaccines. Vaccines are absolutely vital. They have transformed life expectancy around the world. We cannot allow conspiracy theories about vaccines to lead to unnecessary deaths.
Secondly, in eastern DRC, there are two types of vaccines available: one developed by Merck, and one developed by Johnson & Johnson. The trials of the Merck vaccine were very successful in Guinea. We are beginning to roll out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. There is an issue with how long it takes to make these vaccines; because they still have to be biologically incubated through an egg, it can take between six and 12 months to create the vaccines. Pushing towards 350,000 over the next six months will therefore require enormous drive and effort.
Finally, on burial practices, we must ensure that we are anthropologically sensitive. Family members want to be able to see their loved ones before they bury them, so we have to bring them in wearing hazmat suits and ensure that they see the chlorine spraying of the body. In certain cases, in addition to wrapping the body, we need a clear site so that they can see the face, so that some of the rumours that have been going around about organ harvesting can be dealt with directly. In eastern DRC, this is about reassuring not only the family, but the broader community.
One of the big problems is that that part of the world is characterised by a large number of refugees, due to the inherent instability of the region. How will my right hon. Friend tackle Ebola among refugees to ensure that it does not spread to other countries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The ongoing conflict in eastern DRC, which has been going on for decades, involves Congolese citizens moving in large numbers into neighbouring countries, and some of the insurgent groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces, are citizens of other countries—a lot of people originally born in Uganda and Rwanda are now fighting in eastern DRC. That means we need to deal with the situation in two ways. We need to think about those people returning to their host countries, but we also need to think about vaccinating within the camps for refugees and internally displaced people. Our aim will be to try to do a complete vaccination of those camps and communities.
My constituent Ben Thomas came to talk to me about this on Saturday. The combination of this terrible disease, in an area with 18 million people dominated by separate groups, as the Secretary of State described, out of Government control, with the conspiracy theories, reads like the nightmarish script of some disaster movie. How sure is he that the risk of this spreading and eventually coming to the UK is negligible, and what is he doing with other Departments to ensure that we are ready for such a possibility?
That, of course, is the central question. Our colleagues in public health conduct an analysis on a real-time basis and publish every two weeks their view of the risk to the United Kingdom. They publish the risk of vectors of transmission that they are aware of. They look at the fact that eastern DRC is a relatively remote area, with no direct flights to the United Kingdom, and there is a very limited number of people from the diaspora community of eastern DRC in Britain. However, if Ebola continues to spread, that fortnightly update will change. The current negligible risk could move up, which is why we need to watch this very closely. If it were to move to Uganda, two factors would come into play. Uganda has a better public health system, so it should be able to trace contact to contact and contain Ebola more rapidly, but there is the risk of the direct flights to the United Kingdom, so we need to keep the House updated very closely on that. At the moment, I think their assessment is correct. However, should the situation change, our assessment will need to change.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), for their very measured and detailed statements and replies. May I ask the Secretary of State about the situation in Goma? As far as we know, there are no cases in Goma at the moment, but it is a very large population centre. It seems, from the information I have, that it is not well prepared. Should the disease reach Goma, that could have extremely dangerous consequences. Goma is home to large numbers of refugees, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out.
In terms of the worst-case scenarios we are looking at, Goma is a very serious situation. Butembo, as I explained to the House, has a population of 1 million. Goma is far larger. It is a considerable urban settlement and a major trading port right across to Rwanda. It would not be possible to vaccinate everybody in Goma. There are simply more millions of people than we have vaccines to insert. It is therefore very, very important that we contain the outbreak by ring-vaccination around the area of Butembo. If it moves to Goma, we will have to move to a totally different stage of response, so we must do all we can to prevent that happening.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, which was very helpful. I understand that in Sierra Leone’s most recent Ebola outbreak nearly 10% of that country’s health professionals were killed. This disease can therefore have a huge impact on a country. The Secretary of State talked about much distrust surrounding this outbreak. Will he say more about what is being done to raise awareness and emphasise the impact of Ebola, so we can contain it?
There are two main lessons from Sierra Leone. The first is communication—in particular, making sure that anybody who is sick comes forward to report it and that they report their contacts honestly. We had a situation recently in eastern DRC where a baby was reported, but nobody traced the fact that the grandmother of the baby had actually had the disease. Contact tracing and reporting is essential. The second relates to safe burial practices and understanding very clearly the risks involved.
In terms of health workers, the big change from Sierra Leone is the vaccine. One of the great achievements that this Department has played a major role in is the final development of an Ebola vaccine, which, so far, has been very effective—over 90% effective. We are now vaccinating all health workers in the area as a matter of course, so that anyone who is in contact with a patient is vaccinated. That should make a huge difference to the transmission of the disease, because in Sierra Leone and Liberia it moved through health workers. The problem at the moment is traditional health workers, who are reluctant to come forward.
For intervention to be decisive, clinical experts will have to be deployed at pace and at scale. Will the Secretary of State indicate what discussions he is having with our international counterparts to ensure that such resources, as are required from us and our allies, are deployed as quickly as possible?
From discussions in the Department, we have agreed a scale-up of the UK response. We have laid out the additional UK experts who want to go into the field. I have spoken to Mark Green, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. A retired US admiral who led their response in Liberia has just been out in the field in eastern DRC and has returned to Washington. I hope that a colleague will be able to meet him in Washington this coming week. The third thing is making sure, with Dr Tedros and Mark Lowcock from the WHO and the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, that we get the right UN experts in the field. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: more expertise, more quickly and closer the epicentre is the key.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. He is perhaps that rare animal—a Minister who is respected on both sides of the House—so I wish him well. He will know that in 2014, the Ebola outbreak was classified as a public health emergency of international concern, as was the Zika outbreak in 2016. I assume that he is monitoring that. At what point does he think we might reach that stage, and what additional resources would that bring to tackle the outbreak?
That is a very good, technical question. Let me take the two responses in reverse order. First, we do not believe that the declaration would make a dramatic difference to the resources that we are able to deploy. In fact, we have just signed off on very significant additional resources. For various security reasons, I feel that we cannot talk about the exact sum, but we are putting much more resource into this operation. Secondly, we are monitoring this issue and the entire meeting last week was around that. It is an active question for the discussion currently taking place at the World Health Assembly, and we will keep the House updated on the declaration of the emergency.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on taking up his role; the introduction of a Scot always helps matters in sensible decision making. My question is simple: in terms of mobilising all our forces and getting the vaccine on tap as quickly as possible, are we making the maximum use of one of our strengths, which is British academia? One thinks of Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester, where we have some tremendous medical specialists.
The answer is yes. British academics are playing a very major role, but a lot of the Merck development has included not just British but American and Canadian academics. The point is well made. We are very proud in DFID that the quest for a universal snakebite vaccine, for example, will be led through the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and funded entirely with DFID money. That is an example of where I, as a Scot, would very much like to take this Department.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following a previous point of order that I made to you, I and more than 110 other Members wrote to the chairman of the Conservative party and the Government Chief Whip on 19 March regarding comments made by the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) in relation to historical sexual abuse. Two months later, neither has responded to me, so could you advise me further on what action I should take to get an answer on this important matter?
The short answer is: persist. The matter is not to be directly addressed from the Chair in the sense that as far as I know, it does not appertain to remarks made in the Chamber. That does not, in any sense, diminish its importance, but it does change the matter of the aegis within which it falls. It is not a matter upon which I can arbitrate. However, I champion the principle of courtesy between colleagues. If colleagues have written to the chairman of, in this case, the Conservative party, they are entitled to expect that a reply will be forthcoming, so my counsel to the hon. Lady—in so far as she requires it—is, as I said in my initial one-word reply: persist. Stick at it. Keep going. Do not take no or nothingness for an answer.
In a moment, I will call Heidi Allen to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady has up to three minutes in which to make such an application.
Revoking Article 50
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I seek leave to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the revocation of the UK’s article 50 notification to the European Union.
As we know, the Brexit landscape is shifting literally by the day, but there have been some significant events recently that I believe have altered the direction of travel. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have been locked for six weeks in cross-party talks that have facilitated no resolution whatsoever. The Prime Minister has now stated that she will bring back her withdrawal agreement for a fourth time on 3 June, and all indications are that it will fail again. That being the case, we know that the Conservative party has stated that it will then look for a new leader, and that means a new Prime Minister for this Government. The suggestion is that it is likely that that will be a hard Brexiteer, and a Member of Parliament and a Prime Minister who may take this country towards no deal, or leaving on World Trade Organisation terms. Just when the country was breathing a sigh of relief and thinking the danger of no deal had passed—the House has voted twice to ensure it does not happen—recent events have dangerously reignited that possibility.
I remind everybody that no deal means no transition period, which would mean, the day after leaving, no rules on tariffs and goods, no free movement of people, no security arrangements, and goods—medicines, for example—not being regulated as today. It would end overnight. This would constitute a grave act of harm to our economy, our security and the health of the nation. If it has not been possible to secure a confirmatory vote by 31 October, the House will have to seriously consider revocation of article 50 to stop the clock and prevent a no-deal Brexit. Mr Speaker, I would be grateful to hear your view on whether we should have this emergency debate.
The hon. Lady was admirably succinct. It is comparatively rare for a colleague to fall so short of the three minutes but nevertheless to have conveyed the point. The House is grateful to her. I have listened carefully to her application. I am not persuaded that this matter is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24, but I want to add the following to complete what I regard as a satisfactory answer. The Standing Order requires that I do not give my reasons for the decision, but it may help her, other colleagues and those attending to our proceedings outside if I remind the House that the Standing Order also states:
“In determining whether a matter is urgent the Speaker shall have regard to the probability of the matter being brought before the House in time by other means.”
I have had such regard. I wanted her to have an opportunity to air this important point, and I have made this decision for now.
Non-Domestic Rating (Preparation for Digital Services) Bill
Considered in Committee
[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]
Provision of digital etc services by HMRC: preparatory expenditure
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Eleanor.
The Government have made significant reforms to the business rates system since our wide-ranging review in 2016. Responding to the needs of ratepayers, we are building a system fit for the 21st century. The tax system must keep pace with the way business operates today, and that means a modern, online system that makes it easier for businesses to manage their bills in one place.
Today’s measure is a small step towards that modern system for business rates. It will give Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs the ability to carry out the early design work so that it can explore how a new system can be delivered. It does not implement or commit us to a particular approach, and the Government will work closely with local government and businesses when we come to develop detailed proposals. We need the Bill because HMRC’s statutory functions do not currently extend to the administration of business rates. As I have said, further primary legislation will be needed for HMRC to implement the outcomes of this work, so this House will have a further opportunity to look again at the project.
On the detail of the Bill’s clauses, HMRC’s functions are set out in primary legislation in the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005. These functions relate to the collection and management of revenue, as set out in section 5 of the Act, and do not extend to the administration or payment of non-domestic rates. Clause 1 therefore provides HMRC with the ability to incur expenditure in connection with digital services to be provided by it for the purpose of facilitating the administration or payment of non-domestic rates in England. Subsections (2) and (3) define digital services and non-domestic rates respectively. Clause 2 sets out that the amendment will extend to England and Wales but apply only to England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Eleanor.
When we debated the Bill’s Second Reading last week, we were careful not to stray too far from what is a very narrow Bill. The benefit to the Minister was that he was able fill a speech by reading out the Bill. I shall not speak just for the sake of it; I shall cut straight to the chase.
I accept completely that this is enabling legislation to allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to develop the framework and the product offer, but there are still many outstanding questions that the Government need to answer at this stage, because they are fundamental to the approach that is being taken. For instance, will local councils retain their primary role as billing authorities? Who will underwrite the non-collection losses for businesses that opt to use the new digital system? How frequent will HMRC’s payments to local authorities be?
To what extent will local government be involved in the co-design of the system? As was pointed out on Second Reading, there is a great deal of expertise in our councils when it comes to designing systems and processes and bridging systems across different software products, and I think we can tap into that expertise to ensure that the system is fit for purpose. I am sure that the Minister does not want his CV to bear the legacy of an inadequate IT system, a fate that has befallen many Ministers who have gone before him in various Departments.
We want those fundamental questions to be answered, ideally before work starts and money is spent—and that brings me to my next point: we still do not know how much money will be spent. Oddly, a money motion was tabled but did not proceed to a Division, and there was no explanation even of the ballpark figure: not even a rough estimate of how much the new system might cost. The cost must be weighed against the benefits to HMRC and businesses, and it must be established whether we are getting value for money for the investment.
I must be careful not to stray too far from the subject of the debate, but the Bill does not address the underlying chronic underfunding of local public services. The Minister really must deal with the issue of the £8 billion funding gap, to which we have referred very often in the House.
We do not intend to divide the Committee, but if the Minister is not able to answer those questions today, it would be useful if, at the very least, Ministers could respond in writing.
Let me deal briefly with the hon. Gentleman’s points. He asked some specific questions about the design of the system. As we established on Second Reading, I cannot give him the answers, not because I am trying to hide something but simply because I do not know them at this stage, and nor does anyone else. The Bill will enable HMRC to start its scoping work, and the questions that the hon. Gentleman rightly posed about the design, who will do what, and how intensive the work will be—or, indeed, how light-touch it might be—will be answered during subsequent analyses. Further primary legislation is likely to be required, so the House will have an opportunity to debate those changes.
On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point about the potential integration of the new challenge and appeal system with whatever new platform is designed. That point is worthy of consideration. Again, however, at this stage no one knows how much that would cost, how long it would take, or whether it would be a worthwhile addition to the plan of work. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me: I am not being evasive, but we are beginning a process that will answer all those questions and others.
Similarly, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific figure in relation to the budget, because we do not know what the overall system will look like. What I can say is that HMRC’s initial scoping work will be done within its existing resources and budgets, will not, in general, involve the use of consultants, and will hopefully lead to a proposal which, during the spending review, HMRC can decide whether to adopt, depending on the outcome of the review.
Of course local government and, indeed, business should be extensively engaged in the process. I know that HMRC is committed to that, and the hon. Gentleman would no doubt hold me and Treasury Ministers to account if it were not the case. Typically, Select Committees would take evidence from HMRC in hearings as the system was being designed and rolled out over subsequent years, and I have no reason to doubt that that would happen in this instance.
The last question the hon. Gentleman posed was specifically about the frequency of payments. I am pleased to be able to tell him that this was also brought up on Second Reading. Currently, businesses tend to have at least the opportunity to spread their business rates payment over 10 different instalments over the year. That right is prescribed in regulation—the Non-Domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) Regulations 1989—so that flexibility is already in place and is taken up by many businesses. If there was to be any change to that, it would require this place to pass new regulations, so I think the hon. Gentleman can rest assured on that point.
I hope that answers all the hon. Gentleman’s questions, and I ask Members to agree that, if we can take clauses 1 and 2 together, they stand part of the Bill.
In answer to the Minister’s implied question, I have not put clause 2 to the Committee yet, and therefore before I put the questions on clauses 1 and 2 I will immediately, for the sake of clarity, rule that we are debating clause 1 and clause 2 together; I had not said that before, but as both the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman appear to have done so I will retrospectively allow it. Also, I will just ensure that no one else wishes to speak on either clause 1 or clause 2 before I put either of the Questions, and I see that that is indeed the case, so let us proceed.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This simple, narrow measure will take the first steps towards improving the tax system for businesses by developing a new digital system to administrate business rates. It is part of the Government’s commitment to make Britain the best place in the world to do business.
I would like briefly to thank right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House for their contributions during the extensive Second Reading and Committee stages of the Bill. Specifically, I am grateful to those who supported it on Second Reading, highlighting the importance of our efforts to support business and our high streets and of our consulting widely on the development of this new digital system. I am grateful to the Clerks of the House and to officials in both my Department and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for their work on the Bill.
This simple Bill will allow HMRC to develop a new system for the administration of business rates; it has wide support, and I commend it to the House.
I do not intend to talk at length, but I do wish to say that when people look at Parliament and the division that Brexit causes, they believe that our politics is in crisis. Although I know that the topic the Bill addresses is not interesting for many people and I doubt that many people will be watching, it has demonstrated that we can work across parties, and indeed that is how Parliament generally works, although it is not often seen. I accept that this is a technical matter and is not as controversial as Brexit, which I will leave for others. I thank the Minister for reaching out very early in this process, and I wish the Bill success in the other place.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Medical Cannabis under Prescription
I beg to move,
That this House reaffirms its welcome for the change in the law that allows access to medical cannabis under prescription, but notes that only a handful of prescriptions for whole-plant-extract medical cannabis have been issued on the NHS, which has left a significant number of patients, many of whom are children with intractable epilepsy, with no access to medical cannabis and experiencing severe distress; and calls on the Government immediately to act to ensure that medical cannabis is available to appropriate patients and in particular to children suffering severe intractable epilepsy, such as Alfie Dingley whose plight and campaign did so much to secure the change in the law.
It is a real privilege to stand here and represent families from across the country, alongside colleagues from across the House who I am sure will scamper into the Chamber in all haste when they realise how fast the previous business has been dealt with. This gives us a suitable amount of time—some five hours—in which to debate this really serious matter.
On 8 April, Mr Speaker granted me, with support from other colleagues across the House, an urgent question on the medical use of cannabis. This followed the removal of a young lady’s medical cannabis from her family’s possession as they came through customs at Southend airport in Essex. The young lady’s name was Teagan, and her family are ardent campaigners on this issue. They know, because they have been abroad to get medical cannabis oil for Teagan, that it has a really helpful effect on her.
What had an even more dramatic effect on Teagan’s family was that, perhaps not unexpectedly, Border Force confiscated the oil. I do not blame Border Force or the Home Office—we will go into the history of how we got to this position in a moment—who were doing their jobs However, after long conversations on the phone that evening and conversations with the Speaker, I was really pleased to be granted the urgent question.
The urgent question meant that the House could come together to ask why an oil that had been prescribed—admittedly it was prescribed abroad; nevertheless it was prescribed—should be taken from a young lady who desperately needed it because of the seizures that she suffered as a result of her epileptic condition.
The oil was taken away, and the family were promised, quite rightly, that it would be kept in a safe place and not damaged.
On the Saturday a week after the urgent question, the prescription was eventually accepted by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office. I say “eventually” because there is such confusion surrounding this prescribed medical product. It is fascinating to me and even to those within the medical profession.
The first prescription was rejected, and Teagan was not allowed to have the oil back because the prescription did not mention the word “oil”. Even though the description of the product was completely accurate, it was rejected because it did not contain the word “oil”. A new prescription was issued that included the word “oil”, and the oil was released. Believe it or not, conversations then took place about who was going to pay for the transportation of that medical oil to Teagan.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on the work they have done on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group on medical cannabis under prescription, and on behalf of my constituent Bailey Williams and his family. His mother has written to me about today’s debate, which unfortunately she cannot attend, to say that Bailey really needs urgent access to medical cannabis because of the continuing effect that his constant seizure activity is having on him. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel as frustrated as I do that, many months after the Government first indicated that this medicine could be prescribed, he is still having to speak about it today and I am once again having to raise Bailey’s case on the Floor of the House?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is what we are here for. Yes, we are frustrated and angry, but actually we are here to do something very important. The only reason the Home Office deregulated this drug and we are in this position today is that this House came together and, more importantly, because the families came together. Those families have young children—I am a father myself, like lots of colleagues in the House—and we all came together to say that the situation was fundamentally wrong. We asked why medical cannabis was illegal if we knew that it helped our children.
Am I right in my assessment that Ministers have bent over backwards and we have acted in the Chamber to ensure that these products are now available, but that the problem is in the medical profession? What more can we do now? I know that this is interfering in the medical profession, but, frankly, that is now becoming necessary.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care stood at the Dispatch Box during the urgent question and laid out in plain English that it is not illegal for a suitably qualified person to prescribe these medical products, so how are we still here?
May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman?
I will give way in a second.
It relates to that very point.
I will give way.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much. When we heard the Home Secretary speak about this initiative, we all thought that those whose children’s lives were being ruined by fits would from now on find solace. That was not the case for those whose children were beyond help at that stage, but we thought that it would apply in the future. Given that we want it, given that the Home Secretary wants it, given that the parents want it, and given that individual doctors want to prescribe it, some group at a regional level in the Department of Health and Social Care is clearly preventing prescriptions from being issued in a way in which they can be delivered.
I will touch on many of the right hon. Gentleman’s points later in my speech. The Home Secretary was ever so helpful, as was the Health Secretary, but the Prime Minister played an absolutely diamond role, and we took Alfie Dingley and Hannah Deacon to No. 10 with the petition. I know that we are not supposed to refer to the Gallery, but they are up there watching us, and they were scuttling up the stairs very quickly.
It is vital that we have a proper debate over the next five hours, without worries about time limits. I am not fussed about whether the Government lose their business later.
There is no business tomorrow.
There is Government business later on, but I do not care about that. We need to try and flush out and identify the blockages, which is what the Health Secretary tried to do.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, but I will then try to make some progress.
In response to another intervention, the right hon. Gentleman indicated that there is a degree of resistance within the NHS and among clinicians, but does he agree that this is about more than that? This is also about the Government’s regulatory framework, which is restricting access to this medication. Many people in acute pain are resorting to opioids, which are highly addictive and potentially fatal, while being unable legally to access cannabis, which can often ease their pain.
The right hon. Gentleman and I often debate health issues. We were both shadow Health Ministers at the same time, and we agree on most things, including on the prescribed medical use of cannabis. The other area to which he was alluding is not for this debate. It is not referred to in the motion. The reason we have managed to get such huge cross-party support and support from families around the country is that we have stuck to the specific issue of prescribed medical use without going into casual use.
If I can, I will make a bit of progress, because there is plenty of time for colleagues. I am really chuffed that the Backbench Business Committee gave us this opportunity. When has the Backbench Business Committee ever had five hours for a debate on a Monday afternoon? I am simply thrilled, and I intend to use as much of that time as possible. I got a little note from the Clerks saying, “You should speak for 12 to 15 minutes, Mr Penning”—yeah, in your dreams. [Laughter.]
There is a blockage in the NHS if someone cannot pay for the prescription. There are consultants both within the NHS and outside, but if someone can pay for it in the private sector, private prescriptions are being honoured. The product is available in this country, perfectly legally, to those who can afford it, and that sticks strongly in my throat.
At the conclusion of the urgent question, although it is not in Hansard, I clearly heard Mr Speaker tell the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that, whatever happens, we will not leave it—he was referring to me. We will go on and on about this until we get justice for these young people.
Looking beyond the small cohort of desperately ill children, there are others in the country who would clearly benefit from medical cannabis. I am not a doctor, but hundreds and hundreds of families have come to ask me whether this means they can get some help. The MS Society has sent an excellent briefing to colleagues today, and the Brain Tumour Charity and many others have also provided briefings.
Constituents come to my surgery, and I tell them that we need to make sure that their specialists, the experts in their area, are saying that they need medicinal cannabis, and then we can fight their corner. We have such specialists in the sector now who are saying that children and young people with epilepsy—my constituent has just turned 18, so their mum will want me to talk about post-18, too—get a tangible benefit from treating their seizures with these prescriptions, prescribed by a suitable specialist.
We know exactly what are in those pharmaceuticals, yet we still have a crazy situation in which hospitals are telling parents that if they bring these products on to a ward when their child is ill, as part of their ongoing medication, social services will be called to look into what they are doing with their family—for a product prescribed by a consultant.
My constituent has just turned 18. When I wrote on behalf of the family to her GP and the clinical commissioning group, which was blocking the prescription, they said, “We are not interested in homeopathic products.” What on earth is going on inside the medical profession in this country? If they do not know what it is, they should go and ask someone before they write stupid letters back to people and break their hearts. I had to send the letter on.
We should look carefully at what we can do to help. It is not for any politician in this House who is not suitably qualified to say to anybody that they deserve to have this product. What we must do is break down the blockages—that is what the Secretary of State alluded to in his answer to the UQ—and find out the reason for them.
My right hon. Friend and I share a passion for this subject. Does he agree that the absurdity lying at the heart of it is that heroin is legally prescribed as morphine, which has been well understood for many years, but that a medical prejudice kicks in when using cannabis for medical purposes? Does that not highlight that there is an inconsistency that needs to be addressed—and addressed quickly?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I have been referring to Teagan, and he is her MP. As he knows, she got her medication seven days late, and I am convinced that she would not have got it if we had not secured the urgent question, which is why such debates are important.
I used to be a Minister, and I always panicked about UQs. I always asked, “Why don’t we just do a statement? It is a damn sight easier, and we can control the agenda going forward.” The business managers did not always agree with me on that point.
I might be wrong, but as far as I am aware from our investigations the only NHS prescription that has been issued was through the Home Office. Alfie Dingley got his medication through the panel the Home Secretary set up with the expert group in the Home Office. As far as I am aware, since we changed the law in November no NHS prescription has been honoured. We have had trusts clearly threatening consultants not to do this and we have had their professional bodies do the same—I have seen some of the correspondence. As I alluded to earlier, families have been threatened with social services for bringing the product into the hospital where their child was being treated, even though this was a prescribed drug that is perfectly legal in this country today.
The real issue is: why can only those who have the money, those who have a donor and those who have crowdfunded, or, as in the case of my constituents, those to whom one of the manufacturers has given it for free—there is no way in the world they could afford this, and I thank the manufacturer for doing that, particularly for the family—get this? In the country that is so proud of the NHS, how on earth have we got into a situation where those who are poor do not get it?
I agree with the points the right hon. Gentleman is making, but the fact that the one prescription that has been issued has been through the Home Office raises an important point: the Home Office should have nothing to do with a health issue and this should be transferred, without delay, by the Government to the Department of Health and Social Care?
To be fair, it has been, and that was before we changed the law in November. The Home Office set up a panel while we looked at the changes of the law. This does not really matter, but a Health Minister is at the Dispatch Box today and a Health Secretary was there for the urgent question, so this is clearly sitting in that Department, but the connotations are still there in respect of, for instance, bringing this into the country—
I understand that point, but this drug has been moved out of its category into the Department of Health and Social Care and it can be prescribed. The issue is not prescription. Even though there were a limited amount of private prescriptions, they are being issued. I thank the consultants who have met me and my colleagues from across the House who have been campaigning on this. They are willing to do this. As far as I can work out, the blockage is that this was moved too fast to help the families whom we wanted to help; the Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office were not ready.
That fascinates me, because four and a half years ago— it is that long since I have been a Minister—I stood in Westminster Hall as the Minister responsible for drug policy and said then that the Government were minded to allow the medical use of cannabis under prescription. Do they not read our debates? Do they not listen to what Ministers have to say? I do not know whether they thought I was having a flier and as a Minister of State was just doing this because I felt like it on that day. But the then Home Secretary is now the Prime Minister, and of course I did it with her permission.
What did Ministers do after the right hon. Gentleman made that point in Westminster Hall? He says that that was four years ago. Why did it take until last year for the Government to do anything?
You should have seen the reaction of some of my civil servants when I got back to the Department after making that comment in Westminster Hall! You would understand then why this went exactly nowhere, even though I pushed and cajoled. Sadly, or fortunately, I was moved to the Ministry of Defence after the 2017 election.
So why are we here today? Why have colleagues come into the Chamber, which was completely empty 10 or 15 minutes ago, when they could probably go, as I do not think there is going to be a vote? I say that because the Government have indicated to me that they have accepted the motion, which is votable, if we needed to do that. I have indicated to the Whips that if we needed to do this, I would push it to a vote. I do not think we need to, simply because, after listening to the debate, the Minister will realise, “Hey, we’ve got to move faster.”
Are we moving fast? No. Are we moving faster than we were? Yes, but more needs to be done. Why is that? Because young people are having massive seizures that are affecting their lives and those of their loved ones. They are affecting their families and their quality of life in this country today.
We can do something about that. We are on the journey of doing more about it, but I ask more as a father than as a politician: why do they have to find the money and go to Holland or to Canada? If they cannot find the money, they are not going to get it, unless someone donates it to them or they crowdfund. In the 21st century, why are we allowing these children to be given drugs that are not working and that were never designed for the use for which they are being given, while we have products out there that the pharmaceutical companies are producing, and we know exactly what is in them? It may not help—it may not stop those seizures—but for some people it clearly does. It is morally wrong for us to sit back and allow those children to suffer, and I have no intention of doing that.
On the unsatisfactory position that the right hon. Gentleman has described, with desperate families going to Holland to buy these drugs, could the Home Secretary not say today that he has instructed Border Force not to prevent anybody from bringing the drugs back into this country?
I forgot to do so earlier, so I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman. We both asked some questions in the House prior to the Home Secretary’s changing his decision, and the right hon. Gentleman kind of goaded me into some of the things that I wanted to do. The right hon. Gentleman and colleagues might remember that an important debate on Europe was due to take place on the Wednesday, when Alfie Dingley and his family were going to Holland, and on the Monday I said that the right hon. Gentleman and I would go to Holland with Alfie Dingley and bring it back, and if we were arrested, so be it. I think the Government might have lost that vote on the Wednesday had we not changed the law in time. I do not think that matters; what matters is that Alfie got his medication.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point, the answer is yes, if it has been brought back with a prescription. We are still in Europe and, as I understand it, European prescriptions are as good as ours—I am told they are, but who knows?—and if they have been over and brought it back with the prescription, it is seriously wrong to take that product off a young child.
Forgive me for shuffling my papers, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was not expecting to be called quite so early in the debate. I am grateful to have been called early, but the House will have to bear with me. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing the debate, on their brilliant campaigning on this issue and on their co-chairpersonship of the all-party group on medical cannabis. I also congratulate the campaigners—some of whom are present—who have brought this issue into the public eye over the past year and are determined to make sure that it remains there.
Like my hon. Friend, I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) might have been called next, as the co-chair of the all-party group—I think that is probably what was in his mind—and I was going to intervene on her to correct my earlier intervention, because I see that my constituents Rachel and Craig, who are Bailey Williams’s parents, have managed to attend today’s debate, despite the fact that they thought they would not be able to because of a medical appointment for Bailey. This gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to them for their relentless campaigning on his behalf. It is because of people like them that we are all here this evening.
I am delighted to have given way to my hon. Friend to allow him to pay that tribute to our visitors today.
I have received two letters from a constituent of mine, who has asked me to keep his name confidential. I am happy to give it to the Minister on a confidential basis. My constituent first wrote to me on this issue last September, after the Government accepted the principle that we should be able to prescribe medical cannabis, because the aim had not been fulfilled. He wrote:
“I have a grandson who suffers from a severe form of Crohn’s disease. He is in constant pain and finds that his present regime of opiate-based pain killing has difficult side effects. He tells me that his consultant doctor is willing to prescribe the cannabis-based alternative as soon as it is permitted. My grandson has never obtained cannabis illegally and does not intend to do so.”
My constituent wrote again to me in April. Things had moved on, but this probably illustrates the problem. In the second letter, he wrote:
“The position in my family is now relatively fortunate. Left in limbo for a long time by the NHS, and enduring frequent nausea and serious debility, my grandson used his own initiative. He found a private doctor specialising in pain control, a highly respectable man, formerly an NHS consultant, who gave him a prescription for a cannabis product. This has been successful. His symptoms are under control, his general health and capacity to eat are much improved, and he is being phased back into his job, which he had been likely to lose. I am meeting the financial cost to the tune of £695 per month currently. By tightening my belt I can do it, at least for a reasonable time to come. I never spent money to better effect in my life, and I am so grateful for medical science. But some of the sufferers on the TV programme have no financial resources. And for an old Socialist like me it goes against the grain to use private medicine.”
Madam Deputy Speaker, you do not need to be an old socialist to think that this is an unacceptable situation.
I don’t think I’m an old socialist.
The right hon. Gentleman, who set out the case very well, is certainly not an old socialist. As we heard from him, there are multiple examples of patients who want to access medical cannabis, and whose doctors want them to access it, but are not able to do so. These are patients who last year were given hope that their pain, anxiety and seizures would end, only to have their hopes dashed and frustrated.
Like many hon. Members, I have had parents contact me recently who are desperate to obtain treatment for their children. They have said to me that, if anything, the situation has got worse since the guidelines were issued and they completely fail to understand how that can be. Is that my hon. Friend’s experience? Can we convey to the Minister today that there is a powerful sense that hope was raised and has been dashed?
My hon. Friend makes a key point. Those hopes were raised. People were promised medicine but that promise has not been delivered upon. It is a source of great frustration.
I cannot quite understand how the mechanics work. If a patient gets a private prescription and they remain in this country, they get the drug, but if a patient gets a national health service prescription, it does not work. How can we have such a system? A person can go to a private doctor and to a chemist, who will provide NHS drugs but will also do a private prescription. Who is preventing them from giving the same prescription to somebody who cannot afford to pay, such as this great socialist who is paying money for his grandchild?
I am about to come to that point, which is the key question. The root of the problem is that we are not talking about an illegal prescription; these are legal prescriptions, but our NHS is unwilling or unable to make them and deliver on them. The question we need to ask today is, what can Ministers and the Government do to help to sort out the situation? What can we do? It is clearly not good enough for us to say, “Well, Parliament has legislated so we’ve done our bit. It’s now all down to the medical establishment.” The system clearly is not working.
At the root of the issue is evidence. The Government have issued a call for research on this, which is fine as far as it goes, but we need to look creatively at that because research and evidence take different forms. After writing to the Department, I received a letter from a Minister saying that cannabis is legal to be prescribed, but should only be prescribed where there is
“clear published evidence of benefit”.
That little phrase is difficult. Cannabis has been listed under schedule 1 until very recently. When a drug is in schedule 1, it is incredibly difficult to do research on it.
We would cut our drugs bill in half if we applied that to all medicines.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point.
The Minister’s letter said that cannabis should only be prescribed where there is
“clear published evidence of benefit…and need…and where established treatment options have been exhausted”.
My question to the Minister is, do we really think all those hurdles are correct? If cannabis is the best treatment for a condition, we should not have to exhaust all those other options; we should be able to trust our clinicians to prescribe in such circumstances.
The root of the problem is clinicians’ lack of confidence to prescribe. The biggest barrier is concerns over the evidence. The Government have issued a call for evidence and research, but they are insisting on randomised controlled trials, which bothers me greatly. I am really concerned about the insistence on evidence from randomised controlled trials, to the exclusion of other ways of gathering evidence. I strongly advise Ministers and others to go back and look at some of the evidence recently given to the Health and Social Care Committee by Professor Mike Barnes, who is a noted expert on this subject. He has produced a study on the evidence for the efficacy of cannabis for a variety of medical uses. There is plenty of evidence around the world for the efficacy of cannabis for medical use. However, we are not accepting that evidence because it has not been produced in randomised controlled trials.
In his evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee, Professor Barnes said that we are trying to force cannabis into a particular pharmaceutical route with regards to trials, when that is not an appropriate way to go. He said,
“cannabis is not just cannabis…Cannabis is a whole family of plants”
“it does not lend itself very well to the standard pharmaceutical approach. It is not a single molecule that we can compare against a placebo. There are over 2,500 varieties of cannabis, each with a different structure…each with subtle differences.
He told the Committee that each variety interacts with the others differently. So which one of those varieties do we pick for our randomised controlled trial for a standard pharma model?
Professor Barnes said that we need to take a range of other evidence into account, including anecdotal evidence. When there are tens of thousands of anecdotes that build an evidence base, there is substantial anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of cannabis for medical approaches around the world.
First, is it not also the case that we are talking not just about therapeutic uses, but about pain control? There are many conditions where pain control is actually the most important use of a medication. Secondly, may I add my recognition of the work done on this issue by the former Member for Newport West?
Yes, what is the phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants? I think that we all admire the work on this issue carried out by Paul Flynn over many years.
I do not understand why the Government will not, at the same time as calling for randomised controlled trails, also look at observational trials, whereby people can actually take the medicine they need and we can see how effective it is. We need an audit of those already using the medicine to see what is happening to them. There is nothing wrong with randomised controlled trials, but the complexity of cannabis as a product makes them very difficult to carry out. We can have them, but there are lots of other ways in which we can gather evidence that will enable us to move forward.
Is it not the case that we have been flexible on trials with other diseases and drugs? I think particularly of the flexibility on HIV after campaigners fought to get the drugs to people who were terminal before trials had finished because there was an understanding that the harm of the disease was far greater than any side effects could possibly be. That is how we should be treating this issue as well. We understand that the risk is relatively low, although there might be some, but the potential gain is rather great.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Yes, there may be risks, but we should look at the risks of some of the other treatments that people are using. Opiate treatments are much more risky than cannabis.
We need to find another way forward. We need to take into account the different types of evidence. We need, really, a bespoke medical response to this. I ask the Minister, how can we use the different types of evidence to get an evidence base that will satisfy Government and satisfy clinicians? How can we use, for example, the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Act 2016? We also need a bespoke regulatory response. The question for the Minister is, why not? Other countries have done this, such as the Netherlands, Germany and Canada. They all treat cannabis differently from other products and other treatments. Holland has set up an office for medical cannabis to deal with the complexity of the issue and I do not see why we cannot do something similar.
To follow up on the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), in many of these instances, as with my constituents, we are talking about children who are suffering multiple seizures that are impacting on their mobility, weight and muscle tone through muscle wastage, and this is putting their lives at risk. Is it not therefore quite strange that the balance of risk does not seem to be taken into account when considering prescribing this treatment?
That is absolutely right. There is almost an irrational fear about the risk of cannabis compared with the risk of some what we might call more conventional treatments that people are already using.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; I am not going to speak in the debate. Is it not true that in all the evidence that has been sent to us by parents, no one has written to say, “I’ve used the drug and it’s made me worse”? All the evidence shows that it either has no effect or leads to a radical improvement.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is absolutely right. I am not aware of any evidence of the product making a condition worse. People have been using cannabis for thousands of years. If these worries about side effects were really justified, I think we would probably have seen them by now.
The hon. Gentleman has touched on a very important point. Because we are talking about pharmaceutical prescription drugs, the risk has been relatively alleviated. There is evidence of people using cannabis in a casual way that does have an adverse neurological effect. That is why this whole debate and campaign had to be separated from that so that it is about prescribed use. There is a separate debate to do with casual use. He is absolutely right—people have used it for thousands of years. Some people think that is correct and other people do not. For me, it is about knowing exactly what is in the product that is being given to the patient.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That points to the issue about where we get the product from. The problems, allegedly linked to increased episodes of psychosis, are from high-THC street cannabis, which is not what we mean when we talk about medical cannabis products. As I said, there are lots of different types of cannabis products. They are very often CBD-based, but when they contain THC—the psychoactive element—it is a much, much smaller amount than in street cannabis. It is like comparing apples and pears. He makes a really important point.
We need to look at how we can learn from evidence in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Canada, as well as countries that have successfully introduced medical cannabis regimes, such as Australia and Denmark. What work are the Government doing to learn from the experience of those jurisdictions? There are currently at least 138 medical cannabis trials worldwide. We need to take into account that global evidence.
I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. Why can clinicians make individual decisions on certain conditions but not others? For example, clinicians can make individual decisions on a case-by-case basis on Crohn’s disease, which my constituent’s grandson suffers from, but not on some other conditions.
We need a scoping exercise to look at how we can enable patients to get this medicine now. There are estimated to be something like 3 million cannabis users in the UK, with around 1 million of those using it for medical purposes. Those figures may be high but, whichever figures we look at, there are hundreds of thousands of people using cannabis to alleviate pain or help with a medical condition. At the moment, they get their product from the street—from the illegal trade. That is not good for them or for society. That is the key point. People are already using cannabis for medical reasons and getting it from illegal suppliers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is making an excellent speech. On that point, I had a visit to my constituency surgery from one of our veterans, who had incurred an injury during his service. He was in chronic pain and felt that cannabis alleviated that, but he did not wish to buy it; he wished it to be prescribed and for Ministers to look at the research and studies, to ensure that veterans who need that assistance can have it.
That is not an unusual case. There are lots of people who want to use medical cannabis and do not want to buy it from the street or go to Holland to import cannabis products, and they are frustrated.
I will wind up, because I have been speaking for longer than I intended. On the funding issue, there are cases of clinicians being willing to prescribe but being blocked by trusts or CCGs. What is the Minister’s understanding of how many cases there are where funding is the issue, rather than prescription? Even where clinicians are willing to prescribe and there is new thinking, CCGs do not have budget lines for some of these products, so the reluctance is understandable. I am interested to know whether the Minister has any information on that.
It might cost more for the NHS to supply more medical cannabis prescriptions, but we have to compare that with the reduction in other costs. The estimate is that opioid costs would be 25% lower, and there would be fewer hospital admissions. Professor Mike Barnes said in his evidence to the Select Committee that we could probably introduce medical cannabis in this country on the NHS at no net cost, when we take into account the reduced costs elsewhere.
Our system is clearly too restrictive. It is not working. We need creative thinking and flexibility from the Government, and we need them to look at the different types of evidence from around the world. There are people in this country who, if they were living in Holland, Australia or Canada, would be able to get on with their lives, get their cannabis products legally and not have the worries of the campaigners in our Gallery today about them or their children and relatives having to go through chronic pain or the episodes of epilepsy that we have seen in young patients over the last year.
We all want to make some progress and are desperately frustrated that we are not able to get anywhere. I refer the Minister to the evidence given by Professor Mike Barnes. We need to look at other types of evidence to inform ourselves of a way to deliver the products that our patients need into their hands.
The hon. Gentleman made reference to the late Member for Newport West. The House will remember fondly that the late Paul Flynn raised this subject in the House persistently over many decades, and got very little support. I keep looking behind me, expecting to see him there in his usual place—
He’s watching you.
The right hon. Gentleman says Paul Flynn is watching us, and I have every confidence that he is. I say on behalf of the whole House that we remember him fondly.
It is of course a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), my fellow co-chair of the all-party group on drug policy reform. He and I followed the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and of course Paul Flynn, who were our predecessors as co-chairs. Madam Deputy Speaker, you have quite rightly made the point about Paul Flynn’s incessant campaigning on this issue. Tragically, for four decades in this House, he was shouting from the outside at an establishment that chose not to listen.
I am determined, in the remainder of my time in Parliament, to devote myself—as my priority issue, apart from all the things that affect Reigate and the nation—to drug policy reform. Obtaining the benefit for British patients of medicine from cannabis is an enormous potential public good. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I welcome the Minister to her place. Her colleague Baroness Blackwood owns this issue at junior ministerial level in her Department. However, it is critically important that Health Ministers understand the potential benefit as this medicine from cannabis is developed and the potential economic benefit for the United Kingdom if we take a leading place in this industry. We have the opportunity to do so because we already do take such a place.
The Minister will be aware of the difficulties that the Home Office had when it managed this issue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on setting up the all-party group on medical cannabis under prescription, and him and the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on their leadership on this issue.
The first urgent question on this issue was asked about Alfie Dingley by me, and my right hon. Friend, who was sitting behind me at the time I asked it, indicated his support on this issue, and he thought he had begun to open up this issue in the Home Office. However, we had the absurdity that that urgent question was answered by the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service. He had been handed the responsibility at 24 hours’ notice from the Drugs Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), not because she had any particular interest in drugs from a health perspective—obviously, the Home Office’s responsibilities include protecting the public—but because her husband is associated with British Sugar. It supplies the cannabis for a great potential British success story in the form of GW Pharmaceuticals, which is one of the global leaders in producing medicinal cannabis—just not for the British people. That is something we need to change.
I want to put this issue in its global perspective and its historical perspective. Unless we understand why there is a such a lack of understanding about this issue, and why we are so behind in the research on medical cannabis and why the medical profession is so intimidated by it, I do not think we will get the necessary pressure from the Minister and her colleagues to continue to push for the necessary advance in this area.
The reason we are so far behind lies in racist American policing of the 1950s: frankly, because African-Americans smoked this stuff, it was seen as ghastly and very dangerous. Therefore, in total disregard of the scientific evidence, cannabis was listed in schedule 1 to the 1961 UN convention, which has made it extremely difficult to research its medicinal benefits. The irony is that we have had medicines derived from opiates for an extremely long time—they are standard medical products—yet medicines derived from cannabis were put beyond the bounds of research.
GW Pharmaceuticals owes its leadership in this area to a licence issued by Lord Boateng, when he was the Minister responsible for drugs policy in the late 1990s, that allowed it in exceptional circumstances to conduct research into medical cannabis. That decision was followed by £1 billion of investment in GW Pharmaceuticals. I want the Minister to understand that it is not only GW Pharmaceuticals but a number of billion-dollar companies in North America, particularly in Canada but also in the United States, that are now investing in this area. There is a tidal wave of investor money coming into the medical cannabis business and, to an extent, the recreational cannabis business—obviously we must focus on the former. We need to ask ourselves why so many people are choosing to invest so much money in the potential of this product.
When the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington and I became co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform, our third co-chair Baroness Meacher—I pay tribute to the work that she has done to reform this area—emphasised the need to focus our efforts on securing a legal change on medicinal cannabis. In 2016, the all-party parliamentary group commissioned a report from Professor Mike Barnes—we have already heard about his research in this debate—to identify which conditions medicines derived from cannabis had been established to a medical standard to help treat.
By 2016, it was already established globally, to the highest possible medical standards, that such medicines could be used to help treat epilepsy in children and spasticity associated with MS and that they could be used as an antiemetic for those undergoing chemotherapy. However, I want to emphasise that their potential application is very much wider. The problem is that the scientific research base is in its infancy, because we put in place stupid regulations that were driven by the racism of 1950s American law enforcement, which is why cannabis was listed in schedule 1 to the 1961 convention.
The Minister will know that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines will focus on four indications: chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, treatment-resistant epilepsy, and nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy. However, there is substantial evidence—enough to excite investors around the world to invest billions of dollars in the potential of this medicine—that cannabis or cannabinoids will be effective in improving chronic pain in adults, chemotherapy-induced nausea, short-term sleep outcomes in individuals with deep sleep disturbance, clinician-measured spasticity symptoms associated with MS, symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety symptoms in individuals with social anxiety disorders and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I hope that the Minister will understand that, if we can advance the science satisfactorily in relation to anxiety and depression, this is of potentially vast application.
We have to understand the range of interests arrayed against the development of medicines in this area. We should consider how policy has been developed in both North America and Germany, and indeed here, because the development has come not from the medical profession or the pharmaceutical industry but from outside. In the United States, those states that have approved the use of medical cannabis usually started the process through a referendum that then imposed the answer on the state’s legislature. Twelve of the 25 states that have medical cannabis have now moved on and established a market for cannabis for recreational adult use. An important development is that Canada, which has had medical cannabis for some time, last year introduced a market for legally supplied cannabis for recreational adult use.
I quite understand the political need, reflected in the establishment of the all-party parliamentary group on medical cannabis under prescription by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead and the hon. Member for Gower, to differentiate between medicinal and recreational adult use. We must of course focus on the medicine first. There is a separate discussion to be had about the important criminal justice, societal and public health benefits that would come from being able to protect the public and children by having a legally supplied and properly regulated and licensed market. What has been absent from the wider political debate about this to date is a proper consideration of evidence. We are 50 years behind on the potential benefit to the public because we have been unable to get the evidence, and that is a result of the policy imposed through the 1961 convention.
I want to draw attention to one potential application relating to chronic pain. The United States is now coping with an opioid epidemic. Last year, 63,000 Americans died of an opiate overdose that started in the doctor’s surgery. These were not junkies on the streets; they were people who went to their doctor to get treated for chronic pain. Many of them were prescribed OxyContin, courtesy of Purdue Pharma, in circumstances that are now subject to a class action. When the state of Arizona held a referendum on legalising cannabis, the result was on a knife edge and it was not clear which side would win. I am advised that right at the end of the campaign a substantial slug of money was put in to achieve a no vote. Nobody knew at the time where the money had come from, but my understanding is that it actually came from a business associated with the rehabilitation of opiate addicts, which is truly shocking. To prevent cannabis-based medicines having an opportunity to replace the much more dangerous opiate-based medicines, which have contributed to this terrible level of dependency on a medicine that is profoundly dangerous if taken incorrectly, cannabis had to be kept out of the business.
What I want to say to the Minister is that I am anxious for the Department of Health and Social Care, in taking this issue forward, to clearly understand where all the interests are here, and, if one begins to roll this forward in the years to come with regard to the potential application, to understand what opportunities there are for the United Kingdom as a provider of medicine from cannabis. GW Pharma ought to be reinforced by other companies supplying pharmaceutical grade cannabis-derived medicinal products to people. If the conditions I listed earlier are anything to go by, this will be a multibillion dollar-industry, particularly if we can get a decent slug of the global market.
This is not just about the economic effect, however. This is about the opportunity costs of people continuing to be prescribed opiates when they could be prescribed a cannabis-based medicine. It is about the opportunity costs of people self-medicating with alcohol to deal with the aches and pains of old age, rather than understanding the benefits they could get from cannabis. We are now at the stage—the Minister will have seen the report about people who have a medical condition for which they have a diagnosis who now cannot get medical cannabis—where people are now growing their own. In certain circumstances, they are being arrested for growing their own medicine. Our policy is in a mess. It will need real drive from Ministers to get a grip of all the regulators and the medical, pharmaceutical and patient interests to keep pushing for sensible reform.
I ask the Minister and her team to look around the world at the jurisdictions leading on this issue. Look at what is happening in North America, particularly Canada and New York state, and in Germany. Germany has moved pretty rapidly following a legal action by two cannabis growers producing their own medicine. The German state lost that legal action and it now enables them to grow their own cannabis for medicine, saying that what these people need is pharmaceutical grade medicine from cannabis. Two years on, I think 80,000 prescriptions have been written in Germany for people to get medicine from cannabis. We can move relatively quickly if we have the will.
If we do not have the will, we will see the continuing misery of families with epileptic children who are chronically ill. It is quite right that End Our Pain and the all-party group have focused on those families, led so brilliantly by the Deacon family, with Alfie, and Charlotte Caldwell, with her son Billy. They are the ones who have pushed this over the line. No politician can turn around to mothers and families in circumstances where they have obtained treatment with medicine derived from cannabis and faced up to the cruelty, on their return to the United Kingdom, of that medicine being taken away from them. Billy Caldwell’s case was the one that drove the Home Secretary over the line, issuing a special licence and beginning the process of reform in this area.
I cannot find anyone in this House who does not accept the principle that if we can have medicine from the opium poppy then surely we can have medicine from a cannabis plant. Find me evidence of someone who has died of a cannabis overdose. I am told there is not any. Of course, people have died in certain circumstances relating to mental conditions associated with very heavy use, particularly by young people, of the kind of dreadful stuff sold on our streets by the criminal supply chain. But we have chosen, by the laws we have passed, to put that business in the hands of criminals who are selling the strongest and most dangerous stuff to our children. Trading Standards is not going around measuring it or checking that consumers are over the age of 18 when they purchase it. That is why it is easier for our kids to get this dangerous form of cannabis than alcohol.
We need to get to grips with an awful lot of reform in this area, but the public benefit from the United Kingdom pushing on with the science and supporting research could be huge. We in this House must remain engaged, and Ministers must really push and lead on this. My fellow co-chair of the all-pa