House of Commons
Monday 22 July 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
More housing was delivered across England last year than in all but one of the past 31 years. We have examined the recommendations of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on the build-out review, and the Government responded in full at the spring statement earlier this year with a commitment to speed up the planning system and introduce new guidance to encourage diversification.
May I give the Secretary of State some feedback from architects and planners in Cornwall? The community infrastructure levy is having a detrimental impact due to not only the onerous nature of the number of forms that need to be filled out, but the fact that sites that could be deliverable are not coming forward because of the money. Will he look at that to see whether he can bring forward more sites, because we all want more houses in Cornwall?
I thank my hon. Friend for the input from Cornwall which, as he knows, is where my family hail from, so I take particular interest in it. Small developers can benefit from exemptions for self-build homes and developments of less than 100 square metres. The CIL contains flexibility and some exemptions, and we introduced guidance in July, but I will certainly listen to my hon. Friend and, indeed, other hon. Members about the community infrastructure levy.
Does the Secretary of State think that modular building methods could play a bigger role in helping us to increase the supply of housing?
I do, in short. Modular building is an essential part of our work to get speedier build out, to ensure diversification of materials, and to get skills for people. It has been good to see how housing associations and the private sector are starting to embrace it. There is more to do, but I recognise my hon. Friend’s point.
It is not just about how much time it takes to build a house, but about the types of houses being built. Will the Secretary of State further outline whether a scheme is in place to provide smaller apartments close to town centres for elderly widows and widowers and those with mobility issues?
The hon. Gentleman will know that housing is devolved in Northern Ireland, but I recognise the absence of an Executive and therefore the need to be able to respond to such local issues. However, our policy in relation to England is clear: we want to see diversification and we want to see that local authorities are able to meet the needs of their communities.
If we are to tackle the housing crisis, we cannot just focus on the large developers. Small developers used to build two thirds of the new housing in this country, but that has gone away. Instead of just having the Help to Buy scheme, why not have a “help to build” scheme that supports or underwrites small and medium-sized construction companies to get rid of some of the difficulties that they encounter?
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman about ensuring that smaller builders are able to play their part, which has implications for localities and for the supply chain. Indeed, funds are available for smaller builders, but it is a challenge to see how we embody that. Councils are also able to use their new flexibilities to borrow to build, and we will continue to champion that, because the diversification that he highlights is critical.
Leasehold Properties: Mis-selling
I am pleased that the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating mis-selling and onerous leasehold terms and looking at whether such terms are deemed to be unfair, and we will consider further action when it reports. That work supports a strong package of reforms to promote fairness and transparency for leaseholders.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his comments but, despite those efforts, buyers of brand-new properties in Kidderminster in my constituency still believe that they have been misled in terms of leasehold contracts and contracts relating to communal services charges on new build estates. Given that we agree that we need to increase house building significantly across the country, does the Secretary of State accept that the apparent mis-selling must be properly investigated and brought to an end once and for all before the scandal affects millions upon millions of future homebuyers?
I absolutely do. Unfair practices in the leasehold market have no place in modern housing, and neither do, for example, excessive ground rents that exploit consumers who get nothing in return. I called on the Competition and Markets Authority to look into this issue, and I am pleased it has now responded, also reflecting the calls from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee—I note that the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), is in his place this afternoon.
It is right that we get to the bottom of this, that we challenge it and that we respond to these unfair practices firmly and effectively.
When will the Secretary of State introduce regulation to give leaseholders redress? The leasehold valuation tribunal is toothless and, frankly, worthless. Whether it comes to erroneous charges, mis-selling, dangerous cladding or expensive charges, leaseholders have nowhere to go. There needs to be urgent regulation.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s call, which is why we have taken a number of steps and will be bringing forward legislation to ban new leases on houses and to reduce future ground rents to zero monetary value. The Select Committee obviously highlighted the issue of existing leases as well, and we therefore now have a pledge in place and a number of people are coming forward to provide that direct response. I keep this issue under continual review as to what further steps are needed to change the situation for the future, as well as providing support for those already in this situation.
My right hon. Friend and his team have, over the past year or so, made more progress than was made in the previous 20 years, which is greatly to be welcomed. May I ask that he continue showing the open-mindedness, flexibility and drive that are necessary to undo some of the past misdeeds, whether by declaring clauses to be unfair, and therefore unenforceable, or by finding simple, low-cost ways of righting wrongs that have been around for far too long?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. We have firmly focused on this issue of leasehold, and I know the close attention he pays to the steps that have been taken. Obviously, the Competition and Markets Authority will be looking at this issue of unfairness. In relation to the Select Committee’s response, there are legal complexities with existing contracts, but I assure him that we will continue to focus on this to provide that effective response.
Hundreds of my constituents have written to me similarly feeling that they have been mis-sold their freehold, so I have written to the Competition and Markets Authority asking it to extend its inquiry to cover freehold, where people have to pay excessive and ever-escalating management and service fees. Will the Secretary of State support me in this?
I certainly support the hon. Lady in seeing that inappropriate or unfair practices are properly investigated and properly responded to. If she is willing to share with me the details of the complaints she has received from her constituents, I would be happy to look into this further.
In my excellent recent private Member’s Bill, I suggested that ground rent for leasehold properties should be set at the lower of £250 or 0.1% of the property’s value. Does the Secretary of State agree with that suggestion?
It is good of the hon. Gentleman to blow his own trumpet.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) for his private Member’s Bill setting out the steps that are needed to bring the leasehold market into an appropriate space. He will have heard what I said about bringing ground rents down to zero. We have given that commitment, and the right thing is that we move forward with our proposed legislation. I am sure that, with his ingenuity, he will be able to scrutinise it and, no doubt, come up with further proposals to ensure that legislation is effective.
This session may be the swan song of the Secretary of State and his team. We certainly hope not, and we wish them all well in the Tory turmoil to come.
But not too well.
The CMA’s inquiry is certainly welcome, but it is action by Ministers that homebuyers ripped off in the leasehold system need most. The Secretary of State’s predecessor said in 2017 that the Government would stop new leasehold houses, but nearly 3,500 were sold last year. The Secretary of State himself said a year ago that he would end the use of Help to Buy for new leasehold houses, but he had to admit to me afterwards that that will not happen until 2021.
As the Secretary of State reflects on his time in this job, will he concede that any Government action has been too slow and too weak and has totally overlooked the needs of current leaseholders locked into unfair contracts?
No, I do not accept that. I direct the right hon. Gentleman to the action that has been taken and the fall that has been seen: the proportion of new build leasehold houses has fallen from 11% in quarter 4 of 2017 to 2% in quarter 4 of 2018, which was the lowest quarter so far for leasehold houses in the Help to Buy equity loan scheme. The right hon. Gentleman issues a challenge on the existing Help to Buy scheme; he will have noted that I have asked Homes England to look into how we can renegotiate some of those contracts, because I was clear that there should be no new Government funding for schemes that promote leasehold, and that remains a firm commitment. Equally, we are taking action on the scheme now to confront some of the abuses that there are.
Well, lots of warm words and fresh reviews, but no action. There have been 19 Government announcements on leaseholds in the 15 months that the right hon. Gentleman has been Secretary of State, but there is still no sign of change for current leaseholders, or of the legislation to make it happen. Is not the hard truth that Conservatives cannot help leaseholders because they will not stand up to the vested interests in the property market? Do not homeowners who are looking for justice and radical, common-sense changes have to look to Labour to set a simple formula for people to buy their own freehold; to crack down on unfair fees and give homeowners the right to challenge high costs or poor performance from management companies; and to put an end, finally, to the broken leasehold system?
Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman has not been looking at the practical steps we have taken and, indeed, the performance that we have seen. Perhaps that is because of the turmoil in his own party—there has been plenty on the Opposition Benches. I direct the House to the steps that have been taken, the commitments that have been made and the effect that all that is now having. We are championing the cause of leaseholders and confronting some of the really unfair practices. We are seeing the effect that that is having as a result of the steps we have taken, rather than the hyperbole from the Opposition and the continuing turmoil that we see among them.
Children’s Social Care Funding
My Department regularly meets council representatives to understand the services that they deliver, including children’s social care. Although the Department for Education has policy responsibility, we work closely with it and sector representatives in our spending review preparations. The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), is meeting the hon. Gentleman this week to understand his concerns.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Social care accounts for two thirds of Plymouth City Council’s budget, and with more and more children with more and more complex needs relying on social care provision, that spending is only going to go up. It is hard to plan for rising social care costs if we have uncertainty, so will the Secretary of State set out when Plymouth City Council and other councils throughout the country will find out their allocations for 2020-21?
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman will be able to discuss this matter further with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary; indeed, I believe that meeting will take place later today. Plymouth has seen an increase in funding this year, with a core spend of £198.4 million. The hon. Gentleman issues a challenges on the need for certainty for next year; I understand that challenge and responded to it firmly at the recent Local Government Association conference. I am working with colleagues across Government to see that we have that certainty as early as we can possibly get it. Yes, it is linked to the spending review, but we know that planning is needed, and I am championing the issue so that we get it.
A National Audit Office report this year showed that there is huge variation between the costs of and the activities delivered by local authorities throughout the country. The same report showed that there is no link at all between per pupil funding and the quality of the services delivered, according to Ofsted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that funding alone will not sort out the problems in either children’s or adult social care?
I agree with my hon. Friend and am grateful to him for highlighting the evidence that he rightly raised. We are working with the Department for Education on the review of relative needs and resources, including by jointly funding specific research on the need to spend on children’s services. We want to champion good practice and to ensure that it is there to drive change and improvement in children’s services. My hon. Friend is right that it is about delivery and not simply looking at the funding.
The Secretary of State says that he is working desperately hard to give certainty, but does he recognise that officials in Newcastle City Council are also desperate to ensure that the children in our city receive adequate care from next April, and they cannot do that job if they do not know how much funding will be available to support children in Newcastle?
The point that the hon. Lady makes is one that I recognise and one that I did address at the Local Government Association conference. We are approaching a spending review—a new period for the overall funding for local government—and I want to ensure that we give certainty as early as possible. That is what we are working to achieve, so the planning that she and others want for councils is absolutely what I want, too, and it is why I am doing all I can, within my powers, to see that that happens.
Northamptonshire has the second most expensive children’s social services in the country and is one of the very worst performers, so it is not about money but about management and leadership. In welcoming the appointment of a Children’s Commissioner, will the Secretary of State work with the Department for Education to speed up the implementation of the Children’s Trust rather more quickly than is presently envisaged?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the issue in his own area in Northamptonshire. Equally, I can say to him that I will continue to work with him and colleagues in relation to advancing this issue in terms of the reforms that are needed and implementing them speedily. I can give him the assurance that he seeks on working with colleagues at the Department for Education. Indeed, I can confirm to him that I will continue to listen to him and see that changes are implemented as effectively and quickly as we can.
When the Secretary of State looks back on his record in the current Government, which will be his biggest regret: savage cuts to funding of children’s services, or the wider impact of austerity pushing more children into needing those dwindling services in the first place?
One thing I will not regret is ensuring that I did not listen to some of the advice that I have been hearing from the Opposition. Indeed, we saw this weekend that, on the issue of the contracting out of services, their approach is effectively one that does not look at value for money or at the quality of service; it does not look at anything, it is just based on dogma. That is not our approach, which is about delivering quality services, sticking up for communities and making sure that we have well-run councils. Indeed, it is also about seeing that we are getting that funding going into social care and other services, too. That is what motivates us; that is what motivates me. I will certainly take no lessons from the Opposition.
I asked the right hon. Gentleman about children’s services. Of course, we can see that the Secretary of State just does not get it. His cuts have had dire consequences. The Public Accounts Committee says:
“Children’s social care is increasingly becoming financially unsustainable. The proportion of local authorities that overspend…increased to 91% in 2017-18.”
The Tory-led LGA also says that there is a £1 billion funding gap for children’s services this year. When will he understand that his sticking plaster approach will not fix the broken children’s services?
Again, we hear the same from the hon. Gentleman. When I look at the real-terms increase in core spending that councils have received this year, what do I get from Labour Members—opposition to that. They did not support it. They did not support that additional funding going into social care—children’s and adults’. We on the Government Benches have listened and responded. We will continue to take that forward, with the funding that has gone in over five years to support 20 local authorities to improve their social work practices, in addition to my commitment to listen to the sector and to advance its cause as we look to the spending review ahead to see that social care—children’s and adults’—is effective and delivers for our councils and our communities.
Order. In calling the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), I wish her a very happy birthday.
Local Authorities’ Statutory Care Duties
Mr Speaker, I join you in wishing the hon. Lady a very happy birthday—what better way to spend it than at MHCLG questions.
It is the responsibility of each individual local authority to ensure that it can fulfil its statutory care duties. We have, however, supported councils to meet those duties by giving them access to several billion pounds of incremental dedicated funding for this purpose.
Birthday woman and man in a hurry.
I am very grateful for those birthday wishes, but I would be even more grateful if the Minister could agree with me that local authorities have a statutory responsibility to ensure that care workers who they have commissioned are paid the minimum wage. The all-party parliamentary group on social care has heard increasing evidence that, despite guidance issued by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, care workers are still not receiving the minimum wage because they are not paid for travel time in between their contact hours. Will the Minister give me a great birthday present by announcing that he will review the way in which care workers are paid and that he will ensure they are paid the basic statutory minimum wage?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. It is absolutely right that those who are carrying out this vital activity in difficult circumstances get exactly what they are entitled to. I have not seen the report, but I would be delighted to take a look at it later today and to talk to my colleagues at the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care to see what we can do to take this forward.
If I had not been sitting down, I would have fallen over when the Secretary of State talked about the injection of extra cash for local authorities. This is, of course, on top of about 40% cuts in just under a decade. Local authorities are very squeezed in delivering their statutory care responsibilities and others. Will the Minister look seriously at all the work that is being done on homelessness and community building and assess the impact of these cuts in delivering wider Government policies on prevention and ensuring that people have decent homes to live in?
I would echo what the Secretary of State said. This talk of cuts is simply not right. The amount of money that local authorities have to spend in this financial year is up in real terms over the last year. This was reinforced by the recent Budget, where we announced over £1 billion in incremental funding for local authorities, particularly targeted at the areas of immediate pressure in adult and children’s social care.
I call Dr Alan Whitehead. Not here.
Local Authorities: Adopted Local Plans
Under the current plan-making regime, 37 local authorities have yet to adopt a local plan. Of these, 27 have submitted their draft plan for examination. We continue to monitor progress and offer support where appropriate in all these areas.
The Minister’s Department is only taking action against 15 local authorities where no local plan is actively in place. The Department also has an ambitious target of 300,000 homes a year—about 80,000 a year short. What action will he take to ensure that local authorities like Stoke-on-Trent that are failing to get a local plan in place do so quickly, so that they can develop and address this country’s housing need?
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we commenced a formal process of intervention in 15 local authorities to ensure that they fulfil their obligations. I have spent the last 12 months touring the country, exhorting local authorities not only to get a local plan in place, but to do so on a long-term basis so that people can see the kind of decadal-scale planning that is required to get to 300,000 homes a year. If local authorities remain sluggish in producing a plan, as the hon. Gentleman claims his local authority has been—I think that its plan is due for submission in August 2020, which does seem a little tardy—then action may be required, beyond just a stiffly-worded letter.
When district councils do not have a local plan and a five-year land supply in place, it is villages and parishes that face the consequences of planning development. What protections will the Minister and his Department put in place for communities trying to establish neighbourhood plans, and will he reflect on his Department’s recent decision to grant planning permission to two sites in Hatfield Peverel that go against the neighbourhood plan?
My right hon. Friend, with her usual skill, puts up a stout defence on behalf of her constituents. She is quite right that protections that would otherwise exist for neighbourhood plans recede where a local plan is not in place, particularly when there is not a five-year land supply. I would point out that having a five-year land supply is not a necessary condition of having a local plan. It is possible to have one without the other, and I hope that her local authority will seek to do so. We will shortly be issuing planning guidance on plan making, wherein I hope we will include measures to strengthen neighbourhood plans, either in the absence of a local plan or where they are not co-terminus.
York has not had a local plan in place since 1954, despite being one of the worst cities for investment in economic and housing opportunities for my constituents and the council’s aspiration to build 20% affordable housing but developing just 4%. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the plan developed for York will address not only the jobs needs but the housing needs in our city?
I have been in this job for just over 12 months, and I have developed a sense that in some way people have an expectation that I should be planning the country from my desk in Whitehall. Fundamentally, the decisions about the local plan are for the local democratically elected representatives, and they should be examined by a planning inspector to make sure that they are compliant with national planning regimes. In the end, the fundamental arbiter of the local plan in York—whether there should be one and what it should it contain—is a decision for the people of York. I would urge them to vote for a council that will produce the kind of the plan to which the hon. Lady aspires.
In relation to local plans and housing, Isle of Wight Council wants to set up a company to build council housing—I strongly support this—but says that it cannot access the necessary funds because it does not have a housing revenue account. Does the Minister agree with that statement, and, if so, what will he do to help my council to build council housing for Islanders?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who works very closely with his local council in its aspiration to build more council homes. This is exactly the sort of action that we want to see from local authorities, which were, frankly, induced out of council house building by the previous Labour Government. I am aware that quite a lot of councils in this situation do not have a housing revenue account, despite our lifting the cap and enabling them to access the funding that they need. I would be more than happy to arrange for his councillors or council officials to meet my officials to determine how they could establish just such an account.
The Government are committed to supporting people into home ownership. The most recent English housing survey saw the first rise in home ownership for 35 to 44-year-olds in over a decade. Government schemes have supported over 553,000 households to purchase a home since 2011.
With house prices in the region almost seven times the average annual salary, people in Coventry and the wider west midlands are struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that more genuinely affordable homes are being built in the region so that home ownership is not out of reach for all but the best-paid and those with significant capital?
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to hear an Opposition Member who believes in the concept of private property—not something that is shared by everybody on the hon. Lady’s Front Bench or, indeed, her leadership? I am pleased that she shares Conservative Members’ obsession that people should have the ability to own their own homes where they want to. In the end, the solution to the problem that she poses is a massive increase in housing supply. We are committed to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, not just for one year but for a series of years—perhaps for decades, if we can get there—to address this issue. In the meantime, the Government have put significant funding—billions of pounds—behind schemes such as Help to Buy to make homes more affordable. I hope that as many of her constituents as possible will avail themselves of the assistance that is there.
That is all well and good, but 30 years ago, when I bought my first house in Dudley, people were able to do so because the average cost was about three times the average income. As we have just heard, the average cost is now seven times the average income. At the same time, the number of homes for shared ownership and low-cost home ownership has fallen. So what is the Minister going to do to enable people like the ones I meet in Dudley every single week who are working hard in low-paid employment, desperate to own a home of their own, to fulfil their ambitions?
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an enormous problem for the country that we have not shied away from. He is quite right in pointing out that over the past three, possibly four, decades this country has failed to build the homes required by its population, and as a result we have seen unaffordability rise, particularly in London and south-east, but beyond that in the rest of the country as well. In the end, the fundamental solution is a massive increase in supply, which we are committed to. The Government have put significant resources behind lifting the number of homes being built in this country in a way that has not been seen for a generation. Last year’s net new additions to the housing stock were 222,000, and the leading indicators for next year are pointing towards something over 240,000. That will represent the largest expansion in house building in this country since the war.
We are spending more than £1.2 billion to 2020 to reduce homelessness. We have implemented the most ambitious legislative reform in decades, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; we are taking immediate action to begin to reduce the number of people on the street through the rough sleeping initiative; and last summer, we published our rough sleeping strategy.
Schemes such as Somewhere Safe To Stay are having success, but will the Minister take on board the feedback that I am receiving from Access Community Trust, Lowestoft Rising and the Salvation Army? They say that to eliminate homelessness, short-term one-year pilots must be turned into longer-term funding commitments and supported accommodation must be provided for those facing mental health challenges.
My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for his constituency, and he never shies away from meeting the right sort of people to make a difference in his community. I have met the Salvation Army and several of the other bodies that he mentioned, and he is quite right. I recognise the importance of giving local areas security around funding, and that remains a priority for the Government. Decisions about the future of homelessness funding will be made at the spending review later this year. We were clear in the rough sleeping strategy that accommodation, alongside the right support for people with needs, is vital. That is why we are funding a range of initiatives, including the rapid rehousing pathway, through which we directly fund almost 140 areas.
Earlier this month, a young homeless women in Forest Hill, Stefania Bada, died after contracting an infection. Since 2010, the number of rough sleepers in this country has more than doubled. There has been a steep drop in investment for new affordable homes, billions of pounds cut from housing benefit and significant cuts to services for homeless people. What immediate action will the Government take to prevent any further loss of life?
Any loss of life is to be pitied, and we all apologise for that. It should not happen on our streets, particularly when rough sleepers are being looked after but drug dependency is involved. If an issue happens, it is tragic. We have put in £1.2 billion up to 2020 to solve these issues, and we are not shying away from them. We now give specific support to more than 240 councils, and that is a huge jump.
First, may I declare my interest? There are real fears that the proposed abolition of section 21 in the private rented sector will lead to rent controls and a significant reduction in investment and supply, which may well exacerbate homelessness. Will my hon. Friend consider these fears before pressing ahead with the proposals?
I hope my hon. Friend will excuse my back; as we all know, we talk to each other through the Speaker.
This is a very difficult issue, and one that we want to get right. People from all sides are asking questions about it, which is why the consultation is so important, and I encourage my hon. Friend and other people to take part in it. A very interesting report from 2010 suggested that rent control would make matters an awful lot worse, but the consultation is important.
Estimates of homelessness among veterans of our armed forces range from the low thousands to approximately 11,000. Why does the Minister think that the Government have failed veterans of our services?
As Members might imagine, as the Minister with responsibility for veterans in MHCLG, I have taken a great interest in this matter. In London, we have data from the combined homelessness and information network—so-called CHAIN data—which gives us very good and specific data about the number of veterans who are on the streets. Similarly, the homelessness case level information classification, or H-CLIC, contains data that all councils put into it. It is still experimental, because it has been going for less than 18 months, but the latest figures show that the number of veterans on the streets is lower than it has ever been, and lower than 3%.[Official Report, 5 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 4MC.]
Home Office contractor Serco is intent on making 300 vulnerable asylum seekers homeless in Glasgow. Some have been able to get interim interdicts through the efforts of the Govan Law Centre, the Legal Services Agency and Latta & Co, but some, including a constituent of mine, have not. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Home Office to stop these evictions, which will result in people being put on to the streets?
As the hon. Lady agrees, this is a devolved matter. However, as regards the Home Office, I will of course do so. I recall a question that was asked at Prime Minister’s questions last week about it, and I need to refer the hon. Lady to the answer given then.
A lot of this is not actually a devolved matter, because it is to do with the Government’s hostile environment, which will make it incredibly difficult for these 300 individuals, once made homeless, to be rehoused. That is a damning indictment on this Government. Will the Minister apologise for a policy that denies people the right to a roof of their head and is actively causing homelessness in my city of Glasgow?
Of course, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: this is a Home Office matter. I apologise for not explaining myself correctly before. It is a matter for the Home Office, and I will refer her question to the Home Office.
Fracking: Planning Policies
National planning policy makes it clear that, in considering planning applications, mineral planning authorities should ensure there are no unacceptable adverse impacts on the environment or on human health.
Fifty seven earthquakes of up to 1.5 magnitude were detected in Lancashire last year in the two months when Cuadrilla was fracking at Preston New Road. Will the Minister commit to listening to communities such as mine in Lancashire and act in their interests to prevent permitted development rights being granted for shale gas exploration?
As the hon. Lady will know, we have consulted on these permitted development rights. I am hopeful, once consideration by colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has finished, that we will be able to issue our response to that consultation. I would, however, point out to her that our ability to access gas allows us to stop burning coal. This country has just been through its longest period of not burning coal, by far the dirtiest of fuels, since the industrial revolution.
I hope there will not be any changes that make it easier for fracking to be permitted through the planning system. Like many of my constituents, I am deeply concerned about some of the associated impacts on the environment that come with fracking. Can the Minister assure my constituents that an industrialisation of our countryside, which is what fracking is, will be treated in the same way in the planning system as any other industrial development in open countryside would be?
My hon. Friend has been a persistent advocate for his constituents on this issue. As he knows, alongside the consultation on permitted development rights for exploration, we also consulted on pre-application consultation steps that may have to be taken should an application proceed. Both of those matters are under consideration by colleagues, and I hope we will be able to issue a response to them shortly.
I remind the Minister that the consultation he refers to closed last October. Twelve months ago, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee did a report opposing permitted development rights and opposing transferring part of the fracking regime to the national infrastructure regime. Given the amount of opposition on his own side, as well as on this side of the House, and in local communities, is the Minister now considering withdrawing those proposals and instead giving greater powers to communities to decide whether they want fracking in their areas?
The Chairman of the Select Committee is quite right to point out the timescale on which these measures have been under consideration, and I will certainly pass on his concerns to colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
I will give the Minister another chance. Everyone—from the Royal Town Planning Institute to Friends of the Earth—has criticised the Government’s plans to allow fracking to take place under permitted development, rather than by achieving planning permission, not least because it bypasses the views and concerns of local communities. Given the Government’s silence on this matter since the consultation last year, will the Minister confirm today that the Government will not proceed to use permitted development for fracking and will not dilute regulations covering seismic activity—as requested by Cuadrilla, again, today—but will accept that fracking is environmentally unsound and invest more in renewable energy sources instead?
The hon. Lady is normally quite precise, but I should correct what she said at the start. We consulted not on fracking taking place under permitted development rights, but on exploration in advance of a full application being made for fracking. Those consultations are still under consideration by colleagues, in particular those with whom we work closely at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I will impress upon them the House’s demands this afternoon that a response be forthcoming.
The Government are investing £1.6 billion through the nine midlands local enterprise partnerships and have established the £250 million midlands engine investment fund. Some £217 million of the local growth fund is being invested in the Black Country, and projects such as the Elite Centre for Manufacturing Skills, with Dudley College, will drive economic growth in the area.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, but businesses and residents in my constituency are frustrated at a lack of connectivity. Does the Secretary of State agree that a priority for the midlands engine and the Government as a whole must be to invest substantially in connecting our region, whether by rail, by road or digitally?
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about connectivity, and he will know that I visited Dudley recently to hear about those issues directly. That is why £215 million of the transforming cities fund has been made available to the West Midlands Combined Authority to support extending the midlands metro tram links to Brierley Hill, enhancing accessibility across the Black Country and helping to drive growth.
Local Government Funding: Removal of Deprivation Measures
The Government have consulted on changes to the local authority funding formula and have heard from over 300 bodies. We are in the process of digesting those responses and will of course listen carefully to what the sector has said.
I am somewhat astonished that the Secretary of State and the Minister can stand at the Dispatch Box and keep a straight face while downplaying local government cuts. My local authority, Bradford Council, has been decimated by nine years of Tory austerity, which has stripped vital services of funding and dragged hundreds of our children into poverty. Does the Minister really think that cutting funding further and devasting our communities is an example of fair funding?
As I have already said, funding in aggregate for local authorities has gone up, but it is worth bearing in mind too that funding for the hon. Gentleman’s local authority is up this year. I have noticed also that its spending power per household is higher than the average for metropolitan districts. Indeed, in Bradford’s latest accounts it boasts of the area having
“Better skills, more good jobs and a growing economy”.
This Government are backing local councils to deliver for their local communities and will continue to do so.
When will the Government review the empty homes premium, a hypothecated tax that is unfairly distributed between deprived precepting boroughs and shires? Hyndburn is about the 24th most deprived area in the country and collects about £600,000, the majority of which is given to wider Lancashire to spend, not the deprived area. This is totally unfair. Does the Minister recognise it as unfair and will he do anything about it?
I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about his specific concern, but in general it is for local authorities themselves to decide how to implement the empty homes premium. They are accountable to their electors, and this is not something that central Government have any execution over.
Our recent reforms gave local authorities the tools to make it more difficult for developers to renegotiate contributions after planning consent. Where developers do not deliver on contributions, these can be enforced through legal proceedings. Finally, local authorities are required to consult on planning applications before consent is granted.
As part of a planning agreement, Persimmon is responsible for building a relief road for Towcester as part of that town’s expansion in my constituency. Highways England is providing £4 million to try to bring forward delivery of the road, but that now seems to be at risk due to problems between the developer and Highways England. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can work together to ensure that the road gets built?
I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the point she makes. We want to ensure that there is a tie-up on infrastructure; the £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund is there precisely to support that activity. On section 106 agreements, the Housing Minister and I firmly believe that transparency —publication and making them available, so there is direct accountability—is really important. I will certainly meet my right hon. Friend.
The Secretary of State will know that over my time there have been serious problems with the non-delivery of section 106 agreements, so could we not look at them? When building houses, land tends to be cleared and trees cut down. Under a new kind of section 106 agreement, we could make developers put money into building new forests, such as the Great Northern forest and the White Rose forest.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that how we create stronger, greener environments is a part of the delivery we firmly need, so that we have a relationship between built and natural environments. I believe very strongly in creating communities. The new planning guide, with the national planning policy framework, provides greater certainty, but we continue to review this area with an accelerated planning Green Paper later this year. If the hon. Gentleman has specific points he would like to raise on how we ensure that that sense of greenness within development is upheld, I will be very grateful to hear from him.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting neighbourhood plans, which I believe in very strongly, and how we garner that greater consent for development to take place. I underline the sense of how we speed up the process with planning, with development and with those plans. That is what the accelerated planning Green Paper is all about. I would be delighted to continue to discuss this matter with my hon. Friend and others to ensure that we make that effective.
Just over a week ago, I visited the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany where my children’s great grandfather was held by the Nazis after Kristallnacht. He was one of the lucky ones. He was able to leave Germany and be reunited with family, but millions of others were not so fortunate. The visit redoubled my determination to deliver the national holocaust memorial and learning centre.
There is a duty on all of us across the House to stand up against antisemitism, racism and bigotry. Through initiatives such as the communities framework, which we have just published, we must stand up for our shared values of openness, understanding and decency. We reaffirm those values, as we mark the centenary of the Addison Act this month, with plans to end the practice of the segregation of social housing tenants through new guidance on development to prevent people being denied access to shared facilities such as playgrounds. I will continue to champion the values of fairness that underpin my work as Secretary of State.
What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to ensure there is a co-ordinated cross-Government plan to make sure that areas with very significant housing growth, such as Corby and east Northamptonshire, receive the investment in infrastructure they need?
The £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund is a cross-Government effort to unlock housing by supporting infrastructure development. With the Department for Transport and the Treasury, we are looking at ways to build capability across Government to make that as effective as possible. My hon. Friend is right. It is about that sense of delivery and consent, and seeing that homes are supported by the infrastructure they need.
On Thursday, it was confirmed that high pressure laminate cladding, exactly like Grenfell-style ACM cladding, is lethal in certain combinations and must be removed from buildings. This could affect up to 1,700 additional blocks. The Secretary of State has known since last October that this cladding failed a fire test. No building should be covered with lethal materials and there are lives at stake, so I ask the Secretary of State: how many buildings are covered in this lethal cladding? What is the deadline for the removal of that cladding? Will the Government fund its removal?
The hon. Lady needs to be careful about the detail of what she has said, because she will equally know that there has been a BS 8414 test in relation to high pressure laminate, with different types of insulation, where the finding was not the description that she has set out. We have provided advice in December 2017 and December 2018. We have now reaffirmed further advice to building owners to see that they take appropriate action to make buildings safe. That is what we have taken action to see and secure, and further steps are being taken with local government to test the type of materials that are in buildings. There is certainly no sense on this side of not taking the action that is required to make people safe.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have asked the Law Commission to look at making it easier, quicker and more cost-effective for people to buy their freehold or extend their lease. It is also examining the options on reducing the premium that leaseholders must pay to do that. We look forward to its recommendations in the early part of next year.
We believe that the £200 million, which was an exceptional sum, based on the extreme risk that this ACM cladding has, is sufficient to provide the necessary support to make the necessary remediation, the reason being that commitments are already in place from a number of private sector developers and builders, as well as other insurers, to see that that work is undertaken. It is on that basis that that sum has been ring-fenced.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He sets out that need for improving the energy efficiency of new and existing homes—that aim is very much shared by the Housing Minister. We plan to consult this year on uplifting the building regulations’ energy-efficiency requirements for new homes and work to existing buildings. Policies are also in place to improve existing homes, and these include the energy company obligation scheme.
We want to get this right in the private rental sector, which is why we have launched the consultation today on section 21 and how we provide that reform. If the hon. Lady wishes to draw the circumstances of this case to my attention, I will be happy to receive the details, because the sense of fairness underpins the action we are taking and is why these reforms are necessary.
I am pleased to say to my hon. Friend that some further positive steps have been taken since my visit to India last October to forge those relationships between the midlands and Maharashtra in India. I hope to be able to give him some positive news very shortly on signing a memorandum of understanding to really regularise that and underpin how we ensure we have that shared expertise to create jobs, boost trade and take other steps to cement this and create that positive sense of prosperity that I know he strongly advocates.
We cannot wait for primary legislation; we have to get on with it now. In particular, there are lots of things in the Letwin review that can work with the grain and the weave of current planning policy. For example, we will shortly be issuing guidance on housing diversification, which is one of the key suggestions in the review. We are encouraging local authorities to introduce local plans, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) urged us to do, so that landowners can realise the obligations placed upon them and so that the value of community contributions and affordable housing can be factored into the land price.
Permitted development rights have damaged the economic and social fabric of Harlow, increased crime and placed intolerable burdens on our education and social services. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said he would review them. What has happened to that review and what is the outcome?
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s question, having recently visited Harlow to discuss this matter with him. In the round, 42,000 homes were delivered in the three years to March 2018 under permitted development rights with a change of use from office to residential. Earlier this year we announced a review of the quality standard of homes provided through permitted development rights for the conversion of buildings to residential use. The review is expected to conclude later this year. Today, I have written to all local authorities to remind them of their responsibilities regarding out-of-borough placements.
The hon. Gentleman poses a really interesting question. I will write to him with an answer.
Currently, town and parish councils are not compensated in the council tax formula grant for providing student discounts, which means that parish councils in villages with large student populations, such as Kegworth in my constituency, are providing services used by students for which there is no precept. Will the Minister look into this inequity?
We will take this away and look into it. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. More widely, in our communities framework, we have come forward with a plan for expanding the number of parish councils in this country to ensure they play their full part in delivering for the communities they represent.
The Government are still allowing the use of flammable cladding on school buildings up to 18 metres high, which of course means most school buildings. A disabled child would have great difficulty getting out if there were a fire. Why won’t the Government do what every parent wants and bring in a total ban on flammable cladding on schools?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for flagging this up in the way he has. I took the step to introduce the ban on combustible materials on the surface of walls of high-rise residential buildings and others. We keep this under review. The Department for Education takes the lead on some of these standards, but I will certainly impress upon it the issues he raises, because safety and security are paramount.
What is the Department doing to make sure that Help to Buy is more accessible for those on lower incomes?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Department spends an enormous amount of time and energy promoting Help to Buy to those who are eligible, and the new Help to Buy scheme, which will come in once the current scheme finishes, will be targeted very carefully at first-time buyers. I am more than happy to take any suggestions she may have for how we can focus it more on those on lower incomes.
There is a £3.1 billion gap in funding for children’s services and a £4.3 billion gap in funding for adult social care, but, eight months before the start of the new financial year, local authorities have no idea what their funding settlement will be for the coming financial year or beyond it. What is the Secretary of State doing to address this crisis in local government funding, which is affecting the most vulnerable residents in communities up and down the country every single day? Why is he being so complacent?
Far from being complacent, the Government are working hard to ensure that local authorities receive the support that they need, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). We know about the importance of children’s services, and the importance of ensuring that all authorities benefit from best practice from places such as Leeds, Hertfordshire and north Yorkshire. We are funding those authorities so that they can spread that best practice throughout the country, transforming the lives of children everywhere.
I do not want to assume that Ministers have seen the letter that was sent to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and me today by the director general for housing about the chairman of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and LEASE, the Leasehold Advisory Service. It deals with one issue satisfactorily. May I ask Ministers to see whether the alleged social media comments which pose a difficulty can be sent to the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform to establish whether he can overcome the second difficulty?
I will look into the matter and come back to my hon. Friend.
Representatives of nearly 50% of children’s services have said that they no longer feel able to keep children safe. Recent research has shown that private fostering, children’s homes and social worker agencies have amassed an estimated annual profit of £220 million, while simultaneously costing local authorities £20 million. At what point will the Government put the needs of vulnerable children before private profit?
It is for local authorities to decide how best to conduct children’s services in their areas, and it would not be right for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and tell them exactly how to contract. I will say this, however. When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable children in our society, the Government have ensured, through the troubled families programme, that hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable families are receiving the targeted, intensive support they need so that their children can be kept out of care and they can stay strong together.
The crisis in adult social care is likely to become worse as it becomes harder to recruit staff from the European economic area to work in that sector post Brexit. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Office to ensure that the sector has access to the long-term labour supply that it will need?
I have had discussions with not just the Home Office but the Department of Health and Social Care, and we have pursued the issue with our local government delivery board, which brings together councils from across the country to ensure that such issues are well planned. We keep this issue under careful review, but I believe that councils will rise to the challenge and ensure that the services on which their communities rely will not be disrupted.
Hull is proud of its maritime history, and our relationship with the sea has shaped not only our culture and our economy, but even our character. What support and encouragement can the Minister give Hull City Council in its bid to become an official maritime city?
As someone who was born and bred in the city of Liverpool, I know that the connection between coastal communities and the sea is very strong. What support and encouragement can I give? Well, having visited Hull on many occasions and having had the privilege of experiencing some of the events that took place during its city of culture year, I can say that it seems extremely well placed. I am sure that the hon. Lady, and her colleagues in the constituencies surrounding hers, will let no opportunity pass to bang the drum for Hull, its place in our nation’s story as a maritime city, and its role in driving the future economy of our northern powerhouse.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Hong Kong.
There have been a number of developments in Hong Kong over the weekend. On Friday evening, the police seized a quantity of explosives from a warehouse in the New Territories along with knives, petrol bombs, corrosive acids and T-shirts supporting Hong Kong independence. On Saturday, there was a large rally in the area known as Central in support of the Hong Kong police. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a largely peaceful march on Hong Kong island; however, some protesters diverted from the approved route and there were clashes with the police, including outside the Chinese Central Government liaison office. Last night, there were disturbing scenes in the New Territories town of Yuen Long: a group armed with chains and poles attacked pro-democracy protesters and other passengers at the metro station; 45 protesters were reportedly injured, one critically. We were all shocked to see such unacceptable scenes of violence.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the identity of the group who attacked people at Yuen Long metro station, but it is important that we do not jump to conclusions on their identity until a thorough investigation has taken place. I welcome Carrie Lam’s statement today saying that she has asked the commissioner of police to investigate this incident fully and pursue any law breakers. We will be keeping a close eye on this, as I know will hon. and right hon. Members.
I condemn all violent acts, but I stand by people’s right to protest peacefully and lawfully. We must not let the violent actions of a few overshadow the fact that hundreds of thousands of people took part in the march yesterday and did so in a peaceful and lawful manner. In doing so, they were exercising their right to peacefully protest and stand up for their freedoms. We fully support this right, which is guaranteed under the joint declaration. Successive six-monthly reports in this House have highlighted that Hong Kong’s political freedoms have been coming under increasing pressure, and the House is right to reflect this in its appetite for urgent questions, parliamentary questions and statements.
Let me assure the House that the Government remain fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms under the one country, two systems principle. They are guaranteed by the legally binding joint declaration. We will continue to be unwavering in our support for the treaty and expect our co-signatory to behave in a like manner.
Rights and freedoms and the rule of law are vital for Hong Kong’s future success; for its people, we will continue to stand up and speak out.
I agree with the Minister that the peaceful nature of the demonstrations must be paramount. Does he agree that there has been some doubt as to the wording of the governor of Hong Kong’s promise to suspend the plans around extradition, and that that could do with some clarification? Does he also agree that huge numbers of people are taking part, which reveals a deep concern about these ongoing proposals, and is there any way that he can use his office to assist in the clarification that the extradition plans will be 100% dropped?
Obviously this month saw the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to Chinese rule, and the day was marked by real fear among many people in Hong Kong that the principle of one country, two systems is being reneged on. Media reports paint an alarming picture: 45 people were injured, and of significant concern is that one of those was a journalist, and there is a question over press freedoms and the fact that the police were very slow to respond.
Coupled with the escalation in violence, reports also came out this weekend that the UK Government approved an export license for £1.9 million-worth of telecommunications interception equipment to Hong Kong. Will the Minister tell the House what human rights assessment was made before the approval of that licence given the concerns raised previously about the Hong Kong authorities’ treatment of protesters during student protests in 2014, and how the Government intend to address the ongoing urgent concerns about the protests and the way they are being handled? Finally, will the Minister once more provide assurances that we stand with the people of Hong Kong in defending their democratic right to protest?
I shall start with the hon. Lady’s last question, about our standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong in their right to protest. I know that it was a rhetorical question, but it is worth emphasising that of course this country stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong, as I laid out in my opening remarks. On her point about interception equipment, I could find evidence of one licence, but it was an extant licence connected to counter-narcotics, counter-trafficking, search and rescue and counter-terrorism. I would say to the hon. Lady with the greatest of respect that if you will the ends, you have to will the means. She will be familiar with the safeguards that this country has in relation to equipment that a country could use to disadvantage people internally or to pose a threat to its neighbours. They are well rehearsed, and I probably do not have time in responding to her question to rehearse them again.
The hon. Lady mentioned the governor, but I think she meant the Chief Executive. That was a Freudian slip and it is perfectly understandable that she would use that term, but it is important to understand the UK’s position in all this, because we are simply a co-signatory to the Sino-British joint declaration. We cannot impose things, as was perhaps the case in the past, and neither should we. It is important to understand Hong Kong’s autonomous behaviour, which we stand fully behind in accordance with the tenets of the joint agreement.
On the status of the extradition arrangements associated with Carrie Lam, I think that she has made it fairly clear that they are dead in the water. On the undertaking on one country, two systems, it of course remains our view that that is in the interests not only of Hong Kong but, I humbly suggest, of China as well. We will continue to point that out in our discourse with Beijing.
The hon. Lady rightly commented on press freedom. Of course that is at the forefront of the mind of Ministers in the FCO right now, given that we have recently hosted with Canada the media freedom conference, at which many of these issues were aired. I do not think anybody can be left in any doubt as to the position of the United Kingdom in this matter, which is four-square behind the journalists who serve us so well in articulating concerns and reflecting on world events in the manner that they do. The hon. Lady mentioned police behaviour. It is important that police behaviour in the UK or any country should be fully scrutinised. We have a proud tradition of that in this country, and we want to inculcate those norms and practices elsewhere.
In general, Hong Kong is a peaceful place with a good record for safety as a city. It has an independent judiciary who ultimately would be tasked with forming a view on whether the police have behaved appropriately, but before that, it is important that matters of concern are investigated internally, and I am pleased that the police commissioner and the Independent Police Complaints Council in Hong Kong have undertaken to do just that.
Regarding Hong Kong citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, the Chinese Government have warned the UK to
“know its place and stop interfering”
in what is a
“purely internal affair”.
Does my right hon. Friend disagree with that assessment, and will he make that clear to the Chinese Government? Will he also make it clear to them that it is perfectly in order for parliamentarians here in the UK to engage on this issue? May I put it on record in this place, Mr Speaker, that UK parliamentarians will not be warned off doing that, no matter what warnings we receive individually?
They certainly will not be. I am aware of such efforts, as the hon. Lady knows. Such efforts to silence Members of this House are both improper and extremely ill judged, and the sooner their authors realise that, so much the better.
Indeed, and I hope that I made my views on the matter plain in my opening remarks. I agree with my hon. Friend that China and the United Kingdom are co-signatories and equally responsible for the Sino-British agreement, and we expect our co-signatory to honour it as we have done. In general, I believe that China has attempted to do that, and we will continue to impress on it the importance of that in our discourse with China, as I know the Prime Minister did in Downing Street with China’s Vice Premier on 17 June.
I very much thank the Minister for what he has said.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing it. The situation in Hong Kong is getting more and more serious by the day. The temporary suspension of the extradition laws was never going to be enough to appease the protesters. Their demonstrations are the culmination of years of frustration and based on the fear of interference by Beijing in Hong Kong affairs. It is time for some significant change.
Yesterday’s vicious attack by a mysterious armed mob on pro-democracy protesters making their way home is a new and sickening low in this sorry chapter. It was nothing less than an attempt to bully and frighten peaceful protesters into submission. The Hong Kong police have come in for a lot of criticism since June for their heavy-handedness and brutality, but they were nowhere to be seen on this occasion, and over 40 people were injured in the attack. Why was it allowed to happen?
Our call for an independent inquiry has so far been met with a less than satisfactory response. I therefore wonder whether the Minister can update the House on the Foreign Secretary’s call for an independent judge-led inquiry into the conduct of the Hong Kong police. We do not know who these people were or who put them up to it, but it is vital to find out. Does the Minister have any information as to the identity of the attackers and from where their orders came?
I share the hon. Lady’s assessment of the deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong. I also share her revulsion at the scenes we saw on our television screens over the weekend. We have called for an independent inquiry, and we would like to know what the scope of such an inquiry would be. That is important, particularly since the situation is evolving. When we originally called for such an inquiry some time ago, we were presented with certain facts, and we were calling for such an inquiry on the basis of what we knew at that time. Things have changed since then, and different things have happened, and we would like such things, including the weekend’s events, to form part of that inquiry.
This is a rapidly evolving piece, but we need to know to what extent the inquiry will be full, comprehensive and, as the hon. Lady is right to say, independent, which is crucial. It probably is not sufficient simply to have an internal police inquiry, which is what the IPCC would be in a Hong Kong context, and it really does need to involve Hong Kong’s excellent and well-respected judiciary.
I cannot really speculate on the nature of the individuals who are responsible for last night’s attacks, and it would be very premature to do so. Those things would need to be explored in any comprehensive inquiry, and the hon. Lady will understand that it would be unwise and unreasonable to speculate at this stage, although she will have seen the same press reports that I have.
The Minister is absolutely right to say how much he deeply regrets the events in Tsuen Wan and Yuen Long in particular over the past couple of days. All of us who wish Hong Kong well will be dismayed at what has become the seventh consecutive weekend of protest and violence. In many ways, the proposed extradition bill has become a catalyst for deeper frustrations, and it is clear to all of us that the protesters’ five demands are going to have to be addressed, at least in part. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Hong Kong general chamber of commerce has now come out in favour of two of them—that the Hong Kong Government formally withdraw the extradition bill, even though they have acknowledged that it is effectively dead, and that there is a judge-led commission of inquiry into all the events? If so, does he agree that we should support such calls?
My hon. Friend is an acknowledged expert in this House on Hong Kong, and the sense of his remarks is pretty spot on. On the extradition Bill being a catalyst for other things, it is a bit like uncorking a bottle. He is right to say that the Bill is important but has brought to a head wider unhappiness in relation to mounting events in Hong Kong. His judgment is spot on in that respect.
My hon. Friend asked about a judge-led commission, and our sense is that an inquiry needs to be independent, and needs to be seen to be independent by the international community. It would be wrong of me, from this Dispatch Box, to ordain the terms of reference of such an inquiry, although, as I have already said, the judiciary in Hong Kong is held in high regard and is generally regarded as being absolutely independent. One is perhaps drawn towards judicial involvement as a way of assuring the international community that these matters, in the fullness of time, will be investigated fully and comprehensively.
The juxtaposition of this question with the statement later today on the Gulf illuminates what will be an increasingly geostrategic workload for the incoming Administration. The Minister should know that the entire House supports the Government’s standing up to China to ensure the rights of Hong Kongers, as guaranteed in the handover agreement, but if I may say so, previous attempts have been hindered by a lack of wider UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific region to address the weighty issues of the rise of China that our allies have been dealing with for more than a decade. Will the Minister therefore be willing, at some point, to bring forward a China strategy for debate on the Floor of the House, to stop the continual oscillation of successive UK Governments between “fill-yer-boots” appeasement and knee-jerk Trumpianism?
I think that is very harsh. It is clearly our endeavour to work with the Chinese Government, and it would be bonkers not to do so, wouldn’t it? The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a road that would cause all sorts of difficulties in trying to advance the human rights issues that he and I both hold dear.
We will be critical of China, if we think it appropriate, but the important thing is to insist on the tenets of the 1984 joint agreement and hold China’s feet to the fire as a co-signatory. We respect that agreement, and I know China would want to respect that agreement if it wants to continue working with the UK on a range of issues and common interests. On that basis, I hope we will move forward.
Does the Minister agree that the rule of law is essential to the economic stability of Hong Kong? Does he also agree that our definition of the rule of law—the definition generally understood by the international community—is not the one that China always understands?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that working together to ensure prosperity in Hong Kong is vital. On the rule of law, we have to work with a number of systems across the world, and we need to be a little careful about insisting on a particular model. I am proud of our norms and values, and I have no difficulty in trying to inculcate them, but we have to be respectful of our partners. Particularly when engaging on human rights, we need to make it clear where we are coming from and the importance we attach to them, including when we come to strike trade deals. It is perfectly legitimate for such agreements to contain reflections on human rights, but we also have to respect our interlocutors.
One of the people injured at Yuen Long was a journalist. Just over a week ago, the Government set up a committee to protect journalists, which is clearly very welcome. Will the Minister set out how in future the committee might be able to help journalists in Hong Kong who want to cover this matter impartially?
The right hon. Gentleman will, I hope, have admired the Foreign Secretary’s personal efforts in respect of media freedom, which came to a head with the conference to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. If it was in doubt before, Britain is now widely respected around the globe as being in the lead on this matter.
On the committee to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, it would be perfectly reasonable for such a body to take a view on the treatment of journalists who had been abused. There is currently a worrying tendency around the world for journalists who are doing their very best to promote an open and transparent society and world order to be abused in the way that they sadly have been in Hong Kong recently, as they have in other parts of the world. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns. It is clearly up to the committee to work out how it is going to do its work, but no doubt it will take note of the particular abuse to which he refers.
Hong Kong is a peaceful place, but there is growing evidence that the Chinese Government are quite prepared to throw their weight around. If these so-called triads were indeed triads, they would not have just gone around attacking people on the station. That does not happen unless they are instructed to do so. Does the Minister share my concern for the future of the island? If this sort of thing is happening now, what is going to happen in 2047, when the island is handed back to China full-time?
My hon. Friend is right to say that in 2047 the formal period covered by the Sino-British joint agreement will come to an end. The Government hope that the good practice in that agreement, which we hope will continue during the timeline of this particular agreement, will continue thereafter. In particular, we hope that the commitment to the one country, two state system, and the basic law and everything that is contained within that, including measures to further democracy beyond that which currently exists, will continue. I do not necessarily share my hon. Friend’s pessimism, but there is real benefit in the special status of Hong Kong as far as China is concerned. I very much hope that if China wants Hong Kong to continue to be a place where business is done and foreign revenue is earned, it will insist on the continuation of human rights and democracy, which underpin the uniqueness of Hong Kong to the mutual advantage of Hong Kong and mainland China.
The Minister will be aware of the horrendous level of artificial intelligence-enhanced digital surveillance under which Chinese citizens, and Uyghur Muslims in particular, are obliged to live. Does he know to what extent that applies to Hong Kong and whether it contravenes elements of the Sino-British agreement? Will he confirm that whoever is the next Prime Minister and however desperate they are for a trade agreement with China, Britain will always stand up for human rights in Hong Kong and China?
The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not comment directly on security matters.
On human rights, I hope I made it clear in my opening remarks that human rights and trade and prosperity are two sides of the same coin. I indicated that there is nothing to prevent human rights forming part of any agreement that we might have. That is not to say that any agreement would necessarily contain clauses along those lines, but there is nothing to prevent the United Kingdom from insisting, in such an agreement, on particular measures of the sort that I think she would find very acceptable.
I am pleased that the Government have suspended the licences for sending riot control equipment to Hong Kong. Are there any indications that our diplomats or, indeed, the media are being restricted in their movements on the island of Hong Kong?
My hon. Friend is right to say that on 25 June my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave an undertaking to ensure that the material to which my hon. Friend refers would not be the subject of any UK licences. Sometimes, the material that has been sold to Hong Kong has been misunderstood. For example, both my hon. Friend and I would agree that bomb disposal equipment and body armour are perfectly reasonable things to export to Hong Kong.
On the freedom of journalists, Hong Kong has been a place within the region where, historically, there has been a free press, and it would be very disturbing if there were a significant reversal of that. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made reference to the deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong, and, in my answer, I agreed with her—that is my assessment as well. Clearly, that would include the situation with respect to a free press, as it is difficult to see how a deterioration in the way in which journalists go about their business would, in any way, be compatible with political freedom.
Will the Minister consider referring the worsening democratic deficit in Hong Kong to the United Nations Human Rights Council?
What I would like to see is greater attention being given to articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law—that is to say a situation where we can look forward to an election of the Chief Executive and a fully democratic Legislative Assembly. I am an optimist. I would actually like to see democracy in Hong Kong greatly improved in the years ahead, and that has to be our ambition. Unfortunately, the events of the past few days have made that rather less likely.
Given my right hon. Friend’s comments and the current situation, how has his thoughts changed on advancing democracy in Hong Kong?
As I said to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), I am an optimist and I want to see democracy improved in Hong Kong. I would hope that China agrees that its special nature is good for China, too. It is good for Hong Kong, and it is good for China. It is good for China’s prosperity. Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law contain within them the seeds of advancing democracy. That is why they are there and were signed up to by both the Chinese and the UK Governments in 1984. That is where I would like to see the attention focused in the years ahead, running up to the end of the Sino-British agreement. If we can move towards that, I think China will come to see that it is to its advantage, as well as to the advantage of the people of Hong Kong, that we should advance democracy further in Hong Kong rather than see it pulled back. Unfortunately, that is, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said in her remarks, the trajectory that we are on at the moment.
In light of the increasing aggressiveness of the Chinese Government, the influence that the Chinese Government have had on Hong Kong, and even the Chinese Government’s condemnation of any comment by the UK Government on events in Hong Kong, many people rightly believe that the rights that they thought that they had under the joint declaration are being slowly strangled. The Minister has said that he is going to hold the Chinese Government’s feet to the fire on this issue. Will he tell us in what practical ways that is being done?
The joint declaration was lodged with the United Nations: the primary cockpit of international affairs and the highest body that we can possibly lodge such an agreement with. The eyes of the international community are on China. It is true to say that, traditionally, China has been fairly reticent about making statements of the sort that the hon. Gentleman was expecting from Beijing, but I hope that I have made it clear in my remarks that we talk constantly with China, with our interlocutors; that we have a good and productive dialogue in the main with Beijing; and that we will continue to enforce the importance of that. That is the way that diplomacy is done. I am confident, because I am an optimist, that China will come to see that its interests, as well as the interests of the people of Hong Kong, are best served by preserving the one country, two systems status that was agreed in 1984.
My right hon. Friend clearly understands the difference between protests and riots. Is he confident that the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments fully appreciate that distinction?
It is very important that institutions such as this House and Governments such as the UK Government make it very clear that we see a clear distinction between a legitimate protest—which is something that we would all welcome as part of the way in which we carry out our affairs in a country such as this—and violence, bullying and subjugation of the sort that unfortunately we appear to have seen over the weekend. The two are very different, and it is important that legislatures such as this make that difference very clear indeed, as we are doing today.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to intervene to ensure that funding is provided to treat those suffering from Batten disease.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he is a great champion for his constituents. We must ensure that all children with Batten disease receive world-class care and support. The Secretary of State has met families of children who suffer from the condition and has seen at first hand how cruel the disease can be. I pay tribute to my constituent Melanie Moffatt, whose amazing care for her daughter Matilda has been truly inspiring.
The whole House will recognise that a key element of providing world-class care is getting access to the most effective new medicines. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is the expert body, independent of the Government, that provides authoritative, evidence-based guidance for the NHS on whether new drugs and treatments represent an effective use of resources. If they do, the NHS is obliged to provide funding. In 2013, NICE introduced its highly specialised technologies programme, which supports access to drugs for very rare diseases such as Batten disease, through additional funding—up to £300,000 per quality-adjusted life year. However, companies still need to price their products appropriately and fairly. In this instance, Brineura has not been made available at a price that could be recommended by the NHS. NHS England stands ready to do a deal at a reasonable price, but this has not been possible so far. I urge BioMarin to sit down again with NICE and NHS England, as NICE has not yet published its final guidance, so that a fair and reasonable price can be agreed.
I assure the House that my Department and the NHS are working as hard as possible to improve the broader care and support for patients with rare diseases, including Batten disease. I reassure all Members that the Department is committed to ensuring that all patients with rare diseases have access to world-class medicines, care and support.
I thank the Minister for her response. I am grateful that she has not hidden behind sub judice on this occasion. Could she confirm to me that, while NHS England is obliged to follow a positive recommendation from NICE, it has the legal discretion not to follow a negative recommendation and can decide to pay for a drug? In the event that NHS England will not do this, what powers—if any—does the Secretary of State have to ensure that a drug is made available? If that cannot be done, in what way is NHS England accountable to Parliament for the decisions it makes, or is it entirely above accountability?
The point at issue today is that Brineura has now been available for two years and it is available in many other countries at a price that has been agreed between their authorities and BioMarin. We now know that three more children—leaving five altogether in this country, including my constituent Max—who ought to be receiving this drug are not. They suffer from a condition that means that they degenerate relatively quickly, and this drug can stop the decline in their condition. It is therefore urgent that this matter is addressed quickly, rather than continuing to allow time to pass with sick children getting worse. It really is a most important and pressing issue. In instances where the drug companies and NHS England cannot agree, but where other countries have agreed, I wonder whether there could be any system of arbitration to determine what is a fair price, because the development of these drugs is exceptionally expensive.
I thank my hon. Friend for his questions. I will attempt to answer all of them.
In terms of governance, no, NICE is not above accountability. Ministers set the framework for NICE, which is a non-departmental body. The reason it was established was to have fairness—so that there was no postcode lottery on access to various drugs. It is important that medical experts and scientists make these decisions rather than politicians. Regular governance meetings are held between the Department and NICE. There is a framework agreement. Where the Secretary of State considers that NICE is failing, or has failed, to discharge its functions or to do so properly, he can direct NICE to discharge functions. If NICE were to fail to comply with the Secretary of State’s direction in those circumstances, he could discharge such functions himself. There is therefore a strong and robust governance system with regard to NICE.
It is not always very helpful to use other jurisdictions as a comparison because we do not know the exact price that has been agreed. In addition, different systems have different healthcare populations and do not necessarily have the equivalent of our national health service.
Turning to access to Brineura, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to Max’s family. I know from the very moving testimony by him and by other hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and from speaking to my constituent Melanie on numerous occasions that this is an absolutely dreadful disease. That is why we want the NICE process to be able to bring drugs to market as quickly as possible. Drug companies find this drug difficult to develop—that it is very expensive. It is not necessarily a drug that will be paid for by having millions of sufferers globally, and therefore a different system needs to be in place. That is why the bar for QALY is so much higher.
My hon. Friend’s suggestion on arbitration is very interesting, and I will take it away. On NHS England and the negative procedure, yes, in theory we could do that, but it is unlikely if NICE does not recommend a process. Overall, where a drugs company and NICE are unable to come to an agreement—we see this with other medication as well—Ministers urge the company to carry on negotiating to have a fair price, because every pound spent on one drug is a pound that we cannot spend on a drug for another sick person.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) for securing it following his Adjournment debate last week. I do not doubt that he would have preferred the Minister to have come before the House voluntarily, rather than being forced to come here today for his urgent question.
Time and again, we come to this place to talk about a drug and its benefits to patients, only to be told that no matter how good it is, people cannot access it on the NHS. Among all the politics, there are people, including children like Max, who are suffering. No parent wants to hear a critical diagnosis for their child who has not yet really experienced childhood, let alone reached adulthood.
As we have heard, Brineura, a drug made available by BioMarin, could stop the progression of Batten disease. An assessment by NICE has found that Brineura could provide 30 extra years of good-quality life to patients. But, as has become expected when we discuss drugs for rare diseases in this place, Brineura is not available for patients on the NHS. NICE confirmed earlier this year that it was unable to recommend the use of Brineura on the NHS because of cost-effectiveness. The drug costs over £500,000 per person for each year’s treatment. BioMarin has another drug for rare diseases—Kuvan, for patients with phenylketonuria, or PKU. PKU patients do not have access to Kuvan, because it is also deemed not to be cost-effective. Does the Minister agree that the NICE appraisal process is just not fit for purpose when it comes to assessing the suitability of drugs and treatments for rare diseases?
Access to Brineura would help to give patients and families their child back, and it would allow them to enjoy time with their child and treasure special moments with them. As time ticks on without access to the drug, parents will witness their child’s condition deteriorate. No parent wants to see that, so we really need an appraisal process that captures rare diseases effectively.
Will the Minister step in and personally urge BioMarin, NHS England and NICE to meet and come to an agreement? Families do not just want warm words from the Minister; they want and need access to medicines now. I hope that this urgent question will result in real change in how we address rare diseases.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), I urged BioMarin to get back around the table with NHSE and NICE and come to a fair and reasonable price. NICE has already approved drugs for 75% of rare diseases through its technology appraisal programme, including drugs for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and neuroblastoma. NICE’s process and review methods are constantly reviewed, and they are internationally respected. NICE knows that it has to keep up to date with developments in science, medicine and healthcare. There is a periodic review going on at the moment, and that includes extensive engagement with stakeholders.
I thank the Minister for coming today and providing more information. On Friday, I met the parents of Michal, one of my constituents. Michal is four years old, and he was diagnosed with Batten in February. He has already lost almost all his ability to walk and speak, and his parents are desperate to get him access to this drug.
I understand what the Minister says about it not always being helpful to compare access to drugs in different countries, but this drug is available in 20 countries, including Wales. If Michal lived in Bangor rather than Burton, he would be getting the drug that could stop the progression of this disease now. It is simply not acceptable to say, “Let’s not compare what happens here with what happens in other parts of this country, the United Kingdom,” and we need to know more about that.
The Minister talks about her desire to get BioMarin around the table. Time is of the essence for these children —every single day matters when it comes to stopping this disease in its tracks—so will she agree to pick up the phone to BioMarin and personally ask it to come around the table to negotiate with NICE? If Wales can afford to give children this drug, the Minister must have an idea about the scale of the difference between what we can afford to pay in England, and what Wales is paying. We have to find a solution to make this drug available to parents and children here in England.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the parents of Michal. This dreadful disease is so upsetting, not only for the children affected and their families, but for their wider communities. Health care in Wales is devolved. I again urge BioMarin to get back round the table, but I reassure my hon. Friend that I will make contact with the chief executive of NHS England to make sure that he is taking forward negotiations with BioMarin—he is the negotiating party—and I will let my hon. Friend know when I have done so.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) for securing it. The families of children with Batten disease have been left dangling for far too long, and the delay in a positive decision being arrived at—for what is a really obvious use of NHS funding, if we were to ask any taxpayer out there —is just too painful for many of them to bear. The stress and anxiety they are being caused is completely unacceptable.
The Minister acknowledges that this is a dreadful disease, but it is a dreadful disease that has a treatment—a highly effective treatment. It does not just score 30 QALYs; it has been acknowledged that it scores way beyond that. NHS England is adhering to an arbitrary cap set by NICE. Will the Minister please confirm whether NHS England can use a budget exemption in these circumstances to deal with the very tiny number of children who are affected, and what will she do practically—and what has she done since last week—not just to urge but to get BioMarin round the table with NHS England and NICE to get a positive outcome for these families and these children?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she has spoken to me and spoken in this House about Nicole and Jessica Rich. I agree that it is a highly effective treatment, but NICE sets the guidelines because it is made up of the independent experts and they are the ones responsible for the number of QALYs. However, as I have already said, it is constantly reviewing its guidelines in the light of the best available evidence. I have already reassured the House that I will make sure that I make contact with NHS England so that it is driving forward the process with BioMarin.
I have looked after a number of children with Batten disease in my career, and no one should underestimate the horrific nature of this condition with which a child develops apparently normally and then gets the horrific diagnosis that they will suffer neurodegeneration. I completely respect the importance of NICE being independent, and in general I do not get involved in these debates, but I believe I should do so in this one, because I actually think that NICE has this wrong. This drug does not make a little bit of difference—it does not have the effect of making someone die a couple of weeks later; it makes a phenomenal difference to the quality of life for these children. Yes, the trials have been short so far, but over a reasonable period it makes a massive difference, and I think we should do everything we can. I have heard the Minister say that she will ask the chief executive of NHS England to get BioMarin back round the table. How long will she give him to achieve that, and if he does not succeed, what will she herself do to ensure that these children get these drugs as soon as possible?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work she has done as a clinician. I can only say again—I know this is very disappointing for the House—that we have to rely on the NICE process to be independent. I hear what the House is saying with how some people having doubts about the process, but, again, it is under review. NICE is internationally respected, and it has been going for 20 years. Yes, these are exceptionally difficult cases, but this is why, as custodians of NHS funds, we have to be very careful, because every pound we spend on one drug is a pound we cannot spend on another. I hear what my hon. Friend says about this being a life-changing drug, and I hope that BioMarin, NHSE and NICE will, and we would urge them to, carry on with their negotiations.
There can be very few things as painful for a parent as knowing, once their child has been diagnosed, that there is potential treatment out there that may make a radical difference to their life, and it will feel as though some bureaucrats—whether or not they are medical bureaucrats—are saying no. These little things in my hand, which would not have been prescribed for me if I had gone to the doctor a year ago, now cost £7,000 a month to the NHS, and I am delighted that I am able to receive them. However, I do want to make sure we have a proper system to ensure, for the most rare conditions, that there really is a possibility of making things available.
There may only be three dozen cases in the UK at the moment, which means there are probably about 900 in Europe, and if we include the Commonwealth, probably several thousand more. Why do we not have Governments in the world sitting round the table together with people from the pharmaceutical companies, who are not the baddies in this—these are the people, I think including the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), whose investment made these pills available for me, in part; investment in these pharmaceutical companies is a good thing—to make sure that more of these rare disease conditions can be treated?
We are determined to improve treatments for people living with rare diseases. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, they have to be treated differently because fewer people are affected by them. We have the rare diseases strategy, and we are trying to use genomics to better diagnose and treat diseases. We are trying to be the first health service to put genomics into day-to-day health delivery, which will enable us to diagnose and treat diseases such as Batten more quickly. We have care co-ordinators for patients with rare diseases and we are trying to ensure that those who live to adulthood are cared for better, but what the hon. Gentleman said about having an international approach is valid.
The Minister rightly speaks about NICE’s important role in eliminating postcode lotteries. Does she agree that NICE’s independence is vital to ensuring availability to patients once an agreement is reached with BioMarin, wherever those patients are from, whether Penwortham in her constituency or Pensnett in mine?
I could not have put it better myself.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made the point about international co-operation, which already exists. A European agency examining the treatment of rare diseases was established in January. It is funded by €101 million and the UK is currently a participant. My question for the Minister is: will we still be in the event of withdrawal after 31 October?
There will be co-operation with other medicines agencies, and I have no doubt that future co-operation will also come under any agreement that we reach with our European partners following our withdrawal from the European Union.
Sadly, this is not the first time that we have been here discussing how to make a highly specialised drug available for people generally and the discussions with companies. May I add my request to my hon. Friend to act urgently to ensure that the review of NICE is undertaken with speed and that the full range of appropriate stakeholders is included in the discussions to take NICE forward?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I have answered debates here and in Westminster Hall about the medical treatments for rare diseases. To reassure both patients and their families and Members of this place, we need to ensure that the review of NICE processes is robust and transparent.
Less than half of all available rare disease treatments licensed by the European Medicines Agency are reimbursed in the UK for patients to access freely through the NHS, compared with 93% in Germany and 81% in France. With respect, Minister, the parents of those young children with Batten disease have seen those figures as well. They are desperate for the medication for their loved ones, so will she agree to an urgent review of the funding for such treatments for UK citizens?
We are putting record amounts of funding into the NHS, but I would rest again on the independence of the NICE process and the fact that it is experts and clinicians who are making these decisions. I agree that these are dreadful decisions and it is very hard for us to make them, which is why we rely on that expert advice. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that other jurisdictions are not always a good comparison.
I thank the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) for securing this urgent question.
Will the Minister, while working to secure the funding of the drug Brineura to help sufferers of Batten disease such as my young constituent Kaycee Bradshaw, look at how we can help to prevent companies such as BioMarin charging extortionate fees for life-changing drugs? Sadly, this company also charges beyond the NICE framework for Kuvan, a vital drug needed by my young constituent Liam, who suffers from PKU. BioMarin made a net-product revenue increase for 2018 of $31.3 million from Brineura and $26.1 million from Kuvan, and $1.5 billion from across its range of drugs. This, by my standards, is a clear example of playing profits with people’s lives. It hurts even more that it is children who are suffering. It is not on. It is time that Governments got together and took heed. We do not know what other countries are paying. It might be less than our £300,000 or it might not, but something must happen. Get together and put the pressure on, but please, please secure these drugs for our children.
I pay tribute to Kaycee and Liam. The hon. Lady makes a very important point. We want pharmaceutical companies to develop their medicines here, so that they are brought to the market here first and our constituents have access to them. However, we also have an obligation to spend taxpayers’ money in a very fair way, so that every penny we spend is done so correctly and appropriately. When it comes to PKU, Orkambi or Brineura, what we are all—NHS England and all of us here—saying to the drug companies is that we will pay a price, but we want it to be a fair price.
Earlier in this Parliament, I supported a young constituent of mine in securing access to Brineura. Health is a devolved matter in Wales, but the NICE recommendations are still very important. The problem I have seen over the past four years, unfortunately, is that those guidelines do not work particularly well when a disease is extremely rare. Does the Minister plan to look again and review the guidelines, so that people are not penalised simply because the condition they have is rare?
Right hon. and hon. Members have made clear to me their concerns about the NICE process for rare diseases. A review is ongoing, and I will keep a very close eye on it.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and to the Minister. I have a sense that we will very likely be returning to this matter in September, if not before.
Pensions for Severely Disabled Victims (Northern Ireland)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the eligibility criteria for the pension for severely injured victims.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this urgent question and to clear up some worrying misconceptions that have been circulating over the weekend. Before I do, the more observant here today will have noticed that I am not the Secretary of State. She is currently at Stormont, where discussions are ongoing. I am sure we all wish those discussions every success.
I am happy to confirm that it remains the Government’s position that, while it is right and proper to provide a pension for victims of troubles-related terrorist incidents, it should not become a pension for terrorists. There is no moral equivalence between a bystander badly injured in a terrorist explosion through no fault of their own, and the people who manufactured the bomb, placed the bomb and detonated the bomb. I therefore happily confirm to the House that under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which we debated last week and the week before that, if the Stormont Executive is not reformed by 21 October we will bring forward regulations to ensure a victims’ payment scheme is in place in Northern Ireland by the end of May next year. The eligibility for the scheme will reflect the basic principle I have just outlined.
There will be many important and sensitive details to be worked out. We will do that in discussion with the Northern Ireland political parties as the regulations are written and developed, but the foundations will be as I have described. I am delighted to have the opportunity to put that on the record here today.
First, let me thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question—it is very much appreciated. I can, with confidence, extend the thanks of the many, many victims in Northern Ireland, who were deeply distressed by the recommendation over the course of last week and the weekend. It proposed that the person who went out to murder, maim and cause hurt would also be eligible for this pension if in the course of doing so they injured themselves.
Sadly, an appalling moral corruption lies at the heart of victims-related issues in Northern Ireland: the repugnant proposition that equates a victim with their victim makers. The hallmark of any peace process should be how we treat our victims. Sadly, too often—time and time again—victims are being asked to compromise; in order to get much-needed help and support, they have to facilitate and allow those victim makers to get it also. That is fundamentally wrong.
Many challenging and difficult issues relate to the legacy in Northern Ireland, but we must never lose sight of what is right and what is clearly wrong. Therefore, I warmly welcome the clear statement from the Minister today that eligibility for this special pension will not extend to those victim makers—those terrorists who planted the bombs. This has caused deep distress for many, many years, particularly during the last week. Will the Minister outline when those people will be excluded? What immediate next steps is he intending to take to bring in this much-needed pension swiftly, and give those victims and survivors the help they need?
First, I am delighted to hear that we are so strongly on the same wavelength. I refer not just to the hon. Lady and myself; as she rightly pointed out, this is a widely shared view on all sides of the community, both in Northern Ireland and, more broadly, right the way across the UK. I am glad that we are in the same place on this issue.
The hon. Lady asked about the timetable. Their lordships are considering the final stages of the Bill and so, technically, it has not quite cleared Parliament yet. Once it does and it is law, we will, in effect, work backwards from the due date at the end of May—it will then be laid out in statute—with, if necessary, a series of discussions, consultations and whatever it may be in order to get the necessary regulations in place in time. In the meantime, we will be making sure we have time to have conversations properly and carefully on these extremely sensitive, carefully approached issues, which will need to be addressed in order to get this right.
Will the Minister confirm that the proposed pension scheme for victims is not and never will be a pension scheme for terrorists?
Yes, I am delighted to say that as often as necessary, as it bears repeating and needs to be put on the record. I am delighted to have the opportunity to say it to my hon. Friend, too.
May I tell the Minister that he did not fool any of us? We recognised the fact that he is not the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I profoundly hope that he survives what may be something of a Götterdämmerung later this week, because he has been a first-class Minister. I think I speak for the House when I say that we very much hope that he is in place after les évènements of this week.
I do not want to over-congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly)—I do not want to blight her career too much—but, not for the first time, may I say that I thank her for bringing this matter to the attention of the House? I must also thank you, Mr Speaker. As you know, the hon. Lady raised a point of order last week and you indicated, as only you can, that the door was open and had but to be entered. We now see the proof of that. I hope you will allow me in passing to congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on the brilliant British Open in his constituency; I also congratulate Shane Lowry. The rain rather reminded me of high summer in Donegal at one stage, but the Open was superb and it showed Northern Ireland in such an excellent light. The more people who realise what a marvellous place it is to visit, the better.
I am very much with the Minister on this: we absolutely have to put down a marker on this issue once and for all. The point is that when we are dealing with issues of victims and the potential duality of some standards, it is almost like being in an egg-and-spoon race: we have to advance very slowly, very delicately and very carefully, because the potential for disaster is very high. I therefore state irrefragably, absolutely undeniably and completely without any possibility of misinterpretation, that the Opposition do not wish to see any change in the definition of a victim as outlined in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006—unless, of course, there is agreement from the Northern Ireland political leaders. Legacy issues are decided on in consultation with Northern Ireland political leaders and are legislated for in Westminster.
The Opposition have long been in favour of a pension for seriously injured victims and survivors of troubles-related incidents. We do not believe in compensating the victim makers—it is important that we get that on the record once and for all. The victims and survivors pension hub is intended as recognition of the damage done to lives and livelihoods and not as a service to be accessed. The current definition of a victim was intended for use in application to services—originally for services such as healthcare, and latterly to the victims and survivors service.
If a system could be put in place through legislation in Westminster that would provide a pension to those who have been injured—in some cases, as far back as the 1970s—and exclude those who are injured by their own hand, we would support that, and we think that there is a need for more definition. If it does not mean changing the definition of access to services, we, as a civilised society, should provide for all those who are in need. For that reason, the Labour Front-Bench team put forward an amendment that sought legislation but did not prescribe the form that it would take—mainly to try to get the amendment within the scope of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill.
Reference has been made to the House of Lords. The noble Lord Hain, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, moved an amendment to the Bill in the upper House that I think defines the issue even more closely. Will the Minister address the four salient points contained in Lord Hain’s amendment? He referred to the regulations under subsection (1), which must make provision as to the eligibility criteria, particularly relating to the
“the nature or extent of a person’s injury…how, when or where the injury was sustained…residence or nationality…whether or not a person has been convicted of an offence.”
We are as one on this issue. We want to support and give aid and succour to those who, through no fault of their own, have suffered what are very often life-changing injuries. They deserve better from this House and they will get better from both sides of it. We do not believe in pampering the victim makers.
I am delighted that the Opposition Front-Bench team support the broad principle, which I have just enunciated, and that we are of a very similar mind on this. That is extremely welcome news and I thank them for that.
I confirm that the four criteria that the hon. Gentleman read out from the new clause about victims’ payments are absolutely central to the process of working through the details about how we do the definition of who will be eligible for the new payment scheme. That will be the way in which we deliver on the central principle, which I hope I outlined very clearly in my opening comments: making sure that this is not a pension for terrorists.
Will the Minister ensure that the “through no fault of their own” principle that he has set out specifically excludes those who were engaged in terrorist acts from receiving support, such as this pension?
Very well done.
Well, one does not want to upset the leader of the Democratic Unionist party—I call Mr Nigel Dodds.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker—I appreciate that very much. I welcome very warmly what the Minister and the shadow Minister said in the House today and the consensus that there is on this issue. I pay tribute to the many victims, including Michelle Williamson, who lost both her parents in the Shankhill bombing in October 1993, when nine innocent people were murdered on the Shankhill Road. The bomber who injured himself in planting that bomb would be eligible if this action was not taken to disqualify terrorist perpetrators.
Will the Minister join me in thanking all those victims and victims’ organisations that have worked together to bring about a pension for victims and to make sure that the eligibility criteria are right and proper? Would he also care to comment on the Victims’ Commissioner’s position? While there is a consensus here, she appears out of step with many victims’ groups and victims. Does that call into question her position? In a letter in today’s press in Northern Ireland, many victims’ groups have called into question her position on this issue.
I certainly join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the unstinting and determined work done by victims’ groups over many years to get us to where we are today. We are not there yet of course—we have to get this done by the end of next May, so there is more work to be done. But we are at least within sight; we are on the final lap, I hope, and I am sure that he and other Northern Ireland politicians will wish to reflect those views very carefully in the upcoming discussions.
On the comments of the Victims’ Commissioner, she has suffered, I think, the full force of many people’s wrath over the last few days. I am pleased that she has issued a clarificatory statement, which is very important, in which she says:
“I am acutely aware of the perception that this scheme is somehow drawing moral equivalence between victims and perpetrators. That is not the case”.
It was vital that she clarified that point. I will leave her to answer her critics herself more broadly, but it was very good to hear her express that central point so clearly.
Ah, the deputy leader and knight of Lagan Valley, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
One reason why we are discussing this issue is that 21 years ago in the Belfast agreement, signed on Good Friday 1998, sadly not enough was done to deal with the legacy of our troubled past. Will the Minister assure us that whatever happens—we hope for a restoration of devolved government as soon as possible—the Government will proceed with implementing the legacy proposals, subject to whatever changes arise from the consultation, so that we can get on with dealing with these issues and so that victims can have access to proper investigations into the murders that occurred during the troubles?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the issue of the legacy of the troubles goes much wider than the specific point about the victims’ pension and that therefore there are other issues that have not been dealt with through the EFEF Act. He will be aware, because he and I have spoken about it elsewhere, that the Government have just published a digest of the responses to the rather large consultation—there were 17,000 responses—on the proposals for how the broader legacy issues might be dealt with, and in due course the Government will need to set out their response on how to take that broader canvas forward. He is absolutely right that those other issues are not going away and need to be addressed promptly.
If you had called me earlier, Mr Speaker, and upset the leader, I would not have cared at all.
I thank the Minister for his clarification, which will come as an immense relief to many people in Northern Ireland, but can I push him a little further? Some of those involved in terrorist activity now claim that because of what happened to them—they might have been incarcerated, questioned by the police, had raids on their homes—they have suffered depression and a mental illness that qualifies them for a pension. Can he assure us that not just those who have injured themselves physically as a result of their involvement in terrorist activity but those who claim to have suffered mental illness because of such involvement will not qualify?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a broader and very important point, which is that, for victims who will qualify to begin with, it is important that we agree and understand that there are valid and very serious conditions that can be non-physical. We would not want to exclude victims who have ended up with a mental illness after being injured through no fault of their own. We should not exclude non-physical injuries from our calculation of how severely someone is injured and therefore of whether they are eligible. He is also right about the flipside. When we are working out who to exclude from the definition—in order to prevent this from becoming a pension for terrorists—mental illnesses and non-physical injuries need to be included in that half of the definition as well.
I thank the Minister for his principled and precise words. He has recognised that if the institutions are restored, the amendments will fall. If the institutions are restored, however, the issue will not go away. The principle still needs to run through whatever proposals emerge, be they in Belfast for Northern Ireland-based victims or in Great Britain for Great Britain-based victims. Will the Minister commit himself to ensuring that, come what may, the principle he has outlined—that we will support victims but not victim makers—will hold true?
Let me take the hon. Gentleman back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), who pointed out that there were four criteria under the Act that would apply and which we would need to work through in order to deliver the central principle that I—and, now, the hon. Gentleman as well—have enunciated. Those four criteria include not just the question of how, when or where the injury was sustained—for example, the question of whether or not we should be including people who were injured in the Canary Wharf bombings in London—but residence or nationality. Both those issues are clearly factors, and they are on the face of the Bill, so, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, they will not go away. They must be addressed, and they will be addressed as we work through the detailed process between now and the end of May.
Should innocent casualties and far-from-innocent paramilitaries be treated in the same way? The answer is “No, never.” The Minister has said that, and 14 of the victims’ groups have said the very same thing, which is very much at odds with what has been said by the Victims’ Commissioner. One of those groups, Decorum NI, represents many of my constituents.
Will the Minister come with me to meet some of the victims and their families at some time in the future—provided that he is still in place, as I hope he will be? They tell me, and I state today, that a definition that equates victims with perpetrators is tantamount to spitting on the graves of those who were murdered, salting the wounds of those who are living with physical impairments inflicted by terrorists, and mentally torturing those who have emotional scars after being the true victims of convicted murderers and evil terrorists, who can never be viewed on the same level or in the same capacity.
I welcome the Minister’s comments, but I also want to ensure that we keep true to them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and others who have been kind enough to express a hope that I will continue in my post. I am bathing in the love. It was very kind of the hon. Gentleman, and of course, if I am still in place, I shall be delighted to come and meet the group that he described.
Situation in the Gulf
With permission, I will make a statement about the situation in the Gulf.
At approximately 4 pm UK time on Friday, Iranian forces intercepted the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the strait of Hormuz. The ship was surrounded by four fast boats from the Revolutionary Guard, supported by one helicopter. Iranian footage showed masked gunmen in desert camouflage descending from the helicopter on to the deck of the Stena Impero. HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate currently deployed in the Gulf, tried to come to the tanker’s aid. She repeatedly warned the Iranians by radio that their actions were illegal, but HMS Montrose was unable to reach the scene in time. Nine days earlier she had successfully intercepted an attempt to board another tanker, British Heritage, but this time she was not given the notice of passage requested that would have allowed her to reach the scene more quickly. That, however, in no way excuses the illegal actions of the intruders, who took control of Stena Impero and compelled her to steer towards the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where she is now being held.
The tanker had a crew of 23 from various countries including India, the Philippines, Russia and Latvia. No Britons were on board, and there are no reports of any injuries. The vessel’s owners have confirmed that Stena Impero was exercising her legal right of transit passage when she was intercepted. She was passing through the strait of Hormuz in the westbound traffic lane inside Omani territorial waters, in full compliance with international law and the rules of navigation, and the tanker’s automatic identification system was switched on and her position was publicly available. So let us be absolutely clear: under international law, Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage, let alone board her. It was therefore an act of state piracy that the House will have no hesitation in condemning.
Even more worryingly, this incident was a flagrant breach of the principle of free navigation on which the global trading system and world economy ultimately depend. I therefore urge Iran to release the Stena Impero and her crew and observe the rules that safeguard commercial shipping and that benefit Iran as much as any other country.
Iran has tried to present this as a tit-for-tat incident following the Government of Gibraltar’s action on 4 July to enforce EU sanctions by preventing the Iranian chartered tanker Grace 1 from supplying oil to Syria, but there is simply no comparison between Iran’s illegal seizure of a vessel inside a recognised shipping lane where the Stena Impero had every right to be and the enforcement of EU sanctions against a tanker that had freely navigated into the waters of a British overseas territory.
Since 4 July, we have made strenuous efforts to resolve the Grace 1 issue. On 13 July I spoke by phone to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, and also made clear in public that we would be content with the release of Grace 1 if there were sufficient guarantees that the oil would not go to any entities sanctioned by the EU. But instead of responding constructively, Iran chose to seize the Stena Impero, so we must now take appropriate action to support the safe passage of vessels through the strait of Hormuz.
As well as speaking again to my Iranian counterpart, I have also spoken this weekend and today to the Foreign Ministers of Oman, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain and Denmark. COBRA meetings were held this morning and throughout the weekend, and the chargé d’affaires at the Iranian embassy in London was summoned to the Foreign Office on Saturday to receive a formal protest.
I can today update the House on further action we are taking. First, the Department for Transport has raised the security level for British-flagged shipping to level 3, advising against all passage in Iranian waters and, for the moment, in the entire strait of Hormuz.
Secondly, because freedom of navigation is a vital interest of every nation, we will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region. We have had constructive discussions with a number of countries in the last 48 hours, and will discuss later this week the best way to complement this with recent US proposals in this area. The new force will be focused on free navigation, bearing in mind that one fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its liquefied natural gas and trade worth half a trillion dollars pass through the strait of Hormuz every year. It will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran, because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.
Thirdly, while we will seek to establish this mission as quickly as possible, the Government have in the meantime dispatched HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, to take over from HMS Montrose, and she will arrive in the region by 29 July—a week from today. Fourthly, we will ask all British-flagged ships to give us notice of any intention to pass through the strait of Hormuz, to enable us to offer the best protection we can. We will then advise them of the safest way to transit, which may involve travelling in convoy. Finally, we are strengthening measures to protect ships flying the flags of other countries but which have British crew on board.
About 1,300 ships appear on the UK ship register”. The combined British red ensign fleet is the ninth largest in the world, and on an average day two or three ships belonging to the red ensign group pass through the strait of Hormuz. The Gulf spans an area of nearly 100,000 square miles, and HMS Montrose covers an operating area of some 19,000 nautical miles. So far, she has escorted 30 merchant vessels through the strait of Hormuz during 17 separate transits, travelling 4,800 nautical miles in the process. It is not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship, or indeed to eliminate all risks of piracy, but those risks can be substantially reduced if commercial shipping companies co-operate fully with instructions from the Department of Transport, which we strongly encourage them to do.
These changes—both short and medium-term—are made possible because of the commitment that this Government have already made to increase our security presence in the Gulf, including the opening in April last year of the first permanent British naval facility in the Gulf for over 40 years. This establishment in Bahrain now hosts HMS Montrose, along with four mine countermeasure vessels and one supply ship.
Finally, let me say that it is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf, because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary. We do not seek confrontation with Iran. We have taken every available opportunity to reduce misunderstanding while standing by our rock-solid commitment to the international rule of law, which is the foundation of global peace and prosperity. However, we must react to the world around us as it is, not as we would wish it to be, so if Iran continues on this dangerous path, it must accept that the price will be a larger western military presence in the waters along its coastline, not because we wish to increase tensions but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle that Britain and its allies will always defend. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving me advance sight of his statement. Let me start by passing on the apologies of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), that she cannot be here to respond herself, but as many will know, she is still at home recovering from the injuries she received after being knocked off her bike on Friday. I am sure that we all wish her well.
May I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the outgoing Minister for Europe and the Americas, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) ? He has served the Foreign Office with diligence and distinction in bad times and good, and he can certainly be forgiven for feeling that the bad times are about to return. We thank him for the spirit in which he engaged in our parliamentary debates and we look forward to his continuing to make those contributions from the Back Benches. I would also like to add that, in the unfortunate event that this is the Foreign Secretary’s final appearance in his current role, we thank him too for the welcome change in tone and the very welcome change in work ethic that he has brought to that great office of state, not least on the issue of Iran, which we are discussing today.
Iran’s actions in recent weeks in the strait of Hormuz have been utterly unacceptable and should be condemned from all sides. Our thoughts, first and foremost, are with the 23 crew members on board the Stena Impero, and of course their families, who are facing this period of concern and uncertainty. We all know why these events have been taking place. Just like in the tanker war in the 1980s, a simple and ruthless logic is being applied by the Iranian hard-liners who are now in the ascendancy in Tehran, just as they were 30 years ago. That logic simply says, “If you try and stop our oil supplies, we will stop yours.” This escalation of tit-for-tat rhetoric and action has been sadly predictable and to some extent inevitable since the United States walked away from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions not limited to the US but in theory applying to any company or country that continues to deal with Iran. I say “in theory” because, as we all know, countries such as China that are powerful enough to ignore the Trump Administration’s demands have continued to import oil and gas from Iran while Washington turns a blind eye.
This brings us to the specific issue of the seizure of the Grace 1 oil tanker and the unacceptable retaliatory action that Iran has taken against Stena Impero. We know from the Spanish newspaper El País that the US told the Madrid Government 48 hours in advance that Grace 1 was headed for the Iberian peninsula, which could also explain why, 36 hours in advance, the Gibraltar Government introduced new legislation to shore up the legal basis for the seizure taking place in their waters. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether the US was also the source of our information regarding the tanker’s course, whether the US Administration asked us to seize it, and whether their primary basis for that request was that the tanker’s destination was Syria or that its origin was Iran? If it is correct that we knew a full two days in advance that the action was going to be taken, why on earth, a full seventeen days later, was a British-flagged tanker left so hopelessly unprotected in the strait of Hormuz? Anyone with any understanding of the issue could see exactly how the Iranians would respond to the seizure of their own tanker. When the measures the Foreign Secretary has announced today, which are welcome, could have been put in place a full 20 days before now, why were the Government’s eyes so patently off the crystal ball?
While I would like the Foreign Secretary to go into more practical detail about how the Government plan to resolve the Grace 1-Stena Impero impasse, we must also address the wider question: how do we de-escalate the tension with Iran, stop this tit-for-tat cycle of actions, and get the nuclear deal back on track? We need to use the deal as the foundation, which it previously promised to be, for addressing all the other concerns we have about Iran, not least the continued detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other British dual nationals.
Setting aside the need to enforce sanctions, with which we wholeheartedly agree, against the Assad regime, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what the Government are doing to persuade the Trump Administration to drop their sanctions against Iran? Those sanctions breach the international agreement that we, the US and other countries worked so hard to achieve and have given the hard-liners in Tehran the excuse they have always craved to return to the strategy of isolation and aggression and to breach the terms of the nuclear agreement. That agreement is one of the great diplomatic achievements of the current century, and we must all strive to get it back on track before this escalation of tension reaches the point of no return.
First of all, those on the Government Benches wholeheartedly endorse what the shadow Minister said about the shadow Foreign Secretary, whom we wish every success in having a rapid recovery after her unfortunate bicycle accident. I also thank him for his generous comments about my time as Foreign Secretary—without any sting in the tail. I particularly want to thank him for carefully comparing me to my predecessor after 5 o’clock, which was when the leadership contest for the Conservative party closed, because it might not have helped me if people thought that he thought I was a better Foreign Secretary. I also add my thanks for the brilliant service to British diplomacy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who was an outstanding Foreign Office Minister. He will be greatly missed inside King Charles Street—but not for long if tomorrow’s result is the upset that I am hoping for!
Let me turn to the substance of what the shadow Minister said. On the detention of Grace 1 by the Gibraltar authorities, I want to be absolutely clear that the United Kingdom did not endorse that detention by the Gibraltarian authorities because of a request by the US. We did it because it was transiting oil through the waters of a British overseas territory in contravention of EU sanctions against Syria. We have been absolutely clear that our issue was with the destination of that oil, which was President Assad’s regime, because a fundamental objective of British foreign policy has been to ensure that we redraw the international red lines against the use of chemical weapons, which Assad has so tragically broken.
That is also why we have sought to de-escalate the situation by making it clear to the Iranians that, whatever our disagreements with that regime, we would support the release of the tanker if we could receive guarantees that that oil was not going to Syria. We made that offer in public as well as in private, so that they would know we were absolutely serious.
There has been a huge amount of work since the detention happened on 4 July and, on the security side, the Ministry of Defence has been extremely active: officials have been posted at the Department for Transport, HMS Duncan has been dispatched, the threat level has been raised to level 3 and the activity of HMS Montrose has been enhanced. In recent days HMS Montrose has done 17 transits with 30 vessels, including 16 flying the red ensign; the Wildcat helicopters have flown for 26 hours; and the FCO has been doing a huge amount to try to de-escalate the situation, including calls to my Iranian counterpart, my US counterpart Mike Pompeo and the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. I also met the Chief Minister of Gibraltar and the French Foreign Minister, among many others, at the Foreign Affairs Council on 15 July.
A lot of things have been happening but, on the substantive point raised by the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), it is important if we are to de-escalate the situation that we do not conflate what happened in Gibraltar and what happened to the Stena Impero with the joint comprehensive plan of action and our approach to the Iran nuclear deal, which is different from the approach taken by the Trump Administration.
On most foreign policy issues we are absolutely at one with the United States, which we consider to be our closest ally. Indeed, the alliance with the United States has been the foundation of global peace and prosperity since the second world war. We have a difference of opinion on this issue, but we are absolutely clear that, when it comes to freedom of navigation, there can be no compromise, which is why the solution we propose to the House this afternoon is one that brings in a much broader alliance of countries, including countries that, like us, have a different approach to the Iran nuclear deal.
The Iranians must understand that there will be no compromise on freedom of navigation in the strait of Hormuz, which is essential to the global economy and to global freedom of navigation. This country will not blink in that respect.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. There is no question but that it is the Iranians, not the British, who have caused this problem. Any linking of this would therefore be quite wrong, and I commend him for what he said on that.
I want to ask a very simple question, and it may be one that my right hon. Friend is unable to answer at this point. We have known for some time that there is a heightened problem in the Gulf and that our strongest ally is there with some force. Why did we not request or agree with the United States that in the interim, while we get the right resources in place, it acts in concert with us to protect some of our shipping, as it has said it could have done?
I always listen to my right hon. Friend very carefully on all defence matters, and I reassure him that throughout this period we have had close behind-the-scenes discussions with the United States on how we can improve maritime security. HMS Montrose’s 17 transit missions would not have been possible without US logistical support. Indeed, the United States has made a proposal on how we could enhance maritime security more generally. The US asked us to contribute to a maritime force on 24 June, which became a formal request on 30 June, and it formally briefed NATO allies and the Washington diplomatic corps on the proposal last Thursday and last Friday. We will be talking to the US about it later this week.
We think what the United States is saying is helpful and important, and we will seek to co-ordinate any European efforts on freedom of navigation with anything the US does, but we want the UK’s contribution to be to make that coalition as broad as possible.
I wish the shadow Foreign Secretary a speedy recovery. I also congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on her election as the new Liberal Democrat leader, and I look forward to continuing to work with her in opposing this Tory Government
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I also thank him for the diligence and seriousness that he, unlike his predecessor, has brought to this role—it is 20 minutes past 5, but I am not sure that comment would have swung it for him, regardless of when I said it. I thank him nevertheless.
I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) for his work. We have not always agreed, but I thank him for his collegiality. Where we have agreed, we have been able to work together. This is not a great time for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be falling apart, but I entirely sympathise with the reasons he has set out today.
Iran’s actions are completely unacceptable. Along with the jailing of the innocent mum, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, that should tell us all what kind of regime we are dealing with. Regardless of who holds the post of Foreign Secretary in the coming days, they must be fully on top of their brief when it comes to Iran, and we must have a full complement of staff in the Foreign Office who are able to speak frankly on Iran. The damage done by the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor has illustrated what happens when one is not fully briefed when dealing with Iran.
Right now, there is a need for engagement, cool heads and a multilateral approach, and I am glad to see the start of that with the Foreign Secretary’s statement today. Will he set out what talks he is having with our partners, over and above the ones he has already set out, and in particular along the lines of what is happening with the Iran nuclear deal? That is a critical piece of work that will need to be done. There are concerns that this Administration have taken their eye off the ball, and certainly that the UK has been ill prepared. Will the Foreign Secretary set out in a bit more detail why this situation was not foreseen and what actions he is taking to look at it again? This is a dangerous situation and there must be a clear understanding of what is going on, alongside the work to look into ways to de-escalate the situation.
Finally, Northern Marine is headquartered in Clydebank in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who has been working incredibly hard on this matter. I hope the Foreign Office will continue to co-operate with my hon. Friend. We are thinking about the families of those affected at Northern Marine. I thank the naval personnel, particularly those on HMS Montrose, for their service.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He gives me the chance to say that as a member of a naval family I lived for a couple of years in Rosyth, so I, too, along with everyone on the Government Benches, thank the naval officers and their families for the great courage and service that they are showing to our country at a very challenging and worrying time.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We understand from Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, that she has been moved back to Evin prison in Tehran. We think that is a positive sign. It sounds like the way that she was detained for a week without any access to her family was totally unacceptable and, I am afraid, all too predictable from the Iranian regime. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am seeking not to make any link between these broader military and security issues and the situation that Nazanin faces, because I do not think that would help to get Nazanin home, but I know that the whole House is absolutely clear that, whatever disagreements we have with Iran, an innocent woman must not be the victim. She must be allowed to come home.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Iran nuclear deal. This is an area where the Trump Administration have a genuine and honest difference of opinion with us, because it is not a perfect deal. It was a deal that allowed sanctions relief for Iran but did not prevent Iran from supporting its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. It allowed Iran to carry on destabilising the region, which was why the Trump Administration took the course that they did. However, given that four years ago Iran was 18 months away from acquiring a nuclear weapon, we feel it is a huge diplomatic achievement that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon today. The middle east would have been much more dangerous had it acquired a nuclear weapon, which is why we are seeking to preserve the deal. We are being clear to the Iranians that the recent breach of the uranium enrichment levels is not acceptable, but we are giving them the space to bring themselves back into compliance with the JCPOA before we formally pull the plug on it. We hope that they will do so.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that both the supply of oil to Syria and the capture of a British-flagged tanker are criminal acts for which Iran cannot be excused, and that they require the more robust response that he has now announced to the House, including the policing of an international waterway by a multinational taskforce? In view of what he has just said, does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever view one takes of the American Administration’s course of action over the joint agreement, it would not make sense to exclude the American navy from participation in that multinational taskforce?
My right hon. Friend speaks with enormous experience on these matters because of his own background as Defence Secretary. I can assure him that we would not exclude, or seek to exclude, the American navy because it has a vital role in, for example, the refuelling of our own ships, the communication system, the command and control system and, indeed, the intelligence support. We would always operate in partnership with our American allies in these situations whatever difference of opinion we might have on the Iran nuclear deal.
Back in June, the Government’s view was that naval escorts for ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz would not be appropriate because it would be seen as provocative and escalatory. Therefore, I very much welcome the announcement that the Foreign Secretary has made today in response to Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero and his announcement of a proposal for a European-led force, which is a reminder to the whole House of the benefits of European co-operation. We have a very good example of another anti-piracy operation in Operation Atalanta, which has been very successful off the east coast of Africa. Will he tell the House how quickly he expects this mission to be established, and will it have sufficient resources to protect all the ships, which we now know are vulnerable, as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz?
I can give the right hon. Gentleman a little bit of the answer to that, which is that it will not be a sudden switching on and off. There will be a gradual build-up of presence, because it takes time for ships to get to the region from all over the world. HMS Duncan will arrive on 29 July, or possibly even before that, as the first step in this process, but we are having substantive discussions later this week with allies from across the world in which things such as the timescales will become a lot clearer. I would be happy to write to him after that.
I entirely support what the Foreign Secretary has said and the actions that he intends to take. May I ask him three particular points? The Strait of Hormuz must be the most overflown and monitored sea area in the entire world, and I would be grateful, therefore, for these answers. First, when did the Stena Impero leave Fujairah? Secondly, what time was HMS Montrose first alerted to her passage? Finally, what advice did the Stena ship seek of the British Government before she sailed?
On the first question, I will write to my right hon. Friend, because I do not have to hand the exact time and date that the Stena Impero left Fujairah. The warning that HMS Montrose had was 60 minutes, which was not long enough. We ask all shipowners to give us at least 24 hours’ notice. We did not get it in this case, but that does not excuse a criminal act of piracy. We do hope now that all shipowners will co-operate fully in giving us the notice that we need to give them the protection that we are able to give.
I hear what the Foreign Secretary has said about not linking the situation in Hormuz with that of my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but with the best will in the world he must be aware that the Iranians have previously used my constituent as a bargaining chip. He must also be aware that, only last week, the supreme leader promised retribution for the dispute over Grace 1. As the Foreign Secretary said, Nazanin has been transferred to prison after a week in the mental health hospital where she was handcuffed to her bed and guarded by someone who was armed. Her ward was sealed off and she was not allowed any contact with her family. She was then transferred back to prison. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure me that he is taking proper steps to ensure that this situation does not mean that my constituent’s chances of freedom are ended and that she will be returning back to West Hampstead with her family?
May I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Lady for her very diligent campaigning for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? I was trying to be very careful with my words just now to say that I always try to avoid linkage between the two cases because, inevitably with a country such as Iran, our relations go up and down; and I would never want an innocent woman to suffer as a result of the ebb and flow of those relations. Of course, I cannot guarantee that Iran does not seek to make that link itself, and it would be completely wrong of it to do so.
I am afraid that the stories that the hon. Lady tells me about the conditions under which Nazanin has been detained are stories that I have heard and they are totally shocking. We hoped—and I think the hon. Lady probably hoped—that it might be good news that Nazanin was being transferred to a hospital for help with certain medical conditions, but it now looks like that was not the case. That is extremely shocking. I reassure her that I bring up Nazanin’s case every time I talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif; I talk about it in as much detail as I am able, because I want him to know that we will never, ever forget the fate of even one British national who is treated the way that Nazanin is being treated.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) for his extraordinary work and companionship in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over so many years.
It is absolutely correct to concentrate on recent events, and it must be right to ensure the safe passage of ships through the Gulf and to ensure that Iran must face up to its responsibilities, but does the Secretary of State agree that there is no doubt that this is just the latest symptom of the long-running issue between Iran and its neighbours? Does he also agree that the situation surrounding the discussions over the nuclear deal were arguably even more serious than those today, because the pressure was on to seek a nuclear weapon and somehow the negotiations found a way to establish a relationship that de-escalated that situation? If that was the case, what does my right hon. Friend think might be the trigger to start those negotiations again? The links are all there in Tehran, and we need to recognise that it is vital to deal with the cause as well as the symptoms.
We have a plethora of distinguished former FCO Ministers on the Back Benches today. I am just grateful that the Work and Pensions Secretary and the Defence Secretary are on the Front Bench, otherwise I might be a bit lonely.
My right hon. Friend speaks with a lot of wisdom and experience of relations with Iran. One of the issues that he navigated extremely successfully during his time in the FCO was the fact that we feel like we are talking to two different groups of people: the Government of Iran and the Foreign Minister, who are usually quite reasonable when we talk to them; and then the people we never get to talk to, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who are always kept at a distance.
It is tempting to say that there is no point talking to the Foreign Ministry in Iran because it does not have any influence over the Government. But that is also wrong, because it has access that we do not have and it can present a more moderate case. That is why we continue with these contacts. The best hope that we have is the fact that Foreign Minister Zarif proposed a basis on which to restart negotiations with the United States for a different version of the nuclear deal. That was rejected by the United States, but I think that the fact that that language has started to emerge in the last couple of weeks is a sign that there is some hope of a negotiated end.
First, may I pass on my best wishes to the shadow Foreign Secretary? As a cyclist myself, I know how vulnerable cyclists are in London. May I also apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has been detained by a leadership contest announcement in which she has been elected as the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I am very pleased that that has not required any Liberal Democrats to resign—other Members may regret that—in the way in which the leadership of the Conservative party has required some very sensible Ministers such as the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), to resign their positions.
In relation to Iran, it is clearly time for cool heads. I very much welcome the fact that we have the current Foreign Secretary in post and he has made it clear that we are not up for military action. Does he think that discussions now need to take place about the composition and size of our fleet? Does he agree that although we are not in an actual war with Iran, we are clearly in a propaganda war? Is he able to say a little bit about what the Government are going to do to counter the image that the Iranians are portraying of the ship perhaps going off course and colliding with another vessel?
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is so pleased that none of his 11 parliamentary colleagues, himself and the successful leader included, has resigned. I know he is very happy about that, and I am very happy to join in his happiness for himself.
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on her election as Liberal Democrat leader. I look forward to having cordial relations with her as a fellow party leader if I am successful tomorrow in the election.
With regard to the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the war of words on news, this was actually one of the times when the Iranians did not really bother to pretend that they were peddling a myth about the cause of the seizure of Stena Impero. They changed their story three times in the space of about 24 hours, and are not making any pretence at all that in their view this is a tit-for-tat seizure. That is why we have to be very clear about the difference between a legal detention of a ship with oil bound for Syria versus this wholly illegal act of state piracy.
It is right and typically gracious of the Foreign Secretary that he congratulated the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on her election, and I myself do so. I wish her every possible success in the important work that she now has to undertake.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the taking of hostages and the flouting of international law has been the signature strategy of Iran ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979? If he does accept that, was it not entirely predictable—and, indeed, predicted—that by impounding this Iranian ship, however legally justified that was, the consequence would be an attempt to retaliate by grabbing a British vessel? What consideration was given, before the original decision was taken, to the adequacy of the number of ships in the Gulf, either ours or those of our allies? What attempts were made to persuade vessels that had to navigate the strait that they should do so in small convoys, which would at least enable two, or at most three, frigates to protect a larger number of ships? Sailing independently and separately meant that one or more were bound to be seized.
My right hon. Friend is right: we did foresee that this could be one of the reactions from the Iranian Government. That is why we took a number of steps after the detention in Gibraltar on 4 July, including the despatch of HMS Duncan and a lot of extra activity from HMS Montrose over the past few days in escorting 30 vessels, a number of which were British-flagged. There has been a lot of additional activity, but we wanted to do it in a way that was not a red rag to a bull and did not end up with even bigger consequences than the ones we faced, and that gave diplomatic channels a chance to work. I think that it was right to start in that way, but regrettably Iran has not chosen to follow the path that we hoped, and so that is why we are taking much more robust action today.
I share the Foreign Secretary’s concerns about the possibility that tensions will escalate and that the region may descend into conflict. That is why it is so important that we are clear about the legality of the decision to detain the Grace 1. Can I press him on two points? Will he tell us a little more about the legal basis? Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, as the Foreign Secretary will know, has described it as intriguing? Is the Foreign Secretary confident that we, as a country, and the European Union, as a union, are consistently applying the European Union sanctions against Syria—as we should? I agree with them, but are we consistently applying them so that there is no room for Foreign Secretary Zarif to call into question our motives?
Those were intelligent questions, and I will try to do justice to them. As I understand it, it is a requirement of EU law that if a load destined, in breach of sanctions, for somewhere that should not be receiving cargo goes through an EU port or EU waters, we have an obligation to seize that cargo. That is a matter of international law, and that is what has happened. Foreign Minister Zarif tries to argue that, unlike the United States, we do not support extraterritoriality in the application of sanctions. But that was not what happened in this case, because the ship sailed into Gibraltarian waters. One could argue that our actions would not have been consistent for us had the ship been seized outside Gibraltarian waters, but it was inside.
Iran is going unpunished, is it not?
Commendably brief—and the answer to that question is no, because I do not think that Iran can possibly want an increased western naval presence in the strait of Hormuz, which is right in its backyard. That is the consequence of what it has decided to do with the Stena Impero.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for his service in his current role. I thank him for the way in which he has carried out those duties, and not only on the big international set-piece occasions; I know of his own deeply personal and intense commitment to the welfare of UK citizens across the world, particularly those who have been detained—not just the high-profile cases, either. The latest incident by Iran comes, as he mentioned, amid the destabilising influence of Iran in the middle east and elsewhere, and its support for terrorist proxies. What are the UK Government doing, along with allies, to get to grips with Iran, its approach to the rule of international law and everything else that it is doing?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the generous way in which he asked his question. Precisely because of that destabilising approach to many parts of the most dangerous and unstable region in the world, although we do not agree with the US approach to the Iran nuclear deal, we do try to support the US in every way when it asks us to help—for example, in checking the activities of Hezbollah in Lebanon. We have proscribed Hezbollah in this country, because we do think that it is a terrorist organisation, and we have to recognise that in British law.
The same is true of the work that we do with the American military in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Our approach to Yemen has been to try to separate the Houthis from their Iranian paymasters. Although we might not agree with the tactics, it is important that we recognise that in the United States strategic approach, the long-term solution in the region is for Iran to cease that destabilising activity.
The Kingdom of Bahrain generously hosts HMS Jufair, the base from which HMS Montrose and other royal naval vessels operate. Its role in the Gulf is crucial, and in recent years Bahrain has been subject to destabilisation by the Iranian regime. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity today to acknowledge the value that this country places on the support that it receives from Bahrain, and the obligations it owes to that country?
I am very happy to do that. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Kingdom of Bahrain, and we are incredibly grateful for the support that Bahrain gives us in hosting HMS Jufair. In fact, that is the first permanent naval presence we have had in the middle east since 1935, so opening it last year was a very big step.
I, too, warmly commend the work of the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), although I think it is a bit over the top to resign from office just to avoid appearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee tomorrow afternoon.
On a serious point, the UK’s position on Iran has always been subtly different from that of the United States of America, even though it is our closest ally. It is partly because of our historical relations with ancient Persia, but, more importantly, even on the night that George Bush declared Iran a member of the axis of evil, we were actually trying to send an ambassador to Tehran for the first time for many years, and the American position ended up scuppering that. Just how can we make sure, in the coming months, that while we maintain our strong alliance with the United States of America, we still maintain our independence of thought in relation to Iran?
That is a very fair question. The truth is that we have to do that by being very frank with the Trump Administration when we disagree with them and about why we disagree with them. I think that, under the surface, the positions are a bit closer than they might look in the simple sense that I have actually had a number of conversations with President Trump himself about his concerns about what would happen if that region became nuclearised. I do not think the United States is indifferent to the nuclear threat in that region, and they have started to talk a lot about that recently. We use our influence, I suppose in private circles, as much as we can to try to get a meeting of minds.
I am sure we all agree that our elite Royal Navy forces, our Royal Marines, which are known to be the best in the world, should be commended for taking their role in enforcing these EU sanctions seriously and effectively. However, it does surprise me, since the Iranians made it clear that there would be tit-for-tat retaliation for our blocking tanker Grace 1, that we have not yet seen other EU navies coming to our Royal Navy’s assistance in policing the strait of Hormuz for commercial shipping. Will the Foreign Secretary give the House more information on when we will see such burden sharing from our EU allies?
What my hon. Friend says is close to my heart, as the son of a naval officer, a phrase I have been known to use in the last few weeks one or two times—[Interruption]—and as an entrepreneur, but that is not perhaps relevant to this afternoon’s statement.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Defence Secretary has been talking to the Defence Ministers of France, the Netherlands, Norway and others about more burden sharing within the EU. The reason why we have constructed the proposal that we have in the way that we have today is precisely because we are trying to encourage more European involvement in maritime security, because it is in the European interest.
While the world witnesses the horror of this dangerous 3D, real-life game of battleships, may I relay to the Foreign Secretary—he may be more than that by this time tomorrow—the concerns of my Iranian diaspora constituents? Their relatives and nearest and dearest are caught up in this, such as the children unable to access vital medicines due to the sanctions imposed by Trump and Bolton in vengeance because they do not like their predecessors. May I urge him to do all he can and all in his power to condemn and rectify these cruel hardships suffered by ordinary Iranians on the ground, as well as to carry out his decisive actions on the high seas?
I commend the hon. Lady for staying in touch with the Iranian diaspora in this country, who remind us that at their heart many Iranians fundamentally do understand our values and want to find a way to accommodate Iran in the modern world. Iran is a great country and a great civilisation, and we ought to be able to find a way to resolve our differences. However, there is the particular issue at the heart of it—I discussed this with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionist party, just now—which is its support for destabilising activity across the middle east, which is already the most dangerous region in the world, and that is the thing we have to address if we are going to solve this.
Given that the risk of seizure was foreseen and that 95% of goods entering the UK do so by sea, does the Foreign Secretary agree that a Royal Navy of fewer than 20 ships is not up to the task and that we need to spend more on our defence, because no matter how capable a ship, it cannot be in more than one place at a time?
I might be straying slightly from my brief as Foreign Secretary, but it will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I am support increased spending on our armed forces. We have to recognise that we had in many ways a golden period after the fall of the Berlin wall, when there was a peace dividend and we were able to reduce defence spending, but now we have to recognise that there are increased dangers in the world, both in the middle east and because Russia has become much more aggressive than it was previously. I think that the Navy in particular has become too small, so I hope that whoever the next Prime Minister is will reflect carefully on what we can do to bolster our great Royal Navy.
The United Kingdom is home to somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 Iranian nationals and their immediate families, many of whom are here because of their opposition to either the current regime or its equally oppressive predecessors. In the current climate of extreme intolerance, what are the Government doing to ensure that those Iranian nationals, who are here legally and are innocent of any crime, are not victimised or targeted because of the crimes committed by the Government that they have escaped from?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let us and particularly the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government know if he comes across any examples of that, because those Iranian nationals—the vast majority of them have now become British citizens—are extremely welcome and make a tremendous contribution to our country.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s prescient remarks in recent weeks about the need to expand our naval presence. To help with that, will he ask the Defence Secretary to change the classification of our much-valued Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships to warships, as our allies classify them, so that we can bring forward the building of planned new ships in the UK?
I have just asked the Defence Secretary that very question, to which the answer is yes.[Official Report, 24 July 2019, Vol. 663, c. 16MC.]
I agree with what the Secretary of State has said about the importance of freedom of navigation, so may I ask what guidance has been issued to escorting vessels about the use of force in defence of that principle?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that we do not discuss rules of engagement publicly, for very obvious reasons, but we are always doing everything we can to make sure that those vessels are able to do what it takes to keep vessels safe.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I find the lack of resources slightly intriguing, bearing in mind what was going on in the Gulf. From what he has said, it sounds as though we are almost trying to appease Iran or fearing a reaction by sending too many resources there. If that is the case, perhaps another deterrent would be to put troops on those ships. I do not know where we are with that, so perhaps he could inform the House about that move as well.
May I reassure my hon. Friend that this is absolutely not about appeasing Iran? It is about trying to see whether there is a diplomatic avenue to prevent the seizure of British ships and giving the space for that diplomatic avenue to work, while recognising that if that fails—I am afraid that it has failed, because a British ship has been seized—we will have to take a much more robust military approach. That is the approach that we have taken, but we wanted to ensure that diplomatic window. We have considered the idea that my hon. Friend mentioned to the House, but we have rejected it because we think it would make those ships a target and create the risk of Royal Marines being taken hostage, which would create an even greater crisis.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and all the hard work that he has done and I hope will continue to do. The Veterans Minister, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), stated on TV yesterday that the Royal Navy needs to be built up, reinforced and strengthened in the Gulf and, indeed, across the world. Until that happens, will the Secretary of State work alongside other countries in the Gulf—for example, Saudi Arabia and perhaps the United Arab Emirates—and others to provide policing and the protection of all ships in the strait of Hormuz?
Absolutely. We want our allies in the Gulf to get involved in support of freedom of navigation, as we do other countries outside Europe, such as Australia, that have expressed an interest in being supportive.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Foreign Secretary, who I thank, are well known for their effective use of soft power—of course, we head the index of soft power—but does he agree that that does not mean that we do not need increased defence spending? As a major maritime nation, we have duties in the world that require a larger Navy.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend and thank him for his question. Just to add to my earlier comments, at the point of Brexit, that will be a moment when a lot of people around the world will be looking to us to see what type of country we want to be in the world. We are one of the very few countries that has always championed democratic values and the security needed to underpin them, and the Royal Navy has an absolutely critical role in doing that.
There are justifiable concerns that if Iran resumes its nuclear programme, there will be an arms race in the middle east, with other countries, especially Saudi Arabia, scrambling to build their own nuclear weapons. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the Government will do to address that risk?
Yes: continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, despite the pressure that it is evidently under; do everything we can to persuade Iran not enrich its uranium towards 20%, which is the tipping point from which it could develop nuclear weapons relatively quickly; and work with as many other countries as we can to try to get them to support us in those endeavours.
What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having with our allies in the Gulf, who have been warning about Iranian activities for years now, and with Qatar, which maintains rather closer relationships with Tehran, but relies on the strait of Hormuz being open to ship its cargoes of liquefied natural gas, including to the UK?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about Qatar, because LNG is absolutely critical to the global economy. That is one of the main reasons, alongside oil, why we have to maintain freedom of navigation. We have good discussions with Qatar and all our allies in the Gulf, and we are expecting strong support from them.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned Iran’s malign interventions in the region. While the House may be rightly concerned about the strait of Hormuz, terrifying videos were released last week from Yemen of young boys between eight and 18 at the 300 jihadi training camps run by the Iranian-backed Houthis chanting, “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!” We should add that to last week’s $430,000 donation to Hezbollah, the drone attacks, also last week, with Iranian technology, and the 30 academics in opposition who have been summarily sentenced to death in Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthis. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the tanker crisis is just part of the problem in the Gulf region involving Iran? We have to take a broader brush to this issue and not just focus on the tanker crisis because it affects us directly.
Yes, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He speaks very powerfully of one country where we see the malign impact of Iranian sponsorship, and we doing everything we can in Yemen. We have, against expectations, managed to get a peace process going in Yemen, and one of our main hopes is that that will decouple the Houthis from their Iranian paymasters, so that they can take part in a Government of national unity and contribute more constructively to peace in Yemen than the way that he talked about, because what he said is very worrying.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his earlier answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), with which I completely agree. I know that he is nervous of straying out of lane, but does he agree that the Royal Navy is not just about power projection but has an important diplomatic role as well? Therefore, it is not just our defence policy but our foreign policy that is greatly enhanced by a larger surface fleet.
Yes, and I wish I had made more of my strong agreement with what my hon. Friend has just said in the last few months. As we have been talking a lot about the Gulf and he has mentioned the Navy, let me talk about a couple of other areas where I think we could do with a stronger Royal Navy presence. One of them is the Arctic and the other is the Indo-Pacific region. I think in both regions it would send a very strong signal about British national self-confidence if we had the naval capacity that we would all want.
Oh, very good! The Foreign Secretary is not that bothered about straying out of lane; he is going from one region to the other. This is all very encouraging.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I note that he said that while HMS Duncan has been despatched to the Gulf, it is there to take over from HMS Montrose—so we are still going to finish up with one destroyer covering 19,000 nautical miles and having to escort on average three vessels a day. Are we so bereft of naval power that we cannot send an additional ship to the area and have to rely on other European nations who have not divvied up so far, or has this decision been made so that we do not annoy the Iranians?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his eagle eye in spotting that detail, but I want to reassure him that when HMS Duncan arrives HMS Montrose will not be going out of service immediately. There will be a period, particularly the extremely dangerous period in the next few weeks, when they will be operating together. Secondly, we will get HMS Montrose back into service as quickly as we can. Thirdly, HMS Montrose is based in Bahrain, so it will stay in the region for its refitting and refuelling. It will not be far away.
I commend the Foreign Secretary for his tone during his statement, but does he agree that this act of piracy represents a pattern of behaviour from the Iranians, both directly and through its proxies, in an overall strategy to achieve regional hegemony in the middle east? What we urgently need is a strategy that restores balance, so the Iranians cannot take advantage of our strategic weaknesses.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People who have been studying the region for longer than I have would say that there is no issue with Iran being a regional power and a great regional power; the issue is whether it is a great regional military power. It is Iran’s military presence in so many other parts of the region that is so destabilising and is the root cause of many problems. He is absolutely right to focus on that.
Iran and Iran alone is responsible for the illegal seizure of the Stena Impero, and the Foreign Secretary has made that crystal clear. Will he also be clear that if notice of passage had been given as requested, HMS Montrose would have been better able to protect that vessel?