House of Commons
Thursday 26 September 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we get under way with today’s business, including a number of urgent questions and statements, I just want to say a few words to the House. I think there is a widespread sense across the House and beyond that, yesterday, the House did itself no credit. There was an atmosphere in the Chamber worse than any I have known in my 22 years in the House. On both sides, passions were inflamed, angry words were uttered and the culture was toxic. This country faces the most challenging political issue that we have grappled with in decades. There are genuine, heartfelt, sincerely subscribed to differences of opinion about that matter. Members must be free to express themselves about it and to display, as they unfailingly do, the courage of their convictions. It ought, however, to be possible to disagree agreeably, and I can see Members on both sides of the House who are fine exponents of that principle and tradition. Yesterday, that was not the majority strain, I am sorry to say.
I have, overnight, received an approach from two very senior Members on either side of the House pressing the case for a formal consideration of our political culture going forward. Manifestly, any such formal structure—any such conference, deliberation—would not take place under my aegis. Like everybody else here, I just want what is best for the House. Pending consideration of that approach and the argument for having a sober consideration of the issue of political culture and conduct over an ongoing period, I can advise the House that there will be an urgent question later today on the matter to which I have just referred, and that will be an opportunity for colleagues to say what they think.
This is something of concern across the House. It is not a party political matter and, certainly as far as I am concerned, it should not be in any way, at any time, to any degree a matter for partisan point scoring. It is about something bigger than an individual, an individual party or an individual political or ideological viewpoint. Let us treat of it on that basis. In the meantime, may I just ask colleagues—that is all I am doing and all I can do as your representative in the Chair—please to lower the decibel level and to try to treat each other as opponents, not as enemies?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Order. I genuinely am not convinced, but I will take one point of order if the hon. Gentleman insists. I am not sure how helpful it will be, but let us see.
Would it be helpful for the House to know the subjects of the other urgent questions and statements, please?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The first urgent question is from the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on the subject of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. The issues will play out, but it is about compliance with the Act. It is a perfectly reasonable question from the hon. Gentleman. The second is from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on the situation in Hong Kong. The third is from Mr Chris Law on the subject of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia. The fourth urgent question, to which I perhaps slightly elliptically referred, is from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on the matter of the toxicity of our political culture, and the need to take appropriate steps to minimise that toxicity and conduce to a better atmosphere.
The statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is on the subject of international climate action at the United Nations climate action summit. There will also be a further business statement, of which we had notice last night, from the Leader of the House. I hope that has satisfied the legitimate inquisitorial appetite of the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley).
Compliance with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019
(Urgent Question): I am happy to have been slightly delayed by an actual point of order. My urgent question is to ask the Prime Minister to make a statement on compliance with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019.
In the tone that you are setting, Mr Speaker, perhaps I may refer to a Member incorrectly and thank my hon. Friend, because there are many friends across the Chamber. If one reads the newspapers this morning, there is a feeling that we are permanently adversarial and at war with one another. That is not the case. Many of us work together bilaterally in groups and Committees in this House, and most of the time on the Floor of the House we work in a consensual nature.
Turning to this important urgent question, the Government will obey the law. That has always been the case. The House has heard that from the Prime Minister; it has heard it from the First Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary; it has heard it from the Lord Chancellor, who has constitutional responsibility for upholding the rule of law; and yesterday right hon. and hon. Members had the opportunity to put similar questions to the Attorney General.
The Government opposed the Act that was passed earlier this month. Notwithstanding our fervent attempts to resist the passage of the Bill, even its architects must accept that the Act makes provision for a potential range of outcomes, not one outcome. The outcome the Government want—the outcome this Government have always wanted—is a deal with the European Union. That deal can deliver the mandate of the British people. That deal is possible and is now within reach.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, along with the Prime Minister’s negotiating team, has been engaged in constructive negotiations. As the Prime Minister told this place yesterday, we were told that Brussels would never reopen the withdrawal agreement, but we are now discussing reopening the withdrawal agreement in detail. While I appreciate that some may seek to anticipate failure, to frustrate from the sidelines or to speculate for some type of sport, this Government will not indulge in defeatism.
I trust that the House, and the collective wisdom of hon. Members, will focus its energies today and beyond on the prospect of success in the negotiations, and prepare to give any revised agreement its full and unfettered support.
In the same tone, I would like to say to my hon. Friend—we have been on many delegations together—that we should treat one another with respect across the House. I would also like to say, in the same spirit as your opening remarks, Mr Speaker, that I stand in front of the shield of Jo Cox and I hope that today this Parliament could have a little bit more respect—not just for one another and Parliament, but for the public as well.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question. The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act was passed by the House and given Royal Assent by Her Majesty the Queen on Monday 9 September, brought in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). That Act clearly says that the Prime Minister must seek an extension to article 50 to 31 January if the Prime Minister is unable to meet one of the two conditions of either having a withdrawal deal passed by this House, or having an affirmative vote by this House to back no deal.
The Minister said in his opening response that there was a range of options. That is the only range of options in that Bill—to pass a deal, to pass no deal, or subsequently to seek an extension. The Supreme Court decision this week, and the statement in this House followed by questioning of the Prime Minister yesterday, were a national embarrassment. Under any other political equilibrium, this Prime Minister would have seriously considered his position as Prime Minister, and potentially resigned from it. Many people have lost their jobs in government for a fraction of what this Prime Minister has done over the last two weeks.
Yesterday the Attorney General, at that Dispatch Box, during the urgent question tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), said clearly, in answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), that he would abide by the law of the EU (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. He said that with uncharacteristic clarity when he said simply, “Yes” in response to that question. Last night, the hon. Members for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and many others pressed the Prime Minister to make the same commitment. He did not give the same commitment in this House. And under questioning from myself, very late in the sitting last night, when I asked whether he would fully comply with the provisions of the Act, should he not get a deal through this House, or an affirmative vote for no deal, by 19 October, the Prime Minister answered with one word: he answered, “No.”
I have tabled this urgent question, first, to seek clarity; and secondly, to ask the Minister, in all good faith, to tell us, which he has not done yet, what the Prime Minister meant when he said “No”, because frankly, and with reference to my earlier remarks about respect across this House, I am sure that there are very few people in this House, and very few people in this country, given the events of the last few weeks, who trust the words of the Prime Minister, even when said from that Dispatch Box. The Prime Minister used—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister used, in a direct answer to my question, the word “no”, so I have several questions to ask the Minister, and with this new level of respect I hope he is able to answer them directly.
What does the Prime Minister intend to do if he does not get a deal through this House by 19 October or an affirmative vote for no deal? That is question No. 1.
Order. Can I very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he must rattle through the remainder of the questions very quickly, without drama? Very quickly—please.
Question No. 2: do we have to take the Prime Minister to court again to comply with the law? Question No. 3: what message does it send out when the Prime Minister says no to a straight question of whether he will comply with the law? Lastly, and most importantly, the Minister said, and the Attorney General said, that the Government will obey the law. What does that mean? Can the Minister just come to the Dispatch Box and say that obeying the law means that the Government will seek an extension to 31 January if the provisions of that Act are not met?
In politics, we are quite often berated for not giving a straight answer. I thought that the Government’s position was very, very clear: we will obey the law. Does the Prime Minister, do this Government, want to extend? No, we do not want to extend. We want a deal. That is our focus.
The hon. Gentleman talks of equilibrium. Well, in a normal equilibrium we would be having a general election, and we would ask the public to decide. That would bring back the equilibrium.
The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that the Prime Minister, the Government, and I, as a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, will obey the law, and we will obey the law at every stage and turn of this process.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister has said that he will both obey the law and not seek an extension. Can my hon. Friend point to any legal argument made by any senior lawyer that suggests that if the conditions are not met—in other words, if Parliament has not voted for a deal, or has not approved no deal—the Prime Minister will have any choice? The law is quite clear: he would have to seek an extension.
I was interested to read this morning that the right hon. Gentleman nearly became Chancellor of the Exchequer. I apologise—I have never been in such illustrious circles, and I am not, like him, a lawyer—but that was a hypothetical question into which I do not really want to be drawn at this stage. However, we will obey the law.
The Act that was passed three weeks ago is very simple. If by 19 October the Prime Minister has not got a deal through and has not secured the agreement of the House to no deal, he must seek the extension in the terms that are set out in the Act. It is very simple.
It is true that the terms of the letter that the Prime Minister must write were set out in a schedule, as was the duty to accept the extension that the EU agrees. Those were not in the previous version of the Act, which was passed in April, because there was a consensus that the then Prime Minister would comply with the law, understood the rule of law and could be trusted, and it was therefore not necessary to put them in the Act. They are in the Act now because, I am afraid to say—and this is a low point in our history—across the House those assumptions no longer hold, and the answers given by the Prime Minister last night, and his behaviour, make that less likely.
If the Prime Minister genuinely wanted to get a deal through the House, he would not have divided the House in the way that he did yesterday. That is not the behaviour of a man who is trying to unite the House so that it can come together around a deal. The role of the Prime Minister is to unite the country. This Prime Minister is whipping up division, and I have not seen that from any Prime Minister in my lifetime.
There is a very simple, non-hypothetical question, and a precise question. If a deal has not been passed by the House by 19 October and there has been no agreement in the House to no deal, will the Prime Minister comply with the law by asking for the extension, given that that is what the Act requires? Let me make clear that if he does not do so, this will be enforced in the courts, and we will take collective action in the House to do whatever is necessary to make him comply with the law.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that we are at a low point. I agree. One of the reasons we are at a low point is that we asked the public for their views, and now Parliament is ignoring their views. We do have a responsibility—the whole Government have a responsibility—to unite, but not necessarily to unite this Parliament. Our responsibility is to unite the country behind the decision that the country has taken.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me specific questions about 19 October. The Government will obey the law on 18, 19 and 20 October, and will always do so.
The issue of compliance raises a very simple question. I say this to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer): it is by no means certain that the law of the land is reflected in the passing of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act, because there is an apparent inconsistency between that Act and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. I have no time to go into the details, but the reality is that compliance is not just a simple question. It is a matter of grave importance in terms of which law is the law of the land.
I thank my hon. Friend for advancing that argument. I think that the House will be grateful if I take it outside the House and have a detailed discussion with him, rather than detaining the House when it is dealing with urgent questions.
It appears that that was one of my more popular answers.
I wholeheartedly associate myself and those on the Scottish National party Benches with your earlier remarks, Mr Speaker. Hardened political journalists went home last night in tears, and none of us can feel any pride in what happened. I say this from the SNP Benches. I have had words with some of my colleagues, and I hope that those on other Benches have done so as well. No party is entirely innocent, and it does not take us forward in any way if all we do is blame someone else.
I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for asking the urgent question. The identity of the Minister who has been sent to answer it—I say this with respect to the relative juniority of the Minister—and the fact that the Prime Minister has not come to answer it, perhaps tell us more than the answer itself. I make this offer from the SNP to those on the Government Benches, and I hope they will take it back to the Prime Minister: if he brings back an extension that takes no deal off the table, he can have his general election. However, the Minister might also want to advise the Prime Minister that he should be careful what he wishes for, because his wish might just be granted.
What an extraordinary position we are in, when we have to ask questions in Parliament about whether the Prime Minister will obey the law of the land. Yesterday, he was asked whether, in a specific set of circumstances in which the law required him to take precise action, he would do what the law required. I heard him say no. This is an extraordinary state of affairs. We have not yet had a satisfactory answer as to how the Prime Minister thought that that single one-word answer, no, was not an assurance that he would defy the law. He does not want to extend, but if the law says to him “thou shalt extend”, will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will obey the law of the land? Will he also confirm that a Prime Minister who shilly-shallies in any way over obeying the law of the land is not fit to be Prime Minister?
I particularly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s comment that there are no innocent parties. Every Member of the House has probably overstepped the line at one point or another, and we must certainly all reflect on the words that we use. I can guarantee that there will be no shilly-shallying. The law will be obeyed, and I look forward to discussing that in more detail when I visit the Scottish Parliament next Thursday—this place permitting.
The difficulty we face is that most laws are relatively easy to interpret because they prevent you from doing something rather than making you do something. They prevent you from murdering your wife; they do not make you love your wife. This Act is therefore capable of numerous interpretations, and we are talking about a completely hypothetical situation. For instance, what is a deal? There is one way round this, however. We just need to compromise and agree a deal.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s mastery of some of the technical details will stand him in good stead in his candidacy for your role, Mr Speaker, as and when that comes. He is right to say that the Act is not perfect. Specifically, the Government believe that the Kinnock amendment has deficiencies and that its effect is unclear.
May I ask the Minister what his interpretation of the law is? If no deal has been agreed by Parliament or if the Prime Minister does not get a deal and Parliament has not voted in favour of no deal, does he think that the law will then require the Prime Minister to write a letter? Yes or no?
The Government will take legal advice on this and a number of other issues. As the right hon. Lady knows, there is a long-standing constitutional convention that neither the fact nor the content of Law Officers’ advice is disclosed outside Government without their consent, and I am not intending to break that convention today.
I am delighted to hear again of the Government’s commitment to getting a deal, which is actually what this House ought to be debating in the coming weeks. Will the Minister tell us a little more precisely how the passage of this Act has made the negotiations and discussions in Brussels more difficult?
There was a big shift in the negotiations when the Prime Minister met Macron and Merkel, and that has really opened up the dialogue with the Prime Minister’s sherpa, who has been travelling twice, then three times a week, including to meetings at the United Nations General Assembly and several other forums. That activity has potentially slowed as a result of the House of Commons position. What the House of Commons has done makes a deal more difficult, and no deal, which is not what we want, more likely.
If the Prime Minister fails to secure a deal by 19 October and refuses to send the letter, as he is required to do by law, does he intend to resign or stand down temporarily and let someone else in Government sign the letter for him?
The Prime Minister will obey the law.
The problem with the Minister’s answers is that he obviously needs to leave the Government significant wriggle room because the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has clearly reflected the underlying Government policy, which is that they want to find a way to avoid complying with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, which this House passed. That does this country a disservice, because it means it will take us till late October before we resolve the question that the Government are clearly raising. Would it not be better for people in Britain if the Government were simply transparent about their views and intentions and we could find a way to resolve that much earlier?
If I may try to be clearer, the Government want to be transparent, we want a deal and we will use every bit of wriggle room we can find to get that deal.
The House is grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Government will obey the law, but it should not need saying. The fact that the Minister is here today, having to answer these questions is a sign of the anxiety felt on both sides of the House and by many people in the country about the way in which the Government are conducting this matter. The problem is that the Minister’s clear answer is not compatible with the answer that the Prime Minister gave yesterday evening to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). I want to read the exchange. My hon. Friend asked:
“if he does not get a deal or a no deal through this House by 19 October”—
those are the two conditions to meet that mean that he would not have to write the letter—
“will he seek an extension to 31 January from the European Union?
The Prime Minister: No.”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 821.]
How on earth can what the Minister has said, in good faith—and I have great respect for him—possibly be reconciled with what the Prime Minister said to the House of Commons last night?
I was here when the Prime Minister made that statement—
Why is he not here?
The hon. Gentleman asks why the Prime Minister is not here today. He was here for three and a quarter hours, answering, I think, more than 125 questions—
One hundred and eleven.
Thank you for rescuing me, Mr Speaker. Your encyclopaedic memory is better than ours.
The Prime Minister does not want an extension. Every sinew of Government is focused on a deal. [Interruption.] Hon. Members say that that is not the case, but my day is filled with trying to find a deal. That is the right thing for the country, the right thing for Parliament and it is the right thing to do, and we will obey the law at every single point.
I associate myself with your remarks at the beginning of the proceedings, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Minister’s insistence that the Government will comply with the law and his repetition of that sounds as if he is dodging something. That is the problem. I am a simple soul, so I ask my hon. Friend: under what circumstances will the Prime Minister seek an extension?
A week is a long time in politics and in a negotiation things move—
Answer the question.
The right hon. Lady says, “Answer the question”, but we are trying to be as simple as we can and use as few words as possible. We will obey the law, but who knows what will happen between now and the end of negotiations? We are seeking a deal and the nature of that deal is moving forward on a daily basis. Beyond saying that we will always abide by the law, I will not get into it any further.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer today, the Prime Minister hinted in answer to my question last night that he would obey the law but said directly to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) that he would not. The Minister’s answers today would be listened to with a little more belief if senior sources in No. 10 did not keep briefing that they are going to break the law.
The hon. Lady has a Minister, not a senior source in No. 10, saying on the record that we will obey the law. I think that trumps any so-say, off-the-record briefing.
Tomorrow the Prime Minister will hold a political Cabinet. May I ask my hon. Friend to make sure it is heard that we support the Prime Minister in his pursuit of a deal and have a huge reluctance to an extension, but that it comes to a very bad place in politics when a Tory Government’s adherence to the rule of law comes into question and is in doubt? There needs to be a change in the mood music emanating from No. 10 because, as a Tory party, we obey the rule of law, and the fact that that is in question in this place should bring shame on all of us.
I am sure a number of people will hear my hon. Friend’s comments, which I will pass on to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, who will attend the Cabinet on behalf of the Department. I thank my hon. Friend for those comments.
The Minister has repeatedly said this morning that he will obey the law, but it is the law of the land that, if the Prime Minister cannot get a deal or a no deal through this House by 19 October, he must seek an extension to 31 January from the European Union. Last night, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, the Prime Minister was asked by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray):
“So for the sixth and final time: if he does not get a deal or a no deal through this House by 19 October, will he seek an extension to 31 January from the European Union?”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 821.]
And the Prime Minister replied, “No.”
Again, I ask the Minister to explain how his assurance this morning that the law will be obeyed sits with the Prime Minister’s direct denial last night that the law will be obeyed.
The Prime Minister does not want an extension. He will obey the law, but every sinew of our efforts is based on getting a deal. If this House got behind a deal, perhaps we could move forward and change the tone of this place, with which we are collectively unhappy.
Part of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act is to agree a deal by 19 October, but a person would not get that impression from this place’s obsession with discussing an extension. Does the Minister agree that, if people want to avoid a no-deal exit, all our energies should be behind getting a deal and getting it through this place? Or is the real motive stopping Brexit completely?
I fear my hon. Friend is right that many are less worried about the law and more worried about stopping Brexit. We have had extension after extension, and the answer to this uncertainty cannot be more extension.
The most visible evidence giving us grounds to doubt the Government’s intention is their £100 million billboard advertising campaign saying, “Get ready—31 October, here we come.” That is actually inaccurate and misleading, because nowhere, not even in the small print, does it mention that the law of the land may prevent a no-deal Brexit. Should the Government not be honest with businesses and consumers? I will certainly be writing to the Advertising Standards Authority. The Government should be honest in their advertising and not mislead the public in that way.
Let us be honest that a no deal is a very real possibility. Even if this House extends, whether through this Act or some other mechanism, we still might be in the same position and a deal might not be done. We would then be in a no-deal position. It is right that every responsible business prepares for no deal, despite the fact that we want a deal.
Extension or a renegotiated deal are the two options, but the only demand we have heard today is for an extension. Given that the European Union has shown that it is prepared to move and to renegotiate, does the Minister agree that the House of Commons should unite behind the Prime Minister to get the best deal for the United Kingdom? If it does not do so, this House would be seeking to defeat democracy and the democratic decision of the British people.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It does worry me that this House seems consistently to agree on what it does not want but fails to grasp what it does want. If we could take some of the energy around the semantics of obeying the law and put it into getting a deal done, I think this Parliament would be held in greater respect than it is currently by the country.
The Minister is a popular man in the House. We all know that some Members are more popular than others, and some less so. Indeed, a junior Minister has just left the Chamber shouting. I deplore that. I want all of us to work together harmoniously. The Minister has said that he wants greater transparency. There is a rumour running around the place—it is in the press—that the Government are going to shut down Parliament again for their own purposes. Is that right and why are they doing it?
That is the first time I have heard that I am popular. I think the hon. Gentleman may very well be misinformed, but I thank him for that. When it comes to rumours, I am slightly conflicted. I am not sure what gives me more pleasure: appearing at the Dispatch Box to answer Opposition questions, or speaking to lobbyists at the Conservative party conference.
People watching will notice that the Minister has been at the Dispatch Box for nearly 40 minutes and has repeatedly failed to answer a simple question, which I will put to him again. In the absence of this House supporting a deal or no deal, how will the Government comply with the Benn Act and leave the European Union on 31 October?
For 40 minutes I have tried to give a consistent answer. I think it is the case that hon. Members do not like that answer.
Everyone understands that the Government are trying to get a deal—we know that and do not need to hear it again—but this House bears a responsibility to test the Government’s intentions in the event that on 19 October they fail to agree either a deal or no deal. Once again, therefore, I press the Minister: please show respect for the House and give a proper answer to the question. How does he reconcile refusing to ask for an extension with obeying the law, namely the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019?
We do not want an extension, but we will obey the law as it stands at that time.
The Minister has repeatedly answered questions with what the Government want to do. In circumstances relating to the law, however, what is important is not necessarily what we want to do but what we might be obligated to do. Could I ask the Minister a slightly different question? What is his understanding of what the Benn Act asks the Government to do if, by 19 October, neither a deal has been agreed by this House nor a no deal has been passed?
Our focus is on a deal. When it comes to the point that the hon. Lady refers to, we will look at the law very carefully and we will obey the law.
Many of us in this House genuinely want a deal and have been working cross-party to achieve it—in fact, we amended the withdrawal (No. 2) Bill to make it clear that the purpose of the extension was to achieve and agree a deal. I say to the Minister that we can see what is happening here. We can see what the Prime Minister was doing with that horrendous, divisive language yesterday. We can see that it is a clear electoral strategy to whip up hate and try to divide us and to whip up the hate of people against Parliament. For those of us who want to work cross-party to achieve a deal, that is making it much, much more difficult. Will the Minister now restore some trust to this House of Commons and tell us clearly, on the record, that if a deal is not achieved by 19 October, the Prime Minister will sign that letter seeking an extension from the European Union?
I want to restore trust in the House. There is genuine division—it is not just an issue of linguistics and language. The House is divided; the country is divided. That is why we want to provide as much clarity as possible: we want a deal, and if we do not get that deal, we will obey the law as it stands at the time.
Is the Minister saying that the Government believe that if this House does not agree a deal and does not agree no deal by 19 October, there is a doubt that the law requires the Prime Minister to sign the letter asking for an extension?
I am not going into that legal advice. I have not done that. I think the hon. Gentleman is asking if that is the point that I am making. That is not the point that I was making. In my answer to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), I talked of legal advice and the normal conventions around it.
On Tuesday, I was in Addis Ababa with a delegation from across the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in a meeting with the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. I sat with my colleagues and saw the shock on their faces as they watched a pronouncement that a British Government were deemed to have acted unlawfully.
In an alliance, trust is essential. It used to be that when people talked to the British, we could say, “My word is my bond.” People no longer have that trust. I understand the Minister’s expertise, particularly in relation to Africa, but is he aware of the damage done internationally to our reputation when we hear of a Government trying to wriggle their way out of a binding legislative decision by this House of Commons?
There is an international danger to our reputation. I saw as my NATO colleagues watched on their iPads—they all speak English—the responses from across the British press. They watch this House daily. They no longer have the level of respect and regard for this House that used to be felt. May I urge the Government to rebuild that respect, because the dangers and the risks to this country are huge?
I thank the hon. Lady for the work she does on defence and for giving me the opportunity to confirm this Government’s belief in the international rule of law, specifically and incredibly importantly in relation to NATO. Although exiting the European Union is rightly taking up an awful lot of time in this House, the relationship across the eastern border and with NATO is potentially more important than it has been for a long time. Our NATO allies, whether in meetings in Addis or in normal NATO meetings, should know that they can rely on the United Kingdom as they have done in the past.
The Minister earlier appropriated the words of Harold Wilson when he said that a week is a long time in politics, so what does he think is going to happen in the next week—or, for that matter, the next month—that will change the terms of the Benn Act?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me whose words I was stealing to try to sound eloquent. Anybody in this House who predicted where we might be in a week would be a fool. If anyone does have any certainty, I suggest that they head to the bookies shop.
It feels like we have entered into some kind of surreal world or parallel universe, a bit like “Alice in Wonderland”, where words mean whatever we want them to mean and the Minister is outdoing the Queen—I mean the Queen in “Alice in Wonderland”—who was thinking six impossible things before breakfast. Anybody watching this will think that this Government have taken leave of their senses. They cannot be trying to claim that two incompatible things are compatible, so I ask the Minister again: will he stop hiding behind the falsehood that legal advice is necessary to clarify the law on this and tell us how the Prime Minister is going to keep to the law?
I must say that I did not quite keep up with all those “Alice in Wonderland” references, but I am more than happy to discuss this matter over a cup of tea, as long as the hon. Lady and I are not considered two Mad Hatters.
I think many of us feel that the Minister has prevaricated with his answers today, so may I just ask him again what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) asked him earlier from the Front Bench? To comply with the law, the Prime Minister is required to send a letter should a deal or a no deal not be agreed by Parliament. The schedule to the Act actually includes the letter; it is part of the law. That letter starts, “Dear Mr President” and finishes, “Yours sincerely, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom”. How on earth can the Minister stand there and say that the Prime Minister can comply with the law without reassuring Parliament from the Dispatch Box that the Prime Minister would sign the letter as set out in the schedule to the Act in the circumstances that the two conditions laid out in the Act are not met?
I have consistently said that the Prime Minister will obey the law, but we do not want to get to that position; we want to get to a deal position as early as possible, and that is what we are trying to do. That is what we were mandated to do by the British people in the referendum, and it is what previous laws have instructed us to do.
The Prime Minister hit the nail on the head last night when he described the Act in the way he did, because the fact is that he has two choices: to go in all sincerity and negotiate a deal, which we know would be voted down by those who do not want us to leave the clutches of the EU; or to crawl to Brussels begging to be allowed to stay at the cost of £1 billion a month. Does the Minister agree that if there is such distrust in the Prime Minister, the courageous thing to do would be to hold a general election and allow the people of UK to decide what they think of this humiliating piece of legislation? If it was not for the fact that the scaredy-cats on the Opposition Benches are running away from the electorate, they would be calling for an election today.
I should thank the right hon. Gentleman for what now appears to be a cross-party consensus that we should have a general election. It is good to see other people—even hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches—saying that they would support an election. A general election will lance the boil that has been festering here in the Commons. We are a divided House, and we are divided not just on normal party lines; crucially, we are also dividing ourselves against the nation. That is only going to be resolved by delivering Brexit or by going back to the nation and saying, “What do you want?”
The Minister has repeatedly told us this morning that his Government are focused on a deal. If that is the case, why did the Prime Minister yesterday call for an immediate confidence vote, which would shut down Parliament within 14 days and make voting on a deal impossible?
The new Parliament would be able to vote on a deal and negotiations would continue. Ministers remain Ministers as we go through the process and negotiations would continue.
I welcome the change in tone from last night, which many people have already said was absolutely appalling, but I have to say that I do not find it helpful to question the legitimacy of the EU (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act. Is this the basis for the apparent contradictions between what the Minister has said and what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) last night, or is there something else?
Let us be clear: I did not question the legitimacy of the EU (Withdrawal) Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) questioned it. I did say that there were a number of outcomes within that Bill, but I did not question, and had no intention of questioning, the legitimacy of a Bill that has been passed through the House. We opposed that Bill and we lost.
Exactly, because that was the House exercising the sovereignty and taking back the control that the leavers were so desperate to do. I do not know what message the Minister thinks it sends even to leave voters when there are questions about whether the Government will respect a law that this House has passed. The one thing the House does agree on—the one majority that there is—is that we do not want to crash out with no deal. So if they really want to get around the Benn Act, the way to do it is to agree an extension now, and then we can all have the general election before the extension period ends.
All I will say to that is that it is somewhat amusing to see a member of the SNP defending the sovereignty of this House.
I accept what the Minister says—that the Prime Minister wants to secure a deal—but may I respectfully suggest that the best way for us to do that with our European friends and allies is in a relationship of mutual regard and respect? To talk of the legislation as being a surrender Act implies that they are somehow trying to bully us into accepting a deal that will be good for them but bad for us. May I invite the Minister to pass back to the Prime Minister that that language is not only unacceptable in creating divisions in this country but divides us further from our European neighbours?
Without wanting to up the tone of a debate that has been quite consensual, the Act does surrender some of our negotiating power by matter of fact. It compels the Government to do something, reducing the leverage in negotiation. I am actually seeing that as being part of the negotiating. It is deeply unhelpful and it has surrendered some of our powers of negotiation, which makes it more likely that we will get no deal. It is unfortunate. I am trying not to up the tone in any way but just to speak factually about what is happening.
Am I right in understanding that the British Government have sought and obtained legal advice on how to avoid the provisions of the Benn Act?
We do not discuss what legal advice has been taken; nor do we discuss the contents of that legal advice, as I have already said in the House.
I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. We have had a lot of discussion and intimation today about complying with the rule of law. Section 3 of the Act will oblige the Prime Minister to do something. In the spirit of the law, how will the Prime Minister meet that obligation?
The law very clearly lays out the obligations in section 3 and other sections. I have nothing further to add.
If, as many of us suspect, the Prime Minister and Mr Cummings will attempt to navigate a path around the effect of the Benn Act—a feeling that the Minister’s answers this morning have not assuaged—what will the Government’s response be when the Court of Session in Edinburgh uses its nobile officium powers to sign a letter seeking an extension for him?
I do not think I am sharing a secret: it is the Government’s intention to navigate their way around the Benn Act by getting a withdrawal agreement and a deal through the House of Commons. That is our plan A.
I have to tell the Minister that I am extremely concerned that he has indicated that it is acceptable to the Government and the Prime Minister, for whom he is speaking this morning, that no deal will be acceptable. Can I just remind the Minister of the very serious consequences of no deal for Northern Ireland? I should not need to remind him or, indeed, the Government. If there is any hardening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it will incentivise dissident republicans, who are already attacking the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to commit even greater violence along the border. With that, I suspect there will be a backlash—certainly a reaction—from loyalists. I do not predict that with any pleasure at all, but this Government should be aware of the consequences of no deal in Northern Ireland.
It will also embolden—
Thank you. It will embolden Sinn Féin to campaign for a border poll, in order to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom into a united Ireland. The Government need to be extremely mindful, and for the Minister to imply that it is acceptable that we leave without a deal is totally unacceptable.
We want to leave with a deal, but no deal is a possibility. I am very aware of the concerns that the hon. Lady raised, and the Government are committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. In fact, one of the first things I did as a Minister was go to Belfast and also down to visit the border and the people who live around it. In itself, turning up and looking around does not solve the problems, but I am very aware and consistently bear these things in mind when looking at negotiations, particularly those that are currently happening in relation to the Northern Ireland border. That will continue to be very important in the Government’s machinations.
The terms of the Benn Act are very clear, but so too is its intended purpose and spirit. The Minister has not been asked today whether the Government and the Prime Minister want to comply with the terms of the Act. He has been asked a very specific question: if, by 19 October, the House has not agreed to a deal or no deal, will the Prime Minister write the letter asking for an extension, as set out in the Benn Act? Can he answer yes or no, because I am afraid we have no clarity at all on that specific question today?
We will obey the law.
The Minister is knowingly confusing the Government’s negotiating position with the authority of the law as made in Parliament and enforced by the courts. The Prime Minister says, without evidence, that the Supreme Court is wrong, and now he is saying that he will not follow a very clear provision in an Act of Parliament. Does the Minister accept that that trivialises and undermines the rule of law?
No. It is not the Government who are causing the confusion; it is the Act itself and the constitutional position we found ourselves in through a number of areas, including the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which means that we cannot have a general election and resolve this by going back to the people, who have already decided in a referendum—a referendum that our predecessors in this House fully supported.
To any rational person, the law of the land states that if the Government do not get a deal through the House of Commons or a mandate for no deal, they must write a letter by 19 October asking for an extension. The Prime Minister has said that he will not do it, and the Minister at the Dispatch Box will not answer yes or no about sending a letter; he just keeps saying that the Government will obey the letter of the law, sometimes adding “at that time”. Without breaking convention and giving away the contents of legal advice, will he confirm—yes or no—that the Government are taking legal advice on alternatives to sending that letter and complying with the law?
Successive Governments do not comment on not only the detail of advice but whether legal advice has been taken, so the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no, I cannot comment on that further.
Businesses are telling me that thousands of jobs in my constituency are at risk if there is no deal, but it sounds to me like the Government think that that is a price worth paying to get Brexit done by 31 October. Is that right?
We have the highest rate of employment for decades. I am specifically responsible for small and medium-sized enterprises in deal and no deal. While some of the larger businesses are well prepared, there is still more room for further preparations in smaller businesses, and I recommend that they visit the Government website, which is absolutely superb and very detailed. Last week I was in Birmingham and while some specific issues were raised, which we are working on, people were impressed with the Government’s preparations.
A few moments ago the Minister said that the Benn Act was unclear. Will he explain to the House why he thinks it is unclear?
That is a fair question, but I am not necessarily going to give him an answer that he will be happy with. I have already said that the Government will take advice, but that legal advice will be confidential. That cannot and would not be shared with the House, and that would have been the case when the hon. Gentleman was a Member of the European Parliament and when he was a Minister.
In some countries Governments try to make compliance with the law considerably easier for themselves by making political appointments to the judiciary. Can he please categorically rule out reports that the Government are seriously considering political appointments to the judicial bench?
I think that is well beyond my pay grade.
I say for the benefit of those observing our proceedings as much as for Members of the House that there is a notable although on the whole healthy competition between two hon. Members who share the same surname but whose first name is spelt in one instance Stewart and in another Stuart. One is Stuart C. McDonald and the other is Stewart Malcolm McDonald. I have called Stuart C. I do not want Stewart Malcolm to feel socially excluded in any way. That would be very damaging.
I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker.
The Minister and I are both successors of the late Teddy Taylor. When Teddy was a Glasgow MP, he was known as the Tenement Tory who talked straight. Let me invite the Minister to find his inner Teddy this morning. Are there circumstances in which the Prime Minister will write to Brussels as outlined in the Benn Act?
I thank the hon. Gentleman enormously for allowing me to pay tribute to my successor—[Interruption.] Predecessor, apologies. It is a great disappointment that, while he saw the referendum—I campaigned with him and he was in good health at that point—he has now passed away. Even after we won the vote and we knew he was in ill health, we thought that we would have Brexit before he died. I think that, looking down on us, he will be disappointed that, collectively, the House has not continued in that light and delivered on the referendum result.
Minister, this House and the country would have more confidence in the Government’s will and ability to do a deal within the rapidly reducing timeframe if we had any evidence of that happening. The Prime Minister’s update yesterday contained a lot of criticism of this side of the House but not a single word on the actual progress he had made in negotiations in the past few months. Will the Government bring a statement to the House on their progress and the abundant options that the Prime Minister has claimed there are?
The Prime Minister answered a large number of questions and there was plenty of opportunity when he spoke for more than three and a quarter hours. I suspect that there will be plenty of opportunity to go into more detail on the negotiating strategy over the coming days and weeks.
The Minister pointed to the Opposition Benches and suggested that those who want to remain will vote against a deal or never vote for one, but there are also Government Members who would never vote for a deal. Twenty-one Tory MPs have been thrown out of their group, including some who said that they would vote for a deal. Has the Prime Minister held negotiations with the European Research Group, some of whom are in the Cabinet, and have they signed up to say that they would vote for a deal that he negotiates?
The Prime Minister constantly meets and talks to all members of the Conservative party and other parties.
The Minister said there would be ample time after an election for any new Government to legislate accordingly and vote on a deal or seek an extension, but it normally takes at least four weeks for a new Government to pass substantive legislation. Does that reveal that having an election before seeking an extension is simply a bogus device for this Government to engineer a no-deal Brexit by default?
No, not at all. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the timetable is highly constrained, but after three and a half years we have only ourselves to blame collectively as a House.
Nearly every question from the Opposition Benches has included the word “if”. Does the Minister feel that it is unreasonable to expect him to have a crystal ball and predict what situation this country will face on 19 October, and what complying with the law will require? Is it better just to accept his assurance that the Government will obey the law?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. A lot could change between now and 19 October, and providing clarity that we will obey the law is clearer than picking specific laws and saying how we will obey them.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s previous response, he said that plan A is to get a withdrawal agreement agreed at the European Council, which is merely three weeks away. He also said that we are only just at the stage of reopening the withdrawal agreement. If—if—no agreement is reached at the European Council, does he guarantee that the House will get the opportunity to vote on a motion on whether or not we will accept a no-deal Brexit?
It is not that negotiations have just restarted. Michel Barnier’s mandate to negotiate has not formally started, and that cannot happen until the European Council, where effectively all the work will be done. However, right from the point of the meeting with Macron and Merkel there was a step change in meetings at sherpa, political and technical levels with the Commission—that was the point I was trying to make, not that negotiations have only started recently.
At the start of the urgent question, the Minister rightly reiterated your call, Mr Speaker, for greater respect. One way of being respectful in this House is to be transparent, but the Minister has clearly not been transparent after repeated questions about whether the Prime Minister will write the letter seeking an extension. I now give the Minister one final opportunity to be clear and unequivocal in his response, and not to hide behind some form of words about obeying the law or dodge the question: if the first two conditions of the Benn Act are not satisfied, will the Prime Minister write a letter seeking that extension—yes or no?
I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but we will obey the law.
(Urgent Question): I wish to ask the Foreign Secretary to update the House on protests in Hong Kong.
I thank the hon. Lady for her urgent question. This is an example of when all sides of the House can come together to discuss an issue that is of joint concern across the political spectrum.
I remain seriously concerned by the situation in Hong Kong. Protests are now in their 16th week, and millions have exercised their right to peaceful protest. The majority are doing so peacefully and lawfully, but I know the House will join me in condemning the violence that we have seen on the streets of Hong Kong from a minority of those engaged in protests. It is essential that protests are conducted peacefully and within the law, and that the response of the authorities is proportionate.
With that in mind, the United Kingdom supports the one country, two systems model and framework and of course the rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy granted to Hong Kong and its people under the Chinese-British joint declaration. That joint declaration was signed by the Government of the People’s Republic of China and Her Majesty’s Government in 1984, and the autonomy, rights and freedoms it guarantees are enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law. It remains as valid today as when it was signed almost 35 years ago and is a legally binding international treaty. We expect China to live up to its obligations under it and, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to its wider international human rights law obligations, including those in the UN charter.
The UK Government believe that a resolution can only be achieved with meaningful political dialogue that builds trust between all the parties on all sides. I welcome Carrie Lam’s formal withdrawal of the extradition Bill on 4 September and some of the incremental steps she has taken to improve the credibility of the Independent Police Complaints Council. The initiative this week from the Hong Kong Government to consult the people they serve will be a first step on the essential path towards a more inclusive political dialogue—one that builds trust with all communities in Hong Kong.
In recent weeks, I have spoken to both the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and to the Chinese Foreign Minister, State Counsellor Wang Yi, and I have made it clear that the UK continues to support one country, two systems. I have also made clear, however, our concern about human rights and, in particular, the mistreatment of those exercising their right to lawful and peaceful protest. The concerns of those peaceful protesters should be addressed by political dialogue, not crushed by force.
I have also spoken to a wide range of my counterparts internationally, and I welcome the strong statements from our international partners. The Prime Minister raised Hong Kong at the recent G7 meeting, where all G7 partners reaffirmed the importance of the joint declaration and called for an end to violence. We will continue to engage with Hong Kong and the Chinese Government, reiterating the fundamental importance of upholding the UK-Chinese joint declaration. Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is what guarantees its future prosperity and success. It is incumbent on all sides to respect it.
Throughout the summer, Hong Kong has remained gripped by protests, with tens of thousands of demonstrators filling the streets each weekend to demand their fundamental rights. Although the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has announced that the controversial extradition Bill will finally be withdrawn, this for some is far too little too late. The level of protest has grown in the face of brutal police repression, and I have been appalled by the way that protesters have been beaten by police officers and gangs rumoured to be associated with the Hong Kong Government.
Basic democratic freedoms of the press, the right to assemble and the right to protest are enshrined in the Sino-British joint declaration, an internationally recognised treaty to which we are of course a signatory. In the past few weeks, protesters have also been gathering outside the British consulate in Hong Kong demanding that our Government do more. Will the Foreign Secretary please tell the House what contact he has had with the Hong Kong Government about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and specifically on the issue of police brutality? What dialogue has he had with the Hong Kong Government to promote a move towards universal suffrage as per the joint declaration? What steps are the Government taking to support any holders of a British national overseas passport in Hong Kong who are facing undue risk or harassment as a result of taking part in the protests? Finally, when will the next six-monthly report on the joint declaration be published?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and interventions on the substance and the constructive way she has presented them to the House. I share her concerns about the repression of peaceful protest, though mindful, as I have said, that some of the protests have been violent, which is unacceptable too. I also share her concern to make sure that the right of peaceful protest enshrined in the joint declaration is respected on all sides in Hong Kong and by us and the Chinese Government.
I will, if I may, make a couple of further points. The joint declaration, as a bilateral treaty, reflects not just the right to peaceful protest but the basic international human rights obligations, which would apply to China in any event. It is a bilateral expression of those rights, and it is important not just for the people of Hong Kong but for the wider model that China advocates—the one country, two systems model—and which we wish to respect.
The hon. Lady asked what contact I had had with the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. I spoke to her at length on 9 August, and I raised all the issues that I have already expressed, particularly the disproportionate use of force by the police against the protesters. I also raised the issue of the Independent Police Complaints Council. In line with and alongside the withdrawal of the extradition Bill, that is an area where the Government in Hong Kong have taken some steps to try to strengthen and reinforce their impartiality and therefore their credibility. We need to test that very carefully and see whether it produces an impartial and objective review.
The hon. Lady rightly raises the issue BNOs, and I thank her for that. The status of BNOs is part of the package that was agreed in terms of the joint declaration. There is no right of permanent residence under the BNO passport, but it is part of the overarching model of one country, two systems which, at least at this point, we are arguing needs to be respected, but it needs to be respected by all sides, including by China.
Finally, on the six-monthly report, I would hope that to be due at the end of October, or by November at the latest.
Again, I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Chamber today, and I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), a fellow member of the Committee, for raising this important question.
Although I appreciate the points that the Secretary of State has already made about BNOs, it is clear that the UK Government did take a subtly different position at the time of handover when certain key members of the Administration were granted UK citizenship in order to give them the confidence to stay on at a moment of—let’s face it— trouble and doubt. Is there not an opportunity now to assure people that they do not have to make urgent decisions now, by knowing that their rights will be guaranteed? Will he also talk to his friend the Lord Chancellor about the presence of UK judges in the Court of Final Appeal? We all know that Hong Kong’s economy is underwritten by the rule of law, as, indeed, is ours. The independence of the judiciary and the ability to have judges who can speak freely and fairly and without threat of influence from Beijing is one of the things that underwrites not just Hong Kong’s economic expansion but China’s. Therefore, valuing those judges, knowing that they are an integral part of the rule of law—not just on commercial rights, but on civil rights—would seem a very good place for the UK to start.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee. He makes a number of very important and powerful points, and I have been reflecting on them and, indeed, on the reports from his Committee. May I just say that I will of course pass on his comments in relation to the judiciary to the Secretary State for Justice? He makes those points in an important way. Of course, they are good for Hong Kong and its reputation and the wider reputation of China as a place that is open to do business.
Let me be clear about this issue of BNOs. The BNO status, which did not entitle the holders of those passports to a right of permanent residence in the UK, was part of the delicate balance and negotiations that were conducted and then concluded at the time of the joint declaration. We are seeking not to change the status of any one part of that package, but rather to press all sides, including the Chinese, to respect the delicate balance reflected in that package. That is why, for the moment, we will not change or alter the status of the BNOs, but we will make sure that, in terms of their rights and entitlements they are entitled to expect within that status, they have our full support.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing it.
As the Foreign Secretary said, we are now entering the 16th week of this chaos and there is absolutely no sign of the crisis abating. We continue to witness appalling brutality by the Hong Kong police against the protesters. The abandonment of peaceful methods by some sections of the pro-democracy movement does nothing to help its cause, which we, on this side of the House, believe is right and just.
Will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether the Hong Kong Executive have made any progress in setting up the independent inquiry that we have all called for? Did the Foreign Office get any credible explanation from the Chinese Government for the paramilitary forces massed on the Hong Kong border over the summer?
The announcement that the Hong Kong Executive will formally withdraw the extradition Bill is welcome, but it is too little, too late. Peace and normality will be achieved only if the Hong Kong Government meet the largely reasonable demands of the protesters and fulfil the promises made to Hong Kongers in the Basic Law. That needs to start with democratic reform and moves towards universal suffrage.
The Foreign Secretary is the fifth Minister in four months to have spoken on the UK’s moral and legal responsibility to safeguard the rights of Hong Kong citizens, and I would like to ask him two further questions. What are the implications for BNO passport holders of the Government’s announcement over the summer of changes to the rights of students studying in the UK? Also, what is he going to do to fulfil the UK’s obligations to Hong Kong under the joint declaration if the situation does not improve?
I thank the hon. Lady for the measured and careful way in which she has responded to this issue. Amidst all the Brexit divisions we have, it is important that we have some cross-party consensus where it is practicable on this issue, because that allows us to send the clearest signal to our international partners, and indeed to Hong Kong and China, on its importance, so I welcome that.
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns around the issue of peaceful protest. We have expressed those to the Chinese Government. I spoke to the Foreign Minister about this. I have also spoken to Carrie Lam. The hon. Lady is also right to say that we condemn violence and that it risks tainting the protests, which, on the whole, have been conducted in a peaceful way by the majority.
The hon. Lady asked about the independent inquiry. The Administration in Hong Kong have not gone the full way we would like them to, but they have taken steps to reform and reinforce the independence of the police complaints council. Whether that is enough, we shall see. What we need to ensure ultimately is that we have the goal of a proper, thorough and objective review of some of the conduct by the police against protesters.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about reports of troops being increased at the border. We in this House and across the international community must be clear with our Chinese friends and partners about the Rubicon that would be crossed if we saw a major intervention in Hong Kong. No one wants to see any repeat of the tragic circumstances in Tiananmen Square all those years ago. We want China and Hong Kong to move forward, not backwards.
The hon. Lady made the point that the action on the extradition Bill is not enough, and I share her frustration to see more done on political dialogue. In fairness, it is important to note that steps are taking place this week, and indeed today, to engage local groups in political dialogue. As she said, it is the long-standing view of the UK that there is a transition to universal suffrage for the elections of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council, because that is provided for in the Hong Kong Basic Law, and that would be the best way to guarantee the stability of Hong Kong, but also to respect one country, two systems, which is advocated by China. There has been no change in the status of BNOs.
Overall, I share the hon. Lady’s concerns. There is not a silver-bullet answer to this. We know that the Chinese Government will be very mindful of behaviour and of its reputation, and of what is going on in Hong Kong in the lead-up to the anniversary on 1 October. We need to make sure in this House and across the international community that we are seized of this issue and that we make it clear to the Government of China that we want to respect one country, two systems, but that also needs to be reflected on their side.
Freedom of speech, including on constitutional matters, is one of the rights enshrined in the joint declaration, yet we have recently seen pressure exerted on individuals to desist from dialogue on certain issues—pressure that is completely unacceptable in any country, let alone in Hong Kong, where these rights are enshrined in the joint declaration. What can our Government do publicly to ensure that the right to free speech is upheld in Hong Kong?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s tenacious efforts to raise the issue of free speech and peaceful protest right around the world. She is a credit to this House and is doing a lot of work for the party on this. The UK has raised the issue of peaceful protest and the right of free speech, mindful that it must be lawful and peacefully conducted. I have done that consistently and will continue to do so, and I know the Prime Minister feels the same way.
As my hon. Friend and, I think, the shadow Minister said, we need to see steps towards meaningful political dialogue. We have seen the removal of the extradition Bill and the initiative from Hong Kong to consult with people from across the communities in Hong Kong. That is a first step, but we should recognise and credit the Administration in Hong Kong when they take steps in the right direction. We now need to see that followed up with meaningful, inclusive dialogue that preserves the autonomy of Hong Kong and the one country, two systems approach that China advocates.
I welcome much of what the Foreign Secretary has said this morning. Of course, it is important that we recognise the courageous strength of those in Hong Kong who have protested over the past few months. Indeed, this all takes place on the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. What an inspiration it is to see the spirit of the Baltic Way invoked, with people standing up for liberty and freedom as they rightly should.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the legally binding agreement with China. While it is not for me to defend old empires, he is right that it is, to this day, a legally binding agreement. Of course that must be upheld, not least because international treaties are being picked away at by populists around the world. However, context is everything, and the UN Security Council that he mentions—as we know from the conflict in Syria, for example—is utterly broken. This matter cannot be resolved in a broken Security Council. I have been asking the Government for years what proposals they have for reform of the United Nations Security Council. That will be pivotal in this affair and much else.
Finally, this issue in Hong Kong is undoubtedly falling prey to international disinformation and misinformation campaigns, from China to Russia and many others. What steps are the Government taking to support people in Hong Kong to get the truth out to the world?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and his support for the approach we are taking. He made some valuable points about the joint declaration. It is legally binding and, of course, there is always the need to be vigilant to make sure that international treaties are respected on all sides. It is not just a bilateral arrangement, but reflects wider international human rights obligations, particularly those on peaceful protest reflected in the international covenant on civil and political rights.
I do not think the situation in Hong Kong is necessarily analogous to Syria, but I do—
I did not say that.
I know, but the hon. Gentleman made that reference. I do, however, share his sense that we need to make the UN work as effectively as possible. We have been out at the UN General Assembly this week. That has been curtailed, as he will know, but those are the kinds of things we talk about. Of course, China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, so it is reasonable and legitimate to expect China to uphold the values of the United Nations when it comes to Hong Kong.
Following directly the point that was just made by the SNP spokesman, is there any evidence that the Chinese intelligence services, adopting classic communist methodology, are trying to discredit the protesters by infiltrating them with agents provocateurs, where the violent fringe is concerned? Will my right hon. Friend give special consideration to about 265 former members of the Hong Kong armed services, who should in the past have been offered the choice of a British passport but, I believe, have yet to receive that offer?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks; I know that he follows these issues closely. I am going to be a bit careful about commenting on what is really happening in relation to intelligence services from any other country, but one thing I would say is that it is becoming increasingly clear, in relation to some of the counter-protests, that there are criminal gangs involved, and it is not clear entirely what their links may or may not be with the various administrations. I think, for our part, we need to play this in a very straight way, which is to say that there are some legally binding obligations on the Hong Kong Government, and indeed on China, to respect peaceful protest. Frankly, wherever those incursions or erosions or impingements come, we will call them out.
In response to a written question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), Ministers have confirmed that UK law enforcement agencies provide training to the Hong Kong Police. With that in mind, has that training been put through the overseas security and justice assistance risk management system? If so, what assessment, particularly in light of recent events, has been made of the risk that that training may now be assisting in human rights violations in Hong Kong?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, one of the reasons that we might take a judgment in relation to Hong Kong, or anywhere in the world, to provide police training is precisely to make sure that policing is done in a proportionate way, and with some restraint where that is called for. So I would not quite accept the premise that he has argued from.
We will constantly consider all assessments in relation to this kind of support. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), stated during his remarks in the House of Commons on 25 June in relation to, for example, crowd control equipment, no further export licences will be granted for that kind of equipment unless we have got absolutely clear assurances that our concerns around human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected and addressed.
Such illustrious colleagues! It is very hard to choose—wow. Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Might my right hon. Friend consider raising with Carrie Lam, when he next has a conversation with her, an issue that has been raised with me by a number of young people, including the demonstrators—the social mobility in Hong Kong? For the ordinary person, even if they have actually got a good degree, it is very difficult to get a job that is well enough paid to better their standard of living from that of their parents.
I thank my hon. Friend. He raises a very important point, which is that the protests that we are seeing have been fuelled by the economic/social concerns that, in any mature democracy, would find expression through the democratic institutions. I think he is highlighting, in a very specific way, why having political dialogue leading to the democratic autonomy that is reflected in the Basic Law would be valuable and important, not just for the individuals raising those issues, but for Hong Kong as an autonomous entity within the one country, two systems model, in order to address those issues in a way that is constructive and in the long-term interests of the people of Hong Kong.
All UK citizens’ rights and means to travel subject to entry requirements should continue to be protected, and we on the Scottish National party Benches call on the Government of China and Hong Kong to facilitate the safe passage of UK citizens when they are compliant with the law. BNO UK passport holders in Hong Kong, however, are not currently recognised by China. Can the Foreign Secretary update the House on the consular services and support that have been offered to those UK passport holders?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. We do provide consular assistance to the BNO passport holders, but he is right also to talk about the limitations on that status. That was part of the careful balance that I referred to in my earlier remarks. We want to see that respected on all sides. That is one element of the one country, two systems model. That is what China advocates. That is what we want respected. It must be respected on all sides.
A noted sinologist, I think—Mr Richard Graham.
The 98th anniversary of the Communist party of China approaches imminently, and there are range of issues which the Foreign Secretary knows are delicately balanced. One, of course, is the importance of what happens in Taiwan; the second is what is going on in Xinjiang; and the third is the current crisis in Hong Kong.
The Foreign Secretary knows that Committees in both the Senate and Congress have advanced a new Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would require an annual assessment to see whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous still to justify that city’s special trading status with the United States. Has he discussed that with his US counterparts, and are things at a stage where Hong Kong’s special trading status could be seriously endangered by the situation?
My hon. Friend has raised quite a few questions. Let me try to address just two of them.
When I was in Washington earlier this week, I had a chance to talk to congressmen on both sides of the aisle about the United States legislation, and they are making progress in that regard. My hon. Friend also referred to the forthcoming anniversary on 1 October and some of the wider concerns beyond Hong Kong, and he mentioned Xinjiang. We are concerned about, for example, reports—and they are credible reports—of more than 1 million people being held in camps against their will. There is, I think, increasing international concern about that, and about the repressive mistreatment of those people and its impact on China’s international human rights obligations. Let me again make the point that China is now a leading member of the international community. It is a P5 member of the Security Council, and it is very important for those basic international obligations to be respected.
There is a long-standing affinity between many of my constituents and Hong Kong, primarily through family links or because they were posted there during service in the Army. There is particular concern about British National (Overseas) passport holders and the rights that are afforded to them. The Foreign Secretary has made it very clear that he does not wish to look at the issue at the moment because it forms part of the agreement, and there is a logic to that, but would he be prepared to move quickly should there be some variance, shall we say, from that agreement in some other regard, in which event their rights might need to be re-examined very speedily?
I thank the hon. Lady for the careful and measured way in which she asked that question. Our overarching effort now is to convey the message from the UK, but also from the international community, that the one country, two systems model is respected. It has implications for BNOs, and it has implications for autonomy and the right to peaceful protest in Hong Kong. They are all part of the same package. I am not going to start getting into what will happen if that package is ripped up on the other side, but I do think that—particularly given the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) about the question of troop movements and whether there might be a major intervention from Beijing—we need to be very clear about the fact that that would put at risk the model that China itself has advocated.
Does the Foreign Secretary understand the concerns in the House about the BNOs? China is not trying to abolish one country, two systems, but it is squeezing it and pressuring it, and it is therefore right for us to look at alternatives to the current BNO status, such as giving BNOs the right to work in the UK at short notice and, potentially, a fast track to residency. On that point, there are also 250 former servicemen in Hong Kong whom, arguably, we have not looked after well enough. Will the Foreign Secretary and the Government look at that issue as well?
My hon. Friend is, I think, right to say that China is so far respecting the one country, two systems model, and for the large part is trying to respect—or seeking to respect, or at least talking about respecting—the degree to which it is reflected in the joint declaration. I think that as long as we are in that position, it would be wrong for us to unpick one element of the package, namely the status of BNOs. Of course, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), if it is all reviewed on the side of China, we would obviously want to think again, but I think that for the moment the right thing to do is convey to the Chinese Government and the Administration in Hong Kong why it is in the interests of all sides to respect the one country, two systems model.
Ofcom is currently investigating the Chinese state-backed news channel CGTN following its coverage of the protests. Has the Foreign Secretary spoken to his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about that investigation, and, in particular, about the future of the channel ahead of its launch in London if it is going to continue to propagate state bias in direct contravention of our broadcasting regulation?
The hon. Lady has made an excellent point in a very powerful way. She will understand if I respect the role and the remit of Ofcom in this regard, but of course we follow that issue very closely.
Hong Kong is clearly a major financial and trading centre. Will my right hon. Friend impress on the Chinese Government, and the Chinese, the opportunities that arise from having such a vibrant centre, and the fact that anything that prejudices that or brings it into question damages China as well as damaging millions of citizens around the world?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which is that it is in the interests of Hong Kong and China to respect the one country, two systems model and the autonomy, both economic and political, that is reflected within it.
As has already been mentioned, the 70th anniversary of the Communist party is coming up next week and it has been reported that this could be accompanied by large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. We have seen aerial photographs of armoured vehicles lined up ready to respond. Have the UK Government been in touch with their counterparts in China to stress the importance of maintaining a proportionate response, of the rule of law and of the protection of human rights throughout what could be a difficult period?
I agree with much of what the hon. Lady says, and I can reassure her that I met Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok on 31 July. I was due to meet him again in New York this week, but of course the House is now sitting again.
I welcome some of the comments from my right hon. Friend, especially his condemning violence and praising peaceful protest. How can he use his offices and our position in the UN to make it clear that the Sino-British declaration is a live international treaty and not a historical document, as many Chinese officials have tried to suggest?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is widely accepted that this was an international agreement. It is binding under international law, and while there may be some who call it into question, I do not think it is in the interests of anyone in Hong Kong, in China or, for our part, in the United Kingdom, to call it into question. That is something on which there is widespread agreement among our international partners.
Those of us with friends in Hong Kong know how difficult it is now for people to go about their ordinary lives and how their businesses are being affected. Is it not the responsibility of the whole international community to try to settle these disputes before the situation gets even worse?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the latest developments we are witnessing in Hong Kong are part of a wider trend of civil and political freedoms being reduced over time? What actions can the UK take to halt, or indeed reverse, such a trend?
We can make our position clear both to the Administration in Hong Kong and to my Chinese opposite number, as the Prime Minister and all Members of the Government do. We also need to work with our international partners to look carefully at the situation to ensure that we are telegraphing as clear and broad a signal as possible to the Government in Beijing about the concerns that my hon. Friend rightly raises.
Further to the comments from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) about the Chinese side repudiating the joint declaration, will the Foreign Secretary consider making it clear to the Chinese side that there is disquiet in this House about the status of BNO nationals, and that if China continues to repudiate that international treaty, this House would consider revisions to the Hong Kong Act 1985 to extend full citizenship to BNO nationals?
I do not think that the point right now is to issue threats to the Government of China. The UK and our international partners need to be very clear that we want to respect the one country, two systems model and that some of the things that we are seeing in Hong Kong and the military build-up of troops on the Chinese side of the border—about which concern has been expressed on both sides of the House—would put that at risk.
I call Sir Philip Dunne.
I am not actually Sir Philip, Mr Speaker, but thank you for elevating me.
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Privy Council. I had thought that he had that additional honour, but I think it is only a matter of time. If I have moved it on a bit, that is surely a positive thing. However, for now, I call Mr Philip Dunne.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I lived in Hong Kong for some years, including during the political transition, so I feel particularly acutely the pressures on the people who are legitimately protesting there. I welcome the fact that concerns have been expressed across the House about the way in which the Hong Kong authorities have handled the protests. Although it was more than 20 years ago, I am acutely aware of the strong and close trading and financial links between this country and Hong Kong. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that business confidence is maintained so that Hong Kong remains the vibrant financial centre that is so important in international trade?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, responsibility for respecting the stability and the economic vibrancy of Hong Kong lies with the Hong Kong Administration and more generally with the Government in China. At the level of business and civil society and in our conduct and dealings with the Hong Kong Administration and the Chinese Government, we will be very clear about where we think their interests lie and the risks of undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy—its economic as well as its political autonomy. That touches on the issues that my right hon. Friend raised.
There have been widespread reports that crowd control equipment is being used against protesters in a way that violates their human rights. In the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), he said that export licences would not be granted in respect of crowd control equipment from the UK to Hong Kong unless assurances are given that human rights will not be violated. Is he therefore saying that he has asked for those assurances and that they have been given?
I am saying that we have a rigorous and robust system—one of the best in the world—for export licence control and we will keep it constantly under review. That means that we monitor and listen to what the officials on the other side say about importing those goods, but fundamentally we make an objective and independent assessment to ensure that the UK rules are respected.
I was going to ask the Foreign Secretary about the position of BNO passport holders, but he has already answered many questions on that. I just want to add my support to doing all we can for them. What assessment has he made of the treatment of religious minorities in Hong Kong by the Chinese authorities? Will he ensure that the Government do everything we can to support not only the civil and political freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, but religious liberty there?
My hon. Friend is right. I put on the record that I have had conversations about BNO passport holders and I know that the Home Secretary is apprised of their situation. We have discussed the matter and we keep it under review.
My hon. Friend rightly raises freedom of religion. There is a broader issue around freedom of belief and conscience. We are concerned about the persecution of groups in China on the grounds of religion or belief and that the Chinese Government guidelines on unapproved religious activity, education and travel would restrict the peaceful observation of those rights, which are of course guaranteed under international human rights instruments.
Building on the Foreign Secretary’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), the confidence of the people of Hong Kong in the intentions of the Chinese Government is undermined by clear evidence of the violation of human rights, especially in freedom of religion or belief or the exercise of conscience, as my right hon. Friend described it. Will he be specific about the representations Her Majesty’s Government have made to the Chinese Government about the 1 million Muslims who are being held in re-education camps?
We raise that matter in the United Nations. I have been clear about the UK’s position, which is that we are very concerned about it. The reports look credible and it looks as if the most basic undertakings under international human rights law have been violated. We will continue to ensure that those concerns are expressed directly and candidly. We want a friendship and a partnership with the Government of China—I have said that to the Chinese Foreign Minister—but in all good friendships we must be able to talk candidly when there are concerns.
Arms Export Licences (Saudi Arabia)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Trade if she will make an urgent statement on the recent unlawful award of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, in contravention of a Court of Appeal ruling that determined that the UK must cease arms exports to the country.
Today, I will be tabling a written ministerial statement updating Parliament on the latest situation in relation to the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal on 20 June about export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. As the Government informed the Court on 16 September and followed up with an affidavit today, my Department identified errors in the export licensing procedure in relation to the Saudi coalition’s activities in the conflict in Yemen.
As I stated publicly on 16 September, I unreservedly apologise for the export licences that my Department issued in error. I have also given my unreserved apology to the Court. A procedure to ensure that export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are not granted for goods for possible use in the conflict in Yemen was put in place on 20 June 2019. That followed the Court order and the then Secretary of State’s statement to Parliament.
The Export Control Joint Unit subsequently issued export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners and, in line with the agreed procedure, these were signed off at official, rather than ministerial, level. It subsequently came to light that two licences were in breach of the Court undertaking, and one licence was granted contrary to the statement in Parliament, as these licences were for goods that could possibly be used in the conflict in Yemen.
Without seeking to prejudice the independent investigation, it appears that information pertaining to the conflict had not been fully shared across Government. I took immediate action as soon as the issue was brought to my attention on 12 September: taking immediate steps to inform the Court and Parliament; putting in place immediate interim procedures to make sure the errors could not happen again; and instigating a complete and full internal review of all licences granted for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June. The Department’s permanent secretary, on my behalf, commissioned a full internal investigation.
The Court and Parliament were informed on 16 September with the appropriate detail, and the interim procedures mean that senior officials in the Department for International Trade, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence guarantee that the latest information available to Government is used in their advice. All recommendations to grant licences for the export of items for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners will now be referred to Ministers, rather than being signed off at official level. The full review of licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners is currently being undertaken, and this internal review is still ongoing.
As a result of the internal review so far, we have identified one further licence that has been granted in breach of the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal. This licence has not been used and has now been revoked.
My officials are also carrying out an urgent review of the composition of the coalition. This has identified a further licence that is in breach of the parliamentary statement. We reassessed the licence in light of the latest information and subsequently revoked it in so far as it applies to Jordan.
My officials continue to review all the information relating to licences granted for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June 2019, and we will be open and transparent with the Court and Parliament as to any new issues that emerge. In addition, the DIT permanent secretary, on my behalf, has commissioned a full independent investigation, which will establish the precise circumstances in which the licences were granted and whether any other licences have been granted in breach of the undertaking to the Court or contrary to the parliamentary statement, and it will confirm that procedures are in place so that no further breaches of the undertaking can occur.
This investigation will be led by an independent senior official: the director general of policy group for the Department of Work and Pensions. It is possible that more cases will come to light. As I have done so far, I will keep the Court and Parliament informed as to any new information that emerges.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. She made the shocking revelation that two further licences break the law and that more may yet be discovered, but I welcome her unreserved apologies for the errors, as they have been called, made so far.
The situation in Yemen is currently the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, with half the country’s population at risk of famine and 22 million Yemenis in need of aid and protection. Although the UK has given £770 million in aid to Yemen over the past few years, the UK has earned eight times as much from arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. That is the result not of a so-called inadvertent error but of a shamefully incoherent foreign policy that has put profit ahead of upholding international humanitarian law.
The UK has licensed £4.6 billion-worth of arms to the Saudi military, which the United Nations has found to be directly accountable for an estimated 10,852 civilian casualties as of November last year. And now, despite the Court of Appeal ruling that the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful, the Secretary of State has approved arms export licences to the Royal Saudi Land Forces.
The Secretary of State has said:
“Given the fact that RSLF troops were deployed in Yemen at the time the licence was issued, this licence should not have been granted.”
How could there ever have been any doubt that the RSLF was in Yemen, given that it makes up more than half of the Saudi armed forces, which have invaded Yemen by land? The situation is crystal clear.
The process that led to the licences being granted demonstrates the same carelessness and utter lack of regard for human life that has defined the UK’s arms sales to Saudi over the years. Rather than wasting time and money appealing the Court decision or lobbying other foreign Governments to resume weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, will the Secretary of State rescind these unlawfully granted arms export licences? Furthermore, does she take full responsibility for her Department’s unlawful award of arms export licences, in contravention of the Court of Appeal? If so, will she do the right thing and resign?
Clearly, the conflict in Yemen is a cause of great concern and we fully support the UN-led process to reach peaceful resolution. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have contributed £770 million of UK aid. What we are talking about today, however, is specific procedural issues relating to export licences.
We have a procedure that follows the consolidated criteria and is very clear about humanitarian law. In its judgment on 20 June, the Court of Appeal was very clear that we have in place a rigorous and robust process. The issue is how that process has been followed. That is why, when I was first informed of this issue, on 12 September, as Secretary of State I took immediate action to have an internal investigation into what had happened. I asked the permanent secretary to get a leader from another Government Department to fully investigate the process and to make sure that no such licences could be issued in error by putting in place a robust process. At the same time, I took immediate steps to inform the Court and Parliament. I have been completely open and transparent about what has happened.
This is a procedural issue. I do not want to prejudge the investigation, but the issue appears to be the sharing of information across Government. That is why senior officials will now be asked to sign off on the advice that is put forward, and Ministers will be asked to sign off these export licences.
Order. It might be helpful to colleagues if I indicate that, while wishing to accommodate the legitimate and not inconsiderable interest in this urgent question, I want also to move on to the next urgent question at or close to midday. There is, therefore, a premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike.
I think everyone across the House shares my right hon. Friend’s views on the significance and the horror of the humanitarian situation in Yemen. I believe that what she has expressed to the House today is quite proper remorse and steps to ensure that the Government follow the well-established procedures for arms exports, but will she reflect on the fact that only yesterday the House was debating the impact on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia of the attack on oil facilities in that country by its neighbours across the Gulf, the Iranians? This is a very sensitive area. One of our key allies in the Gulf is under considerable pressure from the Iranian authorities, and we as a Government need to act responsibly to ensure that we stand by our allies when they come under attack.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but the topic of today’s question is the following of procedures in the consolidated criteria. The consolidated criteria are right; they are a good way to make sure that we issue export licences to the right parties. The problem here is specifically whether that process was followed correctly within Government and whether information was shared between Government Departments. That is the issue we have identified. I have taken immediate steps to ensure that information is properly shared when those decisions are taken, and to investigate what went wrong, but of course I take full responsibility as Secretary of State, and I have made an unreserved apology both to the Court and to Parliament.
Enviable eloquence, to be equalled by breathtaking brevity—Mr Barry Gardiner.
Indeed, Mr Speaker.
The Government did know; they just did not tell the Department for International Trade. Which Department knew? Which Minister had the responsibility to tell the Secretary of State, and why are they not sitting alongside the right hon. Lady, making an apology to Parliament?
The evidence presented during the court proceedings earlier this year and the recent revelation prove that the Government have failed to abide by their own undertaking. On two occasions since the Court of Appeal’s verdict, licences have been awarded in contravention of the determination precisely because a careful assessment was not carried out. Will the Secretary of State explain why the reports in 2015—the widespread reports that Saudi troops had been deployed on the ground and were leading the co-ordinated efforts of coalition forces in Yemeni territory—were not properly investigated and assessed by her Department? I note her letter to the Committees on Arms Export Controls; the inference is that no such investigation had ever been carried out.
The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), advised that potential breaches were monitored in a number of ways, one of which was through on-the-ground military and diplomatic staff and our positive close relations with Saudi Arabian officials. The Saudi Arabian officials must have known that their country’s troops were on the ground, so why was that not communicated in the close positive relations that our staff had with them?
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has launched a full inquiry, but it will not have escaped her notice that the arms export fair took place in London just a short while ago. Some £6.3 billion of arms have been exported to the coalition by this Government— £5.3 billion-worth to Saudi Arabia. What further deals were done there? The Secretary of State has said that it is possible that more illegal deals may have taken place, but does she actually think that instead of it being possible, it is highly probable?
The hon. Gentleman asked me first about the process that took place within Government. The answer is that the joint unit is staffed by officials from the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade, and clearly there was a failing when it came to sharing information across Government. A director general of the Department for Work and Pensions is conducting an investigation to look precisely at the question of which Department issued, or did not issue, the information and how it was shared. The results of that investigation will be put forward in due course. This is a complex area. The Export Control Joint Unit approves approximately 16,000 licences a year, so it is important that we get this right and do not rush to an answer before we are ready.
Regarding the consolidated criteria on licensing, it is also important that we adhere to the terms of our undertaking to the Court and our statement to Parliament, and I was talking earlier specifically about breaches of our undertaking to the Court and our statement to Parliament.
This is clearly a matter of serious moment. I welcome the tone that the Secretary of State has taken today and, indeed, her admission that things have not gone right. Can she assure me of two things: first, that there is a full and complete investigation going on, which I think she has already mentioned; and secondly, that the aim of the investigation will not just be to find out how this situation happened, but to ensure that it cannot happen again?
I can assure my hon. Friend that I have put in place an interim procedure to ensure that there is sign-off from senior officials in all three relevant Departments and ministerial sign-off on any proposed export licences to the relevant parties. I also assure him that we are conducting an investigation, which will be led by a director general from the Department for Work and Pensions, into exactly what went wrong in this case to ensure that it cannot happen again.
I recognise and welcome the Secretary of State’s apology and acceptance of responsibility. It is true that the breaches in export licensing that are the subject of this urgent question may well be described, as she said, as “procedural”. But this case highlights some profound problems with her Department. We are talking about spare parts for armoured vehicles and for military radio used by Saudi land forces, which form half of the Saudi military and were operating on the ground in Yemen when the licences were issued, forming part of the invasion by land into Yemen by a country—Saudi Arabia—found to be in breach of international humanitarian law, which is precisely what is supposed to be checked before licences are granted.
Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the provision of incomplete information shared across the Government was simple incompetence? Were her Department and others not aware of their responsibilities in this regard? She will have to be convincing, because I am not convinced that the actions being taken so far remove the perception that this Government and this Department are prepared to ignore the law—in this case, from the Court of Appeal—when it suits them to do so.
The Court of Appeal was very clear in its judgment that there is a rigorous and robust process in place across Government. The question is about the specific sharing of information between Government Departments. I have absolute confidence that the unit, when it receives information, implements that in doing its work. The issue is the sharing of information. That is why we have conducted an internal review of the licences already issued as well as asking another Government Department to look across the board at where information was shared. This is not an issue about the process, which was deemed by the Court of Appeal to be rigorous and robust; it is about how that process has been followed. A lot of people are saying, “Why can’t we do this quicker?” It is very important that we get this right. In the interim period, I have put in place a procedure that makes sure that there is senior sign-off from all three Departments—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the DIT—as well as ministerial sign-off. There was not ministerial sign-off on these licences. This was done under the previous procedure. There will now be ministerial sign-off on all the relevant licences.
Can I appeal to colleagues please to ask single-sentence questions and give brief replies, because in that way we will get through as many as we possibly can in the truncated period of time?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. It is important when we get things wrong that we own up to it and take responsibility. Can she please assure this House that no further licences will be granted to Saudi Arabia or its coalition partners for weapons that could be used in Yemen, especially when many are Scottish-made?
I agree that it is important that we are clear when errors have been made, and I am clear that that is the case. I am confident that we now have a robust interim procedure while this investigation is conducted and make sure that we have a proper procedure in the long term to ensure that the process is followed.
First I call the longest-serving member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls—Ann Clwyd.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Does the new Minister realise that it took almost a year, at the start of this Parliament, to set up the Committees on Arms Export Controls because the Government dragged their feet—and, I would say, dragged their feet deliberately? I am sick of hearing about “rigorous and robust”—this is neither rigorous nor robust. Representatives of the various parties in the Saudi-led coalition were recently at the arms fair. Can she give us an assurance that no new undertakings or contracts were agreed to service or export new goods to the countries involved in the coalition in Yemen?
The role of the joint unit is to scrutinise licences. I can assure the right hon. Lady that we have put in place an interim process to make sure that all available Government information is reflected in advice to Ministers on the issuance of these licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, and that that will specifically have ministerial sign-off.
I also very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Britain has played a leading role in both diplomatic and humanitarian aid in Yemen. What more political pressure can we bring to bring about a political solution in Yemen?
My hon. Friend is right that we play a significant role in terms of aid to Yemen—we have provided £770 million-worth—and it is important that we work through the UN, to which the Foreign Secretary is committed, to seek as quickly as possible an end to conflict in Yemen.
When Court orders are contravened a couple of times, it can perhaps be dismissed as a failure to follow procedures, but when it happens on multiple occasions, it suggests that there is a systemic problem; the system is not working. Will the Secretary of State look at implementing a policy of the presumption of denial in respect of all export licences to countries listed as human rights priorities on the annual Foreign Office human rights report, so that those exports to those countries would be banned in the first instance?
To be clear for the hon. Gentleman, it was on 12 September that the errors were identified within the Department and notified to me. We then notified the Court and immediately conducted an internal review of all the licences already issued. All these issues relate to decisions that were made before 12 September, and that is why we have put in place the new interim procedure.
It is of vital reputational importance that we maintain the most rigorous and robust export licensing regime in the world. To that end, what is the basis upon which these licences are granted, as in this instance?
The basis on which these licences are granted is in line with the consolidated criteria. Specifically for Saudi Arabia and the coalition partners, we are very much cognisant of the Court of Appeal’s ruling and the undertaking of the former Secretary of State to Parliament.
Despite repeated assurances from the Government over the years that they had acted within the law concerning export licences for arms to Saudi Arabia, we found out last week that the Government had acted unlawfully and today that there might be further breaches. When will this Government recognise the plight facing the Yemeni people and immediately suspend all existing and future arms exports to Saudi Arabia?
I acknowledged in my statement that there have been errors in the way that this procedure has been followed, which is why we have put in place interim measures to deal with this and are conducting an internal review, as well as an investigation by another Government Department.
The Secretary of State’s apology is welcome, but the narrative is shameful. In August this year, 236 Yemenis were killed, and the bombing raids reached 20,000. Last week a bomb fell on a mosque, and a bomb fell on a family eating their dinner. What do they put on the death certificate? Do they put “death caused by administrative error”?
As I said earlier, I unreservedly apologise for the errors that were made. That is why, when this was brought to my attention as Secretary of State on 12 September, I took immediate action to stop this happening.
The Court of Appeal identified a failure by the Government to meet their legal obligation to make a systematic assessment of past possible violations of international law. The Secretary of State today has acknowledged a failure to share information across Government. Surely these failures demonstrate that we no longer have a robust system of arms control in this country.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have found specific errors, for which I have apologised and taken immediate action to address, but overall, as the Court of Appeal itself points out, we have a robust and rigorous process.
May I make a declaration? I have just returned from a two-day visit to Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, facilitated by the kingdom, and in the coming days I will include that in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, I would like to thank the Secretary of State for writing to me immediately on this issue and making it very transparent what the problems were. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is fighting vile terrorists in Yemen who are using human shields. Does she agree that we are approaching the point where our current arms export regulations are not sufficient to deal with the issue of the rebels—the terrorists—using human shields and that the number of civilian casualties is a result of that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. In this particular case, we have already identified a problem in sharing internal information within government which led to these exports licences being issued. Of course we are doing further investigation into that, but that is the specific issue around the breach of the Court of Appeal judgment. That is where I am putting my focus as Secretary of State.
I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. These mistakes are highly regrettable and point to the need for the Government to put their house in order in terms of the overall suspension as quickly as possible. Is it not lamentable for any Member of this House to imply that the suffering in Yemen is principally caused by any arms relationship or our coalition partners rather than the disgrace of the Houthi Islamist regime?
I am immensely obliged to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman makes an effective point, but the specific issue I deal with as Secretary of State for International Trade is making sure that our export licensing regime is in line with the process that we have laid out as well as the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
Order. I would like to accommodate remaining colleagues, but colleagues who ask long questions do so knowing that they are stopping other colleagues from contributing. I am sure that they are not going to do that, because they are comrades and they will behave in an egalitarian manner. I feel absolutely certain of that, starting of course with Lloyd Russell-Moyle.
Last year the Department issued 30 million rounds of Warsaw Pact weapons to Saudi Arabia incorrectly. Then the Court of Appeal judgment and now this. Is it not time for the joint unit to be turned into an independent unit like any other regulator and for the Committees on Arms Export Controls to be turned into a proper Committee of the House?
As I have said, errors were made and that is why we have asked the director general at the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct a full review of how this process is being operated.
Are any sanctions available for the companies involved in these mistakes, some of which presumably know full well that they should not be applying for the licences in the first place?
The issue is the issuance of licences. That is the issue I look at as Secretary of State and make sure that it is in place properly.
Can the Secretary of State describe the action of British officials in Saudi Arabia in overseeing the use of British weapons by the Saudi forces in a process agreed with her Department and the Ministry of Defence?
This specific issue is how our process was administered within government. The specific cause of these errors, as we have identified so far, has been the lack of information sharing, but of course I will take up the right hon. Gentleman’s point too.
When is the inquiry due to report back?
I hope to have the results of the internal review within the next few weeks.
Was there a change to UK policy on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2016 to discontinue consideration of past Saudi humanitarian law breaches?
As I said, the issue here is not the policy so much as how the procedure was or was not followed.
In light of continuing breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudis, and another disregard for the law by this Government, will the Minister withdraw her appeal?
The issue in question is specifically about whether or not the process was followed, and today we have submitted an affidavit to the court with full details.
With regard to the kindness of the House, may I be the first to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing this urgent question to expose the utter incompetence around this issue. Thousands of UK citizens, military and civilian, are working on projects that are designed to be beyond the reach of this Parliament. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that they are not involved in projects in Yemen?
The question refers specifically to the process of issuing export licences, and that is what I have been focusing on.
Is it not the case that this Government will always seek to break their own rules and turn a blind eye to breaches of humanitarian law when there is money to be made and deals to be had?
As soon as this issue was brought to my attention on 12 September, I took action to ensure that such things cannot happen.
In reality these so-called “errors” were discovered only after third parties took the UK Government to court, and the Government have fought this issue all the way through the courts. Rather than having an interim procedure, is it not time to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia altogether?
The breach in the court findings is specifically about how the procedure was followed, and that is what we must focus on.
Prime Minister's Role in Creating a Safe Environment
I referred earlier to events in the Chamber yesterday, and what I am about to say I say as much for the benefit of those observing our proceedings as for Members of the House, as I think it extremely important that our proceedings are accessible to the people who are interested in them. In light of the appalling atmosphere in the Chamber yesterday, and the toxicity that that can spawn or exacerbate in the country at large, I have granted an urgent question to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), which treats of this matter. In my book, it is manifestly urgent.
(Urgent Question): I had wanted to ask the Prime Minister, but I shall ask the Minister if he will ask the Prime Minister to reflect on his language and role as Prime Minister to create a safe environment both in our country and our country’s Parliament.
British democracy has always been robust and vibrant, and healthy respectful debate is vital to it. Freedom of speech is a fundamental British liberty, but it is not an excuse to threaten or abuse anyone whose views we do not agree with. That liberty is compromised when a culture of intimidation forces people out of public life or discourages citizens from engaging in the political process. Let me make clear and say with no equivocation that such behaviour is wrong, unacceptable and must be addressed.
The Government recognise that this is an ongoing challenge that does not stop after each election. It is important that we tackle this issue and ensure that everyone, no matter their background, can participate in our democracy, free from hatred and intimidation. That is why we are taking action to confront it. The Government have committed to legislating for a new electoral offence on intimidation of candidates and campaigners in the run-up to an election. We have already made secondary legislation that removes the requirement for candidates standing at local and mayoral elections to have their home addresses published on the ballot paper and we will do the same for the Greater London Assembly elections.
Members across the House have faced threats of violence, attacks on their constituency offices and staff, and abuse aimed at family members. This is abhorrent. I know that right hon. and hon. Members from across the House raised this concern yesterday. We want to ensure that people from across the political spectrum can stand for office free from the fear of intimidation and abuse. We want to tackle this extremely serious issue and protect voters. The security arrangements for Members of Parliament have been kept under constant review by the Palace of Westminster authorities and the Metropolitan police’s parliamentary liaison and investigation team. Local forces engage with their MPs and other political figures to meet their security needs. Each force has a single point of contact who has contact with the PLAIT through regular updates and meetings as required.
The Government are also considering what further steps are necessary to ensure the safety of parliamentarians and their staff. Crucially, this applies not only to the vicinities of Parliament, but also in constituencies and online. We are working with social media companies to address threats online and abuse of MPs, candidates and others in public life to create a safe environment for debate.
I did ask a question, and that was whether the Prime Minister would reflect or could be asked to reflect.
Let me start by saying that I am not—and nobody is in this House—a traitor. They are not ignoring their constituents; they are all acting in good faith. I was raised thinking that we on these Benches were the goodies and over there were the baddies, but what I found when I got here was that everybody pretty much wanted to get to the same conclusion, just in a different way. I will wager that, more so than the Prime Minister, I spend time in my constituency office, loving and laughing with my constituents, no matter what they voted.
I do not just want to probe the idea that we all get abuse—not doubt we will hear a lot of that today—because we all get abuse. I had a death threat this week that literally quoted the Prime Minister. It used his name and words in a death threat that was delivered to my staff. So we know that it gets out. What I want to look at today—and what I want answers to today—is when there is a clear strategy to divide. The use of language yesterday and over the past few weeks, such as “surrender Bill”, invoking the war, and talking about betrayal and treachery, has clearly been tested, workshopped and worked up, and is entirely designed to inflame hatred and division.
I get it: it works; it is working. We are all ambitious. I am not going to pretend that I am not ambitious, but I also have a soul. It is not sincere, it is totally planned, it is completely and utterly part of a strategy designed by somebody to harm and cause hatred in our country. When I hear of my friend’s murder, and the way that it has made me and my colleagues feel scared, described as “humbug”, I actually do not feel anger towards the Prime Minister; I feel pity for those who still have to toe his line. Government Members know how appalling it was to describe the murder of my friend as mere humbug. [Interruption.] Can I ask everybody to act with calm and dignity in this moment?
I want to ask the Prime Minister to apologise and to tell him that the bravest, strongest thing to say is sorry. It will make him look good. It will not upset the people who want Brexit in this country if he acts for once like a statesman. Calling me names and putting words in my mouth and in the mouth of my dead friend makes me cross and angry, scared even, but I will not react. The Prime Minister wants me to react and join in the chaos that keeps this hatred and fear on our streets. I simply ask the Minister to ask the Prime Minister, who is notable by his bravery today, to meet me in private, with his advisers and with some of my colleagues and my friends from Jo’s family, so that we can explain our grief and try to make him understand why it is so abhorrent that he has chosen a strategy to divide rather than to lead.
I will show calm and dignity in my responses today as well. I am very clear that the Government are looking at how we can create a safe environment not just for Members of Parliament, but for journalists and others in public life who can face abuse merely for being involved in what they do, and, of course, for members of the judiciary. I am always clear that no one is a traitor for saying what they believe, or for arguing a different political point. That is part of public debate. The last actual traitor was in 1946—someone who tried to support those looking to overturn this democracy by violent means.
It is right to say that the Government are moving to take action. We have the Online Harms White Paper. With colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we are working to tackle some of the corrosive nature of the debate online. We see some of the work that is being done across Government to try to tackle the issue and see where things are being done and to make sure that people do feel safe to express their views. We have been very clear that the law applies as much online as it does in the physical world.
We can all look at what may have been said over the years—I am sure that the hon. Lady will look at anything that she has said over the years about particular political figures as well. It is about how we do not get into a game of what-aboutery, but focus on what we can do to protect. I heard the comments that you made this morning, Mr Speaker, about some of the suggestions. I am sure that you, like me, will be interested to hear some of the thoughts that have come out about the idea that has been floated with you.
As the Minister who is responsible for our defending democracy programme, I would be only too happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss in a different format where it comes, and, ultimately, to see where we can go with the approach of this House. As I have said, we are already committed to legislating around intimidation at election time, which is one of the things that many picked up on following the last election, and we see that as an ongoing debate. Actually, I was due even yesterday—if this House had not been sitting—to have a meeting with the police to discuss what we can do to ensure that all candidates receive support in any future general election, as it is not just when people are Members of this place that they face intimidation and abuse.
As I have said, the Government are taking a range of actions. Ultimately, it is for everyone to think about what they say and how they have contributed. Certainly today, what they will get from the Government is a calm dignity in response, making clear what we are doing to tackle this issue and create a safe environment for all, and not just for Members of Parliament.
When it comes to creating a safe environment in this place, we have a very clear code of conduct, which is enforced by you, Mr Speaker, in this Chamber. Yesterday, you were rightly, I think, rigorous with the Prime Minister, as ever, in the enforcement of his behaviour in accordance with that code. Now, I have the very greatest respect for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). We serve on the Women and Equalities Committee together, and I know how passionately she feels on many issues, but I am afraid that, yesterday, she was the person I could hear screaming the loudest from her Bench—so noticeable was it that she was actually having a conversation with one of the Whips who was standing by the side of your Chair, Mr Speaker. It was that that created a significant impression to people watching this debate of the hostility that the media reported. Is not one of the issues here the equal implementation of the code of conduct, so that all Members of this House feel as affected by the code and its requirement for all of us to treat each of us with respect, regardless of party?
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point: it is for all of us to look at how we contribute to respectful debate in this Chamber. Of course when it comes to what happens in this Chamber, Mr Speaker, it is you and your deputies who ensure that Members stick to the code of conduct and, of course, you have taken action when you believe that that is not occurring. Ultimately, it is about—certainly for the Government—not just this place, but the whole of democratic debate. There are people who will be thinking of doing their democratic duty, as they see it, in standing for this place and in giving their fellow citizens a chance to vote for a particular set of policies who will know that, in doing so, they will have their arguments, their thoughts and their proposals put to the test, but what should not be put to the test is just how thick a skin they have.
What the Minister has said is absolutely right: that code of conduct has to be enforced and, indeed, as far as the Chamber is concerned, adjudicated by the Chair. The record is clear and the evidence is there for all to see. People can observe week after week after week after week that there can be abuses on both sides—for example, during Prime Minister’s questions—and every time without fail the Chair intervenes to seek to restore order. It has been the case, it is the case, and it will always be the case. It is not a matter of party politics; it is a matter of procedural propriety, and that is the way that it must continue to be.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this urgent question.
It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister has not respected this House by attending here today. His language and demeanour yesterday was, frankly, nothing short of disgraceful. Three years ago, our colleague—our Member of Parliament—Jo Cox was murdered by a far right activist, shouting, “Britain First. This is for Britain.” The language that politicians use matters and has real consequences. To dismiss concerns from Members about the death threats that they receive and to dismiss concerns that the language used by the Prime Minister is being repeated in those death threats is reprehensible. To dismiss those concerns in an abusive way, as he did, is completely unacceptable. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), and other Members, including the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), for what they said yesterday.
Today, I have written to all Members of the parliamentary Labour party expressing solidarity with my friends and setting out the conduct expected of all colleagues. No part of this House, as you have said, Mr Speaker, has a monopoly of virtue. Inappropriate language has been used by all parties, but we all have a duty to keep our debates political and not to descend into personal abuse.
I disagreed profoundly with the previous Prime Minister, but she did offer cross-party talks to try to find a compromise. She also set out her approach to this House, allowing for scrutiny and debate. I was pleased to participate in a meeting with her and other party leaders about conduct and abuse in the House and around the parliamentary estate. The current Prime Minister, unfortunately, has sought to entrench divisions, refused to set out any detail of the deal that he is seeking and continues to pledge that we will leave with no deal on 31 October, despite the fact that this House has voted against, and legislated against, such an outcome. Not only should he comply with the law, but he should come to this House and apologise for his conduct yesterday, which fell well below the standards expected by the people of this country of the way their elected representatives should behave, should speak and should treat each other.
I have outlined what the Government are doing, but the Leader of the Opposition mentioned the murder of Jo Cox—a dreadful crime committed by an extremist. Many of us who were in the House at that time remember exactly where we were when we heard the news of that appalling attack—in my case, I was attending a constituency event. In the same way, many from a previous generation of politics remember where they were when they heard that our colleagues Anthony Berry, Robert Buckland and Airey Neave had been assassinated by those looking to bring terror to this country.
The biggest issue is that delay will just bring more division to this country—
I apologise. Thank you for correcting me, Mr Speaker.
In terms of how the Government are tackling this issue, we do need to bring a resolution to debates. As the Leader of the Opposition will know, the Government were clear that we were prepared to take our arguments to the country on Tuesday 15 October and to ask the electorate to pass a judgment. That would have not only given us a chance to resolve the division affecting this House, but given the country a way to move forward. As you yourself have reflected, Mr Speaker, the passions that this issue has inflamed will only carry on if there is not a resolution.
I once again associate myself with the remarks you made at the beginning of proceedings today, Mr Speaker. I fear that the Minister is going to go to great lengths to take this argument to the wider issues of MPs’ safety, but this question is about what happened here yesterday. It was completely unacceptable behaviour in every way. Whipping up a crowd and creating division is not helpful, from whichever side it comes. If we cannot deal with these issues in this place, maybe it is time to put aside our party parliamentary T-shirts and our Brexit and remain T-shirts and to put on a T-shirt that stands for parliamentary democracy, unity of purpose, consensus and agreement. Yesterday was unacceptable, and if we do not do something to change things, we are putting our parliamentary democracy under threat.
The question clearly relates to creating a safe environment in both the country and Parliament; certainly, as the Minister responsible, I do not want this debate to be just about MPs being a case on their own—there are many who face abuse and intimidation, from the judiciary, to journalists, to those who will never be Members of Parliament but who just want to take part in our democratic process.
We heard your comments this morning, Mr Speaker, about some of the thoughts and reflections on what may happen in this place. Ultimately, it is for the House itself to decide how it wishes to regulate itself, how it wishes to behave and what changes it may wish to make to its Standing Orders, and we can, of course, rely on you and whoever is elected to replace you to lead the way in enforcing them.
As others have said, the scenes in the House of Commons last night were deeply disturbing. The Prime Minister’s tone was appalling, his behaviour was appalling and his language was appalling. We have in No. 10 a man who has built his career on making inflammatory remarks, stoking division and shouting down those who disagree with him. The Prime Minister is not fit for office. His behaviour is an outrage, and his Government are treating people disgracefully.
People want leadership, and they want accountability. Yesterday, the Prime Minister should have come in front of this House and apologised for acting unlawfully. He should have held his hands up, agreed he had acted wrongly and pledged not to do it again. Instead, he chose to brazen it out, proving that he embodies the very worst of the wrongs in our society, and totally ignoring the seven principles of public life.
Young people are watching our Parliament today. They are watching and learning that, to get to the top, all they need to do is break the law and shout people down. The House of Commons and the Prime Minister should be setting a good example to all those living across these isles. The Prime Minister should be here today. He should pledge to stop using language that incites hatred or violence, whether that is against other MPs, citizens with different political beliefs, or migrants who have chosen to live and work in the UK. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister to come before us and do that?
When we look at creating a safe environment for debate, many colleagues will reflect on exactly how that was shown at times online during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. However, in terms of the comments that have just been made, if the Scottish National party has no confidence in the Prime Minister, it had a perfect opportunity yesterday to table a motion for debate to that effect today. There was also an opportunity for SNP Members to take their arguments to the country on Tuesday 15 October. However, it is an invitation that they declined.
There is already a danger of these exchanges turning into a “holier than thou” competition. We should reflect on how much unhappiness and anxiety there is among Members of the House and that this is going to be expressed in various ways. People are going to use robust and emotive language to express their views, and that is entirely understandable. May I just make one request, Mr Speaker—that we no longer invoke the name of any person who has been a victim of attacks in order to try to make political points because—[Interruption.] Well, there we are. It is simply used as an opportunity to shame other Members of this House. I do not think any of the exchanges and mentions of Jo Cox yesterday were particularly fair on her family.
It is always useful to benefit from my hon. Friend’s experience in this House over many years. He is right to say that we can have robust, emotive debates. The issues settled in this Parliament are of great concern across the nation, and people will rightly get passionate about them, but we should not do so with disrespect, and I know, of course, that if that happened, it would be dealt with.
I gently say to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) that it is not for any Member of this House to determine whether another Member can talk about their own grief and about how they feel in a certain circumstance and whether that should somehow not be allowed.
The language that leaders use matters because it sets the tone for public debate. I am sure I am not alone in looking across the Atlantic at the rallies with crowds of people chanting, “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton or, “Send her back!” about Ilhan Omar—by the way, it is no coincidence that women are often the targets of this hate, and especially women of colour—and seeing worrying echoes in our own politics of that Trumpian approach. Can the Minister give any assurance that there will be no deliberate campaign to use that kind of language to inflame? I fear that he cannot, because the repeated use of those inflammatory words by the Prime Minister yesterday was, it seemed, very obviously deliberate.
I would just end by saying that, on Tuesday morning, I spoke to a group of 400 young women. They asked how I dealt with abuse and hate on social media as a woman in public life. They asked whether going into politics was something I would recommend. I want to be able to say to such young women and to all young people that they should play their role in public life. We in this House need to be able to create the environment that enables those young people to come forward into our public life, and I fear that we are failing to do so.
I think we all want to see an environment where everyone feels they can take part. That is why I have outlined some of what the Government are looking to do, such as legislating on intimidation around election times. The hon. Lady gave examples of what we have seen across the Atlantic. I am sure she will join me in saying that, while I never voted for him, seeing a group of people chanting, “Tony Blair can eff off and die!” is something we would all condemn.
I see her indicating that that is the case.
What would inflame the debate further is the idea that we should just have more delay and people feeling that when they do vote and want to have a say, they are ignored. That is why we need to bring the Brexit matter to a resolution, as the Government are seeking to do.
I call Mr Kenneth Clarke.
I was only just beginning to stir, Mr Speaker. You spotted me rather promptly!
What concerns me is whether there is any sense of a deliberate strategy in all this. I would like my hon. Friend to reassure me. I assure him that I have been a junior Minister myself, so I do realise he is probably not consulted closely about strategy—I am not sure many members of the Cabinet have much idea of what the strategy is at the moment. Can he allay two fears that I have?
First, it seems to me that the Prime Minister is absolutely desperate to have an election before 31 October, so that he can fight it before the chance of some untoward effects after that date. Also, I fear that the strategy is to fight it on the people versus Parliament platform that Nigel Farage invented and that we are imitating. Will my hon. Friend assure me that what happened yesterday was one of those occasions when people lost control of themselves and the House, not for the first time, erupted in disorder, and that this is not part of some grand discrediting of the usual political institutions in order to fight a populist and nationalist campaign?
As a junior Minister, it is always good to benefit from the advice of the Father of the House. I reassure him that the Government’s strategy is to do what the vast majority of the nation want, which is to bring a resolution to Brexit and deliver the referendum result. I know that the Father of the House has voted for deals and has seen that as compromising and moving forward. The Government will look to fight a general election on a platform of resolving Brexit, no more pointless delay, bringing 20,000 extra police officers on to our streets, increasing school funding and taking our economy forward. I have to say that our platform will be far stronger than that of the Opposition.
Having called the Father of the House, I want now to call the Mother of the House.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for bringing forward this urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for your comments last night and your comments from the Chair this morning. I agree with everything the Father of the House said. I think that what happened last night was just an ugly spectacle of things that have been happening for months and months getting even worse. We all know that hon. Members from all parts of the House have felt inhibited in doing the work that they are elected to this place to do. It is important—it is essential—that everybody who is elected to this House is able to speak out without fear or favour to say what they believe in. Nobody in this House should do anything that stops any other Member exercising that right. Whether it is threats to people who are remainers or people in balaclavas bursting into a university meeting that was being addressed by the Leader of the House, we cannot allow it in our democracy. Nor can we have a situation where Members are fearful not only for themselves and their own safety, but for their staff and their families.
The Minister has mentioned a number of initiatives. Heaven knows, we have had enough discussion and wringing our hands about these problems over the months in this Chamber. We have had a number of initiatives, but there is a lack of coherence and focus for action. That is why the Father of the House and I have proposed a Speaker’s conference that brings together the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the House authorities and the parties to look at what can be done to ensure that we protect our democracy. It also needs to look at our political culture. We know, for example, that we cannot call each other blackguard, guttersnipe, stoolpigeon or various other things. We need rules of this House that are updated, and that protect us and enable us to do our business today.
I reflect on the productive conversation that I had with the women’s caucus, when the Mother of the House was present. Again, people should be able to speak out. An example was given at that meeting of a female candidate being advised that a solution to the problem was to not campaign on social media. That completely unacceptable solution had been advised by a local council. That would mean that women could not engage in politics in the same way as men, which is completely unacceptable.
The rules of the House may be something you wish to reflect on, Mr Speaker, or that whoever happens to be elected by the House to replace you wishes to work on. Some of those expressions probably are not in common parlance today, in contrast to other statements that are. The Government’s focus is not just on Members of Parliament. This is about all who engages in public life—journalists who face abuse for what they say and others who just want to discharge a public duty or share their opinion in our democracy. We need to ensure that they are covered by any proposals as well.
Like many people in this Chamber, I was shocked by the unacceptable conduct of the Prime Minister and particularly by his attitude, which succeeded that of the Attorney General earlier in the day, to how this House works. My concern is that these institutions—both the Supreme Court and the judiciary, which we debated earlier, and Parliament, where laws are set in the first place—are absolutely crucial to the wellbeing of people in our country. We all rely on them. All those who are part of these institutions are effectively custodians who should protect their wellbeing for the future.
What we are seeing right now in British politics is effectively, in my view, a deliberate race to the bottom to a form of gutter politics that, unfortunately, directly disadvantages those of us not willing to be part of that race. The sooner the leadership of the main political parties in this country rise to the challenge of showing the levels of integrity in their conduct and behaviour that the British people are entitled to expect, the better.
I always reflect on comments by the right hon. Lady. I say again that we as a Government are committed to ensuring that what we do about public discourse, particularly online via the Online Harms White Paper, is not just about how we make sure that people are not breaching the law and how people can participate without fear of abuse, but about ensuring that we tackle some of the disinformation that can have such a corrosive impact on our society. Ultimately, the social media giants have made some moves, but there is obviously a need to do even more.
All of us need to take care of our language and none of us is without fault, but the Prime Minister of our country holds a special responsibility. I say to Members across the House, I spent four and a half years opposite David Cameron and I never saw a performance like the one we saw last night from this Prime Minister. He said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle),
“the best way to ensure every parliamentarian is properly safe and to dial down the current anxiety in this country is to get Brexit done.”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 803.]
Everyone in this House shares the frustration about the last three and a half years—in fact, some of us did not want the referendum to happen in the first place—but none of us can agree that the safety of Members of this House should depend on the way they vote in this House. It is a disgrace that the Prime Minister said that yesterday. He should apologise and the Minister should apologise on his behalf.
This language and the language of surrender suggest that we are at war either with Europe or with each other. Let me say, as someone who grew up with parents who were born in the shadow of war: we are not at war with Europe and we are not at war with each other. Go down any street in this country and there are people who voted remain, there are people who voted leave and there are people with different views about how Brexit should be resolved.
The Prime Minister has a special responsibility. He is not exercising that responsibility; he is trying to divide an already divided country. Some people say this strategy will work. I say this strategy will not work, because the British people are better than this.
It was interesting to hear the right hon. Gentleman’s brief mention of his parents. I remember the attacks he faced in terms of his own father and his reaction to them. I thought those attacks took politics to a place which was not appropriate. We should always judge Members by who they are and what they say, not seek to attack their family. In terms of the strategy, I am very clear, when we liaise with the police and when we talk to them about appropriate measures to be taken, that that applies whatever opinion anyone adopts within this House. I suspect my discussions are more likely to focus on those who may strongly disagree with me but have absolutely every right to put those arguments forward, and to have measures in place to protect them—and not just from those things that cross the boundaries of the criminal law, but also from incessant abuse online, particularly when it is ill-informed.
But as we all know, we as a Government wanted to give the British people an opportunity express their views on Tuesday 15 October 2019. Sadly, for the first time in history, a Government wanted an election to resolve the matter but were blocked from doing so by the Opposition.
There is a strategy. The Prime Minister is the last thing standing against ending the Brexit enterprise entirely. He can expect no quarter. Absolutely everything is going to be thrown at him, isn’t it?
I think it is safe to say, as you yourself reflected, Mr Speaker, that the Brexit process has provoked passions and arguments and debate, but I think where the Prime Minister is very clear is that his view is the way to deal with this, and the Government’s view is that we should ensure that we deliver Brexit on 31 October 2019.
The challenge of what the Minister is saying is that this is not actually about Brexit, and nor, for many of us, is this about how we make this stop. If we want to do that we need to understand where it starts, and how the extremists on all sides of our political culture will trump proudly about how they might stand at Cable Street to defend people’s rights, or will listen to Steve Bannon and disagree with him, but have absolutely no understanding or comprehension of how we get to a Cable Street or how we get to a Steve Bannon in the first place. The danger with the Prime Minister’s conduct last night is that it is feeding a culture and a language that normalise extremism, so that those of us who have had “Traitor!” shouted at us in the street, as well as online—because the online and the offline are no different—experience this as “the heat of the kitchen” rather than as language that does nobody any favours in our democracy.
The most important thing the Minister can do now is go and listen to what we are missing, because this does not affect everyone equally. We are still going to have white men of a certain age, with independent means, in our politics. It is the young people, the women, the people from minority communities, who are already saying they are not going to take part in our politics, not because they have already experienced the rape threats and the death threats, the bomb threats and the intimidation, but because they see it. When the trolls are in Parliament, how do we stop feeding the trolls?
As the hon. Lady outlines, what is important is that we get the message out there that action is being taken, not just online—as she said, the law applies online as it does offline—and that we tell people that they have a place here, that they can make a difference, and that their votes count. Ultimately, the longer indecision goes on on one issue—Brexit—the more there will be frustrations, but that does not justify people crossing the line of abuse in hatred and intimidation. It needs to be clear that the same legal standard will apply, at whichever extreme people are. There are two sides of the same coin of hate.
Colleagues, I will call a few more Members, but what is needed is a single-sentence question from each.
I fear I might be repetitive because last night I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether it was not just about language but about tone. I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for his tone today, but how would he suggest that I should respond to those in the beautiful marketplace of Romsey who three Saturdays ago told me I was a traitor who deserved to be shot, when the language of “traitor” is heard in this House?
As I said earlier, there is no one in this House who is a traitor; there is no one in this House who should be threatened in that way. Those who shouted that in the marketplace should realise that if they talk such nonsense and make such threats, there is a criminal law that they can be held accountable to.
Our words carry consequences. They reverberate far and wide beyond these four walls. The Prime Minister, who holds the highest office in our land, also bears the greatest responsibility for what he says and inspires. I do not believe that the Minister can tell this House that he seeks to reduce online harm while the Prime Minister booms out toxic, divisive soundbites, the clips of which are immediately posted and promoted on online, hate-filled social media channels. We have seen the incidents of hate crime in our country increase, and as a Member of this House who has seen no fewer than six people convicted of harassment and hate crimes directed at me, can I ask the Minister to take back to this Prime Minister that he must urgently reconsider this deliberate strategy of sowing seeds of division in our country?
As the hon. Lady rightly indicates, those who behave in certain ways will face the criminal justice system and conviction for their offences. However, I would just gently reflect that a national party going round with the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” will not necessarily help tone down the debate. Ultimately, for us all, bringing a resolution to this issue is a key part of what this Parliament is meant to be here for, and if we cannot do it in this Parliament, I would look forward to having the mature, sensible and informed debate with the electorate that we should have been having on Tuesday 15 October.
Mr Speaker, if you were to reread your Samuel Pepys, you would find a line in the diaries of over 350 years ago, which says that so low had the rump fallen in the eyes of the people, that the lads in the street
“do now cry, ‘Kiss my Parliament’”.
If we are to avoid that same reputation persisting today, in our current politics, may I ask the Minister and all in this House to apply to our conduct of social media the same standards that you, Mr Speaker, are asking for today, and that it should include us, journalists and the wider public if we are not to see the continuing debasement of the body politic?
I am not sure whether I shall be using the “Kiss my Parliament” adage. [Interruption.] Well, I suppose, it is a new take on the famous “Never kissed an MP” tee-shirt that some people like to wear. However, my right hon Friend is absolutely right to say that it is not just about MPs; it is about journalists, judges—anyone involved in public life. Some of the comments that have been directed at one journalist this morning would hardly be seen as the top brow of political debate. As I said, though, it is about the Government looking to create an environment that is safe for all to engage in, not just within this House, because ultimately the culture of debate outside this House will be reflected in the Parliament that is elected to be in this House.
Down the years that I have been a Member of this House, we have had memorable and important debates on highly contested issues—on Iraq, when I remember Robin Cook’s speech; on 9/11, when I remember David Blunkett’s speech; on the great crash, when I actually remember Gordon Brown’s speech. When I come into the Chamber today—I think last night was the culmination of a trend—I feel I am coming into a session of the Bullingdon Club. That is what it feels like in here. That culture is set by the leadership; it is always set by the leadership.
The courageous thing that the Prime Minister could have done today would have been to come to this House and explain to us why he thinks that style of leadership is appropriate. In his absence, will the Minister tell us what practical steps the Prime Minister will undertake to set a new culture of leadership that brings this House back to sensible debate on critical issues and makes us the important Chamber that we should be?
When reflecting on some of the great debates and issues of the past, I sometimes wonder how the political discourse might have been affected if Twitter, Facebook and other social media had existed at that time. That certainly applies to the 1975 referendum.
The Prime Minister and the Government will continue the work that we have already outlined to tackle intimidation, hatred and abuse, and, during the current Parliament, bring back a deal that will deliver the referendum result and finally put the Brexit issue to bed. I hope we can look forward to wide cross-party support for that.
In the context of creating more diversity in Parliament, does the Minister agree that the toxic, nasty, aggressive behaviour that is emanating from all parts of the House is preventing many more women—and some men—from coming to the House, feeling safe, enjoying it, and believing that Parliament is a place where they can achieve, progress, and reach their full potential?
I hear my hon. Friend’s passion. We do want more people to feel that they can stand for election, not just to Parliament but to their local council, or to become an elected mayor or a police and crime commissioner, without facing the type of abuse that some have sadly faced in recent years. However, people should also see Parliament as a place where decisions are made, rather than a place that ends up on a merry-go-round of delay without actually making a decision on behalf of the nation. That, ultimately, is why people stand for Parliament—they want to make that difference—and we want to see people from all backgrounds here. I am a comprehensive school kid, the son of a Paignton labourer, and not many of my type used to get into Parliament; but we can now.
Yesterday I asked the Prime Minister to moderate his language, because I desperately wanted to remind him that words have consequences. I accept that it is necessary for all of us in this place to reflect on our language and our behaviour. After all, I have been known to have the odd heckle here.
I am grateful for the solidarity shown by my fellow MPs, including many on the Government Benches, but last night I was horrified to see a tweet from the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke); I will not refer to him as “honourable”. I informed his office that I would be raising this issue today. The tweet that he sent last night appeared to mock me, referring to the Labour party as toxic—which, sadly, brought more abuse.
The Minister has said that his Government want to stamp out abuse, but how can we believe him when the Prime Minister describes genuine concerns expressed by female MPs as “humbug”? This morning, his official spokesperson confirmed that the Prime Minister has no regrets about the language that he used. Will the Minister confirm that the tweet from the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland reflects the view of the Government? Will he also take the opportunity, further to the comments from the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, to say that he stands by the Prime Minister’s comment that threats to female MPs—death threats and daily abuse—are humbug?
My own speeches have been subjected to the odd heckle from the hon. Lady, and I always recognise the spirit in which that is done: a spirit of passionate competition and disagreement rather than, necessarily, of disrespect for my remarks.
The Government are introducing a Defending Democracy programme, and are taking action to deal with online harms and tackle the social media giants in this regard. As the Minister with responsibility for this policy area, I think that the hon. Lady should take account of what the Government intend to do, and I hope that we will have her support when we introduce legislation to deal with intimidation before an election. Ultimately, the test will lie in what difference we can all make through legislation, and by tackling those who feel that they can abuse people online with impunity as they would never do in the street.
It is a sad fact that a study of Parliaments across Europe found that more than four out of 10 women MPs had received threats of death, rape or beating. The language that we use does matter, and the language that was used yesterday by Members in all parts of the House was unacceptable. We need to dial it down.
Let me also remind Members that, unfortunately, the protest on the night when we last met unleashed a huge amount of hatred towards people who had voted leave. Colleagues who had voted leave in the House had to pull nails and screws out of their car tyres last week because of the threats and the language used against them—and the Liberal Democrats, sadly, are not innocent in this respect.
There are four actions that I what to see. [Hon. Members: “Four?”] Four. First of all, Mr Speaker—
Please, Mr Speaker, will you continue to make sure that you are fair and balanced, because sometimes it does not feel like that? [Interruption.] Secondly, please will all Members, including those on our Front Bench, dial down the language? Thirdly, please can we all work together to heal the divisions in our country, and that means respecting democracy? Fourthly, because it matters, please can we bring the Domestic Abuse Bill back to the House?
Let me just very gently say to the House that, as experienced Members know, there was a time when statements did not run for very long, and not many Members were called. That has changed, and over the last decade I have called nearly everybody most of the time. The idea that if you do not call everyone every time they want to speak, that is somehow unfair, is so manifestly absurd that I think that most of the House would recognise it as such. I do what I can to stand up for the rights of this House, and those of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of it. I have done that for a decade, I am doing it now, and I will go on doing it. I am standing up for the important principle of the decency of our democracy, and I should have thought that that was pretty fair.
Let me first compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on the work that she does, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, to ensure that the views of women both inside and outside Parliament are heard.
Yes, this is about having a calm and dignified debate, taking the challenge in the way it is meant and responding to it in a dignified way. The Government are seeking to work together to heal the divisions by bringing an end to the Brexit process, and doing so by delivering the result of the referendum. The longer the delay and indecision continue, the more, sadly, this argument will continue.
I was elected to this place on the day that Jo Cox was taken from us. A week later, we had the EU referendum.
I have only ever known a politics of division in this place. It is beyond embarrassing that the Prime Minister has sent a junior Minister with a folder full of rebuttals today, making every excuse in the book. So I ask the Minister this: what does it say in your little folder about the Prime Minister acknowledging that unless he dials down the tone, unless he watches his language and adopts the position of statesperson, the wounds that divide this country will turn into scars—permanent scars?
The hon. Lady made the point herself that, for over three years, this Parliament has been absolutely focused on rows and debates around Brexit. Hundreds of hours have been spent on it and we are unable to move on to the agenda that many people wish to see us discussing. The best way to finally bring that debate to an end and to move on is to support the Prime Minister in getting a deal, and I hope we will have her support when he brings a deal back.
At best, the Prime Minister’s answers to some of the questions last night were deeply insensitive, but the concern that many of us have is that there is a deliberate strategy of division and confrontation. Can the Minister reassure me that the Conservative party and the Government are not going to pursue a strategy of division, of confrontation and of the undermining of the institutions that protect the peace and stability of our citizens?
I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the Conservative party, going into a general election, will go forward with a manifesto that seeks to serve the country and unite the country, but a key part of doing that is bringing a resolution to the Brexit process. I know he has supported a deal, and I hope when the Prime Minister brings back a deal we can look forward to his support again.
Order. We have another statement to follow in a moment from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There is also a motion to be voted on and a further debate, so we must proceed. I regret that, because I like to hear everybody, but there is a moment of interruption today in a way that there was not yesterday. We could extend yesterday, but we cannot do so today and I have to take account of that. So unless there is a point of order appertaining to this particular exchange—
Can I make a point of order, Mr Speaker?
Very well. Point of order, David T.C. Davies.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you confirm that it would be unacceptable under any circumstances for a senior Member of this House to say of a female MP: “We should lynch the bastard”?