House of Commons
Tuesday 15 October 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Turkish Incursion into Northern Syria
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and thank him for raising this issue in the House. I can tell him, and all Members, that on 9 October, following the US announcement that it would withdraw its troops from the region, Turkey launched a military operation in north-east Syria. Turkish troops have pushed into northern Syrian towns and villages, clashing with Kurdish fighters over a stretch of 125 miles. The UN estimates that at least 160,000 people have been displaced in less than a week.
From the outset, the UK Government have warned Turkey against taking this military action. As we feared, it has seriously undermined the stability and security of the region. It risks worsening the humanitarian crisis and increasing the suffering of millions of refugees, and it also undermines the international effort that should be focused on defeating Daesh. On Thursday 10 October, I spoke to the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and expressed the UK’s grave concerns. On Saturday 12 October, the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan to reinforce those concerns and urge restraint. I addressed the issue at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday. Yesterday, the EU released a statement, which we joined, condemning Turkey’s unilateral military action and calling on it to withdraw its forces.
The UK Government take their arms export control responsibilities very seriously. In this case, we will of course keep our defence exports to Turkey under careful and continual review. I can tell the House that no further export licences to Turkey for items that might be used in military operations in Syria will be granted while we conduct that review. Yesterday, as Members will know, the US signed an Executive order to impose limited sanctions on Turkey, including against senior members of Turkey’s Government. The EU considered this and, on balance, decided against sanctions at this stage; however, we will keep the position under careful review.
As we condemn this military intervention, it is only right that we also recognise some of the legitimate concerns that Turkey has—
What legitimate concerns?
I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, if he is willing to listen.
It is only right that we recognise some of Turkey’s legitimate concerns in relation to the 3.6 million refugees that it has taken from Syria, and its concerns about the threat to its security from the PKK at its southern border with Syria. For decades, Turkey has been a staunch ally in NATO and one of the largest contributors of military personnel. With close partners, we must at times be candid and clear. This is not the action that we expected from an ally. It is reckless and counterproductive, and it plays straight into the hands of Russia and, indeed, the Assad regime, so the UK Government call on Turkey to exercise maximum restraint and to bring an end to this unilateral military action. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing further pursuit of this important issue, and I thank the Secretary of State for his response.
In just a week, we have seen the map of north-east Syria redrawn, following the ill-thought-through foreign policy change by President Trump that has triggered a tragic series of events that are now undermining international efforts to contain Daesh. It has forced a counter-Daesh ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces, to resort to asking the Assad regime for help, giving Russia and Iran ever greater leverage in determining Syria’s future, while simultaneously diminishing any remaining influence the west can claim to have over the country’s future. In the fog of confusion, thousands of hard-line jihadist fighters are now able to escape and regroup to fight another day. If Turkey’s safe zone is allowed to go ahead, 3 million Sunni Arab refugees will soon be moved there, fundamentally changing the ethnic make-up of north-east Syria. As so often in conflict, tens of thousands of displaced civilians are attempting to flee the fighting, with many killed and injured.
Direct conflict between Syria and Turkey is now just another notch closer, so I request that Britain steps forward with increased determination to help to resolve this unfolding crisis. I have the following questions for the Secretary of State. What discussions has he had with his US counterparts to invite them to re-engage with the international community on the future of Syria? They cannot back out of their international responsibilities. Does he agree that membership of NATO comes with responsibilities? Will Turkey’s actions be reviewed with our NATO allies? Has he spoken with his French and German counterparts to better co-ordinate a European response in relation to any sanctions and, indeed, further arms embargoes? What efforts can be made to seek a UN Security Council response to these unfolding events? Will he concede that we need to address the absence of any legal convention to process IS fighters, including family members, as well as orphans? Let us give the United States their due: they are actually taking back orphans from that region, and we should do the same.
Finally, we speak of the erosion of the rules-based order. Does it not send a worrying message to Russia, given its resurgent activities in eastern Europe, and to China, with its claim over much of the South China sea, if the west does not have the resolve to defend international standards when they are breached by a NATO ally?
I share many of my right hon. Friend’s concerns, which he expressed both eloquently and powerfully. He made the point about the destabilisation of the region, which is absolutely right. Like him, I am concerned that this takes our eye off the ball when it comes to the overriding focus that we should have in counter-terrorism terms on Daesh. It is also set to make the humanitarian situation worse.
My right hon. Friend made a number of other specific points, which I will try to address in turn. We will not recognise any demographic change that is brought about as a result of this incursion. I have been very clear with the Turkish Foreign Minister that any returns must be safe and voluntary. We are also engaged with all our partners—the US and the EU—as my right hon. Friend asked, and he will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday adopted conclusions that condemned the Turkish military action for all the reasons that he has raised and that I have made clear. He has also called for a genuine political transition, in line with the Security Council resolutions and the 2012 Geneva communiqué, to be negotiated by the parties within the UN-led Geneva process. Given one of the other points he made, I think that it is worth pointing out the continued efforts of the international community, including at the UN Security Council, to stop this military unilateral action, which we agree is urgently required.
I thank both you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question and the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for securing it. As he and I and many other colleagues warned last week, the situation in northern Syria has gone from bad to worse to utterly catastrophic and horrifying since the Trump Administration withdrew their troops and gave a green light to Turkey to invade. As we have seen, it is not just Turkey’s airstrikes and artillery barrage that have caused the deaths of dozens of innocent civilians, but the barbaric actions of the jihadi death squads, armed and supported by Turkey, which are now freely operating inside Rojava. May I ask the Minister whether, as part of the Government’s welcome review of arms sales to Turkey, which I believe is worth £1.1 billion, they will look specifically at whether any of the arms that our country has supplied to Turkey have ended up in the hands of the jihadi militants?
It is clear to anyone with any understanding of the situation in Syria that if the Kurds did not have the support of the US and faced another Turkish invasion, they would be driven reluctantly into the hands of Assad and Russia simply for their own protection, and, sadly, that has proved correct. Was the Foreign Office in any way surprised at what has recently happened? Yet again, it prompts the question, which I hope the Secretary of State will answer today, about the Government’s strategy on Syria. It seems likely that responsibility for tackling the Daesh remnants, escapees, and sleeper cells will fall, not to the coalition, but to the Kurds and the Assad regime between them. It seems likely that the Kurds will be brought into the constitutional reform committee, and that once the other areas are stabilised, there will be a merciless assault on the areas of Idlib held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, at which point the war will effectively be over. Again, I ask the Secretary of State: what is the Government’s strategy? Was he surprised when the Defence Secretary seemed to be a dog in the manger on the word “condemn” yesterday at the NATO summit? Was he concerned that The Times reported his comments as ones that seem to be giving support to the Turkish action, and will he make it clear that we certainly do not support the Turkish action? Finally, may I ask him this very specific question: before Donald Trump took his catastrophic decision to withdraw US troops from Rojava, did he inform the British Government?
Let me say at the outset that we share the right hon. Lady’s concerns about the worsening humanitarian situation, about the impact that the Turkish intervention has on stability and about the terrorism threat on the ground and more generally. She asks about the export regime. She will know that we have one of the most rigorous and robust export licence regimes in the world, but we keep it under constant review and will continue to do so—particularly in relation to this instance—in the way in which I have described.
The situation on the ground has been very fluid, but we are deeply disappointed with Turkey’s decision. The right hon. Lady asks what we need to do now. Well, we now need—more than ever—to have closer co-operation between our international partners, and that means the US and the EU. We do not accept the frankly inaccurate characterisation of the UK’s position in Monday’s EU Foreign Affairs Council. We work with our partners. There were different views, but we always want to ensure that we take a balanced approach, as our EU partners did. The most important things are the conclusions that were agreed, and which I have set out at some length.
The situation also shows that we need NATO now more than ever. I gently say to the right hon. Lady that that is one of the reasons that it is so irresponsible that the leader of the Labour party has called for us to come out of NATO.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State know of any other policy decision by any ally that has so exposed our troops in combat, weakened our alliances in the region, undermined our essential security partnership in NATO and empowered our enemies in Russia and Iran? Will he perhaps also tell me what he will be doing to ensure that the UK invests more fully in our own defence and security to support the multinational alliances that keep us safe and extend the security that our people rely on around the world?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, raises a number of good points. No, I cannot think of an occasion when such a close NATO ally has behaved in such a way. It raises concerns about the humanitarian situation and the counter-terrorism situation. My hon. Friend is also right to point out that it is all the more reason—an impetus—for us to invest in our military. We are one of leading members of NATO that are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence, and we are committed to investing; and he will have heard the Chancellor’s comments on future investment. We also need to recommit and reinvigorate the NATO alliance because it is not clear to anyone—at least on the Government Benches—what would replace it.
I am not the Leader of the Opposition’s biggest fan, but I think that cheap pot shots at a time like this are utterly unnecessary and demean the office of Foreign Secretary.
This is a brutal and unnecessary conflict. There is a needless humanitarian catastrophe and a refugee crisis, which the Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out, but which has been made much worse. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee rightly says, this will have a deep impact on our future ability to build alliances, and alliances that we need—not least given the boots on the ground that the SDF provided.
The Defence Secretary has said that
“Turkey needs to do what it sometimes has to do to defend itself”.
Maybe the Foreign Secretary can tell us exactly what that means.
The Secretary of State mentioned keeping sales of arms under careful review. We have seen how well that has gone in Yemen over the past three years. The UK has leverage here. Why have Germany, France, the Netherlands, Finland and the Czech Republic stopped arms sales, and not the UK?
Finally, will the UK take its responsibilities seriously? We should all pay credit to the bravery of the humanitarian organisations and journalists such as Quentin Sommerville, who discovered in Syria British orphans of parents who had joined IS; surely children do not carry the sins of their parents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We share his concern, which I think is shared across the House, in relation to refugees. It is clear that the humanitarian situation will be compounded, not made any better, by Turkey’s intervention, which also has much broader implications for stability. He is wrong in his comments about export licences. Exports of military arms to Turkey that might be used in this operation have been suspended subject to the review that will take place. In relation to unaccompanied minors or orphans, assuming that they would represent no security threat, that is something—[Interruption.] Of course, but the age of minors goes right the way up to close to 18. We would be willing to see them returned home if that can be done in a safe way given the situation on the ground.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for his question and support him in his comments. The UN estimates that there are some 1.6 million people in need in that area of north-east Syria, and since this started this week, a further 200,000 are on the move. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend consulted the Secretary of State for International Development. In other places where the Assad regime has taken back control of an area, access to humanitarian agencies has declined and information about circumstances has become almost impossible to get. It is absolutely essential that this does not happen in future. Will the British Government make sure that that is the case?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a lot of experience in this. I pay tribute to the work he did at the Foreign Office. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for International Development. We will be engaged, and we are already engaged, very closely with the UN agencies and the non-governmental organisations on the ground. The concern that he raised is absolutely spot on. We share it and we are doing everything we can to alleviate it.
There can be no doubt that it was the sudden announcement by the US Administration of a decision to withdraw their troops that has led to what Turkey has done, yet we discover that the United States is now imposing sanctions on Turkish Ministries and senior Government officials. The Foreign Secretary said that we need to be clear and candid with our allies, and I appreciate what he has said to the Government of Turkey about what they are doing, but could I encourage him to be equally clear and candid with the US Administration, whose policy at the moment, frankly, has perplexed their allies and friends and is making a bad situation much more dangerous?
I thank the Chair of the Brexit Committee. I would share many of his concerns in relation to this. The key point right now is to be working with our allies right across the transatlantic spectrum, with NATO, the US and our European friends, to try to exercise maximum restraint and maximum leverage on Turkey. Both in this case and more generally—because we will see a whole range of threats posed to this transatlantic alliance—we need to work out that some of the differences between us pale into insignificance compared with the challenges and the threats we face. This is one such example. We must redouble our efforts to cement the NATO alliance and work together collaboratively.
In some respects, NATO has never been stronger—budgets are increasing and readiness is improving—but these actions by Turkey and recent reports of the atrocities being committed by Turkish troops, combined with recent decisions on defence procurement, are incompatible with the values and undertakings of a NATO partner. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will do everything he can to ensure that this issue is gripped within NATO and that any British citizens who are legitimately in that region are protected?
I thank my right hon. Friend. The Government share her assessment. NATO has never been stronger, but it also faces unprecedented and novel threats and strains within it in relation to burden sharing but also the different political views that are there. In relation to Turkey itself, she makes quite an important point in relation to, I think, the arms purchases from Russia. We need to be very careful to exercise absolute clarity with our Turkish partners and allies to be clear that they must end this incursion, but equally—I think this is the point she was making—to avoid driving Turkey into the arms of Russia and President Putin.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing this urgent question and agree with everything he said. I want to raise with the Secretary of State a specific humanitarian consequence of what is happening, which is about access to water in north-east Syria. I am told that the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are responding to urgent concerns around the city of Hasakeh, which has a population of 400,000 and may start to run dry shortly. Can he work with colleagues in the Department for International Development to address that as a matter of urgency?
The hon. Gentleman is right. The action by Turkey and the way it has caught not only its international partners but the UN and other agencies on the ground off guard, if I can put it like that, has created a whole range of humanitarian challenges, including the one that he raises. I will speak to the International Development Secretary, and we will work closely with the agencies—the UN and the NGOs on the ground—to ensure we do everything we can to alleviate that.
I commend the Foreign Secretary for his sober and sensible response to what is, after all, a geostrategic disaster. The most immediate threat to British and European security will arise from the escape of Daesh terrorists as a result of the increased conflict in the area. Can he reconsider with his Cabinet colleagues our approach to taking back the people who are of British or European origin and making them face British and European justice, rather than leaving them at risk in the area, and bringing back their families, so that we do not see them raised as another generation of terrorists to threaten us in the future?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We certainly want to see those responsible for atrocities and crimes given justice in the region, so far as that is practical. One of the key points that has come out of the latest turn of events with Turkey is that that has become more, not less, difficult. In relation to the question of returns, we do not want to see foreign fighters returning to this country, but as I made clear in an earlier answer, we are looking at whether orphans and unaccompanied minors who bear UK nationality can be given safe passage to return to the UK, because, as he said, it is utterly unfair that such innocents should be caught in the crossfire.
The Foreign Secretary will no doubt have seen the casualties from Turkey’s assault on northern Syria on our TV screens. Can he give an unequivocal condemnation of the Government of Turkey’s invasion, and can he tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that people in northern Syria are being protected from the invasion by Turkey?
The hon. Gentleman raises concerns, as others have. As I mentioned earlier, we have, along with our EU partners, condemned Turkey’s actions. We have done that because of the humanitarian situation and the impact on refugees and on the broader stability that so many Members are concerned about. We will look at doing what we can to get the swiftest end to that military incursion, which will put us in the best position, given the circumstances, to alleviate the worsening humanitarian situation.
My hon. Friend will know that there is a wider international effort to see a genuine political transition in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 and the 2012 Geneva communiqué. Within the UN-led Geneva process, aside from the immediate concerns about security and the humanitarian situation, we want to see scope for a political transition, and we will encourage the dialogue that she mentioned with that in mind.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, the permission slip for this action was the decision by President Trump to withdraw US troops from the area. General David Petraeus reminded us last week that the Kurds have done most of the fighting and most of the dying in the battle to destroy the ISIS caliphate—a battle that most of us in this House supported. Given these events, what message does the Foreign Secretary think is being sent to those who have stood alongside this country and the United States in the battle against ISIS and the ideology that it represents?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point in a very cogent way. We do recognise some of the concerns Turkey has in relation to the PKK, but I think this sends the wrong message to our allies and destabilises the broader coalition in favour of tackling Daesh.
May I press the Foreign Secretary a little further on the answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis)? The Government’s position that they did not want to see British foreign fighters returned to the UK may well have been sustainable when those fighters were incarcerated and under lock and key, but if those foreign fighters, as a result of US and Turkey’s action, are now free to roam that area and potentially attack United Kingdom interests both at home and overseas, I am not sure that policy is sustainable. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to review it in the light of these events and see whether a different policy is required to keep the United Kingdom and our people safe?
I thank my right hon. Friend, and I understand the point he makes. We have made representations on this very clearly to the Turkish Government; I have made them to the Turkish Foreign Minister. We do not want to see foreign fighters return to the UK. We think the right course is for them to face justice in the region, if that is possible and practical. Of course, however, he is right to say that, given the fluid situation, we will have to keep all of this under review.
On Radio 4 this morning, there was harrowing testimony from a British woman who is a volunteer ambulance driver in the region about the atrocities that she has witnessed. There is a big Kurdish community in Scotland, and they have a community centre at Dumbryden in my constituency. I know that the Kurdish community in my constituency will be very keen to know, as I am, what assistance the UK Government are giving, as opposed to UK volunteers on the ground, and what steps the UK Government are taking to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated against civilians by our NATO ally.
The hon. and learned Lady makes a very powerful point, and I pay tribute to her for the work she does with her community centre for the Kurdish community here. I think a lot of hon. Members in all parts of the House will be in a similar position. The best we can do, given this dire situation, is seek to end Turkey’s military incursion as soon as possible, continue to talk with all our partners and allies—right across the spectrum from the United States through to our European partners—and work very closely with the UN agencies to try both to prevent those atrocities from happening and to provide the humanitarian help that many so sorely need.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his very clear statement of condemnation today, but of course part of President Erdoğan’s calculation in this brutal assault is that this will be the entirety of our response from this House. Will my right hon. Friend say a bit more about what he thinks the consequences will be for Turkey of US sanctions, and whether he is considering further measures that may persuade Turkey that its assault is brutal and should be ceased?
I thank my right hon. Friend, but I cannot speak to the US position. That is for the US, but it has clearly taken its decision, and that is now very clear. On our side, what we want to do is focus on sending a very clear unequivocal message to Turkey that it must bring an end to this military intervention, that it is not going to help Turkey with its sometimes valid concerns that it has, that we are not going to allow demographic change to be unilaterally foisted on the region, and that we would not recognise any return of refugees—I think Turkey has taken 3.6 million refugees and rising, and we are not going to see them returned, or accept or recognise that—unless it is done in a safe and voluntary way. We will have to keep working with all of our partners and redouble our efforts.
Of course, it will not be without consequence for Turkey —a historic, stalwart, staunch ally—to have undertaken this behaviour. Equally, as I mentioned, there are legitimate concerns that Turkey has had. It has felt that it has not been listened to, and we need to encourage Turkey to do the right thing and start behaving the right way, and work with it, rather than force it into the arms of Assad or President Putin.
President Erdoğan has long planned this attack. There have been proposals to put millions of people—refugees who are in Turkey—across that border. The American Administration, by giving a green light, have destroyed the credibility of their international alliances; strengthened autocrats, demagogues and dictators, including Putin, Assad and the Iranians; and undermined our international security. Is this not the worst possible time for us to be leaving the European Union, when we need our European partners and friends to work with us in these difficult times?
While we differ on Brexit, I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but it is why we have been engaged with our EU partners. We engaged closely on the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on Monday. We have set out clearly our shared condemnation of Turkey and the measures that now need to be taken for Turkey to withdraw and come back into the NATO fold.
ShelterBox is a great charity based in my constituency, working now with its partners on the ground in north-east Syria to provide a desperately needed humanitarian response. While the public are being very generous in their donations, they and I would like to know how much public money is being committed to this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that her constituents do and their generosity, and I thank the charitable organisations that work in her constituency. We cannot expect voluntary contributions alone, or even predominantly, to address the scale of the humanitarian suffering that we will now see in Syria. Not only DFID and the Foreign Office but all our international limbs of Government are working closely with all our international partners. I can write to her with the exact amount of money that we are putting into humanitarian relief and aid in that conflict, but it is substantial, and we will continue to do it.
The whole House will agree with the words that the Foreign Secretary spoke about the actions of Turkey, but the whole world knows that they are happening only because of a decision by the President of the United States. Has the Foreign Secretary or anyone in the British Government conveyed to the White House the view that his decision is not just the action of a very bad ally of the Kurds but the action of a poor ally of the UK?
We make clear our views on all these issues right across the range, even when we disagree, to all our partners, as I have made clear in relation to Turkey. The same applies with all our NATO allies. The point now is to bring our allies back together and see a bit more unity of purpose in dealing with the terrible conflict in Syria, the overarching strategic threat that we all face from Daesh and alleviation of the humanitarian crisis that we all agree is utterly deplorable. It needs to be alleviated both for the individuals affected in the region and for the knock-on effects that it will have on the region and indeed Europe.
What is the risk that UK ISIS fighters will now be freed to fight and kill again? Is my right hon. Friend receiving accurate information on the status of UK ISIS fighters, and indeed ISIS fighters and their security? Are we going to have to fight the ISIS campaign all over again?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is right to raise that concern about foreign fighters. We have made it clear to our US partners, and I have made it clear to the Foreign Minister of Turkey. The situation on the ground is fluid to say the least, but we have to make sure that the Turkish intervention is brought to an end as quickly as possible to avoid precisely the eventuality that he describes.
For the record, Mr Speaker, my party absolutely does not support the sale of arms to any regimes that carry out human rights violations. The plight of the orphans and the young people is truly appalling. They are frightened and they are alone. What they are going through right now does not bear thinking about. There is a question mark over the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. We do not know how long it will be there for. May I make a plea to the Government to extend that scheme, show compassion, take these young people and settle them in safety here among all of us who care for them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will of course take on board his concerns. I can see that they are deeply held and expressed with genuine and sincere passion. I have already explained the situation in relation to unaccompanied minors and orphans, but we will take on board his concerns. We keep the situation under review.
The Foreign Secretary, in his reply to the initial question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), talked about the PKK threat to Turkey across its southern border. When I was there four weeks ago, we could see no evidence of that. What evidence does the Foreign Secretary have for there being a threat across the southern border? The PKK was undoubtedly responsible for giving the SDF the capacity to help stop ISIS in 2014, but since then, from what I could see, particularly with the agreement to allow joint Turkish and American patrols 5 km into the area it controlled over the border, it was bending over backwards to make sure there was no threat or provocation to Turkey from Syria in the south.
My hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on intelligence matters, but what I can say is that we understand Turkey’s broader concern in relation to the PKK. The point I was making on both that and the refugee situation is that Turkey has been dealing with some of the implications of the conflict in Syria for a long time. It has now taken over 3.6 million refugees. I think we could do with showing at least some empathy and understanding of what the scale of that involves. I say that by way of setting the context that we need to take a clear-sighted and long-term view. We have been absolutely clear in our condemnation of the action Turkey has taken, but we need to try to get Turkey to come back into compliance by coming out of Syria, ending its military action, and working within NATO rather than at odds with it.
The Foreign Secretary refers to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees taken by Turkey. I understand that, and I understand the comments made last week by his colleague the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, when I asked him during the previous urgent question why we do not take more refugees through the resettlement scheme. He said that the UK actually takes very many refugees compared with other countries. However, do the 3.6 million refugees in Turkey not make the case for greater use of refugee resettlement, so that more refugees worldwide can take safe and legal routes to places of safety and the responsibility is shared around the world? Only 28 countries worldwide take refugees through the UN resettlement route. Only about half a million have been taken worldwide so far this year. Will the Foreign Secretary talk to his counterparts to increase that number of countries, so that more countries are willing to take refugees by resettlement?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, which is that we need to reinforce our international efforts to have a genuinely international approach to the refugee crisis and an equitable approach to those who are bearing the burden of it, while having at the forefront of our minds the terrible suffering that the individuals involved are going through.
My right hon. Friend has been clear on Turkey and refugees. President Erdoğan has reportedly said that he would flood Europe with refugees if the United Kingdom and other European Union allies were to take action against Turkey. Will he confirm that that is completely unacceptable from the Government’s perspective, and that he will take appropriate action if necessary to impose sanctions and other means if President Erdoğan carries out his threat?
At the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday, I made the point very clearly that that is not the kind of language we expect from a NATO ally. I have explained the position on sanctions, and we will keep it under review. Within the EU, we decided on balance not to go down that path. I agree with my hon. Friend that the refugees in the region cannot be used as some kind of geopolitical pawn against other international partners, particularly European allies.
The anger of the Kurdish community in Scotland and the UK is replicated in a letter I have sent, which has been signed by over 70 cross-party Members of this House. Is it UK Government policy that there should be a no-fly zone across northern Syria, and what is the Foreign Secretary doing to achieve that? Can he assure us that an arms embargo is being reviewed on a daily basis? Some of us believe that there should not be any arms sales to Turkey at all.
The concerns relating to a no-fly zone are partly principled and logistical, but they are also about the practicality of enforcing it on the ground. We have made it clear that we have suspended arms exports of anything military that could end up being used in Syria. We will keep the situation under review for that period. The key thing now—the overarching priority—is to get Turkey to withdraw and end the intervention, and then we can look with our international partners at how we take the country and the region forward.
My good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), makes exactly the right point. I wish to restate that it is totally unacceptable that any refugee could be used as a bargaining chip. Can we have a strong, united statement across Europe, if needs be, to say that that is the case? There are other refugee camps, such those with the Rohingya, where, if sheer volume of numbers gives any country the right to use them as a bargaining chip, we will go down a very slippery slope. I understand the sensitivities over Turkey and the sheer volume of numbers, but it is important that internationally, we say that refugees have rights and no country has the right to have some control over their destiny in that way.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If she looks at the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions from Monday, she will see that the EU gave a very clear message on that. It is a violation of international law to treat refugees in that way. It is totally unacceptable, particularly among allies and friends.
What a contrast between the former President Ford and his treatment of the Vietnamese, when 130,000 Vietnamese were repatriated to the USA under Operation New Life, and President Trump, who has treated his allies, the Kurds, with total contempt and has left them to the mercy of the Turks. There has already been mention of war crimes and people being murdered—the elected representatives of the Kurds. While the US has dallied and neglected its allies, Syria has stepped in. Does it not concern the Minister that while the USA has run away, Syria has filled the gap?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we should be worried about not just the humanitarian and security situation on the ground, but the negative message that we are sending to our partners and allies, and indeed our future partners and allies. They need to know that we are dependable and reliable and that we stick with them.
We have heard reports that our brave allies, the Kurds, have a staggering 100,000 jihadi fighters under lock and key. First, could my right hon. Friend confirm that that figure is true? Secondly, what exactly are he and other NATO countries doing about these fighters? If they do escape—I believe some have—all hell will break loose. What exactly are we doing with these 100,000 fighters?
I cannot verify that precise figure, I am afraid—I would want to check the best information that we have. We are working with our international partners. We have given a very clear message to Turkey about what we expect, and we will obviously have to keep the situation under review. There is no point in kidding ourselves that the action of Turkey has not made things more difficult in relation to foreign fighters that are held in detention—it has—and we will have to work with our international partners, above all in the interest of making sure that we protect UK security.
I could not work out from what the Secretary of State said whether the UK had advocated sanctions at the EU level and that that had been countermanded by other countries —whether we had played that sort of leadership role or whether there was a more consensual process. It would be really helpful to understand whether his Government will continue to pursue sanctions at the EU level, if that is indeed their policy. If so, which mechanisms will he use to try to advance that? When will his Government abandon their policy of only helping EU citizens when they leave Syrian soil? Obviously, unaccompanied minors cannot do that on their own. Which exact mechanisms exist in the region to have that justice for those potentially guilty foreign fighters that he referred to, because I cannot see any?
I share many of the concerns that the hon. Lady expressed. On the UK position, clearly within the EU there are different views on precisely what action should be taken. We joined the conclusions condemning Turkey’s military action. As I said, we will keep the issue of sanctions under review. On balance, the EU decided against going down the sanctions route at this stage, given all the competing considerations that I set out, but we have said that we need to continue as an international community to make efforts to resolve this, including through the UN Security Council.
It is sad to see the urgency of the question be met with such mealy-mouthed languid complacency. All this talk of reviewing potential future arms sales and of not pursuing sanctions—we even have a Defence Secretary apparently offering some legitimacy to the actions of the Turkish Government—means nothing, does it? From where I am sitting, the Government are feart to say boo to a goose, and, frankly, the Kremlin cannot believe its luck.
As is often the case, the hon. Gentleman is confusing bluster with sensible, concerted action in the region. [Interruption.] Let me answer the two questions. On arms, we have suspended sales while we conduct a review, so he is not right to say that they are continuing. On sanctions, the question, which has rightly been raised by other EU partners, is whether it would have a deterrent effect on Turkey and how effective it would be in achieving our overarching goal of ending the military incursion. That is what the Government are working towards.
I am very grateful for the great sacrifice our Kurdish friends and allies have made, and I am concerned about the long-term impact of Britain being seen as a country that does not fully protect its friends and allies. What specific actions are the British Government taking to protect the Kurdish community in northern Syria and prevent a humanitarian crisis?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the humanitarian and security situation and the message we send to the people we partner and ally with. It is important they know that the UK sticks to its word. We are working with all our partners and allies in the region to bring an end to the Turkish incursion in the way I have described in several responses to hon. Members on both sides of the aisle, and we will continue to do so.
I am extremely disappointed that, as I understand it, Britain held Europe back from going further in applying sanctions. If that is the case, it is deplorable. Has the Secretary of State met or communicated with our friends and allies in the SDF and the north-eastern Syrian authority? I understand that Ministers refused to meet them a few months ago when I brought its leader here. Tomorrow, I will be holding a briefing with generals and the co-leader of the authority in Parliament. Will he come—or send a representative—so that he can hear what they are saying, rather than just listening to dodgy intelligence about the PKK?
Mr Russell-Moyle, you are a cheeky chappy, it has to be said. This will be widely acknowledged. You are chuntering from a sedentary position to no obvious benefit or purpose, other than to reiterate the point you have already made on your feet. There is no need to repeat it from your seat, but I think you are addicted to so doing.
The Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2017 produced a report on the UK’s relationship with Turkey. One of its recommendations was for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make a determined effort to persuade Turkey not only to recognise Kurdish territory but to show restraint both in northern Syria and with the Euphrates Shield project. What determined efforts has the Foreign Office made since that report to persuade Turkey to do so?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is reading and raising these issues very carefully. It makes the point about why even now, with this disappointing and very serious situation, we need to try to exert influence on Turkey in the right direction. We expect NATO to do the same and all our allies across NATO. We must use all our efforts to encourage and promote and to coax, cajole and persuade Turkey to desist as soon as possible from its current incursion and come back and work with a joint plan, which is the most likely to be effective in bringing an end to the conflict in Syria and tackling the overarching strategic threat we all face from Daesh.
I never thought that would be me, Mr Speaker. Thank you.
The KRG and Kurdistan have been at the forefront of defending everyone from Daesh. They have taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and they took in more than 1 million Iraqi refugees when Mosul was attacked. They are a democratic, tolerant nation. What are we doing to support these important allies and protect them against Turkey’s military action?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern. She is experienced and expert in this area. We will work with all our partners, both internationally and on the ground, to try to alleviate the situation. However, I accept the premise, and I will not pretend that it has not become significantly more difficult, given what Turkey has done.
Over the years, the Kurds have been our most important allies in the fight against Daesh. Today I fear that we are complicit in their betrayal, abandoning them to their fate at the hands of the Turkish state. What discussions did the Foreign Secretary have with the Trump Administration before the decision to withdraw US troops? What did he ask of the Trump Administration, and what reply did he receive?
I think it quite wrong to suggest that the UK Government have been complicit in this. The hon. Gentleman should not let Turkey off the hook for its responsibility; the focus should be on condemning that.
We are, of course, engaged, and I have regularly engaged with my US counterpart and, indeed, all our European partners throughout my time as Foreign Secretary. We have expressed our view, both to them and to Turkey, that there should be no unilateral military action by Turkey in relation to Syria.
I note that the Foreign Secretary has not responded to my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on the question of the starting point for the UK in discussions about sanctions at the EU level. However, may I ask him specifically about what the Defence Secretary said at NATO? Apparently, he said:
“Turkey needs to do what it sometimes has to do to defend itself.”
Is it our position that Turkey’s actions constituted an act of self-defence, or do we believe that this was an act of aggression?
First, I think that this is a betrayal of the Kurds on the part of both the west and the Americans. Secondly, the Turks are there in the north and it will be a job to get them out. Thirdly, and more importantly, this will have serious consequences: it could lead to a serious conflict.
We have let the Kurds down badly. The Foreign Secretary should really consider flying to Washington—if we are such an important ally—to meet Congress leaders and the President of the United States face to face, because we are getting ourselves into a dangerous situation.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that I share his concerns. I was in Washington recently, not just to meet members of the US Administration but to talk to congressional members about the whole gamut of foreign policy issues. We are as closely engaged as possible with our US and, indeed, our EU partners. What we need to do now is bring back some unity and some resolve in NATO, among all its partners, and obviously that must include Turkey.
It is quite clear that the Kurdish people feel abandoned. A great many of my constituents are of Kurdish origin. This has left a vacuum, but, according to reports, the Pentagon was not even involved: it was a unilateral decision made by the President. In the wake of the revelations that are emerging about Ukraine, President Zelensky and Donald Trump, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the motives behind that decision with the Turkish President could indeed be personal?
Plymouth’s Kurdish community are not just concerned about a military incursion; they are concerned about an occupation, because they know that an occupation will lead to ethnic cleansing, and ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity. Can the Foreign Secretary say from the Dispatch Box that he will order the UK’s considerable assets to collect evidence, and that if there is evidence of crimes against humanity, he will use it to prosecute Turkey for its illegal actions against the Kurds?
I understand the depth of the hon. Gentleman’s concern. It is not clear to me where he thinks that a prosecution would or would not take place, but as someone was formerly a war crimes lawyer, I would absolutely want any serious violations of international humanitarian law to lead to people being brought to account.
I met a group of Kurdish constituents on Friday, and they were dismayed at what had happened. They were disappointed by what they saw as a weak response from the international community, and they were firmly of the view that the UK had a special responsibility to help to resolve the situation, given our historic influence in the region. The Foreign Secretary says that the situation is under review. Can he tell my constituents what needs to change on the ground in order that he and the EU might consider further action, including sanctions?
The action we want to see changed on the ground is for Turkey to withdraw, and we are looking at what is the most effective means of engaging with Turkey and encouraging it to withdraw as quickly as possible and undertake maximum restraint. We will continue to do that, and obviously we will look closely at all the levers and approaches that we need to take in order to achieve that objective with our European, as well as our American, partners.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I wonder if I could get your assistance. How can I, first, correct the record and, secondly, force the Foreign Secretary to withdraw his thoroughly misleading comments about the Leader of the Opposition’s commitment to NATO? He has never spoken about withdrawing from NATO. Our support for the NATO alliance is absolute and we are committed to spending the 2%. The shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), was as outraged as I was to hear the silly, partisan comments that were being made, and indeed we have been together to see NATO and discuss how Labour would work in future with NATO.
I think that the shadow Foreign Secretary has found her own salvation in the sense that she has made her point with force and alacrity and it is on the record. As for the question of forcing the Foreign Secretary to withdraw, I do not have a list of statements that have been made by particular Members at given times, and therefore I am not in a position to say whether a withdrawal is required. The Foreign Secretary is a cerebral intellectual type—that is his normal approach—but today I could tell that he wanted to mix it. Now, mixing it is a matter of taste really rather than a matter of order, so I think that I have to leave it to the Foreign Secretary, who seems to be resolutely seated, to judge whether he needs to correct the record, but whether he does or not, the right hon. Lady, in her mellifluous tone, has put the record straight as far as she is concerned, and I hope that that is a source of some succour to her as she goes about her daily business.
Racism in Football
Like all Members of this House and the country, I was appalled by the disgusting racist abuse encountered by the England football team and its support staff in Bulgaria last night. Whether you are a player, a manager, a supporter or a member of the staff no participant in sport should have to tolerate discrimination of any kind. May I also start by paying tribute to the leadership shown by Gareth Southgate and his coaching team as well as all the players for how they conducted themselves in appalling circumstances during and after the match? I have also spoken this morning to the chief executive of the Football Association to express my support for Gareth Southgate and his team and all the support staff of the FA on the way they conducted themselves.
We have made progress in this country to combat discrimination in our domestic game and make our stadiums more welcoming places to be. The Government are supporting a number of anti-racism initiatives, including the Premier League’s “No room for racism,” “Show racism the red card” and “Kick it out” campaigns, all of which have achieved a great deal in this area, and in February my predecessor in this role held a summit on discrimination with a range of bodies acting within football, but it is clear that we cannot be complacent, and we must remain a leading voice on this issue internationally.
International competitions such as this one should bring cultures and countries together. It was a step in the right direction to see the UEFA protocol engage last night—for the first time, I understand—but it is clear that much more needs to be done to stamp out racism in the game. I am also encouraged by the reaction of the Bulgarian Prime Minister, who has spoken out and called for changes at the Bulgarian Football Association.
UEFA must now get its response right, and leave no doubt that the consequences of failing to tackle this issue will be severe. I am writing today to the UEFA president, urging him to conclude UEFA’s investigations swiftly and to ensure that all football authorities and fans are clear that the consequences of failing to tackle this issue will be severe. The England team has my full support and I expect tough action from UEFA in response to this.
Just before I call the shadow Minister, as I have a sense that this matter will unite the House, I would like to thank the Minister for what he has said and to say from the Chair what I think will be the feeling of colleagues—namely, that Gareth Southgate has again shown what a magnificent ambassador for England and, indeed, the UK he is, and also how magnificently the team behaved in circumstances of intense provocation and vile behaviour by so-called fans. The team conducted themselves with extraordinary dignity. One of my own children was watching the match and came in to say how shocked and upset he was. The Minister’s reaction is one that I have a sense will be shared right across the House and by millions of people across the country. Colleagues’ voices will now be heard.
Thank you so much for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I would like to echo everything that you have just said. Last night, we saw the most horrific racist abuse aimed at England players in their match against Bulgaria, which caused the match to be halted on two occasions. Photos and clips followed of fans performing Nazi salutes, and the racist chanting continued. It is utterly deplorable. I had a conversation with the FA’s chief executive last night during the match, in which I reiterated our support for the England players. The entire country will be proud of the England team last night, and Gareth Southgate has shown true leadership in defence of his players. This abuse must be stamped out. No one should have to arrive at work to be subjected to any form of discrimination, so why are our players still being subjected to this? In future, if players decide to walk off the pitch in protest, they must have the full support of this House, our press and the football bodies.
We ourselves, however, are not exempt from this problem. It would be irresponsible for us to condemn the behaviour of fans around the world without addressing the fact that many players have indeed suffered racist abuse online, from the stands and in their day-to-day lives at the hands of a small section of our own fans. I know that the Government have committed to writing to UEFA, which I really welcome, but will the Minister outline what further steps they are taking to address the scourge of racism in sport? UEFA has a duty to act here. The world is watching. A fine is not enough, so I am asking our Government to ensure that we are backing up the FA to seek the harshest possible punishments. Stadium bans are a must, and forfeiting matches and expulsion from tournaments must not be ruled out. Enough is enough. The time to act is now.
I echo every single word that the hon. Lady has just uttered. I know that she is incredibly passionate about football, and other sports as well. I sense that this is a bit of a pivotal moment. We have experienced these issues for far too long, but I think there is a collective desire to see action taken. I fully support the way the FA swiftly launched its complaint, the way UEFA is undertaking its investigation and the way the players handled themselves on the pitch. They let the football do the talking in the second half, but this situation clearly cannot go on, and UEFA should rule nothing out in terms of sanctions.
As I said previously, my predecessor hosted a summit with all the football authorities in England. Our Department is outlining its plans and how it will take them forward. That follows a summit on the issue earlier in the year, which involved players, coaches, fan groups, players’ representatives, a policing unit and campaign groups. There are a lot of proposals and plans that we will be working on, including stronger education measures, better reporting systems and better training and support for referees. Incidentally, I commend the referee last night for the way he handled himself and the way he supported the English players, giving them the option of step 2 of the UEFA protocol. As the hon. Lady knows, there is still more to do; it is vital that the football authorities continue to prioritise tackling this despicable abuse, and we expect them to do that.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) on securing this urgent question. I also take this opportunity to welcome the Minister on his first outing at the Dispatch Box; I can assure him that he has the best job in Government.
I agree with everyone that we should applaud the reaction of the players, the management, the FA administration and, of course, the fans, and the way that they responded to last night’s appalling and vile racist abuse. However, does the Minister also agree with the chairman’s comments in the post-match interview, where he said that we cannot necessarily take the moral high ground on this issue because, while we have made progress on tackling racism in English football, there is still so much more that we need to do at every single tier of football in England?
I start by thanking my hon. Friend for all the brilliant work she did in this Department and with this brief over many years. I know she is still very active in this sector. She is right that we need to get our own homework done before we start preaching, but the problem is of such a huge scale that when international problems such as this arise, we must speak up and we must demand action. She is 100% right that we still need to clear up the mess on our own doorstep.
I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. This is a deeply serious issue, but it would be fair to say that it is entirely likely that I had never wanted the England team to win, and to win so well, until last night. I am delighted that they did their talking on the pitch, although of course they should have the right to walk off the pitch in those circumstances if they so choose.
However, it would be wrong to portray last night’s disgusting scenes as isolated incidents. The truth is that they are not. Racist chants and abuse form part of a growing and consistent pattern through parts of the game across Europe. This must mark a seminal moment, as the Minister said, in how football authorities crack down and eradicate racism of all kinds in our sport. Does he agree that, despite the progress last night in enforcing the three-step protocol for the first time, the fines and sanctions currently imposed by UEFA are simply not fit for purpose and do not form anywhere near enough of a deterrent?
We cannot have the Serbian FA fined €80,000 for fans’ racist chanting while former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner was fined €100,000 for displaying a betting firm’s logo. These are hate crimes and should be treated as such by UEFA. What actions will the UK Government take to ensure that UEFA is pressured into recognising that reality?
The hon. Gentleman is correct: the severity of the penalty must match the offence. Clearly, this is a matter for UEFA, but that is why I have written to their president today. We expect the penalties to be severe. It is not the first incident; we experienced it with the Montenegro game. The idea that we have bunches of people making Nazi salutes and doing monkey chants—these are sub-human behaviours—cannot be tolerated. I look to UEFA in the strongest terms to deal with this particular incident as severely as possible.
I completely support the comments from Members on both sides of the House on how UEFA should demonstrate that real sanctions will be applied against national FAs that allow this to happen in their stadiums. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s proposals to legislate on online harms is an opportunity to look at the vile racist abuse that many footballers in this country receive on social media, which is a growing problem, and that we should look again at the status of homophobic abuse in sports stadiums in this country, too? There are big concerns about the increase in homophobia, and we should look again at the Football (Offences) Act 1991 to make homophobic abuse illegal in the same way as racist abuse so that both have the same status in law.
I totally agree that any form of abuse is unacceptable. We have seen footballers like Paul Pogba, Troy Deeney and Tammy Abraham receive such abuse online through social media. We want to tackle it, and we will work closely with the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. We have been clear that social media companies need to do more, and we will hold them to account on this issue.
It is a privilege of mine to be president of my hometown football club, Blaenavon Blues. Although, of course, we try to promote the best behaviour at grassroots level, an example has to be set by the highest body in the game in Europe. Will the Minister make it clear to UEFA that if it fails to act properly on last night’s awful racist abuse, it will have consequences right across the game?
The hon. Gentleman is spot on. We are making that clear and, as I said, I am writing to the president of UEFA today to say that enough is enough. We have seen too many examples of this horrific abuse. We saw it on TV, and there was CCTV in the crowd—the FA also had monitors in the crowd. It is beyond belief that this is still happening, and we will support the FA, which is unable to comment today because it has asked for an investigation to be launched. We expect the UEFA response to be robust.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and agree wholeheartedly with all that has been said so far. Is it not important that, in the support we give to players, we send a signal not just from this place but from football authorities, national and international, that if those players choose to stay on the pitch, in the face of this awful abuse, they will have our admiration for their courage and commitment to the sport, but that if they choose to walk off the pitch, we will respect that choice, too, and there will be no negative consequences for their career, either in the short term or the long term?
The former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is absolutely right about there being complete support. There was an opportunity for the players to walk off the pitch for 10 minutes last night, just before half time—that is step 2 of the protocol—and I commend the referee again for giving them that opportunity, but they decided to stay on as there were only four or five minutes left. It absolutely should be down to the players, and we will respect their choice. The FA would respect it, and I am pleased to see that the referee would also have respected it last night.
The Minister calls it exactly right—this is an issue that unites the House. Several Members on both sides have applauded Gareth Southgate, the manager of the England men’s football team, and I hope you will allow me to read his words into the record, Mr Speaker:
“Sadly, because of their experiences in our own country, they”—
“are hardened to racism. I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality.”
As a football supporter—I support Liverpool football club—I take my share of responsibility for the damage racism has done to our society. What will the Minister do to make sure we tackle this racism at its core in our society? What money will he put forward for truly inclusive sports education in schools so that we can make sure that we bring up the next generation to know this is wrong?
The hon. Lady is, again, right. We share a passion for Liverpool football club. I fear that I have opened myself up to some online abuse by admitting that. Commending the words and actions of Gareth Southgate is absolutely the right thing to do, and she is also spot on about stronger education measures. I know the football authorities are keen to pursue this area, and we will consult and keep in touch with them. I have met them a couple of times, and this issue has already been on the agenda during my short tenure in this post. We will monitor how the authorities implement their plans through the season, but she is absolutely right about education.
I watched my first football match in 1977, and it took until 1990 for us to see anti-racism messages coming out in our football. I know the Minister will agree that it has taken UEFA and FIFA far too long to get a grip on this issue. The fact that this is the first time the protocol has been enacted indicates that those two bodies have not taken this issue seriously enough. The Minister is going to write to UEFA, but will he consider going to meet UEFA and FIFA to express the anger of this House and the fact that we believe that enough is enough?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: enough is enough. I am sure my letter will be published shortly and he will be able to see its contents. I am happy to meet UEFA and FIFA any time to get across the mood of this House. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) on securing this urgent question. It is going loud and clear to UEFA that action needs to be taken. We have had far too many incidents of this and UEFA must get its response right. There must be no doubt in the mind of any football authority that the consequences of failing to tackle this issue will be severe.
The England football team, like most of our sports teams, is a fantastic advert for not only the best talent in this country but the diversity of our society. I welcome the Minister’s comments about the steps we have to take to protect that, but we also have to look outwith the sports field to make sure we protect the same sort of diversity in our boardrooms, management structures and politics. Will he therefore assure me that we will do the same in other areas in life as he has promised to do in sport?
Absolutely. We should be intolerant right across society of any form of abuse. I did not want to pick out players, but I will pick out Tyrone Mings, who made his debut last night. What a brilliant young man, and what a great advert he is for football and for Aston Villa, as shown in the way he handled himself on the pitch, talking to the referee, and afterwards in his post-match interview. No young man on his debut should have had to witness that abuse, but to have handled it in the way he did, and the dignified way he handled himself after the match, means his family, his team and the whole country should be incredibly proud of Tyrone Mings.
As somebody who has watched football for more than 50 years, I have often been disgusted by the behaviour of some people who attend football matches, and last night we really did sink to a new low. We are talking about racism in football, but in some ways this was even worse than that, because this was abuse of people because of the colour of their skin. That is absolutely shameful. Do we not all have a responsibility to correct this? Liverpool football club has been mentioned. I remember Liverpool being thrown out of and banned from competitions many years ago because of the behaviour of some so-called “supporters”. Should not the same be applied in this case?
When, after the Montenegro match in April, I suggested we take UEFA to the European Court of Human Rights for a repeated failure to provide a working environment free from racism and homophobia for football players, I was told that we were going to have meetings. Now I am told we are going to have letters. What will it take to get some action? Does the Minister agree that when it comes to discrimination in football, financial transparency and ownership, football governance does not meet the needs of football fans?
I know the hon. Lady is a passionate Newcastle United supporter and has written to me on the issue of football governance, and I have replied. We are taking a close interest in how football governance is conducted and, if necessary, action would be taken.
As a West Brom fan, I must admit I was rather less keen on Tyrone Mings last May, but, as the Minister said, he was magnificent last night, with his strength of character. The Football Association chairman said that there are many at UEFA with very strong feelings about racist abuse, but, sadly, those feelings often seem to be rather quiet. Is it not time that these people not only spoke up, but took proper action to stamp out the vile abuse that we witnessed last night?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no excuse for what happened last night. What makes it even worse is the fact that this has happened previously. As I said, this is a pivotal moment—it is a turning point. The fact that we are having this debate in the Chamber and not in Westminster Hall sends a strong signal to UEFA that we want to see action of the severest kind on these incidents.
As a Newcastle United fan, I am very aware that we are not without significant remaining problems here in the UK, but I hope that this is a watershed moment. Unfortunately, UEFA has paid lip service to this issue for decades. The Bulgarian stadium in Sofia was part closed last night due to previous infractions, but despite that the Bulgarian team manager, who was interviewed after the game, seemed oblivious to events happening around him and did not seem to understand what racism is and what constitutes racist abuse of players and/or other fans. UEFA has a clear responsibility not only to act where racism occurs, but to be proactive, as the European governing body of football, to educate the constituent football associations, clubs, officials, players and, yes, fans of clubs and nations across Europe and to act as a beacon within FIFA to stamp out racist abuse across the whole of the world. Our Government must urge UEFA to act properly—enough is enough.
The hon. Gentleman, whom I know to be a passionate Newcastle United supporter, because I recall a sign above his office door—it was welcoming to other clubs, too. [Laughter.] He is absolutely right in what he says; there is nothing I can disagree with him on about this. We need action, not talk. We have been very clear in our communication today with UEFA. The Prime Minister has spoken out today in very clear terms. It is about time this House was united on something and I sense this issue is uniting the House. Be in no doubt that this Government want to see action by UEFA.
I welcome the statement that the Minister has given to the House. It is true that we have a chequered history on this issue in our country, but where we have seen instances of this taking place the police have, in general, been robust in their actions against it. What was particularly disappointing last night was that there was little evidence of the Bulgarian police taking action against those fans who were taking part in this vile behaviour. Will the Minister therefore assure the House that in his discussions with the Bulgarian authorities he will raise the issue of what, if anything, the Bulgarian police did about this behaviour last night?
My hon. Friend is right. A UEFA investigation is under way, and it is absolutely right that that should form part of that investigation. I understand that a number of the individuals—the reports are that these people were dressed in black, and I would say they were extremists—who were at that football game were taken out of the stadium around half time, but it is absolutely right that, through the investigation, we see what lessons are to be learned in respect of the actions of the Bulgarian police.
It is great to hear the whole House in support of the football team last night—not just Gareth Southgate, but in particular those lads who had to go about their jobs just yards from the most vile and horrific abuse that no one should have to endure on the football pitch. It was fantastic to see them getting the ball in the back of the net and showing their worth in that way. It was magnificent.
A lot of discussion has already taken place about getting our own house in order. The FA still has a long way to go towards representing England as a country and as a society. Currently, only 13% of the FA’s coaching staff are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, with the proportion in leadership roles at only 5%. How can we expect the young people of the future to see a career in football unless the FA looks more like the society it represents?
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. It was not just the players who were the victims of the abuse last night; it also affected the FA’s support staff, and cameramen who were of colour were abused and visibly shaking. It did not just affect the players. The best role models for diversity in football are those magnificent players who took to the pitch last night. It was just amazing to see how diverse the England football team looks. Hopefully, that will inspire many other men and women and girls and boys from all different backgrounds to take up our national game.
Stoke City football club is based in my constituency and has been doing some excellent work to promote diversity in the game. Does the Minister agree that we need to make sure that we support our local clubs to do much more work to ensure that the game is as diverse and inclusive as possible?
I do, and it is essential that we learn from examples of good practice. It is encouraging to hear of those examples at Stoke City, and I would be more than happy to come to Stoke and meet people at Stoke City to see what innovative action they are taking. That is very encouraging.
And very proud of Raheem Sterling I am, too.
I wish to carry on from the point made by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) about what we are doing in our communities. I am desperately worried about alt-right groups targeting sports and gym clubs on the estates in my constituency with alt-right messaging. I am working with the global Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the organisation Initiatives of Change International to produce a toolkit for communities, so that they can improve cohesion and combat such messages. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the project?
I am a Villa fan, and our recent victory over Norwich was marred by the fact that a small number of Villa fans were chanting racist abuse against the appropriately named Marvelous Nakamba. He was clearly unfazed by it, but the reaction of the fans and the club was utter condemnation. Does that show that if we work with the clubs and the fans we will eventually be able to kick racism out of football?
My hon. Friend is spot on. I remind the House that racist and homophobic chanting at football matches is a criminal offence. It is quite simple. Action can be taken, and we have provided some funding to Kick It Out to ensure that all hate crimes, whether during a game or on social media, are accurately recorded so that the necessary action, including on whether to involve the Crown Prosecution Service, is taken.
Are the Government aware of the excellent Show Racism the Red Card campaign, spearheaded by the Irish Football Association, which targets young people in an educational environment to show how football can bring people together? Will the Government fund and support other initiatives of a similar nature throughout the United Kingdom?
We are indeed aware of the excellent work that Show Racism the Red Card does. There are a number of campaign groups in this space in football, including Kick It Out and, indeed, Stonewall, which is taking action on homophobic abuse. We provide funding for these groups, and we are more than happy to look at how we can work with them to ensure that this vile behaviour is indeed given the boot.
Here stands another Scot who cheered England on to their resounding victory last night in the face of disgusting and shameful scenes. Does the Minister agree that the UEFA three-step protocol is some progress? Is it possible that we can build on that in this country to tackle the scourge of racism? In Scotland, we have a particular, deeply embedded problem with sectarianism; in his opinion, could it be applied in that context as well?
In my opinion, I see no reason why not. Last night was the first time the UEFA protocol was used in an international game, and I think it worked incredibly well. The support of the UEFA officials and the referee is needed. The players had made a collective decision just before half time to stay on the park, and the management and the officials supported them. It turned out to be the right decision, because I understand that the main protagonists—the lunatics—were ejected at half time. There may have been some pockets of verbal abuse during the second half, but the players decided to let their feet do the talking.
I must confess that the Minister took some of the wind out of my sails: I was going to ask him if he agreed with me about the magnificent professionalism and dignity of Tyrone Mings on his debut. He was a great player for Ipswich Town and he is a great player for Aston Villa and for England. Will the Minister agree to write to each and every one of the England players who were at the match, to tell them just how proud their country is of their behaviour?
In terms of ability and character, this young England football team enhanced their reputation last night, as did their coach Gareth Southgate. They are a credit to themselves and to the entire nation. Is the Minister aware that under the complex qualification process there is a real possibility of Scotland playing Bulgaria in a European championships play-off match? Will he write to all the home nations’ football associations, and to the devolved Administrations, to assure them that if any of the countries of the home nations hear far-right chants or their players are racially abused they will get the full support of the UK Government?
One hundred per cent. That is where it appears as if the protocol will be effective. It is absolutely right that we back the players. Ultimately, it is the players’ call if they want to walk off the pitch. If it ends up going to step 3, it is a call for the officials as to whether to abandon the game completely. It is not for politicians to over-interfere in the running of football, but on an issue such as this, which is a social problem, it is absolutely right that we, in the strongest terms, have our say and support our players who are suffering.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) for securing this urgent question. I, too, want to praise England’s players for their calm professionalism in their defiance of racism. My son adores football and he is actually an exceptional player, but in the interests of him and of many other young people, we really need to do what is best to stamp out racism in football at all ages and at all levels. What are the Government doing to give meaning to the words “zero tolerance” of racism in football and, indeed, in other sports as well?
There should be absolute zero tolerance. I am encouraged to hear that the hon. Lady’s young son is a keen footballer, and it should absolutely be the case that, when he goes to play, nobody on that pitch is subject to any form of abuse whatsoever. We are working incredibly closely with the football authorities. We are very keen to see that their revised approach to tackling this issue is followed through, which includes, as I have said, stronger education measures, reporting systems, training and support for referees and stewards, the use of CCTV to recognise offenders and the innovative use of body cameras on stewards, which would be very useful for recording such incidents.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the Minister to his place. I also congratulate the England men’s team on a resounding win in the face of disgusting racist abuse. Does he agree that UEFA and FIFA have been flat-footed for far too long on this issue? We had a football team in Livingston where I grew up. If a person swore in the stadium, they were chucked out, because there were so many children, young people and families present. That is the kind of atmosphere that we should be fostering and encouraging. Will he make sure that UEFA and FIFA are not allowed to put profit before prosecution or action on this issue?
Again, the hon. Lady is spot on. UEFA has to get its response right on the basis that this has been going on for far too long and that this is not the first incident. All football authorities must be left in no doubt that failure to tackle this issue has severe consequences.
In July, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin- Khan) held a debate in this Chamber on the subject of racism in sport. Will the Minister tell us what action his Government have taken as a result of that debate, because, as last night’s disgraceful event showed us, there is a need for more action and less talk?
I am aware that my predecessor responded to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan). There has been further action and communication between our Department and the football authorities. A summit followed that debate, which was attended by the policing unit, campaign groups and all the footballing bodies. We are looking for some of the measures that I have outlined in my previous answers to be implemented. There has also been an announcement of an increase in the minimum sanctions for discriminatory behaviour to a 10-match ban. This is subsequent to the debate to which the hon. Lady refers, but there is still absolutely more to do. It is vital that the football authorities continue to prioritise tackling this despicable behaviour.
I thank the Minister for the work that he has done over the past 24 hours and for the work that he will do in the future in tackling the scourge of racism. What we are talking about in one example was people dressed in black shirts making the Nazi salute. These elements of racism are being pushed on social media platforms. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), he said that there was more to do. May I ask him to press the Culture Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister to bring forward the online harms Bill that was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech? That would mean that social media companies can start to be tackled and regulated so that they are unable to have excuses and to say, “Oh we can’t take down these pictures of people making Nazi salutes at football matches because it takes too long to process.” We need the Bill. We need it to be stronger and to ensure that this type of racism is not fuelled by the social media platforms.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. As I have said, what we saw last night—extremists dressed in black, making Nazi salutes and making monkey chants—was bordering on the subhuman and should not be tolerated. Online abuse—any form of online abuse—should not be tolerated. With regard to the online harms Bill, we will be undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny and working with industry in this Session to deliver exactly the sort of results that he wants to see. We have made it absolutely clear that social media companies need to do more, and this Government will hold them to account.
I commend the England team and their manager for their dignity last night. Sadly, racism is still too much of a feature in football, both at club and at international levels. The Minister has mentioned the three-step protocol, but does he support further mandatory measures such as the forfeiture of games if racism does not stop during the game? Does he agree that we must not place players and fans in the situation where they go to enjoy the beautiful game and find it defiled by the ugliness of racism?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. The forfeiture of games and other such measures are clearly matters for the football authorities, not the Government; that is absolutely correct. None the less, we need to be absolutely clear that our very strongly held view is that no measure should be taken off the table.
I do not mind admitting that I am not a fan of football, but I am very proud of the fact that the world’s first black professional football player played for my home town in Darlington. What shocked me the most this morning on hearing about all this were the comments of the Bulgarian manager. It just seems to me that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) rightly said, we will make no progress on this while the first reaction of people in positions of leadership, responsibility and influence in the game, such as managers, is to minimise and deny what has happened.
I, too, was shocked by the Bulgarian coach’s response. It was as though none of this had happened: he had not seen it; he had not heard it; and he shrugged his shoulders. It was rather incredible. That does not help when we are trying to erase this evil from the game. I was very encouraged by the comments of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. I do not think that there was much more that we could have asked him to say or do. The fact is he may consider taking away funding from the Bulgarian FA unless its president loses his job. I am very grateful to him for his remarks.
The Minister was quite complimentary about the way that the protocol worked last night. Kick It Out has issued a statement, saying that
“UEFA must explain why players weren’t sent to the dressing room during Step Two, as is clearly stated in the rules. TV footage also clearly shows that racist abuse continued in the second half, so it is unacceptable that Step Three was not enforced. This match should have been abandoned by the officials.”
Will the Minister reach out to staff at Kick It Out and perhaps discuss his interpretation of the way that the protocol worked with theirs?
I am more than happy to speak to Kick It Out about its interpretation. Having spoken to the FA and having received its intelligence, I can say that it is the players’ call. It should be the players’ call. We must support what the players want. They are the ones who, along with the officials and the support staff, are receiving this abuse. They made the decision to stay on during step 2 for the last four or five minutes. The FA did have spotters in the crowd, and the intelligence indicated that the abuse was going on. That might not be the case, because we cannot fill a whole stadium with officers, so it was a call for the players, and I support that, but I am more than happy, as the hon. Lady suggests, to have a conversation with Kick It Out.
As a very proud “out” football player in my youth—I was fabulous in defence and more fabulous than good at stopping surges down the right wing—I recognise that the people who gave me homophobic abuse were frequently the same as those who gave out racist and misogynistic abuse as well. May I ask the Minister what steps he can take to encourage clubs right across the country to show in our games this weekend that there is no place for racism or homophobia at the international or the grassroots level anywhere in our country?
The hon. Gentleman represents the fine city of Plymouth, and I may surprise him by saying that I am going to out myself today as well—as having been probably the only Member of Parliament to have played for Plymouth Argyle Supporters Association London Branch, back in the ’90s. Not only that, but I scored two goals for PASALB in my prime, some years ago. [Laughter.] Not that long ago.
It is absolutely essential that we send a message loud and clear from this place to all football grounds and all sports grounds throughout our nation: racism will never ever to be tolerated, and we need to crack down on the perpetrators.
Imprisonment of Catalan Leaders
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this urgent question. I appreciate it is a question that will drive passions among him and individually among other right hon. and hon. Members of this House, but the position of Her Majesty’s Government on Catalonia is clear: it is a matter for Spain. The United Kingdom strongly supports the rule of law and remains clear that political leaders, like anyone else, have a duty to abide by the law. Questions related to Catalan independence should be resolved within the proper constitutional and legal channels, and questions related to the legal penalties handed down by the courts of Spain are a matter for Spain and its democratic institutions.
I thank the Minister for that answer, as far as it went.
Many Members of this House have been concerned by the cases brought before the Spanish Supreme Court against 12 Catalan political and civic leaders on charges of sedition, the embezzlement of public funds and disobedience in relation to the 2017 referendum on Catalan independence. I wish to make it entirely clear that my question today is about what happened yesterday and that it is not about whether independence is right or wrong.
Nine of those accused have already been held in preventive detention for nearly two years and have been visited by Members of this House, Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Senedd of Wales. Yesterday, they were sentenced. One of those sentenced is Carme Forcadell, the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, whom you kindly welcomed to Speaker’s House and to our Chamber when she visited us shortly before her detention, Mr Speaker. Her offence, apparently, is to have allowed a parliamentary debate on independence. Yesterday, she was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison. Mr Speaker, as you confirmed in respect of a point I made some time ago, we would not expect your detention and prosecution were you to allow a debate on Welsh independence. Others jailed include former Vice-President Oriol Junqueras, who was given the harshest sentence of all: 13 years in prison.
Bringing criminal charges is no way to resolve political differences, so will the Government today join calls for the Government of Spain to engage in a proper and respectful process of dialogue with the Government of Catalonia? Will the Secretary of State commit to pressing the relevant EU institutions to consider launching a procedure under article 7 of the treaty on European Union in respect of the Spanish state’s response to the Catalan crisis? This would include consideration of the prosecution and sentencing of the Catalan political and civic leaders, as this is a clear example of how Spain is bringing about a risk of serious and persistent breach of the EU’s founding values of respect for freedom, democracy, justice and human rights, as outlined in article 2 of the treaty. This is a matter for us and the European Union, and is not just a Spanish domestic matter.
As I said, I appreciate that this is a matter that will drive high passions among our colleagues. I note that Members of the Scottish nationalist party are here in force. I welcome them back from their conference and am sorry that they have had to sojourn for this urgent question. I hope that in the future we will be able to find an accommodation to allow them to have their conference without interference from the activities in this Chamber.
As for the right to debate independence in Spain, I will make two points. First, the Spanish constitution, which was agreed by Spain—including the people of Catalonia—in 1978, makes it quite clear that it is not legally possible to hold a legal secessionist vote without a change to the constitution. Secondly, I fully recognise the rights of the parliamentarians in question to make speeches, to debate and to make their points, and they have done so several times in the regional Parliament of Catalonia, as they have every right to do. They also have the right to elections in that regional Parliament. Those elections were held in 2017, and the people of Catalonia made their choices.
Let me turn to the legal rights of the parliamentarians who have been imprisoned. That is a matter for the Spanish courts, and we would not seek to interfere in those courts, just as I am sure that SNP Members would not seek the Spanish authorities to interfere in the proceedings of the Court of Session in Edinburgh. The parliamentarians we are discussing have a right to appeal to the Spanish constitutional court and to the European Court of Human Rights. Let us see how the law takes its course.
The Spanish courts are transparent and robust, and they have handed down the penalties according to Spanish law. Whether individual Members of Parliament like it or not, that is the Spanish law and it is for the Spanish Government to change it, if the Spanish people wish it.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for securing it.
As a former lawyer—although I suppose some would say “once a lawyer, always a lawyer”—I am always loth to criticise the courts. I am afraid, though, that what we saw yesterday was the judicial equivalent of what we saw from the Spanish police on the streets of Catalonia two years ago: unnecessary, heavy-handed and entirely counterproductive. In an effort to crush the Catalan independence movement, these incredibly harsh sentences have simply given it fuel. They will serve not just to radicalise what has hitherto been a peaceful pro-independence movement, but to drive many Catalans who were not previously part of that movement to join the cause. As one of the banners carried at yesterday’s protest so pithily put it, “I’m not pro-independence but I’m not an idiot.” That same sentiment will be shared by many—not just in Catalonia, but across Spain—who see in these sentences a basic injustice being committed, which is unworthy of any nation, let alone a member of the European Union.
But I believe that there is hope, and that hope is the approach being taken by the freshly elected socialist Government in Spain. This is a crisis that they inherited, not one that they created. Even in these court cases, the state prosecutor urged leniency in sentencing. This is reflective of an approach that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party Government have taken and that Labour—its sister party—supports. That approach is that the only way past this ongoing crisis is through peaceful dialogue and the eventual agreement of a political solution drawn up in accordance with the Spanish constitution. If the answer instead is a further escalation of division and confrontation, the radicalisation of the pro-independence movement and more heavy-handed action by the Spanish police or the Spanish courts, then that is not an answer at all, and all the parties of good will must resist it.
I hear what the Minister says about this being a matter for Spain, but I wonder if he can perhaps help us with this. Given the sentences handed down by the Spanish courts and the ongoing threat that hangs over the former Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, can he confirm that that gentleman would be free to visit Britain and speak to supporters, universities, the media and politicians without any risk of being arrested for extradition for Spain?
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for reminding us of our rights and the rights of our friends who may choose to come to speak to us in the Palace of Westminster.
I am obliged to the right hon. Lady for her comments and for the reasonable tone in which she undertook them, although I would note that this week she seems to be against the judges whereas a couple of weeks ago she was for the judges. I do not think you can be against the judges one week and for them the next; you need to be for the judges all the time.
Well, I would not wish to comment on the right hon. Lady’s domestic circumstances. She can do that for herself from a sedentary, if not a supine, position.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the approach that Prime Minister Sánchez has taken. I would echo that. He has called for dialogue—for the use of carrot rather than stick. It is incumbent on all of us, as parliamentarians, to encourage sober and reflective debate on what is an exceptionally passionate topic, not least in Spain, and in Catalonia.
With regard to Mr Puigdemont and his right to travel here, which I think was the substantive point that the right hon. Lady made, any European arrest warrant is a matter for the issuing authority and for the independent agencies in this country—the police, the courts and the prosecuting authorities. It is a convention that I do not propose to break in this case that we do not comment on any arrest warrant until or unless an execution of that warrant is made.
Gràcies—thank you—Madam Deputy Speaker. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for securing this urgent question.
It is all very well for the Minister to hide behind the constitutionality of what has been done, but could I gently remind him that some of the most unspeakable acts of evil that Europe saw in the 20th century, and that the United States and South Africa have seen, were constitutional and legal? Being constitutional does not make something either legally or morally defensible.
Many of these people are our equivalents. They are Members of Parliament, they are Government Ministers, they are the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, whose only offence was to seek to implement the mandate they had been given by their people in a free, fair and democratic election. The question is not whether we think that Catalonia should or should not be independent; it is whether we, as parliamentarians, are prepared to stand up and defend the right of parliamentarians across the world to say things that Governments do not like and to implement the policies that their people have put them there to implement without fear of arrest and imprisonment.
Any political system—any constitution—that allows parliamentarians to be arrested for being parliamentarians is a constitution that is not fit for purpose and that needs urgent change. In the case of the constitution of Spain and of Catalonia, the only legitimate vehicle for that constitution to change is through the ballot box. While it is not for us to decide the future of Catalonia, as it is for nobody other than the people of Catalonia to decide that, I stand with the people of Catalonia—estic amb Catalunya—in their right to determine their own future and to do so in a free, fair and democratic process.
Does the Minister agree that the right of self-determination and the right to freedom of assembly are fundamental to the concept of modern human rights? Does he accept that sending armed police to break up peaceful demonstrations sets the wrong tone and is likely to inflame the situation rather than to encourage peaceful and legal dialogue? Will he even attempt to persuade the Government of Spain that the way to resolve this crisis is through the democratic political process and not through the criminal justice system? What conversations has he had with his Spanish counterpart, and with his counterparts throughout the rest of the European Union, to remind them that the founding principle of the European Union is that all peoples have the right of self-determination and that any state that impinges on those rights through the use of force should not be supported by this or any other democratic Government?
The question of whether the referendum in Catalonia was legal is quite clear: it was not legal. It was marked down by the Spanish courts who said that it was illegal. The MPs who decided to use public funds for that illegal referendum knew what they were doing. They knew that they should not have done it. They knew that they were breaking the law. Therefore, they must accept that the law will be done.
In terms of the rights of people to assemble, the rights of people to protest and the way in which police action has occurred in Catalonia, as the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said, I would encourage great care to be taken in the policing of these events. We, in our own country, know how very important it is to allow people to protest peaceably and then to encourage them to disperse in a similar way, so I would certainly encourage our Spanish friends to do that.
Have I had conversations with the Spanish Government and with the Spanish authorities here? Yes, I have discussed diplomatically with the Spanish ambassador the likely outcome of the court action that we heard of yesterday, and I shall be talking to him again, I am sure, in the next weeks or months.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the regional elections that were held on 21 December provided a path to restoring the rule of law, and that it is for all the people of Catalonia to have their say via democratic processes that are consistent with the constitution as it stands presently?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The elections in December 2017 gave the people of Catalonia the right to exercise their democratic mandate, and they did that. That created a regional Parliament that has debated the questions before Catalonia, including the question of independence, several times. It is for that mechanism, and the mechanism in the Cortes Generales if necessary, to amend the Spanish constitution to allow for legal plebiscites to take place. It is a matter for that procedure and not for illegal procedures which, of course, only cause more harm than good.
The Minister talks about acts that are lawful. We know of many acts in history that have been lawful. I am thinking of the response of the British state to the Easter rising 103 years ago—it might have been lawful, but it can be best described as a massively counterproductive act of repression. Will the Minister urge his Spanish counterparts to at least learn the lessons of history before further inflaming situations and encourage peaceful dialogue and reconciliation?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I think the Spanish Government and Spanish parliamentarians of all stripes and colours will be exceptionally mindful of history. If anybody has read Antony Beevor’s “The Battle for Spain” about the terrible events that took place in Spain between 1936 and 1939, they will understand what can happen when disagreements get out of hand. I am sure that the Spanish Government, the Spanish Opposition and many people in Spain are very mindful of that.
When the Minister is at the Dispatch Box, he and I will discuss Ukraine fairly often, and we will more often than not find ourselves in agreement, because we have chosen that what happens there is in our interests. If what is happening in Spain and Catalonia now was what Yanukovych’s Government had been doing to people in Ukraine back in 2014, the Minister would rightly be condemning it, and I would rightly be saying he was right to do so. Why does he not recognise his unique position as a Minister in a Unionist Government who oversaw an independence referendum that was held legally and fairly, and inject some common sense into his Spanish counterparts?
Self-determination, as set out in international law, is a long-standing convention to which we subscribe, but the circumstances in individual states are often very different. He will know that the situation in Ukraine in 2013-14 was very different from the one in which the people of Spain and Catalonia find themselves today. We should treat individual circumstances individually, and that is what we are doing.
As other Members have said, this is not about the merits or otherwise of independence for Catalonia. It is about the subjugation of political and civic leaders for pursuing a legitimate cause in a democratic and peaceful manner. That cannot be tolerated. It does not reflect well on Spain—a country I have great affection for—and, frankly, if it were happening in some other parts of the world, the Minister’s response would be far more robust.
I understand the passion that the hon. Gentleman brings to his position and his conviction. I will simply repeat that the law of Spain is clear, transparent and robust. Those people who, equally passionately, decided to pursue a secessionist agenda knew that they were breaking Spanish law. The consequences for them were clear, and though he may have his own individual viewpoint about those consequences, the position of this Government is also clear: it is a matter for Spain.
I know that the Minister, like others on the Conservative Benches, values highly freedom of speech. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are protected under the European convention on human rights. Does he agree with the International Commission of Jurists that these convictions for sedition “represent a serious interference” with freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly, and that the resort to the law of sedition to restrict those important rights is
“unnecessary, disproportionate and ultimately unjustifiable”?
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for bringing her legal knowledge to bear. That viewpoint is not necessarily the viewpoint of the Spanish courts. It may be the viewpoint of an international body, and it may be her viewpoint, but it may not be that of international courts. It is for the defendants who have been found guilty by the Supreme Court to appeal, if they so wish, to the Spanish constitutional court, and beyond that to the European Court of Human Rights. Let us see whether they do so and how successful their cases are.
The Minister has been remarkably weak in his responses, and I do not think he has noticed that only one Member in this Chamber has asked a question that is sympathetic to what he has said. Will he forget the whole debate about separatism, which is totally different, and talk to the Spanish Government, reflecting the concerns of Members across parties in this House and speaking loudly for what we have said today?
I am sure that the Spanish embassy and the Spanish Government will have heard what individual Members of this House have said. Individual Members can make their views plain, and they have, but as far as it is a matter for Her Majesty’s Government, our position is plain: Spanish courts are independent, and their processes are transparent and robust. The court penalties handed down are a matter for those courts, and any change to Spanish law is a matter for Spain.
The Minister is at pains to justify the Spanish judicial process, which is interesting when we recall that only last month, the Supreme Court found his Prime Minister to have acted unlawfully. Does he propose that the Spanish rule of law is proportionate, when Speaker Forcadell has been sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison for permitting debate? Does he believe that that is proportionate?
When the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down its verdict last month, we made it plain that we would accept that verdict and obey the law. How can we then say that people in Spain should not obey the laws of Spain? Why should we interfere or comment upon the judicial processes or the penalties handed down by courts in a country that is democratic, robust and open? I do not think we should, and I will not.
In the four and a half years that I have been a Member of this place, I have never been more ashamed of this so-called bastion of democracy than following this weak response from the Minister. I stand in solidarity with all the political prisoners, because let us be in no doubt: that is what they are. I want to ask the Minister about Jordi Cuixart, a civic leader—a non-politician—who was arrested on trumped-up charges, convicted and now sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, nearly two years to the day since he was held on remand. I have met Jordi’s wife and young child, and during that meeting the toddler kept calling out for dad. That child was six months old when Jordi was remanded but will be 11 when he is released. What is the Minister’s message for them? They deserve a lot better than these weasel words.
Of course I am sorry—I am sad—if a child is unable to reach out and touch his father and see him, but the hon. Gentleman says that in that particular case, the charges are trumped up. That is his viewpoint. The courts of Spain have decided otherwise. If we are going to be a country that accepts and respects the rule of law, and if we accept that Spain has a robust and transparent legal procedure, we must accept the outcome of those court decisions, however much he or others may personally disagree with them.
The Minister says that this is a matter for Spain. However, the fact that a European arrest warrant has been issued for the President of Catalonia means that other countries are now involved. Is he confident that the warrant has not been issued merely for political purposes?
I am confident about the robust processes of our own country. As I made clear before, the issuing authority would be in Spain. It is for our independent agencies—the police, the courts and our prosecuting authorities—to decide the merits or otherwise of the warrant, and unless or until one is executed, we should not comment further.
The Minister has said repeatedly that it would be inappropriate to comment on the activities of another country’s judicial system, but some of us on these Benches find that very difficult to believe, given that unnamed sources in his Government were quite happy to criticise the Scottish courts last month. However, there is a wider issue here. The scenes we saw last night of Spanish police acting with brutality against their own citizens is the kind of thing, if it happened in any other country outside the EU, about which the Minister would be on the phone in diplomatic channels, is it not?
If we believed all the unsourced quotations in all the newspapers we read every day, I think we would be in a pretty pickle. What matters in this country and in this House of Commons is what is said at this Dispatch Box, and it is the view of the British Government that the processes of the Spanish courts are transparent, open and robust. It is incumbent on all of us as democrats and as upholders of the rule of law to accept the outcome of those decisions, however much we may individually dislike or disagree with them.
The imprisonment of legitimately elected parliamentarians does not fit with being a modern European democracy. On that basis, what discussion has the Minister had with the Spanish Government in the past 24 hours regarding a mediated solution to the Catalan crisis, and will the Foreign Secretary take legal advice on pursuing a procedure under article 7 of the EU treaty as a matter of urgency?
It is a hell of a mess in Spain, and it is likely to get worse. That is the fact of the matter. As the SNP Members in front of me know, I was on a different side when it came to the Scottish independence referendum, yet I think it is to the great credit of Scotland and indeed of the colleagues in front of me that we kept it civil and keep it civil today. I am also mindful that Senator Mitchell and General de Chastelain helped to improve—let us put it that way—the peace situation in Northern Ireland. Is it worth the Government considering forming together a party, perhaps of people from the independence movements of Scotland and Wales with those of us who were on the other side, to offer our services to Spain to try to de-escalate an extremely dangerous situation at this stage?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the tone he has struck. It is a matter for parliamentarians and political parties to offer support to, or indeed to disagree with, other political parties or countries on the continent, but it is not for the British Government to interfere in the legal processes of Spain or the constitutional settlement of Spain. That is a matter for Spain, and Spain alone.
Oppression everywhere has a long history of always being legal. We know that, and that statement was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) earlier. I would like to say to Catalans watching today that, in fact, I was in a debate earlier with a Tory and a Labour politician who support Catalonia, so this is cross-party.
The approach of the European Union has been spineless and shameless. Guy Verhofstadt has made comments on China, Brazil, Turkey and almost anywhere else we could mention, but on Catalonia he is utterly silent. He plays Pontius Pilate, and he cannot get enough bowls of water with which to wash his hands. I am afraid to say that that position seems to be shared by the UK Government. The cry of action is the cry for more bowls of water with which to wash their hands—and this in a Chamber that has just spent an hour telling UEFA and FIFA what to do. No courage at all has been shown in relation to telling the Government in Madrid to behave with a modicum of decency.
I want to ask the Minister: what sort of oppression by Spain in Barcelona or Catalonia will the UK Government tolerate? Forget independence and the fact that Catalonia was annexed in 1716. What level of oppression do they oppose? Is it a Hong Kong level of oppression, a Barcelona level of oppression or being in jail for 14 years? What will they eventually stand up and oppose? The cowardice that has been shown is not on, and the people should not be having to live with it.
I think the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have an occasional drinking friendship, did himself a disservice in the way he has just comported himself. If the situation—the passionate situation—in Catalonia and in its cities is to be de-escalated and the situation is not to be further inflamed, I do not think that commentary such as that helps, frankly. I would call on all parties in Spain—all those who wish to protest and all the agencies that are responsible for good governance and order in Spain—to treat themselves and each other fairly and soberly so that this particular problem and this great challenge can be dealt with democratically and peaceably within the rule of the Spanish law.
I am appalled by some of the words coming out of the Minister today. In Catalonia, people get hit, beaten and forcibly removed from places for simply standing up for their human rights, and this Government refuse to condemn that? I find that inexcusable. Estic amb Catalunya!
Of course the British Government deplore any form of oppression, but we also deplore any form of riotous behaviour that undermines the rule of law and threatens public property or public safety. I would encourage all sides to desist, to calm down and to make sure that they address this question, which is a question for Spain, quietly, soberly and peaceably. As far as any support goes, of course the British Government support that.
I have had the incredible privilege of visiting Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Sànchez and Raül Romeva in their prison cells, and they are intelligent, humble and proud men. Everything they have done was peaceful and appropriate. Dr Martin Luther King once said:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I refuse to be silent because this matters, while the UK Government’s silence has been deafening. The UK Government like to talk themselves up as a force in the world who think they sit at the top table with the big boys and girls. Well, here is a chance to prove it. Will the Minister—here, today—defend democracy and denounce these prison terms?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I will defend and support the rule of law. I have no doubt that the gentlemen to whom he refers are humble; I have no doubt that they are articulate; I have no doubt that they can make powerful cases in their own defence and in the promulgation of the matters that concern them—
And peaceably so. I have no doubt of that, but they must always act and operate within the law. The Spanish legal system, as I have said and will say again, is open, robust and transparent, and it has handed down sentences that, whether we like them or not, we must accept.
I will make the further observation, if I may, that constitutionally Spain cannot of course have a secessionist plebiscite without a change to the constitution. That is in keeping with the constitutions of France and Italy. They are all built in the same way and they are all meant to achieve the same ends, and we have to support them as long as they are in place.
It is quite difficult to sit and listen to the Minister talking about the importance of observing the rule of law. I wait for him, when he gets back on his feet, to condemn the Leader of the House, sitting beside him on the Bench, who condemned the judges who found against the Government’s breach of the law during Prorogation. Clearly, the sentences that were passed down in Madrid were an act of vengeance, not an act of justice. This is not about independence for Catalonia; this is about the fundamental principles of democracy. Does he not understand that all who believe in democracy have a duty to condemn the kind of repression that we witnessed yesterday; that to say it is a matter for Spain is a complete abdication of the UK’s international responsibility; and that to do nothing is a dereliction of duty, with all the shame that that will bring?
Then who is it a matter for? Is it a matter for this Parliament, this Government, the European Union? Who? The hon. Lady says that Ministers in this Government have criticised judges. She does not seem to appreciate the irony that she is doing exactly the same thing here and now about judges sitting and handing down sentences in Spain, a country that is democratic, has a robust legal system, and adheres to the rule of law. That is all that we are doing in this House right now. We are supporting the rule of law and the right of the Spanish courts to hand down justice as they see it to be right.
Is it not the case, Minister, that any country that seeks to perpetrate a human rights abuse will claim that its legal systems are robust, and that it is happening under the rule of law? What criteria do his Government place on speaking out when free speech is challenged in this way?
The people of Catalonia have the right to freedom of expression through the ballot box in the regional Parliament, which they have done. The Catalonian parliamentarians have the right to freedom of expression when they debate the question of independence, which they have done, so I do not really see why the hon. Gentleman is making the argument that he is. They have a right in the Spanish Parliament, and in the Catalonian Parliament, to speak, to debate and to be heard, but they must do that within the rule of law, which the Spanish courts have decided they have not.
As a younger woman in my 20s I visited Catalonia as part of a European Free Alliance Scottish delegation, where I met and worked with many young Catalan activists and leaders who wanted one thing—to decide their own future in a democratic and legal way. Whatever his views on independence for Catalonia or any other country around the world, surely the Minister agrees with the right to self-determination and of citizens to decide the future path of their nation and people. The Minister has an opportunity to redeem himself. Does he agree with that right and that it cannot be right for any political differences to be solved by police brutality and incarceration?
I certainly agree that people have the right to self-determination, but they must pursue it within the law. In the case of Spain, that requires a change to the Spanish constitution and it is for Spain to change its constitution, not for this Parliament or the British Government.