House of Commons
Tuesday 5 November 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
May I start, Mr Speaker, by saying it is an honour to be the first Member at the Dispatch Box to congratulate you on taking the Chair? You will not have an easy task, but I am confident that with your technical expertise and your long experience and good humour, you will do an absolutely superb job.
The UK has consistently opposed Turkish military action in Syria. We condemned it with our European partners and we are concerned about the impact it will have on stability, on the humanitarian crisis and also on the counter-Daesh effort.
Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in congratulating you on your election yesterday. It is fantastic to see you in the Chair.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Abandoning the Kurds, who led the fight against IS, has seen over 10,000 refugees fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan on top of the 1.5 million displaced people it is already generously caring for, so will he increase humanitarian work and the Kurdistan region’s ability to defend itself against Daesh? Does he agree that this has also strengthened Iran and its proxy terror arming Hezbollah, and that Israel, the middle east’s only democracy, must be protected from that threat?
I thank the hon. Gentleman; he has followed this subject for a long period and has experience and insight. We are worried, and our main concerns are around the humanitarian situation and the stability of northern Syria. Notwithstanding the removal of Daesh leader al-Baghdadi, which we welcome, we are worried about the medium-term impact on counter-Daesh strategy in the region. So while we welcome the ceasefire brokered by Vice-President Mike Pence in relation to northern Syria, we are also seeing an accommodation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime and indeed Presidents Erdoğan and Putin, and that is counter both to our counter-terrorism efforts but also to the humanitarian plight that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises.
May I add my congratulations to you, Mr Speaker?
Save the Children has identified around 60 British children who are stranded in north-east Syria. The Government have said that we owe them a duty of care. No matter what their parents may have done, these are innocent children, and some are now malnourished and some are suffering from life-threatening illnesses. What are the Government doing to ensure that those British children are repatriated?
The hon. Lady is right to say that the first responsibility is of course with any parent or prospective parent who would take their children out to a conflict zone. We have made it clear that we are willing to repatriate unaccompanied UK minors or orphans where is no risk to UK security. We would consider carefully individual requests for consular support more generally and subject to national security considerations, but of course the UK has no consular presence in Syria from which to provide assistance, and that makes it very difficult to help, but we respond on a case-by-case basis.
This is an honour, Mr Speaker.
Mr Ahmed, a Syrian Kurd constituent of mine, has relayed his deep concerns for family and friends in the region. Communities without security cannot prosper; what more can be done to secure a peace?
We talk to all the parties and players involved. Obviously there is an important NATO component. The US withdrawal of troops is, of course, a matter for them, but we note that a small residual number of troops are going to be left for counter-Daesh operations. We support the deconfliction mechanism that is in place to try to ensure that the airspace can be correctly and properly policed.
It is an honour, Mr Speaker, to be the first Back Bencher to be called from the Government Benches during your Speakership. I made my remarks about your predecessor a matter of formal record, and I hope I can now get called, which would be agreeable.
On this very serious issue, having recently been to the region may I urge my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to engage with the local leadership there when they make themselves available at ministerial level? On the conduct of the Turkish military operation, there is now pretty incontrovertible evidence that white phosphorus has been used as a weapon against civilians, if not other chemical weapons, either by the Turks or by their Syrian auxiliary allies. This is a matter of immense seriousness; will the United Kingdom Government now hold Turkey and her allies to account?
Your tenure and leadership, Mr Speaker, are already producing changes on the Back Benches, which are hugely welcome. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned that we ensure we are engaged with key figures on the ground in northern Syria. In relation to white phosphorus, we are very concerned by the reports—which have not yet been fully verified, as we have said—and we want to see a swift and thorough investigation by the UN Commission of Investigation. That is what we are pressing for.
Before the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), stands up, may I be the first London MP to welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what international discussions are occurring with the Turkish Government in order to ensure a long-lasting peace?
I have spoken to the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan on 12 and 20 October, and we have made it clear that we are not willing to see demographic changes on the ground that would alter the balance in northern Syria. We are concerned about the humanitarian situation. It is welcome that the ceasefire is broadly holding, but we now need to see measures for a credible medium-term approach that allows us to continue to press our overarching aim to see Daesh defeated in the region and that is also fair and just in relation to the humanitarian crisis, particularly to those who have been displaced or lost their homes.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, may I be the first Scottish MP to welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker? On 16 October, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the UK was failing to attend meetings to discuss the situation in Syria, not least the increase in migration and the refugee crisis. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what possible benefits there can be from failing to attend these meetings? What are the foreign policy implications of this, and will he change his mind about non-attendance?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are in close contact with all our bilateral partners, that we engage with our EU partners and that we have raised this situation in the UN Security Council. I have discussed it at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the UK will be attending the next ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh on 14 November in Washington.
I am glad to hear that. The Brexit Secretary told us that the UK would only attend meetings of the EU Council where there was
“a significant national interest in the outcome of discussions, such as on security”.
The situation in Syria strikes me as something that affects security as well as foreign policy, so I ask the Foreign Secretary again: will he change his mind, given that there are 27 key partners in there? It is increasingly striking that there are no benefits from leaving the European Union, but even worse, could it be that we have a Government so blinded and dogmatic over their commitment to turn away from Europe and embrace Trump that they will not even bother to turn up for these meetings? Does he not agree that this is having security and foreign policy implications right now?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I think the blinkered prejudice is all on his own side. I have attended EU Gymnichs before the meetings with Foreign Ministers, because when we have security issues of course we want to engage with our EU partners. The reality is that we will continue to do that once we have left the EU, because we want to be strong European neighbours and allies as well as giving effect to the referendum in this country.
UK Soft Power
As the first woman to speak, may I also congratulate you on your new job, Mr Speaker? The UK is home to world-class universities, cultural institutions and major sporting events that are known throughout the world and that help to promote our values and build relationships. We will keep investing in our soft power assets, including the British Council, the BBC World Service and Chevening scholarships, and engaging with partners as part of our role as a positive influence in the world.
I thank the Minister for that answer, Mr Speaker, but more importantly I thank you, because I believe that our soft power overseas has already been enhanced as a result of your appointment to the Chair. May I ask the Minister what we will do with this newly enhanced soft power to speak up for persecuted Christians around the world?
Congratulations from the west midlands as well, Mr Speaker: everybody is congratulating you.
We actively use our influence to speak up for persecuted Christians and individuals of all faiths or beliefs at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN, among other bodies. Throughout our diplomatic network, we lobby Governments for changes in laws and practices and raise individual cases of persecution in countries recently including Egypt, Indonesia and Sudan. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the PM’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief is working very hard as well.
Last summer, the Red Arrows went to North America on an 11-week deployment and I happened, by sheer coincidence, to be in Chicago with the Mayor of the West Midlands. There we were, walking along the esplanade and we saw the Red Arrows on display with around a million Chicagoans cheering the Royal Air Force, which was great. That is a great example of soft power, but when does my hon. Friend think that a soft power strategy might be published?
I thank my hon. Friend, with his great links to the west midlands and the Mayor of the West Midlands, all congratulating the Speaker on his new position. Of course, this was a great example of global Britain going forward. We are all incredibly proud of the Red Arrows and they are a great example of soft power. When the Red Arrows were out there, the engineers and the pilots ran STEM––science, technology, engineering and maths––workshops in schools throughout their route, which was an excellent opportunity to showcase our soft power. To put my hon. Friend’s mind at rest, yes, we will introduce a strategy for soft power once we have won the general election and come back.
No soft soap from me, Mr Speaker. The fact of the matter is that I have known you since you came into the House. I am really pleased that you are in the Chair and we at least have a northern voice. It is Lancastrian rather than Yorkshire, but it is nice to have a regional accent. It is very nice to see your dad up in the Gallery, another old friend and colleague of ours. It is a very happy occasion for the Hoyles.
Now I am turning into angry mode. Will the Minister define what is soft power and what is hard power? Is what the Russians did to us in the last election, and possibly during the referendum, soft or hard power, what are we going to do about it and when are the Government going to publish this report that they are trying to hide from the public?
I am always concerned about the health of the hon. Gentleman; far be it from me to suggest that that was theatrics. To answer his question, soft power is one of the best values of the UK as a nation, in that we are out there with our embassies, trade envoys and cultural attachés and our British Council work. All that is absolutely excellent, as is the World Service that we help pay for. As regards Russia, the hon. Gentleman is an assiduous parliamentarian and I believe that an urgent question on the matter has been agreed by the Speaker, the first he has agreed in his time as Speaker. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman hangs around, he will get the answers that he is looking for.
Mr Speaker, I am delighted to join the congratulations on your election yesterday on behalf of the people of Liverpool.
An important element of soft power is our commitment to international development. Will the Minister take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to that, including the 0.7% aid commitment and the continuation of the Department for International Development as a stand-alone independent Government Department?
It is a pleasure to take a question from the hon. Gentleman, who has been unbelievably good as Chairman of his Select Committee. He is standing down and, honestly, we will miss him. To answer his question, absolutely: 0.7% is writ large. We are very proud that this is the Government that brought that in and put it on a statutory basis. As regards keeping DFID going after the election, let us get through the election.
As the first born and bred Lancastrian to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, may I also congratulate you and wish you well in your role? Last night, the director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, came to dinner at the House of Commons. I wonder whether the Minister will join me in putting on the record our appreciation of the museum’s work. Not only is it an extraordinary lending institution of artefacts around the world, but its work in Iraq, for example, where the British Museum trains men and women archaeologists, is doing so much to preserve and protect sites that have been destroyed by Daesh and others in recent years. If the Government are looking for an envoy for anything, I am going to be free. [Laughter.]
I thank my right hon. Friend for that wonderful question. I am delighted to include the British Museum’s work as another area of soft power for the great UK and for global Britain everywhere. My right hon. Friend is standing down and will be greatly missed not only here but in the middle east, where his expertise and humanity are respected by everybody.
As the first Bury Member of Parliament to speak, may I congratulate you on your fantastic achievement, Mr Speaker? Following yesterday’s decision, which was based on merit, you have been able to bring a great sense of unity to the House.
Turning to soft power, what are the Government doing to make it clear to the Indian Government that we have extremely serious concerns about human rights abuses in Kashmir? What will the Government do to promote the concept of self-determination for the Kashmiri people? Time and again before elections, people on the Front Benches make commitments to promote self-determination, yet Governments have repeatedly failed to do anything about the issue when it comes to using soft power in international institutions.
That was a serious question, and it behoves me to give a serious answer. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to the Indian Foreign Secretary about the matter, raising our concerns about humanitarian issues, particularly in Kashmir. As for the election and commitments regarding an independent Kashmir, the matter should be sorted out on a bilateral basis between the two countries.
Relations with NATO Allies
NATO is the cornerstone of UK and Euro-Atlantic defence and security and has been for over 70 years. On 12 October I addressed the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where I reiterated how NATO allies must work together towards our shared values and to uphold peace and the international rule of law.
When we finally leave the European Union in January, there will be six key strategic countries that are committed to the defence of our continent but are not members of the EU. Will my right hon. Friend commit to work with them and others across the continent to ensure that NATO remains the supreme defence posture, rather than the EU army proposed by Mr Verhofstadt and others?
My hon. Friend is a stalwart defender, supporter and champion of NATO and will know that we continue to meet our 2% defence spending target. We contribute to every NATO mission, including leading the Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup in Estonia. We also lead the Joint Expeditionary Force of up to nine NATO allies and partners, and we do not want that to be undermined by anything done within the EU. Indeed, we want to keep EU, US and North American solidarity as strong as possible.
On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Labour Front-Bench team, may I welcome you to your new role, Mr Speaker? A vital part of co-operation with our NATO allies is defending ourselves against Russian attempts to interfere with our democracy. To that end, what possible reason can the Government have to delay the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee report until after the general election? What on earth do they have to hide?
The right hon. Lady will know, as she has been in her post for quite a while now, that ISC reports go through a number of stages of clearance and other processes between the ISC and the Government. The reports often contain sensitive information, and I know that she would want to see the integrity of such information protected. The reports have to go through that process before they are published, and it usually takes several weeks to complete.
The recent average, just to respond to the hon. Gentleman, is six weeks. This report was only submitted on 17 October, so it has been handled correctly.
I am surprised that the Secretary of State could answer with a straight face.
On a related issue, I ask the Foreign Secretary a simple yes or no question pursuant to my letter to him on Friday. Does Mr Cummings have unredacted access to top-secret intelligence and unrestricted access to top-secret meetings relating to NATO, Russia, Ukraine and Syria—yes or no?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her letter. As she knows, the Government and Ministers do not comment on security clearance, but the insinuation in her letter that No. 10 is somehow in the grip of a Kremlin mole is frankly ridiculous, even by the standards of the loony left. What is troubling is that the leader of the Labour party sided with the Kremlin when it denied responsibility for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury in 2018—one more reason why this Labour party, under this leader, can never be trusted with Britain’s security.
The question is about NATO. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the biggest fault lines in NATO at the moment is the fact that the largest partner is spending 4% of its GDP on defence, whereas no one else is spending much above 2%? Does he agree it is time for the UK to show a lead and commit to spending 3% of our GDP on defence in the next decade?
I pay tribute to the work my right hon. Friend did as Foreign Secretary. We are committed to and, indeed, are meeting our 2% commitment. Not all NATO members are, and we therefore continue to sympathise with the concerns of the US in that regard and encourage others to meet the commitment. I am sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer will look fondly and with interest at his suggestion of a 3% commitment.
The Foreign Office has done everything it properly can to clear the path so that justice can be done for the family of Harry Dunn in this tragic case.
I start by congratulating you, Mr Speaker, on your election. I know that you will want to defend the rights of this House against any rogue Executive.
I extend my deepest sympathies to Harry Dunn’s family. Are the Government exploring routes to extradite the driver? Do they think they are likely to be successful, given that President Trump’s notes, which were caught on camera, appear to confirm that she will never return?
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be slightly confused about the process. A criminal investigation is being conducted by Northamptonshire police and the Crown Prosecution Service. There is no question of any extradition process, let alone of what any Government might do about it, until the CPS has taken its charging decision.
From the Foreign Office’s point of view, this is a deeply tragic case. We have expressed our disappointment and called for a review of the immunity question. It should be waived, and we have cleared, as best and as properly as we can, all obstacles to justice being done. It is now properly a matter for the police and the CPS, including in relation to any extradition matters that follow.
The family and friends of Harry Dunn have been let down in the most appalling way, not just by the lack of justice for their son but by the complete lack of answers from the Government to questions that they and we have raised. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State one more simple question that any mourning family would want answered? Can he tell me how long Harry had to wait between being knocked off his motorbike and the arrival of an ambulance?
Like the right hon. Lady, we feel a huge amount of sympathy for the family, who are very distraught. We are doing everything we can to clear the path to an investigation. I do not know the answer to her question, but I gently say to her that on all these matters, particularly on something so sensitive, we should all proceed and talk about it responsibly.
As a fellow Lancastrian MP, may I add my congratulations to you, Mr Speaker?
The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. We do that through a mixture of bilateral and multilateral engagement and by working with and supporting civil society and others promoting respect for British values and democracy. The rule of law and human rights are and will remain a core part of our international diplomacy.
It is hard to talk about human rights when one of the most flagrant breaches of those rights, the genocidal violence against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar military, remains completely unpunished. What are the latest plans to seek the referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court?
The UK has committed to finding a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis. We will continue to work in Myanmar and Bangladesh to ensure safe and dignified returns, and ensure that they are all voluntary. Through the European Union, we imposed sanctions on 14 individuals responsible for human rights violations during the 2017 Rohingya crisis. We will continue to work with the United Nations, the EU and other international actors to hold to account those responsible for these appalling atrocities.
May I add the tributes of Kent to your speakership, Mr Speaker? May I also personally pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has spoken up on human rights issues in this House for 30 years and has not tired of arguing for people around the world whose rights are challenged? May I also thank her for what she has done over the past two years, when she has been on the Foreign Affairs Committee and been an amazing friend, counsel and adviser? The last report that she has played her part in is on the human rights of this country and how democracies can defend themselves against autocratic influence from around the world. Does the Minister agree that there is much more we can do to defend academic freedoms in this country from Chinese influence and democratic freedoms from Russian influence?
The UK has a long tradition of protecting human rights domestically and fulfilling our international human rights obligations, but, as my hon. Friend the Chair of the FAC has just said, there are concerns about academic freedoms, particularly given the influence of China, and Russian interference. Those two issues are serious and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary pays close attention to them.
Yesterday’s Human Rights Watch report on Saudi Arabia revealed mass arrests of women’s rights activists in the past year and alleged that many of them had been sexually assaulted, whipped and tortured in detention. Does the Minister still think the Prime Minister was right to describe Crown Prince Salman two years ago as “a remarkable young man”?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of its use of the death penalty and its restrictions of women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief. We have raised human rights concerns repeatedly with the Government of Saudi Arabia, with this most recently having been done by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
The true answer is that when it comes to Mohammed bin Salman, this Government are all too willing to look the other way. Can the Minister explain how it was possible that in July the Department for International Trade illegally authorised licences for exports of arms to the royal Saudi land forces, a full 41 days after the Foreign Office was told that those forces were operating inside Yemen?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the International Trade Secretary apologised for any export licences that were issued in error. We are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision making, and we will not grant any new licences for export to Saudi Arabia, or any other coalition partners, of any items that might be used in the conflict in Yemen.
Mr Speaker, may I join all colleagues around the House in congratulating you on your elevation to Speaker of the House?
The key human right is article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and people being able to practise their religion openly and freely. May I pay a huge tribute to the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), for commissioning the Truro review of the persecution of Christians and the current Foreign Secretary for all the work that he and his team are doing in taking forward that review? Recommendation 10 requested the Foreign Secretary write to key organisations such as the British Council, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Wilton Park, so may I thank him for writing that within 24 hours? Will he review this in 12 months to see how they are doing in taking forward freedom of religion and belief as part of that?
May I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he does and his recent appointment as the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief? As he says, huge numbers of Christians around the world are being persecuted—it is currently estimated that 125 million Christians experience high or extreme levels of persecution. The Government have accepted all the recommendations from the bishop’s report, but my hon. Friend’s suggestion of a review is a good idea.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her years of service to the House, particularly her years of service on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and for always keeping a laser-like focus on such issues. As she will be aware, we operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and take our licensing obligations seriously. When mistakes are made, things are investigated. As the Secretary of State for International Trade has said, the Government have apologised for the fact that export licences were issued in error, and we are investigating what happened.
May I be the first Sussex Member of Parliament to be called in your Speakership to congratulate you on your election to the Chair, Mr Speaker? In that county, I am privileged to represent probably the largest number of Chagos islanders anywhere in the world. I have no doubt about UK sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory; however, human rights have been neglected ever since the Wilson Administration forcibly evicted the Chagos islanders from their homeland in the late 1960s. Will the Minister assure me that, as we go forward, Chagos islands human rights will be better respected in terms of a right of return and nationality issues?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for always doing all he can to speak up for his constituents. The United Kingdom Government have expressed sincere regret over this issue; however, in November 2016, the UK Government announced that the resettlement of Chagossians would not be supported on the grounds of feasibility, defence or security interests. The UK Government continue to the work with Chagossian communities to design a support package worth approximately £40 million, the intent of which is to support Chagossians here in the United Kingdom.
Consular Support: UK Nationals Overseas
Our consular staff help more than 20,000 British people abroad every year, and we constantly strive to improve support, with more online services, updated information and specialist staff.
As a Geordie, may I say what a pleasure it is to hear your northern tones bring order to our proceedings, Mr Speaker?
My constituent Christine Scott was falsely arrested and imprisoned in Ghana. She is disabled, with severe mobility issues, yet the sum total of her consular support during the 16 months of her ordeal was a list of lawyers. She remains deeply traumatised, but the Minister has yet to respond to my inquiry. His Department has suffered cuts of 30% since 2010 and now fights for funding with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development—a situation that the Foreign Affairs Committee said was “unsustainable”—so what is he doing to ensure that the first priority of consular services is to support citizens like Christine and not to cut costs?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have seen her letter, and I will be responding to it later today. I am also happy to meet her. The details of this case are rather more complex than she has suggested to the House. I also gently suggest—[Interruption.] Wait until we have a meeting. I would rather discuss the full details of the case. If she looks specifically at Africa, she will see that we are opening five new missions there and recruiting hundreds more staff. Our consular services are first-rate across the globe. We are enhancing the network. We should be supporting our consular staff in the incredible work that they do. They are being not cut, but totally supported by this Government in their work with British citizens across the globe.
Mr Speaker, you might be from the wrong side of the Pennines, but it is a delight to see you in the Chair and for impartiality to be returned to that office.
As we continue to expand our consular network overseas, may I urge the Minister to look at the proposal that I recently wrote to the Prime Minister about with regard to a permanent consular post in Atlantic Canada, not only to support the very many Brits who travel there every year but to make better use of our trading relationship post Brexit?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He did tireless work as the trade envoy to Canada, and I know that it is a country very close to his heart. I will certainly look at his suggestion, but, as I say, we have enhanced our network around the globe. We are always looking for new opportunities to support British nationals. In 2018-19, we provided support to 22,607 new consular cases, with satisfaction ratings of more than 80% reported from the people whom we helped around the globe.
In Belfast, they might say, “Good on you, auld hand,” Mr Speaker, but we are delighted with your elevation.
The Minister knows that I will not go into details about this case because of its sensitive nature, but I want to pay tribute to him: my constituent is now home from Cameroon and in the arms of his family. They are incredibly grateful to him for the work that he has done and to Sir Simon McDonald, Chris Ribbands, Sharon Gannery, the deputy commissioner, and Amina Begum Ali for all their tremendous work. There is a family full of love and joy in my constituency where they did not think that that would happen, so I thank him.
May I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tireless work that he does for his constituency and for the family in question? We are not always able to resolve cases as satisfactorily as we have resolved this one, but we will always try everything that we can to help British citizens in trouble abroad.
Can we have three quick questions?
I, too, welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker. My constituents, Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell, died abroad. They were taken far too soon in suspicious circumstances. I have asked questions of two Prime Ministers and met several Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers, and I could not get them the help that they needed, so I set up an all-party group on consular services and deaths abroad. Sixty families gave evidence in hours of harrowing experiences. Ninety two recommendations were made. It is clear that there is a cultural problem stemming from lack of funding. The officers who are trying to help these families abroad do not have the resources or training. Will the Minister read my report and, most of all, will he apologise to the families that we have met across all our constituencies who have been let down by the FCO?
I am reading the hon. Lady’s report, and, unfortunately, I find it rather one-sided. I know that my predecessor agreed to meet the all-party group, but the meeting never took place because a date was never arranged. That was not because my predecessor did not try to get that arranged. I have agreed with the hon. Lady to meet the APPG, but, again, that meeting has never happened, so rather than publishing one-sided reports, I wish that she and the members of that APPG actually worked with the Foreign Office, which has some incredible staff, dealing with some very serious incidents across the world. Last year, there were 4,000 deaths of British nationals overseas. We will always look at what more we can do and implement many of the Victims’ Commissioner’s recommendations and work with other non-governmental organisations to improve our service for people who die abroad. I only wish that we could have a more constructive approach from the all-party group.
Two short questions and two quick answers.
Llongyfarchiadau, Mr Speaker—congratulations. May I be the first to say that to you in Welsh?
I thank the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa for the efforts he has made on behalf of my constituent Luke Symons, who is held captive by the Houthis in Yemen, where no consular services are available—for obvious reasons. I urge the FCO not to take its eye off the ball during the election period, and to continue all efforts to get his release.
The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa is doing everything he can for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. Providing consular assistance in Yemen is, of course, far from straightforward, but we will continue to keep up the pressure and to do everything we can.
May I say how delighted I am to have a rugby league fanatic in the Chair, Mr Speaker?
Can the Minister update me on my constituent Aras Amiri? What urgent action is being taken in Tehran for this woman, who is a British Council employee? Tragically, her family here are heartbroken because they have not had an update on what is happening with her desperate case, following her imprisonment on false charges.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will speak to the Iranian Foreign Minister later today. The treatment of British Iranians particularly is of grave concern. We repeatedly raise our concerns with the Iranian authorities, including through the Prime Minister, who raised this matter directly with President Rouhani during the United Nations General Assembly.
Since the last oral questions, I visited the US to reaffirm our commitment to strengthening the special relationship. I spoke to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, affirming our leading role in NATO and our commitment to it. Above all, I am focused on supporting the Prime Minister in getting Brexit done so that this country can move forward as an open, outward-looking country with global reach and global ambition.
I missed my chance earlier to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your appointment, so may I take the opportunity to do so now?
Chinese state media yesterday urged the Hong Kong Government to take a tougher line against what it called “wanton violence” in the city. Will the Minister contact both his Chinese and Hong Kong counterparts, and say to them both that what is needed is a return to dialogue and democratic norms, not an even tougher line being taken against the demonstrators?
The hon. Lady’s point is one with which Members across the House would agree. We remain seriously concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and the recent violent clashes between protesters and the police. We condemn the minority of hardcore violent protesters, but also continue fully to support the right to peaceful protest. As the hon. Lady says, that ought to be a stepping stone to political dialogue, particularly with the forthcoming local elections on 24 November in mind.
As I mentioned in my response to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), the local elections on 24 November will be an important milestone to see whether there can be a de-escalation of tensions in Hong Kong, and a path towards political dialogue and engagement that is consistent with the joint declaration and one country, two systems. I share my right hon. Friend’s concern about the barring of Joshua Wong because standing for election is a fundamental right enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which itself reflects the one country, two systems model. We continue to make our concerns known to our Chinese partners.
As a fellow Lancastrian, Mr Speaker, may I welcome you to your new role?
Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the ongoing industrial dispute between Interserve and the Public and Commercial Services Union members working as support staff in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Is he aware of the repeated security breaches in the last six months through Interserve bringing on site contractors without appropriate clearance?
We are of course aware of the dispute, and want to see it resolved as swiftly as possible. I am not aware of the security breaches to which the hon. Lady refers, but I will look into them and respond to her by letter.
May I, Mr Speaker, extend my felicitations from Wiltshire on your advancement? I feel absolutely certain that my Wiltshire colleagues would join me in that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his important question. He is aware that we do of course proscribe the military element of Hamas, and we have a policy of non-engagement with Hamas in its entirety. Until Hamas sets its face against violence, accepts the Quartet principles and engages with the political process, it will be outside the tent.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on his new appointment as an adviser at the Home Office on counter-extremism and counter-terrorism—a role that I know he will perform very effectively.
We do not comment on operational matters, as the hon. Gentleman will know. We welcome the removal of Baghdadi, but there is a much broader counter-Daesh strategy that we need to pursue. We need to keep all our partners together—which is why, frankly, some of the latent anti-Americanism that is preached by Opposition Front Benchers is deeply unhelpful.
Google turns around over £10 billion in the UK, making a typical profit margin of 22%, so it should pay about £420 million in corporation tax, yet it pays only about £70 million due to profit shifting. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to press for international action to end this kind of disgraceful tax avoidance? 
The UK is a world leader on tax compliance, with one of the lowest tax gaps in the world. The UK was a major sponsor of the OECD’s base erosion and profit shifting project and has adopted many of the recommendations. The Government also introduced the diverted profits tax, which came into effect on 1 April 2015 and counters the contrived arrangements used by some multinationals to divert profits from the UK.
The hon. Gentleman has been a stalwart champion of human rights and has indeed taken a very close interest in foreign policy in relation to this region. He asks what we have done. As the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), said earlier, fundamentally the issue of Kashmir needs to be resolved between the two parties, but we never duck the issue of human rights in any country. I have raised the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi Foreign Minister and, particularly in relation to detentions, blackouts and internet blockages, with the Indian Foreign Minister. We will continue to do that because it is absolutely important. Even with some of our closest partners, we need to be able to have those candid conversations.
In the eight years since I was first appointed the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to nations in south-east Asia and elected chair of the all-party China group, trade and investment in that region has increased sharply—as have challenges to our values in some areas. May I therefore thank officials at the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade who balance these responsibilities so well? May I also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s first visit abroad to the ASEAN summit in Bangkok? Does he agree that we should do all we can to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and deepen our role with the nations of ASEAN?
I pay tribute to all my hon. Friend’s tireless efforts and work. The Asia-Pacific region covered by the trans-Pacific trade agreement and ASEAN is a hugely important relationship for us. They are growth markets of the future, and we have perhaps not invested in partners there as much as we could have. While ensuring that we remain strong trading partners and allies with our European partners, leaving the EU allows us to invest more and with renewed vigour and enthusiasm in that critical region. That will bring dividends in jobs, free trade and advantages for consumers at home, and it also allows us to project our influence and soft power, as we have been discussing in this House.
I know at first hand from my time working on human rights in war crimes and for human rights NGO Liberty how important the work of Human Rights Watch is. We want to see that continue, and of course we support it in general terms. We discuss a whole range of issues with our Israeli partners. The Israeli Supreme Court has a strong record of independence and has held the Executive to account on many occasions. It is important that we respect the separation of powers there as well.
Warmest congratulations to you from Worcestershire, Mr Speaker.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the transatlantic relationship in his opening remarks. We have not had a UK ambassador in Washington for four months. Can he update the House on when he expects that appointment to be made, and can he also rule out appointing Mr Nigel Farage to such a position?
Our embassy in the US does a terrific job on a whole range of issues, from trade to security co-operation. I have been out there twice since my appointment, and I know how much commitment and hard work they put in. We are taking our time, to ensure that we get the appointment of the next ambassador right, and I think my hon. Friend need not lose any sleep over the prospect of it being Mr Farage.
I suppose I am the first person to congratulate you twice, Mr Speaker.
Can the Foreign Secretary tell us how the UK’s standing as a soft power superpower is enhanced by its continuing refusal to comply with the UN General Assembly resolution that it should withdraw its colonial administration from the Chagos islands by 22 November this year?
We contribute to soft power in all sorts of ways, from our entrepreneurs and our world-beating innovators to the popularity of the arts and the English language overseas. The hon. Gentleman raises the specific issue of the British Indian Ocean Territory. We have no doubt about our sovereignty in that regard. It has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814; Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the territory. We were disappointed that what was effectively a bilateral dispute was referred to the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly. The point of principle is that that circumvents the basic tenet that the ICJ should not consider bilateral disputes without the consent of both parties.
Congratulations, Mr Speaker.
In the light of the Foreign Secretary’s rather dismissive response to his predecessor on defence spending, is he aware that the Defence Committee, on which four parties are represented, has recommended 3% of GDP as a realistic medium-term goal? Does he accept that 2% of GDP on defence is a minimum? It is a floor, not a ceiling.
I pay tribute to all the work that my right hon. Friend has done in this House on security over the years. I certainly hope that I was not dismissive. We have just had one comprehensive spending review. There are competing bids going to the Chancellor on a whole range of issues, but he makes an important point. We are committed, as a stalwart NATO ally, to 2%, and we will certainly consider the report that he referred to as we consider the next CSR.
I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, and I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Following on from the Secretary of State’s previous response, it is three months today since the draconian illegal blockade in Kashmir began. Thousands continue to be arrested without any due process. There are food shortages and medicine shortages, and persecution, oppression and injustice continue, yet the UK Government remain silent. The United Nations Security Council remains silent, and the international community remain silent. The sons and daughters of Kashmir are asking a simple question: does a Kashmiri child not feel the same pain as any other child? Does a Kashmiri child not bleed in the same way as any other child? Is a Kashmiri child’s death not worth the same as any other child’s death? Why is the world silent?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I understand the passion with which he raises this issue. Of course we feel for the suffering of anyone in Kashmir, and we certainly have not been quiet on this issue. I have raised it with the Indian Foreign Minister, and we have discussed it with our partners. It has been discussed in international forums more widely, so I can reassure him and his constituents on both sides that we continually raise and will continue to raise these matters with the Indian Government. Equally, the wider issue of Kashmir, as has already been said in the Chamber, is a bilateral dispute that we feel—and, indeed, the UN Secretary Council resolutions and the international community have said—ought to be resolved bilaterally. We would certainly encourage and want to facilitate all those efforts to achieve that solution.
Given the events of the last few years, I am not sure whether it is congratulations or commiserations I should offer you, Mr Speaker, but I certainly express my pleasure at your appointment.
When we return from the election and this House sits after the election campaign, it will be midwinter in northern Syria and 60 British children will be living in tents there. May I again ask the Foreign Secretary to revise, as a matter of urgency, our policy on their return?
I thank my right hon. Friend, and we certainly share his concerns about the humanitarian situation. I have already made clear the UK’s policy on unaccompanied minors and orphans: we are willing to see them repatriated. We will consider wider requests for consular support more generally, subject to national security concerns. The real challenge we have is that we do not have a consular presence in Syria, and accessing the children—or anyone else of UK nationality for that matter—is very difficult, but we do respond to all cases on a case-by-case basis.
Questions are now over, but may I tell anyone standing that their name will be down for next time as a matter of urgency? Let us get the priorities working correctly.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. In the remaining hours before purdah, what steps are available to the House to require the Secretary of State for Transport to publish the Oakervee review of High Speed 2? Whistleblowers have revealed that this is one of the great public scandals, I believe, of our generation, and it has led to parliamentarians making decisions based on entirely false information about the development of the scheme. May I seek this guidance from you, Mr Speaker: in the remaining hours before purdah, what can we do to get this report published?
That is not a matter for the Chair, but the hon. Gentleman has done the right thing: he has put it on the record, and I hope those on the Government Front Bench are listening and may come back about that while we still have time.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Ever mindful that this Parliament is coming to an end very shortly, may I ask what we can do in this House to ensure that something happens about the persecution of Christians? The number of countries where Christians suffer because of their faith rose from 128 in 2015 to 144 a year later. The very survival of Christianity as a living religion is in doubt. What can be done by the Foreign Secretary before purdah to make sure something happens right away?
I finished questions earlier, but you have certainly put that point on the record.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask your advice about what may happen during the parliamentary Dissolution? I am particularly concerned about how I may raise the case of Mr Benjamin Williams from my constituency. A wheelchair-bound young man with degenerative spine disease, he has had great difficulty getting the services he needs from Shepherds Bush Housing Group, which seems to have been obstructive in every respect in relation to leaks, the fact that his windows do not close and other matters. Can you give me some advice about how I can raise this issue further, particularly to make sure that he gets the support he needs prior to Christmas?
You are quite right to raise such an issue on behalf of a constituent, but we can still write to Ministers during that period. I think you need to make sure you get your letter off today, but I do hope they have already been listening.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As Chairman of Ways and Means, you were assiduous in your defence of Members’ rights and Members’ security. As the general election begins, we are hearing reports that candidates in part of the United Kingdom are pulling out due to threats of violence. Will you assure the House that you are liaising with police forces across all parts of this United Kingdom —Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England—because some communities seem to think that violence is the way to ensure that their opponents do not stand against them?
The hon. Gentleman asks a very important question. A letter will be going out to Members of the House who are standing for re-election, to reassure them about what measures are in place. I gave evidence to Lord Bew on his report. I will not go into the details now, but what I will say is that all police forces are well aware that all candidates matter, and support will be given to them.
Intelligence and Security Committee Report on Russia
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his refusal to give clearance to the report on Russia by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.
As the first Member who has no particular hook on which to hang their congratulations to you, Mr Speaker, may I in any event, and rather gratuitously, welcome you to the Chair?
I would like to answer my right hon. and learned Friend’s question regarding publication of the ISC’s report on Russia. The ISC provides invaluable scrutiny and oversight of the work of the intelligence community to Parliament, so I am grateful to it for conducting this timely inquiry into our work on Russia. Russia’s reckless behaviour in Salisbury and Amesbury shows that, now more than ever, we cannot afford to be complacent about the Russian threat.
Because the ISC deals with matters of national security and intelligence, its reports always contain sensitive information, so it is entirely right that they go through an intensive security review before publication. This report is one of a number of ISC reports that the Government are currently considering. The current length of time that this report has been with the Government is not unusual, as this has averaged around six weeks for reports published in recent years, and three to four weeks for a response to be forthcoming from the Government.
For example, the details of the counter-terrorism review following the attacks and the 2017-18 annual report were sent together to No. 10 on 12 October 2018. We were asked to respond 10 days later on 26 October. We responded on 8 November, and then the checked, proofread report was published on 22 November. Similarly, the details of the detainees report were sent to No. 10 on 10 May 2018. Again, the ISC asked for a response within 10 working days on 24 May. We responded on 30 May, and then the checked, proofread report was published on 12 June. In both cases, the process took approximately six weeks, because by law it is imperative that the process is thorough.
In accordance with the Justice and Security Act 2013, the impact of releasing sensitive information must be carefully considered by the Prime Minister on the advice of civil servants. We cannot rush the process and risk undermining our national security. There is no set timeline within the memorandum of understanding with the Committee for the Government to clear such reports for publication, and under the same memorandum there is no set timeline for a response, nor is such a deadline set in the governing legislation.
I want to assure the House that the Committee is well informed of this process, which is continuing along standard parameters that apply before every publication. Once the process has been completed, we will continue to keep all relevant parties and the House informed.
Mr Speaker, may I once again warmly congratulate you on your election?
The Intelligence and Security Committee operates on a completely non-partisan basis to try to put information into the public domain in the national interest. This report was completed in March of this year after many months of work. There then began a process of correction and redaction needed to get it published, and that process, which involved the agencies and the Cabinet Office, was completed by early October, when the agencies and the national security secretariat indicated that they were happy that the published form would not damage any operational capabilities of the agencies. That is why, on 17 October, the report was sent to the Prime Minister for final confirmation.
It is a long-standing agreement that the Prime Minister will endeavour to respond within 10 days. The Minister has indicated that there have been instances where further delay has crept in, but my secretariat tells me that it is unprecedented that we should have had no response at all explaining why any further delay is required in this case. The report has to be laid before Parliament when it is sitting. If it is not laid before Parliament ceases to sit this evening, it will not be capable of being laid until the Committee is reformed. In 2017, that took nearly six months.
I ask the Minister, how is it that the Prime Minister has claimed, through the No. 10 spokesman, that there must be further delays for consultation about national security, when the agencies themselves indicated publicly this morning, in response to journalistic inquiries, that publication will not prejudice the discharge of their functions? So for what purpose is the Prime Minister still considering it? It certainly cannot be the risk to national security, as the agencies themselves have said that there is none.
Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister does not have carte blanche to alter our reports or remove material from them, and that, if he wishes to exercise a veto over publication, he must give the Committee a credible explanation as to why he is doing so? Will he also explain why No. 10 spokesmen insisted that no publication should take place because weeks of further interdepartmental consultations were needed, when, I have to say to the Minister, this explanation was plainly bogus? Finally, will he explain why No. 10 spokesmen suggested that parts of the report had been leaked by the Committee, when it is plainly obvious to anybody who looks at the journalistic speculations that they have not? Would he now like to take the opportunity of withdrawing that particular slur, which came from No. 10?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his questions and for his tone. I simply reiterate the points I made in my statement. It is not unusual for the review of ISC reports to take some time. The average turnaround time is six weeks. The average response to the Committee is anywhere between three and four weeks. It is not as if the Prime Minister has not had one or two other things to do over the past several weeks, notably obtaining a good deal for Britain on withdrawing from the European Union. It is not unusual that the turnaround time is what it is.
The Prime Minister has very specific and particular responsibilities, under the Justice and Security Act 2013, to be sure that any information that ISC reports may contain is properly checked and, if appropriate, redacted. The Prime Minister takes that responsibility very seriously indeed, because the reports that issue from the ISC are important. They carry weight and therefore they must be properly looked at. That is what No. 10 is doing. That is what the Prime Minister is doing by referring to his officials for advice, which is his right and responsibility.
As to leaks, we see quite a few of those and we deplore them all. I certainly would not want anybody to believe that what is in a leak, particularly if it appears on the front pages of certain newspapers, is believable.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. May I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) for securing it and for all his efforts?
I can only echo the words of the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the utterly unjustifiable, unprecedented and clearly politically motivated reasons for delaying the publication of the report until after the election. This is not at the request of the intelligence agencies. There are no foreign powers we have to consult, which was the reason for the delay of the rendition report. This is nothing less than an attempt to suppress the truth from the public and from Parliament, and it is an affront to our democracy.
We are bound to ask: what is Downing Street so worried about? Why would it not welcome an official report on attempted Russian interference in the 2016 referendum, whether that was successful or otherwise? I fear it is because it realises that the report will lead to other questions about the links between Russia and Brexit, and with the current leadership of the Tory party, that risk derailing its election campaign. There are questions about the relationship between the FSB-linked Sergey Nalobin and his “good friend”, the current Prime Minister. There are questions about the Prime Minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, his relationship with Oxford academic Norman Stone, the mysterious three years that he spent in post-communist Russia aged just 23, and the relationships that he allegedly forged with individuals such as Vladislav Surkov, the key figure behind Vladimir Putin’s throne. And there are questions about the amount of money flowing into Conservative coffers from Russian émigrés, about the sources of money that paid for the Brexit campaign, and about the dubious activities of Conservative Friends of Russia.
If the Minister is going to dismiss all that as conspiracy theories or smears and say that it has nothing to do with the delay of the report, I say back to him: prove it. Publish this report and let us see for ourselves. Otherwise, there is only question: what have you got to hide?
I am obliged to the right hon. Lady for giving us a run-down of her interest in smears and conspiracy theories. She wonders where Professor Stone was in the 1980s—I rather wonder where the Leader of the Opposition was in the 1980s and, for that matter, in the 1990s, the 2000s and quite recently. It is rather rich for her to suggest that somehow the Conservative party and this Government are linked to Russian disinformation, given the way that her party leadership has acted and the responsibility that her party leadership has had down the years for being hand in hand with its Russian friends.
In respect of the right hon. Lady’s question about publication, the Government and the Prime Minister have a responsibility under the Justice and Security Act 2013 to look properly at the report, and that is what he is doing. The turnaround time for this report is not unusual. The response time to the Committee is not unusual. The CT attacks report and the detainee report took some time to turn around. I understand why the right hon. Lady may wish—for party political purposes in this febrile time, as the House of Commons is about to dissolve—to make the points that she has, but they are entirely refutable. I believe, personally, that they are reprehensible, and I wish that she would withdraw the imputation about the good name of the Conservative party and this Government.
I declare an interest as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I absolutely support what our Chairman said. This is a question of principle as much as anything else. I will not go into the details of what the report is about—there have been a lot of foxes let loose by the media—but I have this question to put to the Minister, and I feel sorry for him that he has been landed with having to answer this, rather than perhaps someone from the Cabinet Office. As far as the Committee is concerned, this report has been cleared by the intelligence and security agencies. It has been cleared by the Cabinet Office, and the civil servants and officials saw no reason whatsoever why it should not have been published. Will the Minister therefore tell the House—I do not want to hear all that repetition again—why the Prime Minister is not going to allow this report to be released and published in this Parliament?
Before I answer his question, I would like to say farewell to my right hon. Friend, who has been a steadfast Member of this House and a doughty champion of defence and security issues, both here and on the ISC. He asks a straightforward question. I will give him the straightforward answer. The Prime Minister has a responsibility under the 2013 Act to properly and carefully adjudicate upon the report before him, and that is what he is doing, but it takes some time.
I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). He and I disagree on a wide range of issues, but his fairness and scrupulousness in holding to account both his own Government and others, such as me, is a credit to the entire House.
The Russian Government’s greatest victims are their own people, with human rights abuses, and human rights and democracy activists, opposition groups and minorities targeted. I spent several years working in the former Soviet Union, and we in the Foreign Affairs Committee have visited as well, and I pay tribute to the bravery of those who campaign for fairness, the rule of law and democracy in that country. Surely the greatest riposte we can make, and the greatest support we can give those campaigners, is to show that democracy, openness and transparency in the UK are something to look up to. I fear that in this case they are not.
I hope the Minister is embarrassed by what he has just heard from the members of the ISC. Their questions were damning, and I am not surprised he did not answer them. Given the threat Russia poses to elections, and given that his Government have wanted an election for months, why is this not a priority? Brexit has taught us that this Government like to hide unhelpful reports—lots of them—so prove me wrong and publish the report.
The Government are prepared to be robust and transparent with respect to Russia—look at the way we carefully collated, assessed, scrutinised and presented the evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the attacks in Salisbury and Amesbury, and at the way we built an international alliance that responded to that threat. We are perfectly prepared to be robust and transparent with respect to Russia.
The hon. Gentleman asked about evidence of Russia’s involvement in our elections. There is no evidence of any successful Russian involvement in the British electoral cycle. I would ask him to be careful, thoughtful and considerate at this febrile time, as the House dissolves before the general election, and to allow the Prime Minister his right and his duty to assess what is in the report. Then we can produce a report in good time.
When the Minister talked about the ISC, he referred to the Justice and Security Act 2013—the latest Act that crystallised the practical approach to the running of the ISC in the years since it was created by the Intelligence Services Act 1994. That Act created an arrangement for the Committee that balanced national security with the right to scrutiny and redaction and the right of the Prime Minister to approve the report before it is released. It rested on balance and on both sides—the House and the Government—treating the other side fairly. That is what is missing here. By not releasing the report, all the Minister does is create a vacuum for the paranoid fantasies we have heard from the Opposition to fill.
As ever, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, though he will appreciate that I cannot be responsible for the paranoid fantasies of Opposition Members. I can only say that the report was received by the Government on 17 October. It is not unusual for such reports to take six weeks to turn around or for a Government response to take anywhere between three and four weeks. Given the circumstances—given all the other things going on—I am not surprised the report is taking a little time to turn around. That does not mean it is being suppressed or withheld in any way; it simply means it is being properly considered.
I call David Hanson.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—and congratulations.
As a Labour member of the ISC, I support the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the Chair of the Committee, and share his concerns. The security services have cleared our report, the Cabinet Office has cleared our report, and we have made recommendations to the Prime Minister. Since receiving the report, has the Prime Minister read it, and has he submitted any redactions? I do not need to know what they are, but has he read it and has he submitted redactions? If not, why does he not publish today?
A report such as this—a sensitive report that is 50 pages long—requires careful consideration. As I said, it was submitted on 17 October and is being reviewed by all the relevant senior officials within government and at No. 10. The Committee will be informed of that process, and when the Prime Minister has concluded that the report is publishable, he will publish it.
Are the Government not entitled not to be bullied into accelerating the release of important national security reports? Would it not be a dangerous precedent to establish that the Committee can come to the House and bully the Government into releasing such an important and sensitive report?
I do not think the Government are being bullied. Certainly we are not prepared to be bullied. We want to make sure the report is given proper and careful consideration and that any further changes to or questions of it can be addressed. Then a properly balanced report can be published.
I call Stella Creasy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
We all in the House will know from our email inboxes that one of the challenges facing our current politics is that people watch too much Netflix and so are convinced that there are many conspiracies. That said, given that, as ISC members have said, many foxes have been set loose—reports about Sergey Nalobin, about Dominic Cumming’s security clearance, about Alexander Temerko’s friendship with the Prime Minister, about the use of the Lycamobile offices; given that the security agencies say they are happy to see the report, which the Government have had since March, published; given the cross-party support for it to be published; and given that Earl Howe in the House of Lords yesterday said it is the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister alone who needs to publish it, does the Minister recognise that the best way to kill the conspiracy theories is to put it out in the open? Former Prime Ministers have told us that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Why has this Prime Minister closed the blinds?
The best way to avoid conspiracy theories is for people not to peddle them, and the hon. Lady just made a valiant effort in so doing. I have explained why it is taking some time to consider the report. We will consider it carefully and make sure it is a robust report, and then it will be published in due course.
I would certainly welcome a debate on covert and malign foreign interference —not only any attempts on our side but why Seumas Milne always seems to peddle the Kremlin’s line and the links between senior people around the leader of the Labour party and pro-Russian groups in Ukraine and elsewhere. There would be a lot of interesting debate there.
My question to the Minister is a broader one. Does he agree that the best way to minimise the chances of malign and covert interference in our electoral system is through the introduction of a foreign agents registration Act? The US introduced one against covert Nazi influence in 1938 and the Australians produced a foreign influence transparency scheme just last year. I will be working with the Henry Jackson Society to produce a potential template Bill. Would the Minister be interested in discussing it with me should we both be re-elected in December?
I am always interested to hear the ideas and read the reports of my hon. Friend. I would certainly be interested to see the work that parliamentary draftsmen may have to undertake in defining a foreign agent. Foreign agents tend to keep themselves rather quiet, it seems to me, so identifying them may be a challenge; but I am always interested to see what my hon. Friend has to offer. If we are both re-elected—and I wish him well in that enterprise—then of course, on the other side, we will talk.
Welcome, Mr Speaker.
Given the gaps and inaccuracies in his account of the three years that he spent in Russia, why was Dominic Cummings inexplicably granted the highest developed vetting status, yet is routinely denied access to secret intelligence? What damage is this unprecedented arrangement doing to our vital security arrangements with our Five Eyes partners?
I am not going to comment on individual public servants. All I would say is that in asking the question that he asks, the right hon. Gentleman appears to be less a Member of Parliament than a walk-on member of a show like “24”.
In my time on the Intelligence and Security Committee, I have built up a healthy respect for the way in which we conduct parliamentary scrutiny of our secret intelligence agencies. Indeed, other Parliaments from around the world come to see how we do it. There is much in the report that I would love to be able to talk about here, and I would love to address some of the more eccentric conspiracy theories that we have heard peddled here, but it comes down to this. We have a highly respected system of parliamentary oversight which is trusted across the House. Does my right hon. Friend not feel that in the absence of this report’s publication, we have created a climate which has allowed some quite bizarre conspiracy theories to be peddled, and that it would be much better to publish what has been written in the way in which the Committee produced it?
Let me also bid farewell to my right hon. Friend, who has been a fine Member of Parliament for Newbury over the last 18 years. We will miss him: we will miss his intelligence, his care and his consideration. He wonders whether, by acting in a different way, we would reduce the propensity towards conspiracy theories. I suspect that the answer is no. I think that those conspiracy theories would find their way into the light in any event, thanks to some Opposition Members.
All I can do is to repeat what I have already said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). This report requires careful consideration. It requires the Prime Minister to do his duty by the Justice and Security Act, and that is what he will do.
Many congratulations from these Benches on your election, Mr Speaker.
There are serious questions to be answered. I say to Members on that side of the House that it is perfectly legitimate for Members on this side of the House to ask the questions that we are asking. Our job is to scrutinise what the Government are doing. Clearly there are serious questions to be answered in relation to the role of Mr Dominic Cummings, one of the most senior officials in Government. Perhaps the answers will allay our concerns, but we deserve to hear those answers.
I have to say that the Minister’s response today has been utterly shameful. Let me ask him this. Is he denying that, if the shoe was on the other foot and he was at the Opposition Dispatch Box, he would be asking for the report to be published, as we are?
The job of Members of Parliament is to scrutinise legislation and reports and not to fantasise about them, which is what I think all too many Opposition Members are doing. The Government have a duty to scrutinise properly the report that was presented to them by the ISC on 17 October. The Prime Minister has a duty to ask searching questions about the report, and to satisfy himself that nothing in it breaches our security privileges and the national security of the country. When that job is done, and not before, the report will be published.
Is it not the case that there is no conspiracy and no cover-up, and that this is just a manifestation of a considered bureaucratic process? May I draw the Minister’s attention to some comments that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) has made over the past 24 hours? As a matter of courtesy, I informed his office that I would be making these comments. To the media, he said, “I can think of no good reason why the ISC report is not being published.” While my right hon. and learned Friend is indeed very learned, the fact that he does not know of a reason does not necessarily mean that there is not a reason. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm that.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has every right to ask questions and make comments in the media. That is his duty as a Member of Parliament, and his right as the Chairman of the ISC. However, it is the duty of the Prime Minister, with his officials, to consider the report properly. That is what he is doing, and until that job is done properly the report should not be published—and the turnaround for publication is not unusual.
Congratulations, Mr Speaker.
The Minister says that the process that he is going through at the moment is not unusual, and the secretariat of the ISC says that it is unprecedented. Both cannot be right. Will the Minister take account of the fact that the secretariat, the Cabinet Office, the whole civil service and the security agencies have all said that no problem of national security is involved? Surely he must conclude that if this is not a matter of national security, the reason why the report is not being published is political. Will he take my advice and publish, or be damned?
The timelines for the submission of the report, relative to the timelines of submissions of previous reports, speak for themselves. The CT attacks report took about six weeks to turn around, with four weeks between its submission and a response from the Government, and the detainees report took about three weeks from the point of submission to the point of response. Such timelines are not unusual, and, although I am sure that they were made in absolute good faith, I do not recognise the comments of the ISC secretariat. The timelines speak for themselves.
The Minister is entirely right to say that scrutiny dispels fantasy, and this is one of those moments when I feel that scrutiny would be entirely appropriate to dispel that fantasy. There can be few Members like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), or my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), or, indeed, many other members of the ISC, who were all personally chosen by the Prime Minister for their judgment, their character and their wisdom. Would it not be appropriate—at a moment when the country is focused on the most important democratic event that we will hold for, certainly, a number of years—for the information that is needed for us to judge its legitimacy to be put before the House, so that people can see the fantasy that some are claiming, and this can all go away?
I do not question the probity of those who have compiled this report, and I certainly recognise the wisdom of my hon. Friend, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. I therefore think it unfortunate that some in the House have chosen to question the probity of Government officials and the wisdom of the Prime Minister in properly scrutinising an important report that has been laid before him. As I have said, that report went to No. 10 on 17 October. It will be properly scrutinised, but that set of considerations has not been concluded yet.
May I add my congratulations, Mr Speaker?
I have a very simple question for the Minister. There is clearly unease about the delay in the report’s publication. Will the Minister confirm that it is not being withheld in the interests of the Conservative party?
No, it is not.
Congratulations on your election as well from me, Mr Speaker.
The Minister, sent by the Prime Minister so that he can avoid scrutiny himself, says that the length of time that the report has been with the Government is not unusual, but will he acknowledge that the report itself is unusual because it is about interference in elections and we are just about to embark on a general election? So if the Government continue to block it after the security services have cleared it, that can only be either because they do not take the ISC Committee seriously or because they have something to hide, and can the Minister clarify which of those two it is?
That was another of those questions: there we go again with a little light fantasising. The Committee has produced a serious report—
You are taking sneering to a whole new level.
The right hon. Lady from a sedentary position accuses me of sneering. I think that is pretty rich, I have to say, but I will press on as politely as I possibly can to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on her question.
It is not unusual for time to be taken to consider serious reports. This is a serious report and it should be considered in a timely way. In the meantime, I would say to the hon. Lady that there is no evidence to suggest that Russia or the Kremlin has successfully engaged in interference in our electoral processes; if she believes that there is, please bring that information forward, but we have seen none.
May I be helpful to the Minister? I listened to your speech yesterday, Mr Speaker, and you will note that this urgent question goes to the heart of our proceedings: this is an all-party report, the Government are not publishing it, they should publish it, and there is all-party support for it to be published. Only a few minutes ago we had the Foreign Secretary here, and he could have stayed to make a statement. This is a very important issue. I want to fight this election on health, employment, jobs and all those other important things. If we do not stop this issue now, it will run and run, almost like a Watergate thing, throughout the campaign, so please publish the report now and let’s get on with the general election on the real issues.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: let’s fight the election on the real issues—on migration issues, on health, on education, on our stance on Brexit. Let’s get out there and do it, and let’s stop stirring the pot on this non-issue.
I congratulate you on your election, Mr Speaker.
Does the Minister accept and understand that the report has been cleared, and failure to publish today will mean, as a number of Members across the House have said, that almost every day for the next five weeks this will permeate the campaign? That can and should be avoided by publication today.
I suspect that the campaign, like most campaigns, will focus on domestic issues. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be fighting very hard in his constituency on matters that concern his constituents, and I suspect this will be one of them.
Congratulations on your election, Mr Speaker.
I have noted that two or three times the Minister has said that there has been no successful penetration into the British electoral system. Does that imply that there has been unsuccessful penetration into the electoral system, and is that one of the reasons why the report has not been published?
The hon. Gentleman I think might have now spoken for the last time in this Chamber and we wish him well in whatever he does next. Maybe, like Tony Benn, he will retire from the House of Commons and go into real politics; we shall see. He asked whether there are examples of unsuccessful interference in British politics, and the way that the Kremlin has behaved is clear; we have seen examples overseas of attempts at electoral interference, and of attempts at fake news and disinformation, most recently in Georgia. What I would say is that we have robust systems in place in this country to defend ourselves against such attacks, and that is why I say that such attacks have not been successful.
We know that there was overseas interference in the US presidential election and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in its disinformation report last year called for an independent inquiry based on evidence that we produced to the Government. That request to the Government was rejected, and is not the problem that this decision to withhold this report is part of a course of conduct by this Government to refuse to look at whether there has been the level of interference that many in the country believe?
The hon. Gentleman also may be leaving the Commons very soon, and I wish him well in his future path. He asked a reasonable question because disinformation tactics continue to evolve and therefore we must always be on our guard. The “Online Harms” White Paper that the Government produced commits us to introducing a duty of care on online companies to tackle a wide range of online harms, and they include limiting the spread of disinformation. With respect to the election in the United States, of course lots of comments have been made and suggestions and allegations have been heard. I am not going to comment on the US election; all I can say is that I think the US has as robust a system as we do.
I welcome you to your new post, Mr Speaker.
Further to the previous question, I am not in the business of peddling conspiracy theories, but I do look at credible sources and was disturbed by the release of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report last month that did find Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which makes the release of this report all the more important, all the more relevant and all the more imperative as we embark on the democratic process of an election in our country. Can the Minister confirm this today: has the Prime Minister read the report?
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the actions of the Kremlin in states abroad. I have said that we have evidence from around the world of activity that is malign and malicious. I believe that we here in the UK have a robust set of systems in place to defend ourselves. We will look closely at the report that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield and his Committee have submitted to the Government. It is going through the No. 10 process and at the end of that rigorous review process we will see the report.
Congratulations on your election, Mr Speaker.
We have heard from several Members of the ISC this afternoon, including three sitting behind the Minister, and all have highlighted that every security agency required to do so has signed off this report, as has the Cabinet Office. The unprecedented delay is due to the Prime Minister. Is that because the Prime Minister is acting in the unprecedented fashion of subjugating national security to personal and political interests and his loyalty to Dominic Cummings, a man already found to be in contempt of Parliament?
The short answer is no. The report has to go through a proper and rigorous process of scrutiny. It was submitted to the Government on 17 October. The time being taken to scrutinise it is not unusual; to say it is unprecedented is not accurate. Other reports—other sensitive reports, and complicated reports—have taken between four and six weeks to turn around; this important and sensitive report is no different.
Last, but certainly not least, representing the safest seat in the country I call Stephen Timms.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and many congratulations to you.
The Committee Chair reminds us that if the Prime Minister is unable to respond within 10 days he is required to provide an explanation for that failure. He has not provided an explanation, which, we understand, is unprecedented. Why has the Prime Minister not complied with the requirement placed upon him?
It is because there is no requirement. The memorandum of understanding with the Committee is clear about the rules: there is no set timeline for a response and there is no set deadline in the governing legislation. The Prime Minister has a duty under the 2013 Act to look carefully and considerately at such reports. That is what No. 10 is doing, that is what the Prime Minister will do, and when that work is completed the report will be published.
Thomas Cook Customers
May I first sincerely congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your new role? I also wish all hon. and right hon. Members who are retiring today every success for their future.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s actions to support customers of Thomas Cook. As the House knows, Thomas Cook entered into insolvency proceedings on 23 September. This has been a hugely worrying time for the employees of Thomas Cook and its customers, and the Government have done, and continue to do, all they can to support them. This has included the biggest peacetime repatriation effort ever seen in the UK, with around 140,000 people successfully flown home thanks to the efforts of the Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and his Department, and to the Civil Aviation Authority. In the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we have set up a cross-Government taskforce alongside local stakeholders to support employees and supply chains.
I am sorry to have to inform the House, however, that the official receiver has recently brought to my attention further impacts of Thomas Cook’s insolvency, which I wish to share with the House today. There is an important outstanding matter relating to personal injury claims against Thomas Cook companies, impacting customers who have suffered life-changing injuries, illness or loss of life while on Thomas Cook holidays. Thomas Cook took out insurance cover only for the very largest personal injury claims. For agreed claims below this figure, up to a high aggregate amount, the company decided to self-insure through a provision in its accounts. As Thomas Cook has entered liquidation without ensuring any protection for pending claims, the vast majority of claimants who are not covered by the insurance, including customers who have suffered serious injuries and loss of life, will be treated as unsecured creditors. This means that it is uncertain whether they will receive any of the compensation they would ordinarily have received against their claims. This raises a potentially unacceptable prospect for some Thomas Cook customers, who face significant financial hardship through no fault of their own where Thomas Cook should rightly have provided support. They are customers who have already suffered life-changing injuries or illness and who may face financial hardship as a result of a long-term loss of earnings or significant long-term care needs. This is an extraordinary situation that should never have arisen.
The Government cannot and will not step into the shoes of Thomas Cook, but we intend to develop proposals for a statutory compensation scheme. Any scheme must strike a responsible balance between the moral duty to respond to those in the most serious financial need and our responsibility to the taxpayer. Accordingly, it will be a capped fund that is sufficient to ensure support for those customers facing the most serious hardship as a result of injuries or illness for which UK-based Thomas Cook companies would have been liable. We will develop the scheme to ensure that only genuine claims are provided with support. The scheme will not consider routine claims covering short-term problems. After the election, we intend urgently to bring forward the legislation necessary to establish such a scheme, and I am sure that any new Government would wish to do likewise.
I have also written to the official receiver to ask him to take this serious matter into account as part of his investigation into the conduct of Thomas Cook’s directors relating to the insolvency. I am sure the House will agree that it was important to act quickly today to give reassurance to those individuals and families who would otherwise be left with unfunded serious long-term needs or other financial hardship as a result of injuries or illness sustained abroad, for which Thomas Cook would have been liable. The House will have the opportunity to consider the matter in more detail in the new Parliament.
I want to make it clear to all businesses that the Thomas Cook approach was unacceptable, and that we will take steps to require suitable arrangements to be in place to ensure that this cannot be repeated. I have asked BEIS officials urgently to bring forward proposals for speedy action in the new Parliament. I am grateful to the official receiver for bringing this matter to my attention, and for all his efforts in this case. It is critical that we act to provide support to those who, through no fault of their own, have been severely impacted by the collapse of Thomas Cook. I commend this statement to the House.
As your next-door-but-one constituency neighbour, Mr Speaker, may I congratulate you on your election?
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. She is right to raise these matters today, because they raise serious questions that will need far more attention in the new Parliament, whichever Minister is at the Dispatch Box. I also have some questions today to take this forward.
In her statement, the Secretary of State mentioned a “high aggregate amount”. Can she tell us more about what that is? On the question about audit, to which I will return shortly, will she tell us why no regulation was in place to ensure that this serious weakness did not materialise? I should also like to put on record my thanks to all those involved in bringing 140,000 holiday- makers home.
We welcome the fact that the online services have now been bought, and that shops in the constituencies of Members across the House are being reopened by Hays Travel, but why oh why did Thomas Cook have to close first, and why were the opportunities that were given to the shops and online services not given to the airline? Intervention to ensure the retention of those viable parts of the business would have been a major step towards addressing the serious weaknesses that the Secretary of State identified in her statement. The Government were told at the time that parts of the business were successful, and Hays Travel clearly agreed because it bought the shops. There is also value in the brand, which is why the online business has been recovered. Could the airline have been saved, as the ones in Germany and Scandinavia were, if the liquidation had been delayed?
Why did the Government not listen to those calling for intervention? Why did they not take a stake in the company, so that the shops and digital business could have been transferred while still trading and so that other parts of the business could have been saved? Let us remember that the Turkish and Spanish Governments wanted to step in. They saw the potential value, but our Government did not. Had our Government intervened, the hardship to which the Secretary of State rightly referred could have been identified and possibly avoided. Does she regret her failure to speak to the company and to intervene to protect the jobs and rights of workers? Had the company continued trading, with the Government holding a stake, the rights of workers would have been protected. It is good news that staff will now have jobs with Hays Travel, but will they be paid for the time since Thomas Cook closed? Will their rights from their years of service be protected? Are staff being TUPE-ed over, or not?
What can the Secretary of State tell us about her response to the warnings about auditor conflicts of interest? She mentioned audit responsibility and potential failure in her statement. Auditing conflicts of interest have been repeatedly identified at Carillion, at BHS, in the banks and now at Thomas Cook. Has she read the excellent report from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and what is her response to its recommendations, including its calls for a new regulator and for the audit profession to be proactive rather than reactive? Why is the Secretary of State so resistant to change? The Competition and Markets Authority wants action; why does not she?
What action is the Secretary of State taking to address the scandalous payment of bonuses to executives who have profited at the expense of workers and customers and who presumably have direct responsibility for the appalling hardship to which she has referred? Analysis by Unite and Syndex shows that £188 million in bridging loans would have prevented the liquidation. That would have allowed profitable parts of the business to be sold while still trading, and for workers’ rights to be protected. This would have supported the wider economy and communities, too.
The Government should be a partner of business, not stand apart from it. That means intervening and providing support where intervention stands a chance of succeeding. The more evidence emerges about the Thomas Cook collapse, the more it appears that the case for intervention was there to be made. If they would not intervene at Thomas Cook, exactly when would the Government intervene?
If the Secretary of State wants to avoid hardship for those covered by insurance, she needs to change her approach and her attitude to intervention. When she referred to a drop in the ocean in responding to a question from the shadow Business Secretary, she demonstrated that she did not agree with her predecessor, who said that reforms were needed to ensure a strong level of consumer protection and value for money for the taxpayer. He was right, was he not?
The Secretary of State said that the Thomas Cook approach was unacceptable and that support must be given to those severely impacted by its closure through no fault of their own. I agree, but the Government have failed Thomas Cook. They sat back and let it fold. Only proper reforms will make sure that catastrophic failures of this type do not happen again.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises the Government’s efforts, particularly on the repatriation of customers stranded overseas and, of course, in the work, which I know through chairing the Government taskforce, to try to ensure that we get the best possible arrangements for Thomas Cook staff. He asks why the Government did not bail out Thomas Cook. He will be aware that, according to court reports, there was about £1.9 billion of debt on Thomas Cook’s balance sheet. It did approach Government looking for a loan facility of up to £250 million, but it is clear that, had the Government put that significant sum of taxpayers’ money into Thomas Cook, we would have ended up in the same position as we are in today. We would have had to repatriate those customers. We would have to have done exactly as we have done, but the taxpayer would have been £250 million worse off, so it was not an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money. It is very sad that Thomas Cook went bust, but it is not right that Government should just bail out every business. Businesses need to stand on their own two feet.
The hon. Gentleman made some very important points about regulation. I can tell him that I wrote to the Financial Reporting Council asking it to prioritise as a matter of urgency consideration of an investigation into the audit of Thomas Cook’s 2018 accounts, as well as the conduct of its directors. He asked why the Government did not foresee this.
It was never envisaged that a UK tour operator would fail to insure itself fully to cover claims for personal accident or fail to ensure that it had ring fenced the funds to meet those liabilities so that they were safe if the company got into difficulty. The company has a legal obligation to cover personal injury claims arising from package holidays abroad, and that is why I have asked the official receiver to investigate, in particular, this aspect of the conduct of Thomas Cook’s directors.
Who were the auditors?
The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position who the auditors were. They were EY, and they will be investigated by the official receiver.
The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) asked how the Insolvency Service supported Thomas Cook employees. It has received over 8,000 claims for unpaid liabilities from former employees and has paid out over £41 million so far to claimants for arrears in pay, compensatory notice pay, holiday pay accrued, holiday pay not taken, notice worked not paid and redundancy pay. The Insolvency Service continues to work to offer, for example, the services of BUPA’s employee assistance programme and the Centre for Crisis Psychology to Thomas Cook employees as a particular request that came from the taskforce. The Government continue to do everything possible to support those affected and we are delighted that Hays has taken over the shops, providing jobs for well over 2,000 of those who lost their jobs under Thomas Cook.
Finally, I am very keen on the BEIS Committee’s report into audit. As I made clear when I appeared before it, I will bring forward fundamental changes to audit. I expect that to be in the first quarter of next year. I am very interested to read its report and, as I also made clear, I want to see Donald Brydon’s report, which I believe he expects to provide to Government by the end of this year.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I congratulate you on your own gallant and good-humoured campaign to be Speaker?
I must congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on being so proactive in responding to this shocking discovery that Thomas Cook did not properly insure so many people against injury while being on a Thomas Cook holiday. Am I right in thinking that there would have been no way in which this would have come out but for the collapse of the company? If it turns out to be the case that the company was not breaking any existing rules, regulations or laws by behaving in this totally irresponsible and inhumane way, will it be possible to make a change in the law to ensure that this can never happen again?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his recognition of the fact that it felt important to raise this before the House prior to Dissolution. He is absolutely right. In doing so, we seek to provide some sort of reassurance to those who have been profoundly impacted by accidents and illnesses overseas on Thomas Cook holidays. He asked whether there could have been any legitimate expectation that this might have happened. That is not the case. It was never anticipated that a business such as Thomas Cook would not have adequately provided for such claims that were known to them. I am putting on notice today that any future Government––I am sure that the Opposition spokesman has made similar a commitment––will wish to resolve this to ensure that it cannot happen again. BEIS officials will work over the next few weeks to bring forward proposals on how to ensure that this cannot be repeated.
I share the Secretary of State’s surprise and horror that Thomas Cook was operating without the necessary insurance. Many of my constituents and, indeed, I myself travelled with Thomas Cook unknowing. We all assume that the safeguards that we see with travel companies through the Association of British Travel Agents and so on ensure that we are travelling safely and that we are protected. Will the Secretary of State assure us that there will be safeguards to ensure not just that we investigate what went wrong at Thomas Cook, but that all travel companies, or anyone offering travel in this country, is properly insured?
The hon. Lady gives me the opportunity to say this again: I call on all similar travel and tour operators to ensure that they covered this and that they have not got a similar arrangement to the one that Thomas Cook had. I can assure her that BEIS officials during the next few weeks will bring forward proposals for ensuring that this does not happen again
It is great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
What the Secretary of State has told us this afternoon is shocking. Can she assure the House that there will be no similar shocks in relation to Thomas Cook’s public liability and employer liability insurance?
There are certain types of public liability and employers’ liability that are required to be insured by law, and there is no expectation that any business would not have provided that kind of insurance. Officials are looking carefully to satisfy themselves, as they do as a routine matter, but I say again in this particular instance, it was a great surprise and shock to see that there was an attempt at self-insurance with no proper provision made for these types of claims.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I have had several people in my office absolutely devastated because the hard-earned holiday that they had saved for has been cancelled. They are asking me when they will have their money back. They have to wait months, by which time their holiday options will have changed. Could the Secretary of State outline what she believes to be the absolute time limit for refunds for holidays and how that will be achieved?
It has been a difficult time for all those affected whether they were customers on holiday, customers who had paid for a holiday but not yet taken it, or employees and those in the supply chain. The Government have sought to tackle all those issues as far as we are able to do so. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the ATOL scheme is designed to provide refunds and repatriation costs that arise from a failure of a company such as Thomas Cook. Many of those who have suffered financial loss will be able to claim through ATOL or, indeed, through a credit card provider if their holiday has not yet been taken.
I thank the Secretary of State for her personal energy, commitment and skill in chairing the Government taskforce on the collapse of Thomas Cook. I agree with both Front-Bench spokespeople that the directors did not comport themselves well before, during or after the collapse. With 2.8 million passengers taken out of the equation at Manchester airport, with the huge repatriation event, and with employees still employed on temporary contracts trying to close the company, will she join me in thanking the workers who remain after losing their jobs and the trade union reps at Unite and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, who have worked so hard to represent them so ably?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the taskforce and join him in thanking all those who have played their part. People from right across Government, from trade unions and from local enterprise partnerships and so on have all sought to find new work. The Department for Work and Pensions rapid action taskforce has been helping people write CVs, and there has been mental health support and so on. It is a great shame and a huge pity to see this long-standing brand collapse, but I am sure we are all glad that its name will survive perhaps as an online travel company. I join the hon. Gentleman in wishing our very best to all those who lost their jobs in finding new work in a similar sector.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. This is clearly a combination of shocking system failure and a failure by the company, but I am unclear whether the Secretary of State thinks that the law has been broken here. If it turns out that the law has been broken by executives, who may well have been taking large bonuses at the time, will she reassure us that the Government will be seeking some redress?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I have written to the Official Receiver today asking him to take carefully into account in his review the behaviour of directors in the run-up to the insolvency of Thomas Cook and to consider whether this further appearance of failure on their part should require further action with regard to his statutory duties. This will be thoroughly investigated, and if there is wrongdoing, the Official Receiver has the ability to claw back bonuses and, of course, to take further steps through the Insolvency Act 1986.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair. My point of order, which I gave notice of to the Speaker’s Office, relates to the written statement on shale gas that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy put out yesterday. It said a lot about the past but very little about the immediate future. The Government were forced to introduce a so-called moratorium on fracking at the weekend because of the tremors that affected my constituents in Blackpool in August, with the Oil and Gas Authority subsequently saying that they were unacceptable.
However, in a Radio 4 interview and in that statement, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has rather hedged her bets, undermining that promise. The Government have not provided any response to the National Audit Office report that talked about the real problems of decommissioning, which should be taking place at Cuadrilla’s site on Preston New Road as we speak. Madam Deputy Speaker, have you received any information about whether the Government are going to answer those big questions? The Secretary of State is in the Chamber, so she may like to respond now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He will be well aware that the making of a written statement is perfectly in order, so I can make no criticism of it from the Chair. I cannot give him answers to his questions, but he has taken the opportunity to alert the House and the Treasury Bench to his concerns. Of course, there are other ways in which he would normally be able to take forward his inquiries, but I do appreciate that this is the last day on which he can do so. He has done his best.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Ministers have been in the media today talking about the issue of the 2,250 autistic people and people with learning disabilities detained in mental health in-patient units. In the press and on broadcast media, Ministers have talked about demanding reviews of all those people who were detained, but in today’s written statement on the training of staff working with autistic people and people with learning disabilities there is no mention of what Ministers talked about in the media. We have therefore not had the chance to question Ministers on it, nor have we had a chance to talk about the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Last week, the Committee described the horrific reality of hospital in-patient units, with its report stating that
“we are inflicting terrible suffering on those detained in mental health hospitals and causing anguish to their distraught families.”
I have raised the case of Bethany, an 18-year-old autistic woman who was locked in a cell in a secure unit in Wales many miles from her home. This morning, her father said the following in response to the Care Minister, talking about those reviews of the 2,250 people like Bethany—
Order. Is the hon. Lady almost finished? This is a very long point of order.
I have almost finished.
Given the sensitive nature of the hon. Lady’s point of order, I will allow her to finish it, but let us not create a precedent.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Care Minister has been around the media but has not been here to talk about the reviews, and Bethany’s father said the following in response:
“We have had review after review after review. We need action, not reviews.”
In the light of the extensive coverage in the press and broadcast media, have you had an indication from Health Ministers that they plan to come to the House to make an oral statement and answer questions?
The straight answer to the hon. Lady’s eventual question is that I have had no such notice, but I get the impression that what the hon. Lady really wanted to do is to raise this matter in the Chamber to bring it to the attention of Ministers. We are about to have a general debate during which any Member can raise a wide range of points, so the solution for the hon. Lady is immediately available to her—as soon as we are finished with the Bill that we are about to discuss.
Further to the point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps through your good offices, I can ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who is still here, about not only the fracking that affects my hon. Friend’s constituency, but whether planning applications for fracking will be withdrawn as a result of the Government’s moratorium. If I could get that on the record, I would be extremely grateful because the matter also affects my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman is not really making a point of order, and he really ought to come back and make that point during the debate.
Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]
Before I invite the Minister to move Second Reading, I must announce Mr Speaker’s decision on certification for the purposes of Standing Order No. 83J “Certification of bills etc. as relating exclusively to England or England and Wales and being within devolved legislative competence”. On the basis of material put before him, I must inform the House that in Mr Speaker’s opinion the Bill does not meet the criteria required for certification under that Standing Order.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It has been seven years since the Northern Ireland Executive established an independent inquiry into historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. Today’s legislation is based on an inquiry and report, undertaken by Sir Anthony Hart, that occupied 223 days of hearings. The Hart report investigated 22 institutions, but it identified a further 65 institutions that came within its terms of reference. The draft legislation was subject to a 16-week consultation process in Northern Ireland.
Right across this House, and right across Northern Ireland, there will be a very warm welcome for the Government bringing forward this legislation to get it on the statute book before Dissolution. I thank everybody involved in this House, the Secretary of State and, most importantly, the campaigners for the day we have now reached.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for all that he and his party have done to help to deliver this Bill.
The House is clearly united on seeing justice and doing right by those who have been abused and who have waiting too long for recognition and a form of restitution. I thank the Government for prioritising this Bill and for getting it through before Dissolution.
I particularly want to mention some of those with whom I have worked closely: Gerry McCann and others from the Rosetta Trust; Margaret McGuckin, who is in the Gallery and who has been working on this since 2008; and Anne Hunter, who is also in the Gallery and whose sister, Sadie, died at Nazareth House in 1974. Although we celebrate the Bill, it is bittersweet for those who were abused, physically and otherwise, and who cannot be here today to see the conclusion of something for which we have worked very hard.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will return to some of those examples, but the fact that so many survivors and victims have died is one of the tragedies of this period.
I am enormously grateful for the priority the Secretary of State has given to this issue. He has shown real compassion for the victims of historical institutional abuse. In his opening remarks, he rightly mentioned the long inquiry held by Judge Hart, who did an enormous amount to give a voice to the victims of historical institutional abuse.
May I encourage the Secretary of State, after this Bill receives Royal Assent later today, to ensure that a copy of the Act and a copy of today’s Hansard are sent to Judge Hart’s widow? It is a great sadness to us all, and particularly to his family and to the victims who met him, that he did not live long enough to see this day. It would be a fitting tribute to have the Act and a copy of Hansard sent to his widow.
The hon. Lady makes a very positive and sensible suggestion, and I am happy to do that. We spoke to Lady Hart last night, and Sir Anthony was, I think, perplexed by the slowness of us all to get this done. I will follow up as the hon. Lady suggests.
The draft legislation was subject to a 16-week consultation process in Northern Ireland, and the Bill was drafted by the Northern Ireland civil service at the request of, and based on a consensus reached by, all six of the main Northern Ireland political parties.
The inquiry’s report was published in January 2017, the same month as the collapse of the Executive, so the Executive never considered the report and it was not laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is why, in July, the Government committed to introducing legislation by the end of the year, if the Executive were not restored, and it is why this was one of the first Bills in the Queen’s Speech.
This is the first Bill of its kind in the United Kingdom, with the results of inquiries in England and Wales and in Scotland yet to be completed. I hope this Bill will give some comfort and hope to victims of child abuse across our country.
Following the election announcement a week ago, there has been significant worry and concern from victims about how the Bill might progress. I thank the Prime Minister and Government business managers for facilitating the Bill today, and I thank Opposition business managers and Opposition spokesmen and women for coming to agreement and for working with us to ensure this Bill passes through both Houses before the election.
It is the true mark of the House that, when it comes to dealing with the most vulnerable in our society—those who suffered for a long time and who have waited a long time for justice—this House rises to the occasion. That sets an example we might send back home to Northern Ireland in calling for all the political parties to come together, to get back to Stormont and to get back to working on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.
I could not agree more.
I thank my colleague Lord Duncan of Springbank, Lord Hain and other noble lords and baronesses for their work in the other place last week. Many Members in the Chamber today have played a role in making today’s debate happen, particularly DUP Members, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), the Chairman and members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and many, many more.
The desire and push from Northern Ireland has been significant. On Sunday night, a number of members of the Government received a letter from a Catholic priest who represents the diocese of Down and Connor, which was the location of two of the children’s homes at the centre of the inquiry. He said that it is
“a matter of deep personal shame for me and for the Diocese that both homes were found by the Inquiry to have fundamentally failed the children in their care, enabling regimes of horrific and systemic emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children, as well as neglect.
In the period before the Inquiry, I came to know some of the former residents of these homes and publicly supported them in their calls for justice and an Inquiry. Over the years of the Inquiry and since, I have watched as those who led this campaign and the hundreds of former children in care who took part in the Inquiry relived the horrors of their time in these institutions and the abuse they suffered there. As children, they arrived at these homes frightened, disorientated and with the simple hope of every child that the adults in their lives would respond to them with affection, understanding, tenderness and care. Instead, they were met so often with hard-hearted coldness, harsh regimes of sterile adult routine and lovelessness, as well as indescribable sexual and physical abuse. It is difficult to overstate the suffering that the former residents of these homes have endured and continue to endure as a result of their experience.”
On the final day of one of the most divided Parliaments in British political history, we can say, hand on heart, that we have all come together, worked together and pulled together to deliver this Bill.
It would be wrong if we did not pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his efforts to deliver this Bill. This has not been easy to achieve, and I know all the work done behind the scenes by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), my party’s leader in Westminster, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), our Chief Whip, and others to cajole and get this over the line. It is a fitting tribute to the Secretary of State, on this last day of Parliament, that the Bill will come into law. On behalf of the victims, their groups and people like Marty, Margaret and Gerry who contact us regularly, I thank the Secretary of State.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. He was at his most tenacious over the weekend in trying to make this happen.
There are many more people to thank. Unfortunately, Sir Anthony Hart, who led the inquiry, passed away earlier this year, but through his widow, Lady Mary Hart, I thank him and his team for their tireless work. I thank the other inquiry members, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland civil service, Northern Ireland Office civil servants, the Executive Office, the leaders of the Northern Ireland political parties and my predecessors, my right hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). They have all played an important part in getting to today.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that sometimes in this House there is a feeling that Northern Ireland gets neglected or is a sideshow, but this measure today shows that the Government and Opposition knew that this was a hugely crucial issue to the people of Northern Ireland and that getting it to the House today and through this procedure is a mark of this House’s responsibility and care for Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady is right on that. I hope that if we can get this through this afternoon, we will be able to toast success for not only the Bill and the victims, but Northern Ireland itself.
This legislation will provide the necessary legal framework to deliver two of the key recommendations from the historical institutional abuse report. The first is a historical institutional abuse redress board, to administer a publicly funded compensation scheme for victims in Northern Ireland. This will be a multidisciplinary panel of one judicial member and two health and social care professionals. There are estimated to be more than 5,000 people who could apply for redress. No matter what country they live in, I urge all victims and survivors to apply: whether you are part of a victims group or whether you have lived with their abuse silently for years, please make use of this redress scheme in this Bill.
The Secretary of State is right to indicate just how important that progress is today. In outlining the steps that victims will take—those from my constituency in Kincora boys’ home, and others from right across Northern Ireland and beyond—and in asking them to apply without delay, will he give us some sense of the timescales associated with the process? When we get Royal Assent for this legislation, how quickly will the panel be established and be in place not only to receive but to consider those applications for redress?
I will come on shortly to deal with that question. The second part of this Bill creates a statutory commissioner for survivors of institutional childhood abuse for Northern Ireland, who will act as an advocate for victims and survivors and support them in applying to the redress board. Whether in fighting for support services or in ensuring that payments are made as quickly and as fully as possible, the commissioner will play a key role in delivering for victims.
It is important not only that we have the commissioner in place, but that the moneys available for compensation will range from £10,000 to £80,000. I wish to make the point about the De La Salle Brothers and what happened in my constituency at Rubane House, outside Kircubbin, where institutional abuse, both physical and sexual, against some young boys took place over a period. Those young people are adults now but they are traumatised. How will the trauma, and the physical and emotional effect it has upon them, be taken into consideration whenever they apply to the commissioner for help?
I hope that one of the commissioner’s focuses will to be look at the services to support those who come forward. That will require money and organisation, but it will be a key part of the role for whoever takes on the position of commissioner.
I have just been asked about this, so let me say that one of the key concerns of parliamentarians and victims’ groups alike is the swift payment for victims and survivors after the passing of this legislation. Victims have already waited too long for redress, and as we have heard, many have died doing so. Our thoughts are with their families. Clause 14 contains provisions that allow the redress board to pay an initial acknowledgement payment of £10,000 to eligible victims before the full determination of the total compensation is payable. Clause 7 allows the redress board to take a flexible case-management approach to claims to ensure that those who are elderly or in severe ill health are considered as a priority. Those in greatest need of redress will get their payment more quickly. Clause 6 allows claims to be made on behalf of a deceased person by their spouse or children.
Other key aspects of the Bill that are important to victims and survivors include provisions that allow the redress board to convene oral hearings, but in a way that should not create an unnecessary delay for those cases in which oral evidence is not required; the ability of the redress board to determine the rate of compensation based on a number of factors, including the duration of stay in an institution; and the ability of the commissioner for survivors of institutional child abuse for Northern Ireland to make representations to any person, including to the redress board. I also wish to confirm to the House that my Department is working closely with the Northern Ireland civil service and David Sterling to ensure that there is adequate resource and capacity for this redress scheme, so that it can get going as urgently as possible.
I am pleased to hear about the possibility of streamlining this process. Is there any indication that any of these payments will be made within this current financial year, irrespective of the bureaucracy of the hearings that have to take place? I am talking about the interim payment of the £10,000.
We have begun a project management team between the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland civil service. I know that David Sterling and the Executive Office have spent time this week looking at how things can be accelerated, but I wish both to acknowledge the need to move quickly and to recognise the fact that this will take a bit of time. We need to get this legislation through, and then we need to get on with how we can press forward with this.
I want to pay tribute to the victims groups that I have engaged with over these past few months and that have engaged with my predecessors and other political leaders: Survivors North West, Survivors Together, the Rosetta Trust, and SAVIA—Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse. They have campaigned on behalf of the people they represent with strength and dignity. Many victims are old and ill. They have not only had their childhood and lives blighted, but they have had to wait, year after year, for the child abuse and what happened to them to be recognised.
At each meeting with the victims groups at Stormont House, I noticed that Jon McCourt from Survivors North West had a small battered copy of the Hart report laid on the table in front of him. There was huge hope and trust in that copy of the report that there might finally be acknowledgement of what he and his friends had had done to them as children. Jon has held that copy of the report close, gripping it tightly for three long years, meeting politician after politician, civil servant after civil servant—anyone who could make a difference in getting redress. The battered cover of Jon’s report, once blue, has now faded. That report contains the grimmest details of the twisted blows laid on the hope and innocence of the children taken into care in Northern Ireland at different times over much of the 20th century. It details how the Kincora hostel in Belfast was completely captured by three child abusers for the same number of decades, leaving them free to anally rape and masturbate at will those boys they were meant to protect.
The report details the impact of the child migrant scheme to Australia. Witness HIA 324 describes his experiences in his statement, as follows:
“My life in institutions has had a profound impact on me. I have always wondered what it would be like to have had a family—a mother and father and brothers and sisters. I never got the chance to find out because I was sent to Australia. We were exported to Australia like little baby convicts. It is hard to understand why they did it… I still cannot get over the fact that I was taken away from a family I never got the chance to know. I was treated like an object, taken from one place to another… I have a nightmare every night of my life. I relive my past and am happy when daylight comes.”
HIA 324 was born in 1938 and was 75 when he spoke those words to the inquiries team in Perth in 2013, but he died before he could sign his statement.
The Hart report highlights how the congregations that supported the four Sisters of Nazareth homes were well aware of the physical and emotional abuse happening in those homes, but did nothing to stop it. The report details how the Sisters of Nazareth would regularly conceal or ignore the presence of the sisters or brothers of those children in their care, hiding them from them. The report details the assault of girls in Nazareth House, with one case in which a girl had her head banged against white tiles for not washing properly. She recalled that there was blood all over the white tiles, and she suffered hearing problems afterwards.
The report details how the Norbertine Order, and then diocese after diocese, failed to stop Father Smyth, a known abuser, from travelling the length and breadth of Northern Ireland and Ireland, abusing hundreds of children. The report confirmed that at Rubane House, boys were sexually abused throughout the four decades that the home operated. It was not just sexual abuse; page after page of the report details the bullying, the use of Jeyes fluid and the confidence attacks on menstruating girls and on young children who wet their beds. The report outlines failure after failure by statutory authorities and the Government to ask the right questions, to show basic levels of care, or to follow up on the condition of those children sent thousands of miles away to Australia.
The Bill, which we hope to pass today, cannot undo the acts perpetrated on the victims, and it does not extend to the other areas of the UK that are currently being addressed by the child abuse inquiry here in London and a similar inquiry in Scotland, but it will show to Northern Ireland victims that action has been taken, and I hope that in a short time similar action can be taken, through legislation, for the rest of the UK.
I started off by thanking the number of colleagues who have helped to get this Bill delivered today, those who have worked on the Hart report and those who have worked to support this legislation, but this is not our Bill; it is the Bill of the victims and survivors, and of their representatives, some of whom are present today. For anyone involved at whatever stage, it has been a humbling experience to work with Northern Ireland victims and survivors who suffered child abuse while in care. The resilience and humanity of the victims should drive us all in our daily responsibility to every child, whether through our families, our work, our responsibilities or our communities.
Victims were let down not just by the perpetrators and institutions, but by the Churches, councils and Governments who were meant to look after them—standing by, ignoring, not checking, turning a blind eye. People knew at the time. The De La Salle Order set down guidelines for the physical layout of its buildings to ensure that behaviour could be observed at all times—for example, on how windows should be placed in doors to ensure clear sight of what was going on in rooms:
“The Brother Director shall be careful that the parlour doors have glazed panels without curtains in such a manner that the interior may be easily seen.”
The ultimate legacy of the Northern Ireland victims and all child abuse victims, from the Hart report and from the Bill, must be for us all to ensure that we do everything within our power to protect children.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Child abuse victims never had their full childhood and were then held hostage by the experiences that they had throughout their lives. I hope that the Bill goes some way towards providing Northern Ireland victims with redress, and for other victims throughout our country, I hope that their time for redress will come very soon. I commend the Bill to the House.
I have to say that this is not an easy day to be in the House—it is not an easy time to hear the Secretary of State’s words—and I pay wholehearted tribute to him for quite simply one of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard in my 22 years on these Benches. He spoke from the heart and he spoke from a deep humanity. We have to pay tribute to him for those words, which were extraordinary and remarkable. Please God, may they provide a grain of comfort to some people who have suffered for so long.
It is also appropriate that we mention Sir Anthony Hart, who did an extraordinary amount of work. We must pay credit to him. I also pay credit to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is present. She dedicated a huge amount of energy to this issue, as did her team and the Secretary of State’s team. I also pay credit to the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland civil service for the amount of work that has been done. How painful and agonising it must have been for them to have had to work in these circumstances. For me, to read the words is almost unimaginable, yet those to whom they refer are suffering a hundred times more than any of us could ever be.
As the Secretary of State said, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister agreed the terms of reference back on 31 May 2012; however, the inquiry goes back nearly 100 years, to 1922. Who can even begin to imagine the cavalcade of agony that has passed in those 100 years? Who can imagine those children whose bodies were broken, but whose hearts and spirits were also broken—who suffered in a way that, please God, we will never, ever have to contemplate again? When the Secretary of State quoted from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it made me think about what the victims thought as children. What did those children think of the adult world—the place of safety that they were being taken to? What did those children think? As adults, did they have any trust, faith or belief in the base humanity, having faced that?
Today, we are undertaking a unique piece of legislation. There has never been a Bill like this on the Floor of the House—it has never happened in this way before. It is absolutely right and appropriate that we take extraordinary, unusual steps, because this is such an extraordinary occasion. We must place on record, here and now, our determination that this will never, ever happen again. Every one of us, be we lay, be religious, be we politicians—whomsoever we be, anyone of us who has any contact with children’s services must make absolutely sure and swear in our heart of hearts that we will never, ever walk by on the other side of the road. We should never, ever be those people who turned a blind eye, as we heard in the agonising statement from the priest that was read out earlier.
We cannot make it right—we cannot repair those broken hearts and broken bodies—but by doing what we will today, by offering some form of redress, some form of compensation, we will hopefully allow closure. We will hopefully be able to say that this House has heard. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) spoke magnificently earlier about the way the House has risen. When we think of some of the activities that take place in this House, today’s statement shows in sharp relief some of the things that happen here that are less noble—that are often ignoble. Today, the House has risen to a higher standard. It is entirely appropriate that is on this occasion that we have risen.
There are many questions still to be asked. This is still a draining emotional occasion. We should pay tribute, once and for all, to the right hon. Secretary of State for the footwork he has shown. It is unheard of for legislation to come through in this way. As recently as last week, we heard that the Whips Office would not allow it and it was not going to happen, yet somehow, with the involvement of the Government, the Opposition, officials, civil servants and even the palace, the Bill has come to the House and will go through.
Let us thank Brendan McAllister, the interim advocate, for the work that he has done. Let us follow up on some of the interventions that have been made already by right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland parties, and let us take the opportunity to say that this is one of the rare occasions when the House comes together, regardless of our party and of any form of religious, political or social affiliation. We are as one in this House in swearing that this cannot happen again, this must not happen again and the victims must get redress, must get compensation, must get respect and, please God, must get closure on this.
The behaviour of politicians of all parties and of all communities in Northern Ireland has been exemplary. I know how difficult it is. I have met victims groups, as has the Secretary of State. To sit in a room opposite someone describing the most appalling nightmare—a nightmare that is hard for any human being to envisage—is an experience that none of us came into politics to undergo, yet it is right that we came into politics to resolve this horror and this agony. I cannot say enough about how impressed I was by the victims groups that I met. Their courage and bravery is astounding. I hope—I know—that all Members in this House feel the same way and say with one voice how much respect we have for them.
I hope that some of the technical questions that were asked earlier by right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland can be addressed. The question of the speed of the recompense payments is, of course, an issue to be resolved. It would be marvellous if some indication could be given to the victims before Christmas—it would be wonderful if they at least had some idea about what was happening. In addition, we would like to know when the staff will be in place for the redress board. It is important to say that we have to establish the bureaucracy, if it has not already been established.
I noticed that no additional resources were allocated in the recent Budget. Does that mean that they will actually come within the next financial year? Following the question from the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), will they come from this year’s budget, or will there be some additional funding mechanism? Those are technical questions. In some ways, they are almost otiose in the context of what we have heard today. Technical questions, compensation and redress are important, but the single most important thing that we in this House do today is to pay credit and tribute to the victims, to their families and to their relatives, and to say that politics in the past may have let them down, but today, politics and this House will not let them down. We will respect them, we will cherish them and we will do everything—everything—we can to ensure that they finally receive the redress that they so deserve.
Order. It is very sad that the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) is leaving the House after today. I think that everyone present will agree with me that his last speech in this Chamber will be remembered as one of his best.
May I say, Madam Deputy Speaker, what a privilege it is to have you in the Chair for this debate? I know that you have such humanity and that you will be touched by this debate and all that you have heard. I know, too, that you will be pleased that you were chairing this particular debate.
I also thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his incredibly moving and powerful speech. I congratulate him on our being here today. I also join you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everyone in this House in saying that the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) made one of his finest speeches. It is his last speech, which is a great shame to so many of us who know just how he has worked for his constituents, for the people of Northern Ireland as a shadow Minister, and also for this House, because he is a true parliamentarian and will be desperately missed.
We stand here today just before we go into an election. We are going into an election because politics is broken, yet here we can prove that it is not broken. Here, we can prove that we can come together and do something. We can deliver something that is right for people who have been through the most agonising, dreadful experiences— experiences that no person, and particularly no child, should ever suffer. We have a chance to make that right today. I trust and know that we will come together, that we will pass this Bill and that, by this evening, this Bill will have Royal Assent, and then we can get on with delivering redress for those victims. They need it, they deserve it, and it needs to happen as soon as possible.
One of the privileges of the job that I used to do, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does now, and that my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and others have done, is to realise that, very often, we are in the presence of people who have suffered the most incredible, dreadful experiences. Northern Ireland is like no other part of the United Kingdom for having put people through experiences that no one should ever have to go through. I, as Secretary of State, spent time listening to people who had been through horrendous experiences in the troubles and who had been treated in a way that nobody should be treated, and listening to people who were victims of historical institutional abuse. As Secretary of State, or any Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, one cannot fail to be touched by that and to be determined to do everything possible to help those victims. I was absolutely determined that we should do that, and I am so proud that we have got here today, but it had to be done in a way that was sustainable and robust. Neither I nor my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could just wave a magic wand and make it all right. We have to go through the proper processes, because we must make sure that this redress scheme and the measures that are put in place will be robust, will not be challenged and will be delivered—and delivered as quickly as possible for the victims.
That is why it was a matter of the most enormous regret that the Hart report was delivered at the point that the Executive collapsed. Had the Executive not collapsed, we would have had ministerial direction to know what Ministers thought of the recommendations. We would have had something to work with. In fact, had the Executive been there, they could have delivered interim payments without the need for primary legislation. They could have delivered so many of these things so much sooner, but they were unable to do so, which is why we had to go through a long consultation process that victims felt was delaying matters and making them worse. It was not doing so; it was there to give a robust legal framework so that we could deliver this scheme.
I want to pay tribute, as my right hon. Friend did, to the six parties. Earlier this year, when we were starting on a talks process, we got all the parties from Northern Ireland in one room and used that opportunity to get them to talk about this matter, so that we could have a united position from them. Although we may still not have an Executive, it will be those politicians and those parties that will have to administer this scheme as Ministers. Therefore, it was absolutely right that it was they who helped to draft this legislation. If that had not been done, and we had used the normal primary legislation route in this place, it would have taken far, far longer, which would have meant that victims had to wait longer.
I have to say to the parties in Northern Ireland that this really needs to be a wake-up call. Yes, we are putting this Bill through here today—I know the hurdles that my right hon. Friend has had to go over and how he has had to jump over obstacles and everything else to get this Bill here today. I know full well what he has come up against, trying to get matters such as this through the collective responsibility of Government, but he should not have had to do that, because there are politicians in Northern Ireland who are elected to do this work. This needs to be the wake-up call. They should put their differences aside. I know that they want to go back into Government and do the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland. This is their opportunity. Please, I say to them, do the right thing for those people.
Finally, I just want to talk about the victims, many of whom I can see today. I know that we should not refer to those in the Gallery, but I will, because those victims are there. I had the honour and privilege of meeting them. I sat through meetings in which they told me about their experiences. There is nothing more humbling than listening to people telling you what they have been through—especially when it is something that they should never have had to go through. This is a Bill for them. This is something that we are delivering in this broken Parliament for people for whom we should be standing up. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on this Bill and I will wholeheartedly support it here today.
I am so very glad that we are here today and that we are getting to the final stage of this process. It has been a battle throughout, not least for the many victims and survivors of this terrible abuse. It has even been a battle just to get this legislation through the House today, and I pay tribute to everybody who has worked incredibly hard to get us to this point. My colleagues and I, other parties, the victims and others across Northern Ireland have lobbied incredibly hard to get this legislation through, and I am really grateful and glad that we have been able to achieve that. At times we expressed frustration and anger that these provisions were potentially not going to go through the House, but the Secretary of State did his best and succeeded, and we see the evidence of that today. This Bill will go through the House in exceptional circumstances, with so many people across so many different elements of the system having worked to make this happen, and I am so very glad—not for us, but for the victims and survivors of this dreadful abuse.
I am glad that those who have suffered through this process will be able to see the genuine care and empathy of all Members who have spoken on the issue thus far. The Secretary of State made a wonderful speech that was very much from the heart, and we could see that. I hope that the victims and survivors get some comfort from the fact that many people care deeply about this issue. I also pay tribute to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). Once again, he made a beautiful and poignant speech that was truly from the heart. That will be picked up, heard and listened to by the victims and survivors, and I hope that it gives them some comfort.
The victims are very grateful for and conscious of the Bill’s progress today, and we hope that it will proceed apace. In addition, though, some have said to me that they are appreciative of and grateful for the empathy, support, sympathy and solidarity with them from across the community, as well as the concrete steps being taken today. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I absolutely agree with all that my hon. Friend has said.
I am so glad that this legislation for the victims and survivors of abuse is one of the last things that this House will have achieved in this Parliament. This is a Parliament that has been dominated by a small number of big issues, and we know very well what those are; I am not even going to say the word. Yet I know that Members from every single party right across this House and the elected representatives in Northern Ireland get into politics because they want to make change on these types of issues. They want to make changes on education, health and public services, and to address great wrongs and injustices. It is such a good thing that we are ending this Parliament on such an issue, and that the many hundreds and thousands of people who suffered appalling abuse, as the Secretary of State outlined, will finally get the last piece of this process: redress. But redress will not be closure. It will never undo the dreadful wrongs that happened to all those children in those settings.
The hon. Lady was instrumental in setting up the inquiry from the beginning. Let me make a point to her that always struck me when I was in the Home Office dealing with these matters for England and Wales, which is that to call this historical abuse is absolutely wrong. It is not historical; it is current and present. It is with the victims every single day.
Absolutely. I was involved in this process right from the start, seven years ago. I pay tribute to the right hon. Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness, because I was present at the meeting when the victims and survivors came in and told us of the terrible, terrible experiences they went through, and both those men were genuinely moved. Who could not be moved by hearing those personal experiences and the terrible wrongs? But both of those men were very moved, and they worked together, and tasked me and some others to go away and try to drive this work forward. Throughout those seven years, civil servants at all levels, the late Judge Hart and all those who gave support and help were really motivated to get through the process and to do so swiftly, because they had heard the terrible things that had happened and had seen the injustice that they wanted to address.
I have to say that I am angry that it has taken this long to get to this point of redress. The inquiry was unusual in that the timeframe was put down in legislation. The late Judge Hart made it absolutely clear that, yes, he would request the extension that he was allowed by the legislation, but he would also meet the timeframes set out, so we always knew when the inquiry was going to report, because he made that clear. I and others made representations to those who pulled down the Assembly, asking them not to do so in order to allow the report to come forward, and I am genuinely angry that it happened. I am angry that we have had to wait for those years for the victims and survivors to get the redress they deserve and that we knew was coming.
But today is not a day about recriminations. In fact, this has been a good example of how the political parties can work together and the difference that they can make—not, perhaps, on the bigger issues that will always be challenging, but on these types of significant issues that are so meaningful to people’s lives.
I pay tribute to all the victims and survivors, who have been on this journey right from the start, including Margaret, Kate, Gerry and Jon McCourt, all of whom have been mentioned in this debate. They have done incredible work because they have represented not just themselves, but the many thousands of victims across Northern Ireland—in fact, across the world—who perhaps could not step forward. They were brave enough to do so no matter how difficult it was, and it must have been incredibly difficult for them to tell their own stories again and again and again to try to get the inquiry and the justice they deserved.
I have been involved in this process for seven years, so it is really good to see it come to an end today, but the victims and survivors have been involved for decades and decades before that. As I have said in the House many times, many of these children came from very challenging and difficult circumstances, and what they needed was love, protection and support. But when we read the report and listen to their experiences, we know that what they got was cruelty, depravity and harshness. That is appalling. Right from that very first meeting with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, those who were in the room were absolutely struck that the right thing to do was to try to get justice for the victims. There is very broad consensus on that in every political party and right across this House.
I pay tribute to all the victims and survivors. This is not the end of their journey. They will continue with all the pain and suffering—the legacy of what happened to them. I hope that this redress and financial support—and what it symbolises—will be of some comfort, as well as a recognition of their hard and incredible work to stand up and address the terrible, terrible wrong that was done to them and many thousands of other children.
It would be a good idea for others to look at the last two pages of the historical institutional abuse inquiry report, which is available at hiainquiry.org. In those pages, Sir Anthony Hart—to whom tributes have properly been paid—set out the six points that he thought were the most important. It is now two years after he had hoped that the compensation payments would be made. Let us also remember the survivors who were over the age of 18 —people who he was not able to look at. I think there is unfinished business in this part of our kingdom. We have to remember that there will be further reports on the rest of the United Kingdom to come in time.
When the Secretary of State made his poignant remarks to the House today, he quoted from Corinthians on the views and perspective of a child—what children see. The beginning of that chapter says that faith is so powerful that it can move mountains, but without charity, compassion and love, it is nothing. This House today, through the actions of this Government that have been brought here, has demonstrated that through compassion it has been able to move bureaucratic mountains. It has been able to move those things that stood in the way, and it is not as nothing; today this House is something. It has done something incredibly powerful and incredibly important for victims across Northern Ireland, those here on the mainland, and, indeed, those who are located across the world as a result of the abuse that took place in these locations in Northern Ireland.
It is important that the Secretary of State is able to set out, and this legislation sets out, the schedule of when moneys will be paid, because that is a practical issue. It is also important that we make sure that help is given to the victims groups going forward from now on, because they have been brought to the top of the mountain. Today is, if I can use the word appropriately, an exciting day in that they have now achieved this, but there will then be the cliff edge of what happens next. Those victims groups will have to be wrapped in compassion, charity, help and assistance so that they can then move to the next phase of this, because it is not going to end very quickly. There will probably now be a process put in place, and it is important that practical help is given to take the groups through that to make sure that they can get the other end of this as quickly and expeditiously as possible. I hope that we will see that. I hope that we mark this very poignant and historic day with an appropriate mark of respect and an appropriate celebration that this House is not as nothing; it has achieved something today.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I just want to come back on a few points that I was asked about. Before I do, may I thank my ministerial colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office? No Secretary of State could ask for better colleagues than the two on either side of me at the Dispatch Box today, who have also played an incredible part in trying to move this Bill forward.
The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) raised the issue of the financing of the scheme and the timetable. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, officials in the Executive Office are already working on the implementation programme. They aim to make shadow board appointments to work on policies, procedures and standards so that the board can start considering claims as soon as practicable after it is officially launched. Officials in the Executive Office are also working hard to ensure that the consideration of claims can begin as soon as practicable after the Bill becomes law, and exploring the possibility of opening up applications in advance of the establishment of the board. Obviously, we will all want to do whatever we can. In particular, the Government will do whatever we can to make sure that we play our part in moving things forward as quickly as possible.
The funding for the scheme comes from the block grant, but clearly we will be making sure that we do everything we can to support the Executive Office.
On the points about process, the Secretary of State is injecting a bit of positivity and we hope that this will progress quickly. On 6 December, he is mandated to lay reports under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. Given that we are going to have to do that process anyhow, could a line on progress updates and the processes that follow be inserted in the Bill?
I will do whatever I can, within the constraints of the purdah period, to update right hon. and hon. Members and the public.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) referred to the fact that this legislation is the most robust basis for the redress scheme and the commissioner. That is worth reiterating. It would not be on as sound a footing if we had not got what we hoped to get today, so she is absolutely right. She is also right to point to the fact that hopefully after the election we can get the Executive and the Assembly going, because that is the best place to do all NI legislation.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) was very clear about how productive the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive had been around the time of the Hart report, and on other issues. That period gives us all hope that we will get back to a position where we will restore the Executive and the Assembly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) made an extremely valid point. It is something I was worrying about last night as I re-read parts of the report. There are many, many people of different ages—people who may not have been in care but may have been abused in other settings—who will no doubt be the subject of reports going forward.
I thank all colleagues for all their kind remarks, and again pay tribute to the victims groups who are sitting here today. They may have missed their current flights, but we have arranged for them to be able to go later. I hope we will all be able to celebrate with them shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Motion made and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 63(2), That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—(Maggie Throup.)
Bill considered in Committee.
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
Clauses 1 to 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
That was, I think, one of the shortest Committee stages in this Parliament’s history. Having been Government Chief Whip, I only wish that another policy area of this Government could have been covered so quickly.
As has been said during the course of this debate, in powerful speeches from Members across the House, this is a day for victims—the victims from Northern Ireland who are in the Public Gallery today, the victims from Northern Ireland who are sitting at home, and all victims of child abuse who have yet to have redress and a full acknowledgment of what they went through. I am extremely grateful to the House for all the support and for all the civil service support, and I think this is a very fitting way to finish this Parliament.
Let me join the Secretary of State in applauding the fact that the House has seen fit to move the Bill so swiftly through the House today. I want to place on record our thanks to my colleague Lord Hain and Lord Duncan, the Minister involved, because they were instrumental in ensuring that this House had the opportunity to move things forward.
I want to say to those with us today who are victims, representing many other victims, that this Bill would have been necessary had there only been one victim of this kind of abuse. We know that many thousands suffered—thousands more than will come under the ambit of the scheme, because many of them have already died, and we cannot offer anything by way of recognition or compensation to those people. But today we are saying to those who are with us that we recognise what took place, and it is a matter of real and profound shame to every one of us in this country. It is also a matter of anger, and we should use that anger to ensure that we are determined to do everything we can to insist that this cannot be the pattern for the future. We know that sexual abuse will take place in Northern Ireland and in the whole of the United Kingdom. This should impel us to do everything we can to protect our young people and those who are victims, because we have to learn the lessons of the past.
That is the triumph for those who have been through this campaign. They have campaigned for themselves and those they represent, but they have also campaigned on a much wider basis—they have campaigned for decency and justice for people across this land of ours. The real emotion that was rightly expressed by the Secretary of State, by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and by others is not just about empathy. It is because we profoundly believe in the need to ensure that there is justice for those who have campaigned and those they campaigned for and, in the end, to set a different moral tone around this issue for the future. This is a good Bill, and I thank all our colleagues for making it possible to pass it today.
The Secretary of State referred to the fact that the Bill went through Committee very quickly; I do not think I have ever chaired such a quick Committee. That indicates the unity in the House around this Bill, and I know that if it were not for the special circumstances we are in, many more Members would have wanted to be here to show their support.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until he has reported the Royal Assent to any Act agreed upon by both Houses.—(Maggie Throup.)
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming Dissolution.—(Maggie Throup.)
I call Sir Patrick McLoughlin.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the last time that you will be able to call me. It was a great privilege working with you when we were doing opposite jobs, as Chief Whip and Opposition Chief Whip.
I first saw inside the House of Commons in about 1972. In 1970, Cannock elected a Conservative Member of Parliament, Patrick Cormack, with one of the biggest swings in the country in that general election. Like any new Member of Parliament, he went round the local schools and invited us to come down to the House of Commons to have a tour. I came down in about 1972, and I remember it well. I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere, the beauty of the place and the history of the building—so much so that I remember saying to one of my best friends at the time, John Beresford, “I’ve decided what I want to do in life.” He said, “What’s that, Patrick?” and I said, “I want to come back to the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament.” I will always remember him saying to me, “If I was you, I’d keep that a secret.” It was not the kind of place that a comprehensive schoolboy from Cannock would end up.
Leaving school at 16, I became involved in the youth wing of the Conservative party, and I fought my first general election in Wolverhampton South East in 1983. It was a great campaign but an unsuccessful one, when the Conservative party overall was doing incredibly well. I made several unsuccessful attempts at winning other seats, and I began to think that my friend John was right. But as we all know in politics, things happen suddenly. All of a sudden, a by-election was called in West Derbyshire, and I was selected as the candidate, when Matthew Parris, who has been a lifelong friend since then, decided to pursue a career in TV.
I would like to pay tribute to the officers of the West Derbyshire Conservative association in those days, particularly Geoffrey Roberts, who is sadly no longer with us, but his wife Josie still lives in Bakewell. They took a bit of a gamble in 1986, selecting a 28-year-old who was hardly a typical Tory—somebody who left school at 16, had not been to university and had gone through 12 months of a coal strike. With our successful campaign in that by-election, and with my charm and personality, I managed to take a very safe Conservative seat with a majority of 15,500 to one with a majority of 100 votes.
I came into the House of Commons on 13 May. My mother came down, and my pregnant wife was with me, and we were invited to have tea with the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher. My mother was not overwhelmed at all by meeting Mrs Thatcher. She had never met a senior politician of any description. We met her in the Prime Minister’s office here in the House of Commons, and within a few minutes, it was almost as if I did not exist. My mother and Mrs Thatcher were talking away like two old fishwives. After 30 minutes, a note came in for the Prime Minister saying that she had to go to her next meeting. She looked at my mother and said, “I’m very sorry, but I have to go to my next meeting.” I will always remember my mother tapping her on the knee and saying, “Yes, my dear, you are busy, aren’t you?” to which Mrs Thatcher said, “Well, I am today. It’s just one of those days.”
That is how I came to represent one of the most beautiful constituencies in England. It is a constituency dominated, to a great degree, by the Peak District national park. The Peak district is within an hour’s drive of 60% of the UK population, and some weekends it feels like they all come. The Peak District national park is a very important part of our country. Obviously it has strict planning rules and regulations, but I want to see people living in the national park and not priced out of it. We must bear that in mind.
We have a number of important market towns in Derbyshire Dales, not least Wirksworth, Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock. They are thriving market towns, but at the moment their high streets are under tremendous pressure. I do hope that the new Government will think very carefully about how they can support our market towns and our high streets—that is incredibly important—and avoid putting extra unnecessary costs on them, or if costs are put on business, make sure they are across the board, including for the internet companies, which at the moment do not quite share their full burden.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to serve in this House with my right hon. Friend, but will he give the House a pledge that he will not write his memoirs, or if he changes his mind and does decide to write his memoirs, that he will make no reference at all to what happens in the Whips Office? Does he agree with me that whipping, like stripping, is best done in private?
I agree partly with what my right hon. Friend says. If he does not mind, I shall say something in a few moments about the Whips Office that may or may not get his approval, but let us see.
Less than a year after I entered the House of Commons, we faced a general election. I have to say that it was an unusual election as far as West Derbyshire was concerned because two parties got what they wanted. My Liberal opponent had posters up and down the constituency saying, “100 more votes this time”. I am very glad that he got his extra 100 votes, and I was even more pleased that I got an extra 10,000. Let us leave that to the side, but we should be careful what we wish for.
In 1989, I was invited by Margaret Thatcher to join her Government, and I went as a junior Minister to the then Department of Transport. One of the first issues that landed in the area I was responsible for, within a few weeks of my being at the Department, was the terrible Marchioness disaster on the Thames. As we have done in the previous debate, dealing with people who have suffered such tragedies is one of the more difficult parts of life in government, as it is when, as Members of Parliament, we have people who are hit by tragic circumstances and incidents that often cause the loss of life and the like. I think most Members of Parliament go out of their way to do whatever they can to help.
I served in several Departments before John Major appointed me to the Whips Office in 1995. I spent 17 years there, becoming one of the most long-serving and perhaps, as far as my party is concerned, long-suffering Whips. When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party in 2005, he made me the Opposition Chief Whip, and then he made me the Chief Whip in the coalition Government in 2010. There, I was really ably assisted by John Randall, who is now in the other place, as my Deputy Chief Whip—really a man of great and outstanding ability and high principle—and by the right Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). I see in his place the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who was also in the Whips Office.
I have to say that I never dreamed for one minute that I would ever serve under the right hon. Gentleman in any capacity in this place, but I found myself doing so and I found myself enjoying it and respecting his leadership, so I thank him for that.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think, with the problems we inherited, that there was a lot the coalition Government did of which we can rightly be proud.
I was Chief Whip for a considerable time, and I have to say that I was greatly assisted at the time by two people in the Whips Office to whom I want to refer—Sir Roy Stone and Mark Kelly. Roy Stone is basically the usual channels, as you well know, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is true that there have been only four people to hold the position of principal private secretary to the Chief Whip in the last 100 years, and Roy himself has been doing it since November 2000. The House, the Government and the Opposition have a great servant in Roy, and I really want to say a big thank you to him for the work he does. I think he would say that there is never a dull moment in what he does.
I would like to say a few things about the Whips Office, which I think is quite often misunderstood both inside and outside this place. Contrary to some of the wilder stories, it is the personnel department of any parliamentary party, dealing with a wide range of issues both personal and political.
In my experience, I always saw the Whips Office as a human resources department, but with the “human” bit taken out.
Well, everybody is allowed to have their views. All I can say to my right hon. Friend is that she ought to have to deal with some of the people the Whips Office has to deal with.
I would like to say something to all people who come into this House of Commons. Whatever they think about the Whips Office and about the party system, very few people would get into this House on their own ability; they get here only because they belong to a major political party or a political party, and I think that is sometimes forgotten by them when they get here.
In 2012, David Cameron gave me the option of becoming Secretary of State for Transport. As Chief Whip, I was aware of the offer just a little time in advance of the reshuffle, so I had time to reflect on it. It was a big step to move from the back office of politics to the front office, or to the frontline, as it so often seemed, particularly in those first few weeks at the Department for Transport, where I had of course started as a junior Minister some time before.
I remember very well, Madam Deputy Speaker, you coming to me on that Monday afternoon, when I knew what was going to happen to me, and you told me that the Opposition day debate on Wednesday was going to be on rail fares. I did try to say to you that I did not think this was a very good idea and could you not find a different subject to take on. The next morning you realised why I might have suggested that, but as usual you stuck to your guns, and I found myself responding to such a debate that week.
I found my four years at the Department for Transport one of the most fascinating periods that I spent in government, and it was a huge privilege to be the Secretary of State and head of a major Department such as that.
I would just like to put on record that during the right hon. Gentleman’s spell as Secretary of State for Transport, a company—it will be unnamed—came to me in desperate straits over a problem that involved the Department for Transport and other countries, and it would have gone out of business within 10 days had it not been resolved. I took it to the right hon. Gentleman, we had a discussion, he did what was necessary and that company was saved, with about 120 jobs, and I would just like that to go on the record.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As I said, it was an incredibly rewarding period.
Within a few days or weeks of being there, I found myself having to phone Richard Branson to explain why his company was going to keep the franchise for the west coast main line, although he had previously been told that Virgin had lost it; that conversation I remember well. I would like to say at this point that it is fair to say that people such as Richard Branson and Brian Souter have done more for rail passengers in this country than many Secretaries of State, and they have improved our railways in a very dramatic way. I hope that, whatever plans come in the manifestos, we do not lose the involvement of the private sector in the railways. They have transformed our railways, and I think that is partly as a result of the private investment we have seen.
I would like to take this opportunity, if I may, to pay tribute to some of the superb civil servants who supported me in my role. Among them, in my private office were Mark Reach and Rupert Hetherington, as well as Philip Rutnam, who was the permanent secretary for all the time that I was there, while Phil West was my principal private secretary for the entire four years I was at the Department. I had excellent special advisers—another often misunderstood role—in Ben Mascall, Simon Burton and Tim Smith, as well as a constituent of mine, Julian Glover, who knew more about the railways than anybody I have come across and would give me the history and everything else. He has written and had published not so long ago a book on Thomas Telford, “Man of Iron”, and it is great authoritative writing. People like them who bring outside expertise straight into the political arena are really very important.
I was encouraged by the unswerving support of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, who were both great infrastructure enthusiasts—so much so that one of my problems as Transport Secretary was that, when visiting a construction site, I was always third in line to get a hi-vis jacket and a hard hat. In 2015 I was reappointed by the Prime Minister. I remember him saying, “Patrick, you’ve been going up and down the country promising all these schemes.” I pointed out that I had only done so after he had promised them in the first place, and that it would have been difficult to row back on promises made by the Prime Minister.
Talking about infrastructure, one of the fascinating aspects of returning to the Department where I began my ministerial career was that I could appreciate fully just how long and difficult these major projects are. Crossrail is a good example. When I was first in the Department, in 1989, I remember the then Secretary of State saying, “We’re going to build Crossrail.” It is now being built. It has been delayed and gone over budget, but it will make a tremendous difference to London once it is finished.
That brings me to High Speed 2. HS2 is not about speed; it is about capacity. It is about building a modern railway that is fit for our times and for a modern country. I could spend a long time talking about HS2, but I think that might try the patience of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir David Lidington), which I do not want to do. I accept the problems that he and his constituents face as a result of HS2, and those concerns must be listened to. However, I will find it ironic if I can take a high-speed train from London to Brussels or Paris, but not to Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds. It is absolutely essential that we increase our capacity.
As we prepare to leave the European Union, I well recall the Cabinet meeting on the Saturday morning after David Cameron had returned from the negotiations —given that he has written about this in his book, I can now break the rule not to speak about Cabinet discussions. I said in that meeting, “I would love to live in Utopia, but the trouble is that I would wake up and find that the EU was still there.” We have to be realistic about what we want from Europe. We are leaving the European Union, and it is right that we do so—we said that we would be bound by the result of the referendum, and I strongly believe that—but it is the European Union that we are leaving, not Europe. We must make sure that we get a good trading relationship with the rest of Europe as quickly as possible.
I will still be living in Derbyshire Dales. I shall miss tremendously being its Member of Parliament and being at the centre of things there. I am sure that I will still enjoy the company of so many good people, but it will be a different relationship. After 33 years, it is time to move on.
One of my greatest supporters and helpers has been my wife. It is fair to say that she has always been my strongest supporter in public—in private, she has often told me the truth, and I have been the better for it. I first entered the House in a by-election, and it was chaotic; after six weeks of campaigning, I arrived here in the thick of it. I decided only last week not to seek re-election, and I have to say that my departure feels the same. One of the best pieces of advice that my wife ever gave me was when she was helping me with a speech that I was preparing. After typing it up, she looked at me and said, “Patrick, I’ve never known you to make too short a speech.” On that note, I want to end by thanking everyone, including all the officers and staff, for their help.
I rise to make my final contribution after more than 36 years in this House. As I said when I announced that I was standing down, it has been the honour of my life to represent Rother Valley, a constituency that I first moved to at the age of eight, when my father, a Durham miner, moved to the south Yorkshire coalfields.
Having been elected in 1983, my baptism came very shortly after, when 4,500 miners went on strike for 12 months. With the Orgreave coke works in my constituency, I was kept on my toes. That was followed by three years as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Leader of the Opposition. I learned quite a lot of things that I will not be sharing this afternoon—I am not even tempted to talk about the Whips Office, as the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) has just done.
The major work that I have done in the House is with Select Committees. When I was first elected, I served on the Energy Committee, and then for a short time, I was a member of the Environment Committee. I chaired the Health Committee for five years, from 2005 to 2010. One of the earliest things that Committee did was to secure a free vote in the House on bringing in a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places. Some people said at the time that it would be the end of the world as we knew it, but now people say that it is the most popular piece of public health legislation that the House has ever introduced. I spent eight years chairing the Committee on Standards, until September last year. We did not have quite as great a result as we did with the smoking ban, but my intention all along was to ensure that this place was better thought of by the people outside who elect and send us here. I think that to some extent we were moving along quite nicely on that, until something happened in 2016 that seems to have knocked us back quite a bit. Select Committee work is something that I have enjoyed.
With regard to local achievements, clearly there are many, but the main achievement that I and my staff have had over many years is dealing with individual casework, for the people who come along and need help, perhaps because they have been unable to communicate their concerns. I have always said that I have been a voice for the voiceless in Rother Valley, speaking up on their behalf. Another thing I have been involved with in the constituency is coalfield regeneration. The advanced manufacturing park is now in the Rotherham constituency, but it used to be in Rother Valley when it was first put in by a Labour Government. It shows that we are recognised as having some of the finest manufacturing anywhere in the world. That came out of the old Orgreave coke works and the coalmine site. Such developments have transformed parts of south Yorkshire, and my voice and that of the Government were there for that on many occasions.
Finally, I want to say a few words of thanks to some individuals. For the last eight general elections, my friend and colleague Alan Goy has been my political agent. All Members will know how important it is to have a good relationship with their political agent. I also want to thank the staff who have supported me during my tenure. I will thank, in particular, my current staff, Sheena Woolley, Jacquie Falvey and Natalie Robinson, who support me in the constituency, and Kate Edwards and Michael Denoual, who work here in Parliament.
As the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales said, your wife is a massive support in this job. Sadly, I lost my first wife Carol in 2008, but Andree, who I married a few years ago, has been a pillar of support. It would be difficult for anybody to do this job without that type of support at home.
I do not want to turn this into a full-scale Oscars speech, so I will end by thanking the people of Rother Valley, who I have been honoured to represent. Whoever wins the seat at the election, I hope that they will feel the same satisfaction representing it that I have felt for many years.
I am grateful to have an opportunity to take part in this debate and to pay tribute to so many colleagues who are moving on. It is a particular honour to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). Indeed, it was a telephone call from him that first heralded my appointment as a Minister. I could hear the deep reluctance in his voice, verging on disbelief, as he announced that the Prime Minister had appointed me. He then had a moment of fun at my expense when he told me—he obviously knew me very well—that I was off to the Ministry of Agriculture, before revealing that I was in fact going to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In fact, things went from bad to worse after that phone call, because my sole contribution, apart from irritating the Chief Whip during my first five years in this place while on the Opposition Benches, was to write a blog in which, with the oncoming age of austerity, I recommended that the first thing we should do as a Government was to get rid of Government cars. Straight after my right hon. Friend put down the phone, my new private secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport rang me—I felt tremendously important— and said, “Minister, would you like to come into the Department?” I said that, yes, of course I would. They said, “Minister, shall we send your car?” I paused for a moment. I thought of myself, as I have always been in this place, as a man of great principle and then said, “Yes, please send a car.” [Laughter.] Two minutes later, there was another phone call: “Minister, the Secretary of State has read your blog and he has cancelled your car.” I never had a car for the six years that I was in the Department.
My right hon. Friend’s speech also reminded me of my own glittering political career in this place. I have always wanted to do the Queen’s Speech address, so that I can recount to the House some of my great political successes. Standing in 1997 in Bristol East, I managed to turn a 5,000 Labour majority into a 17,000 Labour majority. Then, when I was selected to succeed Robert Jackson in the seat of Wantage, he and I worked hand in glove together for three years—father and son, Laurel and Hardy—with never a moment apart. After working with me for those three years, Robert Jackson turned around and defected to the Labour party.
I was lucky enough to succeed Robert Jackson in 2005 to become the Member of Parliament for Wantage and Didcot, and it is a tremendous privilege. I rechristened the constituency Wantage and Didcot, although I can never get that past the Boundary Commission. Didcot is the largest town in the constituency, which also includes Wantage, Faringdon and Wallingford. I sensed from my right hon. Friend’s speech that all of us in this House believe that we represent the best constituency in the country. The great advantage of Wantage is that it literally does have everything, from an ancient white horse to a 21st century space cluster with 90 start-up companies. It has Europe’s leading business park, Milton Park, a technology business park with life sciences, the European Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult, Williams Formula 1, farming, small businesses and a huge sense of community. I think the one thing we all learn in this place as Members of Parliament, if we did not learn it beforehand, is the tremendous power of community and social organisations in our constituencies. Again and again, we know the tremendous amount of work that volunteers do in every part of society in our constituencies to make things happen and to make them work, often with very little thanks or recognition.
My constituency—I hope this does not sound arrogant or come out in the wrong way—suffers in different ways from other constituencies, in that it suffers from the problems of success. The issues that come across my desk relate to economic success: concern about the growing number of houses and whether there is adequate infrastructure, such as roads and schools, to support it. There are other important issues, such as reopening a provincial railway station, Grove station, to provide better commuting for all my constituents, and sorting out the problems at Wantage community hospital. The biggest issue that faces us is how to cope with the impact of economic success in this area.
I just want to touch on two other topics before I sit down. I probably should not bring up Brexit—we were all having such a lovely time before I did—but I just want to put on record, as someone who has got into a bit of trouble on this issue, what happened. I supported the Prime Minister’s position when he first became Prime Minister, to leave with a deal; otherwise we would leave with no deal. Funnily enough, I thought the no-deal threat was better aimed at this Parliament, rather than at Europe. It was only the out-of-the-blue Prorogation that made me feel that Parliament should have a moment where it put in an insurance policy to ensure that we did get a deal, but once a deal came back I was very happy to support it. I was happy to support the programme motion, and I hope that if the Prime Minister comes back with a majority, he brings the deal back and rams it through. I would certainly support him in that. I am not a remainer or a remoaner; I am a leaver-with-a-dealer. I hope that that is what can happen after the election.
Although I lost the Whip, I am a fan and an admirer of the Prime Minister. I have known him for many years. Generally, every single political prediction I make is wrong, but I did predict two years ago that he would become Prime Minister. I also said that, looking at his record as Mayor of London, he would make a fine Prime Minister. I think he will. As I look at my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), I can see him nodding in agreement.
Indeed I am—wholeheartedly.
The final issue I want to raise in my speech is that, despite the then Chief Whip’s concerns, I was lucky enough to serve for six years as Minister with responsibility for the arts, telecommunications and technology. The telecoms part of the brief was a complete accident. It came to us when we were in opposition, because the then telecoms spokesman was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). When it was pointed out that he did not even own a mobile phone, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt) rather deftly stole the policy and took it over to DCMS. When I got that Department, the then Prime Minister had such faith in me that he tried to take the telecoms brief away from me and give it to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). Thankfully, he was married to a woman who was the chief executive of a telecoms company at the time, so I held on to that fantastic brief, as well as that of the creative industries of film, television, advertising and video games. I just want to say two things about those two areas.
First, the arts are tremendously important. We have the most incredible arts ecology. That is a terrible word to use for such a beautiful subject, but we have the most incredible museums and arts institutions in this country. I think it really is only in this place that they are not appreciated. When I go abroad, people marvel at our museums and how we support the arts in this country. If only we could have a system similar to the system we have for international development, where the arts have a guaranteed budget—not 0.7%, but bigger than it is at the moment—we would get so much more from them. We already get such a tremendous amount.
On the creative industries, we perhaps like to mock luvvies but that is completely wrong. One of the reasons we have not dipped into recession in the past couple of quarters is the contribution made by the British film industry. I told the then Prime Minister that he had as much right to appear on the set of James Bond as at a widget factory, because it was making a massive economic contribution to our country.
On technology, we are the leaders of Europe in technology investment, start-ups and technology companies. As we move towards delivering Brexit, I urge all policy makers in this House, when Parliament returns, to look at technology as one of the key areas that will drive the 21st century post-European Union British economy.
When I see the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), I always recall my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) talking about seeing him in his nappies when he was young. Seeing again how young he obviously is, I am very sorry that he is leaving the House. One thing we have in common is the arts. A lot of Members spend their evenings in the very wonderful part of my constituency with the Southbank centre, the National Theatre and so on.
I should just say that I have not said I am leaving the House— I was just giving a statement at the end of term.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that he has to be re-elected, of course, but he is not retiring. [Interruption.] Now I am very unclear whether he is retiring or just putting himself forward for re-election—fine.
Like the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), who spoke first in the debate, I came in at a by-election in 1989. I will not go through my whole history, but I just point out that it is very different being a Member of Parliament who is literally five minutes away from their constituency. He was my constituent in Kennington for a very long time and he took a great interest in many of the community events; I am very grateful for that. Coming in as a new Member in that by-election back in 1989 was very different: we had no television covering the house, no mobile phones, no emails, no 24-hour news—it all sounds wonderful now. Members who come in now probably do not really understand how different it was 30 years ago.
Some of the improvements have been wonderful. For example, I waited for an office for a very long time. All the things that are now done for new Members did not happen then and we were very much left to find our own way. I should also say that I do not like some of the changes. I am very pleased that we have a new Speaker who will be extremely fair and show the kindness—quite honestly, I am not a hypocrite—that the previous Speaker did not show to Members, and I hope that the new Parliament will realise that some changes from the so-called modernisation do not necessarily change the standard of the debate in this place or the way that people behave. I think we need to look at that very carefully, and I hope that the new Speaker will do so. There is not just the question of clapping. Practically every tradition in this House has been introduced over the years for a reason. I remember being one of those people who came in and immediately said, “Why are we wasting so much time in the Division Lobbies? Why are we not getting through right away? Why are we not able to not vote in a different way?” However, I would not dream of voting to get rid of the Division Lobbies now, because it is such a useful time to talk to people from both sides of the House—if someone is not always voting with their party, as I have not been a few times—and to see Members from our own party. I spent most evenings going over to Vauxhall to community meetings, friends groups and tenants associations, so I did not have the luxury of being able to stay around in the House and have lots of nice meals, with the wonderful catering staff and wonderful food. We need to be careful about modernising this place so much that it is treated in a way that loses the absolute value of history that we have in this place.
One part of my life that will be very unhappy about me leaving is my wonderful, old, traditional, original Mini, because it literally knows its way from the House of Commons over Westminster bridge and back over Lambeth bridge. Some days I would do the journey perhaps two or three times, so my Mini will get a great rest when I leave, and it will not know what has hit it now that it will not be doing that journey.
I want to say a couple of very important thank yous. This place is made up of people who work so hard for us all and who very often do not get the thanks and tributes. I thank all the members of Royal Mail, for example—the postmen and women who have delivered our mail and have been so kind over the years. I thank Yiannis in the Travel Office, who has been fantastic. Most importantly for me, as someone who came in and was not in any way computer-savvy—I still do not really like technology—one person in the Digital Service, Balj Rai, has been just wonderful. He knows exactly how to be patient with someone like me, and I thank him.
Finally, I want to thank my personal staff. I have had Kathy Duffy working for me for 26 years—I must not get emotional; this is silly. I have had Max Freedman for 15 years; Lara Nicholson for 11 years; Ada During for six years; and my wonderful paralegal Ashleah Skinner, who has done a brilliant job, for four years. They have all made my life here so much better. I also thank all my constituents who have sent me such wonderful letters and shown kindness. I will not miss many of my party political activists, but I will miss my constituents, my community organisers and the people who really wanted to work with me to make Vauxhall a better place. One thing I said when I came in here was that my country would always come before my party—and it still does.
I was first elected to this place as the first Conservative for 25 years to sit for the constituency of Darlington in the north-east of England. I have never forgotten that particular weekend. I set off on a train on the Sunday afternoon down to London and the buffet bar was closed. Somebody must have told the steward that the new MP for Darlington was on the train—I had been on television a bit—and he suddenly appeared with a tray of tea and toast and said, “We can’t have the new MP for Darlington going off hungry to take on his responsibilities.” He then stood there, shook his head and said, “Mind you, what hope have you got with all those Tories?”
Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), who made the most splendid speech today, I had the privilege of serving—perhaps unusually—four Prime Ministers. I first served Margaret Thatcher as her Schools Minister and then John Major in the same capacity. With my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), we set up the first proper independent inspection service of our schools, Ofsted, and we ensured that school exam results were published and available to parents. It is extraordinary to think now that the exam results of individual schools were locked away in the director of education’s safe and that parents were not trusted with that information.
I later had the equally unusual experience of working as deputy to two Liberal Secretaries of State, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Not only was that interesting, but it turned out to be quite a constructive experience. When the history of the coalition Government is written, perhaps we will see some of the benefits of that working together.
That period had a rather unusual ending. The day after the 2015 election, around lunchtime, I was called by David Cameron and reappointed as Secretary of State for Defence. As I was leaving the Cabinet table, he said the Secretary of State for Industry had handed in his resignation and the permanent secretary wanted somebody to be in charge for a couple of days while the rest of the Cabinet was assembled, so for a few hours I was Secretary of State for Industry. As I was picking up my papers, he added, “The Secretary of State for Energy has also handed in his resignation”, so I said, “Fine, I’ll have a look at that as well”. Then, as I was leaving, he said, “And the Secretary of State for Scotland has resigned”. So for a day or two I held those four portfolios together.
I then had the most enormous privilege of all: working with our servicemen and women at the Ministry of Defence for three and a half years, leading them in the campaign against Daesh, resisting the challenge of a resurgent Russia and playing an important role in NATO. There can be no greater privilege than serving in that Department with the many willing and brave servicemen and women who have committed themselves to the service of our country. I want to put on the record my thanks to them all.
I would just like to thank my right hon. Friend for all he did in that role, particularly the way he kept Members of Parliament on both sides of the House so well briefed. When the history books are written, they will show how seriously he—together with his colleagues in the armed forces and his ministerial colleagues—took that incredibly important role. I thank him for that.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. It seemed to me incredibly important to keep the confidence of the House, having won its support back in 2015 for airstrikes in Iraq and then for their extension to Syria. Of course, that we were able to keep that confidence was down in no small part to the precision of our pilots and their skill in difficult conditions in minimising civilian casualties.
My successor will inherit a thriving and prosperous constituency. My constituents enjoy a good quality of life, remarkably low unemployment, a wide choice of schooling, frequent rail connections to the capital and the protection of the green belt—over 90% of my constituency is green belt—but there is still work to be done, including on the regeneration of Swanley, one of the other towns in my constituency, especially through new investment and the promise of a fast link service from Maidstone and Otford through Swanley to the city of London.
We also need to ensure that boys in my constituency have access to grammar school places. Whether you like it or not, Kent offers an 11-plus system, but Sevenoaks was the only district in Kent that did not have any grammar school places. I was delighted that after a 15-year campaign we managed to establish a girls’ school annexe, which has been open now for a couple of years, but we still need to ensure provision for boys’ grammar school places alongside it. We also need to continue to preserve our green-belt protections in Sevenoaks. The Government’s unrealistic housing targets will put pressure on that green belt, though I know that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are conscious of the need to balance the demand for new housing with our commitments to protect the green belt.
I hope that this election campaign will not ignore some of the longer-term challenges our country faces. We have spent an awful lot of time—perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly—debating the withdrawal agreement. In the end, that agreement only dealt with Ireland, our payments into the EU budget and the rights of EU citizens; we have not started yet on the major negotiation that really matters for business and jobs in my constituency, which is our future trading relationship, and I fear we have not yet started to explain to our electors some of the trade-offs that will inevitably be involved as we come to deal with the challenge to agriculture, financial services, the aerospace and automotive industries and our fisheries, and accommodating their legitimate right and desire to trade freely with the European continent with the views of our partners.
We will have to quickly put in place the security partnership that has long been promised in various documents the Government have issued—I fear we have spoken far too little about this—and make sure there is no cliff edge at the end of January or February in the policing and judicial arrangements that our constituents expect and in the way our agencies work with other agencies across the European continent to deal with terrorism and organised crime. We will also need to work with our former partners in the EU to continue to uphold the rules-based international order. We do not debate foreign affairs nearly enough in this House. When I first entered Parliament, in the ’80s, we had much more regular debates on international affairs.
We are dealing with a resurgent Russia that is in breach of many international conventions, whether on nuclear arms, chemical weapons or the protection of sovereignty under the Helsinki accords. We are dealing with a very ambitious China that is flouting the law of the sea convention, which it has signed, and continues to steal—there is no other word for it—the world’s intellectual property. And we are dealing with a mercantilist United States that is degrading the World Trade Organisation and slapping sanctions even on its friends in pursuit of a policy of “America first”. When it comes to holding the rules-based international system together, there really is a role for the leadership among the western nations, and particularly for our own nation here in the United Kingdom.
Let me end by thanking all those who have helped me so much over the last 31 years, particularly the staff in my office.
I am not able to contribute with a speech, but—with some licence from you, Madam Deputy Speaker—I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for enabling me to intervene and express my strong personal view that he was one of the most effective and competent Ministers with whom it was ever my pleasure to serve. I think that that view is widely held on this side of the House.
Perhaps, through my right hon. Friend, I can express my personal thanks to the people whom I need to thank, not least my parliamentary staff, Jamie, Rosie, Ann Taggart and, in particular, Jill Brown, who is a parliamentary institution of her own. She came into this place in 1974, with my dad, and continues to go the extra yard on behalf of constituents, and for that she will always have my gratitude. Again, I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for letting me intervene.
I am very grateful too, for the opportunity to allow my right hon. Friend to put that on record. I am only sorry that he cannot do so more formally.
Let me finally echo the thanks expressed by others to the Clerks and the staff of the House, and, in particular, single out the staff of the Library. They are, perhaps, a dignified part of our constitution, but they are almost certainly one of the most effective parts, and we owe them a very great deal.
I call Ann Clwyd.
I wanted to allow others to go first, but thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was elected in the middle of a miners’ strike, in 1984, to the seat held at one time by Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour party. When he was the MP, it was called Merthyr and Aberdare, although people often leave out “Aberdare”. I am afraid it is quite likely that when the boundary commissioners get to work, my constituency will disappear altogether, but fortunately they have not got to work yet, and while there is still a Cynon Valley, I am very proud to have represented it from 1984 until today.
I am standing down at this election with a heavy heart, especially as there is so much that I would still like to do. I have a long shopping list, and I have not completed the shopping. I do hope that other people will carry on and shop on my behalf, because these are all issues for which I think we can all campaign.
One of the things that I am proud of is that when Tower colliery, in my constituency, was going to be shut by a previous Administration, I managed to sit down the pit for 27 hours. The Government of the day argued that the pit was uneconomic, but we kept it open for a further 10 years as a result of some of my efforts. The men who worked there, and the people in the community, were very pleased that that happened. I do not think that I have ever recovered after spending 27 hours down the pit.
When I was a journalist, before I became a politician, one of the things for which I campaigned was compensation for miners, and for those with pneumoconiosis in particular. I am very pleased that when Tony Blair came into government I was able to advance that cause far more; in fact, I reminded him every single week that miners’ compensation should be arranged much faster than it was, because miners were dying without getting the money. So I am very pleased we did that.
I was also concerned about coalfield regeneration, and one of the issues I am still concerned about is the reclamation of some land that was used for industrial purposes. The land in question covers 150 acres, and is a prime flatland at the bottom of a valley; there are not many valleys with so much flatland. On that site there was a Phurnacite plant that produced smokeless fuel, and when I was first elected it was one of the worst industrial polluters in the whole of Britain. We managed to get it shut down. Then there was a battle to get the toxic waste—tonnes and tonnes of it—taken away from the site and taken elsewhere. They wanted to bury it on site; I asked where else that was done and they said, “Nowhere,” and I said, “It’s not going to be done here.” So that toxic waste was taken away.
I am pleased that with the help of the present Secretary of State for Wales we are working on greening the site, because the people there have lived with the dirt and dust for all these years and they cannot use that land, even though there are two lakes there and wildlife is returning: there are swans and kingfishers, and there is foliage that was never there before. The people in that area really should be able to enjoy recreation on those lakes and on that land, instead of having to push themselves under a fence in order to get on to it. I am pleased that we are in the middle of working on that, and I would like to have seen that work completed.
I worked too on the north Wales child abuse cases, because children were abused in my constituency. One of my most harrowing memories is listening to the survivors of child abuse, some of whose lives never returned to normal. I hope all the child abuse cases are concluded fairly rapidly.
I feel strongly about improvements in the health service, because I think I am the only person still alive who was on the royal commission on the national health service, the only one there has ever been. I remember our chairman, Sir Alec Merrison, saying at the time that unlike other royal commissions, our report would not gather dust. It did gather dust and continues to gather dust, however, but some of its recommendations are so worthwhile that I commend them to the present Administration.
When I lost my husband seven years ago I had arguments with the health authority in Wales—it is a continuing argument—and I am grateful that David Cameron had the foresight, if I may say so, to ask me to run an inquiry into complaints in the NHS in England. I would like to have done the same thing in Wales, because I was very pleased to be able to do that, and pleased that all our recommendations were accepted. More cross-party work on such issues, which we all care about and all want to see improved, would be valuable.
I speak Welsh—rwy’n siarad Cymraeg. I took my oath in Welsh and English, and I hope that one day it will be possible for Welsh to be a language used as a matter of daily life in this place as well. In the European Parliament, of which I was previously a Member, we managed to get substantial sums of money to assist the Welsh language there. I was very pleased that when I first got there in 1979 Barbara Castle was our first leader. You learned a few tricks from Barbara Castle. The first was that you got on with the other nationalities, if you could. Barbara never did, actually. I remember the leader of the German Socialists turning round to her one day and saying, “Barbara, you’re not in your national Parliament now.” That did not stop her. I do not think she ever got round to the idea of being in the EU, but I was pleased and proud to be there. I learned a lot of things, including how to vote electronically, which, after yesterday’s experience is perhaps something that will be sold to other Members. It certainly speeds things up.
There are other reasons why I was pleased that I went there first, before I came here. I have to say that it was a cultural shock for me to come here, because I had not realised how delusional people here were. I will tell you why. It was because we gave the impression that we did everything better than everybody else, when in fact there were many examples of other countries doing things better than we did, and I was pleased to have had the opportunity of experiencing that.
I was sacked by two party leaders—[Interruption.] Not for incompetence! First, I was sacked by Neil Kinnock for voting against the defence estimates. Then I was sacked by Tony Blair for going to Iraq at a particular time, which is particularly ironic. I then became the special envoy on human rights to Iraq. I have to say that I do not have quite the same fond memories of the Whips Office as some colleagues on the other side.
As the right hon. Lady knows, she and I came into Parliament on the same day—I think it was 3 May 1984—both in by-elections. I simply want to say what a pleasure it has been to be in the House with her all that time.
Thank you very much. Yes, I remember our first few days here. If you come in in a by-election, it is always more difficult to assimilate. I am glad that my hon. Friend is still here. I have not always agreed with him, as he well knows, but I respect him for his diligence and persistence, because those are two things that a Member of Parliament needs to do: to be diligent and persistent, and not to give up.
One of the things I have been keen on is the promotion and protection of international human rights, and I have given my long-standing support to people in other countries, in the middle east, Turkey, Cambodia and East Timor. We always have arguments in this place about the arms trade, and I do hope that we are ultra-careful in future about who we sell arms to. One sadness for me is that we did not manage to get a report out in the last Session of Parliament on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. A sustained and strategic use of the parliamentary mandate and platform is therefore crucial to furthering causes and ensuring that the Government of the day are being properly scrutinised. Parliamentary questions and debates are important, and I found out that I have spoken in debates in the House 2,200 times. That is a useless fact, but somebody produced it today.
A friend of mine in the House of Lords, Baroness Quin, phoned me a short time ago. She was in the European Parliament with me, and she reminded me of various things. She and I were in Senegal for a women’s rights conference—I do not know how many years ago—and suddenly there was a phone call for Joyce Quin to say that Captain Kent Kirk had landed on the coastline of her constituency to protest about fishing rights. Joyce was getting phone calls all the time from her constituents, who had no idea she was in Senegal. Of course, very often our constituents did not realise that part of our work was travelling to other countries and contributing to debates there.
I have been committed to cross-party scrutiny through my long-term engagement with the International Development Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Arms Export Controls. I have also chaired the all-party parliamentary human rights group for many years, which has allowed me to work with colleagues from all over the world from across the political spectrum to raise awareness of serious human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law, as well as giving victims a voice and supporting them in getting reform and redress. Human rights is thereby depoliticised, as it should be. Some colleagues have also worked on the executive of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
I have supported the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We do not talk enough in this place about the IPU, particularly the British group, which enables me and fellow BGIPU members to communicate concerns, including human rights, when countries sometimes have to be called out. We build greater consensus on big issues and crises facing the world, such as climate change, international development, poverty alleviation and the refugee crisis. I pay tribute to the staff and secretariat of the IPU and highlight the work of its committee on the human rights of parliamentarians, which I have chaired several times and of which I was a long-time member. My vision for the Cynon Valley, the UK and the international community is unfinished business, a lot of it, as far as I am concerned.
Most of all, I thank people in the House for their friendship, comradeship and support. I mean all sections of the House, particularly the doorkeepers, because when I was hobbling around on my new knee, I had great assistance from them. In fact, I got quite to rely on them. They gave me every help and they still do, even when I say “No, I'm all right now, thank you. I can get to the back row now, so you do not need to help me any more.” Particularly to all my colleagues and friends, I want to say that this has been a great place for building friendships. I thank you all and I am very sorry to be leaving you all.
I want to ensure that everybody gets a fair crack of the whip, so if colleagues could stick to about eight minutes, we can get everybody in and they would all have equal time.
As long as nobody heckles me, I am sure I will absolutely be able to stay to time.
I want to start by saying a massive thank you to, first of all, my office team, who are up in the Gallery. They have done an absolutely incredible job for so many Members here over many, many years. I have to point out particularly the long-suffering Kate and Nikki. Without their assistance and support and that of the rest of the team that I have got with me today, I would never have been able to do any of the rest of the things that I have been able to achieve for my community in this place.
Other Members have explained what it was like for them when they first entered the House. For me in 2005, winning back Putney from the Labour party was quite big news, and I found myself in the middle of a media storm from minute one of my time as an MP.
Michael Howard came down the next day to, as I thought, congratulate the brilliant team at Putney Conservatives who had helped me with that amazing victory. I stayed up all night organising his visit as the great leader, and he promptly turned up and resigned right by my side. Perhaps the best legacy from the few months that he had left in his role in 2005 was that he got back together a parliamentary party that had been in opposition for quite some time. He had us talk through different policy areas, and we discovered that, other than arguing about Europe, we had much more in common than that which divided us.
My time in this House has obviously been the greatest privilege of my life. I did not plan to be an MP, but I did it because I think people matter. I hope that I have always been a strong voice for people in Putney on the issues they care about, and I have simply sought to take their priorities and make them mine. My campaigning on Heathrow was perhaps an early indicator to the Whips and my party that I would stand my ground on local issues that matter to my community. I started my time here doing that, and I like to think that I have finished my time here doing that not only on Brexit, on which speaking up for local communities is crucial, but on a whole range of other issues, such as air pollution, quality of life, aircraft noise, and improving our transport. We were able to modernise Putney station and get improvements to Southfields station, and the lifts at both stations now mean that the whole public can access local public transport. I am particularly proud of those things, and I was on the case for getting a lift at East Putney station, and I very much hope that my successor will do the same.
I tirelessly campaigned on serious issues such as youth crime and policing. In fact, my very first Westminster Hall debate was on youth and youth crime, but I am sorry to say that things have not moved on as much as perhaps they should have done in the intervening 14 years, and this House still debates the very issues that I was debating as an incoming MP.
I want to reflect on the hugely important role that community groups and residents associations have played in my local community. Brilliant charities such as Regenerate, which works on the Alton estate in Roehampton, play an amazing role in inspiring young people to make more of their lives. There is the brilliant Putney Society—the ultimate residents association in Putney—and then, of course, there are incredible residents associations in Southfields, such as Southfields Grid, Southfields Triangle, and Sutherland Grove Conservation Area. All those organisations bring our community together and make it what it is, and I am so proud and delighted that I have been able to work with them for so many years.
I have had probably more roles than most in this House. I started my time in government in the Treasury team with the then MP for Tatton, George Osborne, carrying out an emergency Budget to ensure that this country’s finances did not go the way of Greece’s, and I have reflected on that as we have debated what a no-deal Brexit might mean for us. I quickly discovered as a Minister that I had the ability to make a difference way beyond even perhaps what people might have thought my brief was, so I got stuck into looking at the tolls on the Humber bridge, and I was delighted that I was able to get them reduced. I ended up with a beer temporarily named after me in that part of the country, and that meant a lot to me because I watched the Humber bridge open as I grew up. I was delighted to be able to make a change that meant that it can be a successful piece of infrastructure that joins two wonderful communities, rather than dividing them.
From there I moved on to the Department for Transport, where I had to make sure that transport enabled the 2012 Olympics and did not get in the way of them being the triumph they were. I worked with the then Mayor of London, who went on to do other things, including becoming Prime Minister. I am proud of that work, because hopefully we made the Olympics accessible to millions of people who did not have to worry about being suddenly stranded.
From there my journey took me to the Department for International Development, which often operates out of the sight of our country. I could not be more proud of the truly world-class team in the Department. We worked hand in hand with the Ministry of Defence on Ebola, and we did pioneering work to bring education to children caught up by the terrible crisis in Syria. We took a decision in DFID that we would do our level best to make sure those children grew up educated and able to read and write. So much of the Department’s work happens out of sight of the British public, but the British public should be rightly proud of that work, which stretches beyond that to girls’ education and responding to humanitarian emergencies such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. I am truly honoured to have had so much time in that Department.
After that, my final Cabinet role was perhaps my dream role: Secretary of State for Education and—perfect—Minister for Women and Equalities. I was the first LGBT woman in Cabinet and, of course, the first Secretary of State for Education to be educated at their local comprehensive school, and I am only too happy to have those two firsts and to have put something back into a school system that built me into being able to do anything with my life and to achieve what I have achieved.
It was brilliant to be able to work with the most inspiring teachers I could have ever hoped to meet. It is a fantastic profession, and I would say to anyone who is thinking about what to do to make a difference with their life that they should go into teaching, because that is where they can shape the future. It was a privilege to be able to work with people in that profession, and it is one of the reasons why I focused so much on their continued professional development.
I am very concerned and upset about my right hon. Friend’s departure, not least because somebody else will have to bring the jelly babies for us at Prime Minister’s Question Time. She has spoken at length about her extraordinary contribution to this House and to her community, but she has not yet mentioned one of her greatest legacies and interests, which I know she will continue outside this House, and that is her complete and utter obsession with social mobility. We all desperately want more to happen on that score in this country.
My hon. Friend is quite right, and he brings me on to why I am here today as a Member who is departing the House. I have served my community and my country in Parliament for 14 years, but the mission that drives me more than any other is social mobility. It has characterised my life, and it is crucial to the future of our country and to making it a country in which there is equality of opportunity so that everybody gets the chance, and indeed the right, to use their talents. Part of the solution to delivering that is in government and in Parliament, of course, but the other part of the solution is surely outside this place. Working with businesses and organisations is part of how we will get opportunities to more young people. Through the social mobility pledge, I will be continuing to work on social mobility and, indeed, scaling it up.
When I look to the horizon and where our country’s journey is going next, I recognise, understand and agree that this House will rightly remain obsessed with Brexit, but there will be a time after that. I want to make a constructive and positive contribution to social mobility, and I want to make sure that, when we get to that point, I am able to show that businesses are part of the solution for getting more opportunities to more young people. We must reflect on that and build on it further.
I rise to give my final speech in the House. I stress that, notwithstanding the difficulties of the politics and the role of Parliament at this moment, my reasons for standing down are essentially personal. I have been here for 19 years, but it does not seem a minute since I gave my maiden speech. My enthusiasm for politics is undiminished and my commitment to the values that have always driven my political activity is still there. However, my birth certificate and the fact that last year I had to have a second hip replacement are timely reminders that we cannot always take it for granted that we will have time available to do everything else that we want to do in life that, unfortunately, being here precludes us from doing. I have therefore made the decision to move on.
Before I talk about more general issues, I would like to express a few thanks, as other Members have done. First, I wish to thank my constituency and its electors for re-electing me six times. I am a strong pro-Europe remainer. My constituency voted 70% for Brexit, but their undiminished support for me is both a reflection of the broadness of the views they have on many things and perhaps a s