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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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? (900329)
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
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.