House of Commons
Monday 13 January 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That there be laid before this House Returns for Session 2019 of information and statistics relating to:
(1) Business of the House
(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions)
(3) Sittings of the House
(4) Private Bills and Private Business
(5) Public Bills
(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders
(7) European Legislation, etc
(8) Grand Committees
(9) Panel of Chairs
(10) Select Committees.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Local Government Finance
Next year’s settlement for local government responds to the pressures facing councils by providing access to the largest year-on-year increase in spending power for a decade. Core spending power is expected to rise from £46.2 billion to £49.1 billion in 2020-21—an estimated 4.4% real-terms increase.
Big-city authorities such as Manchester have been hit hardest by the cuts at the same time as they have had to deal with the extra costs of deprivation, such as high demand on social care budgets, poor health, and homelessness, with big cities being magnets for homeless people from the wider region. What guarantees can the Minister give that those pressures will be reflected properly in the new funding formula?
Manchester City Council will receive a £30.9 million increase in the provisional settlement—a 7% rise that includes 17.6% in additional adult social care grant. Decisions on the future funding formula are to be taken in the weeks ahead, but we will release some provisional figures in the coming weeks for working groups to look at.
If the Government are to deliver on their commitment to the north, combined authorities must receive fair funding. The Government have promised to level up throughout the country, so will the Minister confirm that in any new devolution deal funding for West Yorkshire Combined Authority will match that of any other combined authority, such as Greater Manchester, on a per-head basis?
One local government problem that is becoming more expensive is the repair and reopening of Hammersmith bridge. On that and the reopening of Harwood Terrace, will my hon. Friend tell the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham to get on with it so that we can get traffic moving again in west London? Will my hon. Friend or the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the matter?
May I welcome the real-terms increase for local authorities over the next two years, which is the result of our balanced approach to the economy? Will my hon. Friend update the House on the steps his Department is taking to make councils more efficient?
May I welcome my hon. Friend to his place in the House? He is already looking to be a champion for his community. We are of course working with local authorities to make sure that they can become more efficient, especially in respect of digital transformation. My hon. Friend’s local authority and those throughout the country will have access in the coming year to the 4.4% real-terms rise in core spending power.
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.
It is 173 days—almost 25 weeks or almost six months—since the Secretary of State was appointed, so it is nice that we finally have local government questions. With local government in crisis, children’s services, which are included in that, are also in crisis. According to the Tory-led Local Government Association, the number of children in care is up 28%, child protection plans are up 53%, and there has been a staggering 139% increase in serious cases. With the funding gap growing to £3.1 billion by 2025, sticking plasters will not do, so will the Minister now commit finally to fix this crisis and ensure that his Chancellor fully funds children’s services in future?
This is the best provisional local government settlement for almost 10 years: a 4.4% rise in real-terms funding and a £2.9 billion increase in local government spending. We propose to allow local authorities to set council tax increases of up to 2%, and another 2% for adult social care. It is a positive settlement and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support it in the weeks ahead.
Building Better, Building Beautiful
We want a planning system that encourages beautiful development, guards against ugliness and is based on stewardship and place- making. That is why we convened the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which submitted its report to me in December.
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the commission’s co-chair, Sir Roger Scruton, who died yesterday? Sir Roger was an intellectual giant, a brilliant writer and a fearless fighter for freedom, not least in eastern Europe, and he made a unique contribution to public life.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I associate myself with his remarks about Sir Roger Scruton.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will implement the Letwin review and whether his Department plans to capture development value to fund infrastructure as well as encourage sustainable building with very high-quality design? Will he meet me and a delegation from the Academy of Urbanism to discuss these ideas?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are currently reviewing the recommendations of the commission and I shall respond in due course. I would be very happy to meet her and representatives from the Academy for Urbanism.
As regards capturing uplifts in land value, local planning authorities already use section 106 and the community infrastructure levy to pay for crucial affordable housing and infrastructure, and, as a result of changes we have made recently, there will shortly be greater transparency so that residents can see where this money is going.
I have absolutely no idea whether co-operative housing is likely to benefit from the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful initiative, but by my definition it certainly should. Would the Secretary of State be willing to meet me and a small delegation from the co-op housing movement to see whether there can be a replication here in the UK of the successes that co-ops have had in the US in housing veterans and other people?
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. The recommendations of the commission that we will publish shortly speak to all forms of housing, including co-operative housing and social housing, where, of course, there have been some fantastic examples of good-quality design, not least the RIBA award-winning new social homes in Norwich.
The question refers to simplifying the planning system, but one of its many complications is that there is no standard methodology for calculating five-year land supply. Will the Government look at this and please address the problem pretty quickly?
We will be giving that further thought. The Government are committed to bringing forward a new White Paper on planning reform. I will work closely with the Chancellor to draw up those proposals, and I would be very happy to speak with my hon. Friend and take his views as we do so.
May I welcome the Secretary of State back? Given the turnover of Housing Ministers, I trust that his first oral questions in the post will not also be his last. The Conservatives’ failure on planning is at the heart of their failure on housing. Their permitted development loophole lets developers sidestep the planning rules and build modern-day slum housing. It has been in place for four years now, so can he say whether the number of new affordable homes being built has gone up or down directly as a result of this planning change?
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks? Permitted development rights are subject to a review, and we have consulted stakeholders. He is right to say that there are some examples of poor practice, and I will carefully consider the information we have received before coming forward with proposals. Those rights have led to a large number of net additions that would not otherwise have been brought forward. That is important, and it is a contributing factor to the fact that, last year, we delivered more homes than any other for 30 years. Therefore, the planning reforms taken forward by my predecessors, which I will take forward with my new White Paper, have contributed to getting the homes built in this country that we desperately need.
For the record, the number of new social rented homes is at a near record low. Rather than the net additions that the Secretary of State talks about, the Conservative-led Local Government Association says that this policy has led directly to 13,500 fewer new affordable homes. It hits at the heart of the Tory failure on housing: the rules are loosened so that big builders profit while renters and buyers on ordinary incomes lose out. Every Conservative MP should know that they have lost the argument on housing. With Ipsos MORI showing a 17 point lead for Labour over the Conservatives on housing, people know the country has a housing crisis and they know the Conservatives are failing to fix it. The Secretary of State had nothing to say on housing at the election, so what will the Government now do differently to win public confidence on housing?
The right hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground talking about the general election. He managed to take one of Labour’s safest seats to a marginal seat, and his colleague—the other shadow Secretary of State—was the co-ordinator of the Labour party’s general election campaign. The facts speak for themselves: last year we built more homes in this country than in any other year for 30 years; we built 1 million homes in the last Parliament and will build at least 1 million homes in the next Parliament; more affordable homes were built under this Conservative Government than under the last Labour Government; and we built more council houses last year than in the 13 years of the last Labour Government.
We have delivered more than 1.5 million new homes since 2010 and last year saw the highest level of delivery in over 30 years, but there is more to do. Later this year I will publish a White Paper on planning reform, an objective of which will be a simpler and faster system for the benefit of everyone, including homeowners, and small and medium-sized builders.
Conservative-led Rugby Borough Council has ambitious plans for social housing in Rugby, replacing unpopular old tower blocks with new, traditional housing. How can the Minister help the council to get on with this as quickly as possible? In particular, what discussions has he had with Treasury colleagues about the interest rate available from the Public Works Loan Board for projects such as this, which provide a very clear social benefit?
We want to build more homes of all types. We have delivered 464,000 new affordable homes since 2010, and we have abolished the housing revenue account cap and established a five-year rent deal. Councils can secure grant funding from the existing affordable homes programme, and I am pleased to say that Rugby Borough Council is benefiting from that. In our manifesto, we said that we would create a successor to the affordable homes programme that is at least as generous. Finance from the Public Works Loan Board plays an important role in these investments. In October the Treasury made an extra £10 billion of lending available, and the interest rate remains very favourable, returning only to 2018 levels.
The housing White Paper provided that developers should start to build within two years of securing planning permission. Will the Minister update the House on what progress has been made to ensure that developers build the homes we need and do not sit on land?
I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. We want to see new homes built as soon as possible once planning permission is granted. She is right to refer to the previous housing White Paper, and this matter will be an important element of the forthcoming planning White Paper. Developers and authorities should be working closely together locally to deliver this, and I will look at whatever is necessary, including amending legislation, to ensure that we build the homes this country needs, and that we do so quickly.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have committed to the future homes standard, which means that no new home will be built in this country from 2025 unless it has the highest levels of energy efficiency, and low or zero-carbon heating. We are consulting on that and further proposals will be brought forward shortly, meaning that planning applications will be made very shortly for those homes to be delivered post 2025. This will be a major change in the delivery of homes across the country, and a very welcome one.
Thousands of new homes are due to be built at Maghull in my constituency. The developers are reluctant to build an access road, which means that construction traffic will now have to use totally unsuitable residential and rural roads. The experience in Maghull is all too typical. Does this not just show the problems with the planning system that favour developers over existing communities?
I am happy to look into the instance that the hon. Gentleman raises. These matters are usually dealt with by councils in the planning conditions that they choose to set. The role in this for central Government is ensuring that infrastructure flows first—that was one of our manifesto commitments—so that GP surgeries, roads and schools flow at an appropriate time. We are going to take that forward. In the previous Parliament we created the housing infrastructure fund, which was a huge success and has delivered billions of pounds of infrastructure. We have committed to create a new version of that, which the Chancellor and I will be announcing shortly and will be larger and longer-term than its predecessor.
It is a pleasure to see you in your Chair, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting Telford. It was very much appreciated that he came to a new-build development where we have been having some difficult issues. As a new town, Telford experiences a very rapid rate of house building that can be overwhelming for communities and for local services. What steps is his Department taking to ensure good practice by developers and adequate local services for residents?
It was a pleasure to visit Telford—a town that, as my hon. Friend knows, I know well. Telford is one of the fastest-growing towns in the country. While there are many examples of good-quality development —she took me to Lightmoor Village, being built with the Bournville Village Trust—there have been examples, on which she has fought for her constituents, of poor-quality development. Developers need to build high-quality, well-designed and safe homes, and we will take the steps necessary to ensure that they do. One step we are taking forward is the creation of a new homes ombudsman, which has been led in recent months by—now—my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke). We will put that on a statutory footing in due course.
Councils built 26,185 affordable homes between 2010-11 and 2018-19, up from just 2,994 over the previous 13 years under a Labour Administration. We are giving councils the tools to deliver a new generation of council housing. In 2018, we lifted the borrowing caps for councils to deliver 10,000 new homes a year by 2021-22.
But last year 6,287 homes for social rent were built and 10,000 were lost due to right to buy and other conversions. That was a loss of 4,000 social rented homes in our country. Is it not time, first, that the Government used net figures rather than these fantasy “built” figures; and, secondly, that we really reviewed right to buy, allowing councils good conditions and restrictions where there are areas of stress and ensuring that the discount carries on rather than just being pocketed by the individual?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are consulting on right to buy to see what we can do with the sales receipts. Let me say what this Government have done to support councils in building. We increased to £9 billion the size of the affordable homes programme to which councils can apply. We have reintroduced social rents. We have removed the HRA borrowing caps for local authorities and given £2 billion to housing authorities to help with the ability to increase purchases and build by councils. So this Government are doing far more. Under this Government, social housing has gone up by 79,000, but in the previous 13 years under Labour it fell by 420,000.
There are currently over 20,000 people on the council housing waiting list in Cornwall, yet we are in the ridiculous situation where private pension providers can invest in business development but not in residential development. Will the Secretary of State look at making representations to the Treasury to allow pension providers to invest in social residential housing?
My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion. That is exactly what the Secretary of State will be looking at—how we get that investment into the housing structure. Under this Government, council housing waiting lists have come down by nearly half a million.
If the Minister is keen to talk about what is happening elsewhere, she will be interested to know that in the last five years, the SNP Government in Scotland have built 80% more affordable housing per head of population than England and twice as much as Wales. When will the British Government catch on to the fact that the housing crisis will not be solved unless they invest adequately in social rented housing?
Obviously, this is a devolved matter, but I want to look at what this Government have done. We have delivered many more affordable homes—nearly 460,000. That is what this Government are all about—ensuring that people have the homes they need when they need them. We are looking to extend all types of home. We are tenure-blind, and we are delivering more homes.
That is all good and well, but there is no point when the Conservative party manifesto commits to promoting and extending the right to buy—one of Margaret Thatcher’s biggest disasters in terms of policy. In Scotland, we ended the right to buy, protecting existing social rented homes and preventing the sale of 15,500 homes over a decade. Why can the Minister not see and understand that it is totally senseless to build new social housing, only to flog it off afterwards?
We believe in home ownership. The right to buy has helped 2 million people get on the housing ladder. Since 2010, nearly 600,000 households have been helped to purchase a home through either right to buy or help to buy, and we are ensuring that the money from the right to buy is helping more homes to be built. In fact, we have sold 119,000 homes, which has helped to build 140,000 more homes. That is what we will continue to do—allow people to own their own homes and support all people at every stage of life in every home they need.
The Minister is completely right that the housing supply jigsaw has many pieces, so we will continue to pump billions of pounds into housing associations such as Walsall Housing Group in my constituency, which has an innovative partnership with Lovell to build 250 mixed tenure houses on the former Caparo engineering works, a brownfield site. Is that the future?
It certainly is. My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and he has a lot of expertise in this area. As I have said, our party is tenure-blind, and we help people along the steps to ownership, to get the house they need at the time they need it, knowing that most people want to own their own home.
It is the aspiration of every individual in this country to own their own home, but many local authorities that have built council housing have deliberately set up housing companies to frustrate the right to buy. Will my right hon. Friend look at outlawing that practice, so that people who are tenants in their homes get the right to buy and own their own home?
We will look closely at anybody who is frustrating people’s dream and desire to own their own home. We will continue with the right to buy. We will look at how those receipts are being used, so that we can maximise the new homes being built. Under Labour, 170 right-to-buy receipts bought one new home. Now, we are getting more homes built through the right to buy, and having sold 119,000 homes, we have built 140,000 more.
The Conservatives’ deep cuts to new council and social housing are part of the reason why homelessness has risen so rapidly over the last 10 years. Every day, hundreds of us see the increasing number of homeless people and their belongings in Westminster station and outside this building, but their plight is the same as that of thousands of others across the country who find themselves trying to find somewhere dry and safe to sleep. Does the Minister accept that, if the Tories had simply continued building social rented homes at the level left by Labour, there would now be 200,000 more social rented homes for those who need them, including those who are homeless on Parliament’s doorstep?
What we all know is that, for a long period, demand has outstripped supply. That is why this Government are building more homes, with more homes built in the last year than in the last 30 years. We have delivered 1.5 million more homes since 2010, and we will continue to do that. Of course, we have also brought in initiatives for rough sleeping and homeless people. We have to be fully aware of that, and this Conservative Government are doing a lot more to help those people.
Local Government Funding: Crime and Disorder
This Department has ongoing discussions with the Home Office on multiple issues, including tackling crime. The provisional local government finance settlement confirmed an increase of £2.9 billion in resources for local government this year. This Government are also providing targeted funding support for partnership working between the police, councils and other partners.
The front five pages of the Cambridge News today detail a series of knife crime incidents, drug dealing and general social disorder, which is causing huge concern to my constituents. When I talk to the police about it, they tell me that one of the key reasons is the cuts to all those preventive, early intervention services that have happened over the last few years. Can the Government today please look again at those cuts to local government? They are not cost-effective; they are costing us more and causing huge crime levels and misery.
I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I know that he raises crime in his constituency regularly in the House, including in his Westminster Hall debate late last year. The real-terms increase in the funding settlement for next year does recognise the critical services that councils are delivering, including keeping communities safe. As part of the Government’s drive to recruit 20,000 police officers across the country, 62 are already being recruited in his force area. I am very happy to work with him and discuss it with him in the weeks ahead.
It is with great regret that Humberside’s Labour police and crime commissioner allowed Winterton police station to close. In contrast to that, Conservative-run North Lincolnshire and East Riding of Yorkshire Councils have funded a very innovative safe and sound grant to help elderly residents to stay safe in their home with free security. Is not the real challenge that simply not enough councils and police forces are working closely enough together to share resources, and will the Minister do more to ensure that they do?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He raises a really important point about the need for councils and police forces to work together. I commend the work that his Conservative police and crime commissioner is doing, and I highlight the Government’s commitment to recruit 20,000 police officers across our country, with 6,000 police officers being recruited in the next year.
We are committed to reforming the leasehold market so that it is fairer for consumers and the abuses that we have seen in recent years are addressed. To achieve this, we have a comprehensive programme of reform, and we are moving forward with legislation, beginning with the Bill set out in the Queen’s Speech banning new leasehold houses and reducing ground rents on future leases to zero.
The Secretary of State says he is committed to reform. Since 2015, I have come across countless cases of people trapped on iniquitous terms in relation to ground rent, cladding—you name it—and unable to extend without paying through the nose. In that same time, however, the Government have had seven consultations, and there is no concrete legislation about anything they are actually going to do. Can he tell us when he will end this feudal hangover, which is unique to England, once and for all?
The hon. Lady is incorrect. The Queen’s Speech made it clear that we will be bringing forward legislation. We intend to publish a draft Bill shortly, which will take the first steps that I have just described. We are also awaiting the next report of the Law Commission. We have just received one on enfranchisement. It is a very important issue, and I certainly want to take forward its recommendations to ensure a simpler and fairer system. The next report of the Law Commission will be on commonhold. Again, we will be paying close attention to that. At our encouragement, the Competition and Markets Authority is now looking into the mis-selling of leaseholds, which is another important issue. Be under no illusion: we will be taking forward leasehold reform, and soon.
I thank the Secretary of State and his predecessors for the work they have done in commissioning work from the Law Commission that will provide a guide to the way forward. May I put it to the Secretary of State that, as his representatives at the all-party group meeting last week will confirm, there is a whole range of strong issues—the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned them—and that the Government, the Select Committee and the whole House need to make sure there is action, not just good intentions?
I thank the Father of the House for the work he has done over many years on this issue. I campaigned on this before I became a Minister. I have seen a number of abuses with respect to leasehold properties, and we want to take action. Now is the time for action. We have the first report from the Law Commission. There will be a further one. There will then be the report from the CMA. Together with the evidence, we will take this into careful consideration and move forward to reform leasehold and put it on a more sustainable footing for the future.
As many of us heard at a meeting here on Thursday night and many of us know from our case load, so many people are caught in really difficult circumstances because of the issue of cladding. Those leaseholders are mortgage prisoners or their properties are valued at zero. Will the Secretary of State give them some assurance that the Government are taking this seriously and will act fast, because people’s lives are unable to move on while they await a decision on the second type of cladding?
I appreciate the issue the hon. Lady has raised, and I read about the meeting of the all-party group the other day. This is a very serious challenge; I am aware of a number of leaseholders who are struggling to find the finance required to make the necessary changes to their homes. We are giving this careful consideration. We have already provided £600 million for those living in high-rise buildings with ACM cladding so that that work can now proceed at pace, and I will certainly meet with any of the hon. Lady’s constituents who might wish to discuss what further steps the Government can take to unblock this important issue.
May I press my right hon. Friend: will he reassure leaseholders in North West Leicestershire and across the country that the Government will set up a mechanism for them to seek proper redress for their genuine grievances?
The Secretary of State rightly refers to action, but when? That is the key question my constituents are asking in the Winnington part of Weaver Vale and Sandymoor. We have had consultation upon consultation; when will there be action? We need action now, not careful consideration.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and the north-west has been particularly badly affected by this. The statistics suggest that new-build homes in the north-west peaked at as high as 71% of all new homes being built in 2017—in the first quarter of that year. That has now fallen very considerably as a result of the actions and the statements of this Government and the general anger across this House and across the country at the abuses; that has now fallen to as low as 8%, but we will be legislating and we will outlaw these practices.
This Government are committed to supporting high streets and local leaders up and down the country, and we are doing that through our £1 billion future high street fund, which is part of our larger £3.6 billion towns fund.
As this is our first questions after the festive season I want to take this opportunity to thank all the shopworkers who worked so hard over the Christmas period to enable us to deliver our Christmas presents—and particularly, if I may, Mr Speaker, the workers in the RSPCA shop on Bank Street who sold me the very natty tie I am wearing for 50p only last Friday.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply—and I think his tie is very blue.
My constituency, Cities of London and Westminster, is home to Oxford Street, often referred to as the nation’s high street. Given that local authorities rely heavily on business rate receipts to help encourage more investment into the high street, what plans do the Government have to give councils greater fiscal powers to invest business rates locally?
What an excellent question; I would like to start by welcoming my hon. Friend to her place, and her question is a sign of the expertise that can be brought into this House when we have people with long experience in local government. She will know that local government can currently retain 50% of business rates revenue growth, and councils are able to work with those retained business rates and see what they can do to improve their local areas. I know that as a new and robust Member of this House my hon. Friend will continue her work with Westminster City Council to make sure that that happens.
Towns like Brierley Hill in Dudley South have struggled to compete with nearby retail parks, and also now increasingly with more shopping moving online. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to help towns like Brierley Hill adapt to modern economic challenges and also make those town centres places where people want to be?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Brierley Hill, I am sure to celebrate the fact that it is one of the first 100 places under our future high street fund to receive £150,000 revenue funding to work on the exciting plans to ensure our high streets are fit for the future. My hon. Friend, who is, I think, still the chairman of the all-party group on beer, will be working very hard to make sure our pubs are protected, and we can have micropubs up and down the land.
In recent years Wolverhampton city centre and, in my constituency, local centres such as Wednesfield high street have struggled. I am delighted that Wolverhampton city centre will benefit from the Government’s stronger towns fund, but will the Minister work with me so that local traders and retail businesses all over Wolverhampton North East, including market traders in Wednesfield high street—
Is Wolverhampton a city?
I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend is looking forward to playing an active role both in her high street and stronger towns fund bid. The idea behind this is to bring together leaders and communities—Members of Parliament, council leaders, business leaders and third sector groups—to come up with a long-term plan for the improvement of their towns. Whichever side of the House Members sit on, that is absolutely something they will want to see for the area they represent. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend as she takes that role forward.
Speaking to traditional retailers during the election campaign, it is clear that future business rates is a massive issue for them. There is, in particular, a sense that there is not a level playing field between them and the increasingly dominant and massive digital retailers. Will the review of business rates, which we promised in our manifesto, be looking at that?
I welcome my hon. Friend back. He has been a redoubtable campaigner in the area of business rates in his time in Parliament. Working with him and through him, the Government have, since 2016, introduced a £13 billion cut in business rates over the next five years. Should we in this Parliament seek to go further and faster? Yes. We are going to review business rates and I am sure my hon. Friend will play an active role in that review.
Leading on from the issue raised by my fellow colleague from Suffolk, Beales has stores in both Lowestoft and Beccles in my constituency. It is clear that the crippling impact of business rates has been a significant contributory factor to the difficulties it is currently facing. I acknowledge the rates relief the Government have provided to smaller businesses, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure, in the review of business rates that is due to take place, that the Government not only consider root and branch reform but the replacement of rates, too?
My hon. Friend, as a chartered surveyor, is an expert in this area and, like our parliamentary colleague, he has campaigned vigorously and continuously. In terms of the review, everything is going to be reviewed. It will be a joint review between my Department and the Treasury. All ideas, from all sides of the House, about how we improve the health of our high streets and our business community more generally, will certainly be taken on board.
I want to return to the question from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), which I do not think the Minister really answered. In the previous Parliament, a unanimously agreed Select Committee report—I think it was generally well received, apart from the response from the Government which was a bit lukewarm—recommended that we address the fundamental imbalance whereby Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover in business rates and high street shops pay between 2% and 6%. That unfairness needs to be addressed. Will the Government now commit, as part of their business rate review, to look at that unfairness and at how we can rebalance tax, so that digital sales pay more and high street sales pay less?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not complain if I just take the opportunity to wish him a happy birthday. What a great question to ask on his birthday. If he listened to the answers I gave, I was absolutely clear that this will be a fundamental and wide-ranging review of business rates. All arguments, including those set out in the report by the Select Committee he chaired in the previous Parliament, will be taken into account. Perhaps, if he gets a spare moment this evening in between blowing out candles, he can read the relevant passage of the Conservative manifesto, which is pretty clear on this point.
I spoke to the previous Secretary of State to ask for Knottingley in my constituency to be included in the towns fund, because the high street is under great pressure and has been heavily hit by public service cuts and Government spending cuts in the last few years. We have lost not only the last bank and local shops, but the sports centre, the library, the Sure Start centre, much policing and local youth services. Knottingley has not been included and, frankly, that means that it is not getting a fair deal. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to meet me and see what can be done to make sure that Government investment can go back into Knottingley town centre and that we can get a fair deal for the town?
I remind the Minister that it is not only high streets but our town centres that are under pressure and in decline all over our country, and this is not just about business rates, but about notable buildings. Mr Speaker, you will know about the George hotel, where rugby league was founded 125 years ago—the anniversary is coming up next year. It cannot be renovated and has lain empty and idle for years. Surely the compulsory purchase order system could be improved to give local authorities the ability to take a significant building in any town centre and do something about it.
The planning White Paper will come out after the conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and, looking at how CPO works in our town centres and other parts of the country will be part of the consultation. On the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, it would seem to me a crying shame if this issue could not be dealt with, as we head towards the rugby league world cup. If he would like to come to see me, I will certainly make it my job to do so.
Mr Speaker, it was a pleasure to see your journey down here with Patrick the cat and Boris the parrot a couple of days ago—a preening, repetitive, attention-seeking Boris; I am sure he will fit in quite well here.
Our high streets and town centres are in crisis, with more shops closing than opening. The Government keep falling way below what is needed to take real action that will make a difference. When will they take real action to address the fundamental weakness of our business taxation system to give our high streets and town centres a fighting chance? As a practical suggestion, why not look at enterprise-type zones for our town centres with incentives to make sure that they have a future?
In terms of practical action, the £3.6 billion towns fund seems to be a good place to start. When we add to that the £13 billion that we are saving for businesses in business rates, we are certainly making some progress, but I will go away and look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion about high street enterprise zones.
From Kensington to Sedgefield, and from Workington to Wrexham, this Government were elected to represent all parts of the country. My Department is focused on repaying that trust by levelling up every community with a renewed focus on those areas that have been overlooked and undervalued for too long. We will ensure that local government is properly supported to deliver the services that we all rely on with the best financial settlement in a decade. We will keep building the homes that this country needs with investment in infrastructure and affordable housing, while making the dream of home ownership a reality for everyone, and we will redouble our efforts to bring about the biggest change in building safety for a generation.
This year, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the world war two concentration camps. I ask the Secretary of State, in his communities role, what is being done to mark the occasion, and furthermore, what is being done to tackle antisemitism more generally wherever it occurs?
On 23 January, I will accompany His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the holocaust forum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, which brought an end to the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children, but as we know, did not bring an end to the cancer of antisemitism. The Government have provided an additional £2.2 million for schools to teach lessons from Auschwitz and £1.7 million for visits to Bergen-Belsen, the camp liberated by British troops. I will continue to champion the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, including requiring all councils to adopt it forthwith.
Council funding cuts under this Government have created a shortage of safe accommodation for vulnerable children, and now thousands of at-risk young people are being placed in care homes that are illegal, miles from their school or unregulated. Does the Secretary of State agree that responsibility for this injustice lies at the feet of his Government?
We have recently published, and will be debating shortly, the most generous settlement for local government for a decade. It will provide a 4.4% real- terms increase in funding for local government and will include a £1 billion grant for social care. These are important issues that we need to take forward. I am aware of some issues with supported housing, for example, and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), is taking that forward, but as a result of the economic renewal that the country is undergoing, after almost a decade of economic growth, we are now able to invest more in local government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House will support the local government settlement next month.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I know that she, together with the Centre for Social Justice, has been active in this area for many years, which is why I am delighted to tell her that we have a £3.6 billion towns fund, which will support an initial 100 town deals across England, together with the £1 billion future high streets fund. We are working with local government up and down this land to ensure we fight for the future health of our high streets.
As I have already said in previous answers, the Government want to build more homes of all types. If we are to tackle the housing crisis, we will need to spend more on infrastructure, which we are doing; further reform the planning system, which I intend to do; and invest more in affordable housing, and we have already invested £9 billion through our affordable housing programme and made a manifesto commitment to introduce another one that is even larger. But do I believe that people in this country fundamentally want to own a home of their own? Yes, I do, and we will do all we can to help more people on the housing ladder.
My hon. Friend, who has campaigned on this issue for many years, speaks for the whole House. I will of course be signing the book. I am informed by the Leader of the House that there will be a debate in the House on or around Holocaust Memorial Day in the usual way. We must all continue to fight the cancer of antisemitism, in all its forms, on every occasion, and this Government will always do that.
I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady is delighted that one of the first policy commitments of our new Prime Minister before the general election was to say that we should have devolution—mayoral at that—across the whole of the north of England, and I am delighted to report that we are not only proceeding well with negotiations in West Yorkshire but having good discussions with South Yorkshire—[Interruption.] The rest of Yorkshire is in discussions with us as well. [Interruption.] As I do not think the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) knows, given that he represents Brighton—though he is chuntering from a sedentary position about One Yorkshire—proposals have been submitted to the Government, but the area did not meet the requirement to having a coherent economic geography. I am pleased, however, that we are able to forge ahead with all forms of devolution in Yorkshire. What happens in Brighton we will have to wait and see.
I welcome my hon. Friend to these Benches. She will be a terrific addition to this place, and I am delighted that she is dedicated to the green belt and supporting her constituents. That is only right, and the Government, too, are committed to that. Planning inspectors are appointed to independently examine plans. Given my quasi-judicial role in the planning system, it would not be appropriate for me to speak on this matter, but I cheer my hon. Friend on in all she does for her constituency.
The Government’s consultation on closing the loophole that allows second home owners to avoid paying any council tax whatever by pretending to be a small business ended 12 months ago. Will the Government take action to protect communities in south lakes and elsewhere, or have they decided not to bother?
We will absolutely help communities like the hon. Member’s. The Government have removed the requirement to offer council tax discounts on second homes amounting to 75% of the full rate. He is quite right: the consultation closes on 16 January, and then we will make decisions on it. If he would like to discuss his suggestions with me, I will gladly meet him.
I welcome my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour to the House. I think she is the first new Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe for 49 years. She has a lot to live up to, but I look forward to working with her as we power up the midlands engine. I think her constituency was the only Conservative constituency in the county of Nottinghamshire in 1997. Today, all the constituencies are Conservative. One area that we will of course work on together is delivery of the new development co-operation at Ratcliffe power station, which is a brilliant opportunity for the whole country.
Across the country, children’s care is in crisis. The Secretary of State made welcome reference to the funding settlement, which provides some relief, but that is for the next financial year. Can the Minister confirm that the extra funding will be provided in every year of this Parliament? Will the Government also continue to work with councils to ensure that funding settlements reflect the escalating demand for, and cost of, these services?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question; I know how important this issue is in his constituency. I can certainly confirm that the social care grant will continue every year, including the additional £9.2 million for his local authority into the next year. I am very happy to meet him to discuss this further.
I welcome another hon. Friend to these Benches. She is quite right: we have to ensure that we have the right infrastructure. We pledged in the manifesto to ensure that infrastructure first, as set out in the Queen’s Speech. We have the £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund, but we will introduce a bigger, single housing infrastructure fund to provide the infra- structure that she rightly wants for her constituency and that other Members want for theirs.
Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), may I suggest—given that the only difference in the crisis facing many of our constituents is that they have problems with high pressure laminate or other forms of external cladding, as opposed to aluminium composite material—that it would be sensible to extend the coverage of the fund that the Government have established for the private sector to cover those blocks? Otherwise, the residents will face a very bleak future.
I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s comments, and I saw the early-day motion that he laid in the House to that effect, but we must be guided by the evidence. My predecessors chose to provide the £600 million remediation fund in relation to ACM in high-rise buildings because the expert panel which advises us had said that that was the urgent challenge that needed to be addressed. We have commissioned experts from the Building Research Establishment to carry out further tests on a range of materials, including HPL. I will publish the information shortly, and will say more at that time.
I too declare an interest, as a member of the Darwen towns fund board.
I think that we shall be hearing a bit more about that as we work with Members of Parliament, local authorities, businesses and community groups, and ask them to come forward with exciting long-term plans for the rejuvenation of not just their high streets but their towns. We must all remember, Mr Speaker, that there is a reason why you no longer have a tallow merchant in the high street in Chorley. High streets and town centres have always been changing, but with our stronger towns fund we can ensure that we are the handmaidens of that dynamic change.
To ask the Foreign Secretary to update the House on the security situation in Iran.
Further to the oral statement made by the Defence Secretary on 7 January, I will make a statement on Iran in response to the urgent question from my right hon. Friend.
Let me first express my condolences, and those of the Government, to the loved ones of those who tragically lost their lives on Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752. Our thoughts are with all those affected during what must be a devastating time. Among the 176 passengers who tragically lost their lives were four British nationals, as well as 82 Iranians.
On 9 January we stated publicly—alongside partners such as Canada and the United States—that, given an increasing body of information, we believed that Iran was responsible for the downing of the aircraft. Despite initial denials, the Government of Iran acknowledged on 11 January that they were responsible. Now it is time for a full, transparent and independent investigation. It must be a collaborative endeavour, with a strong international component. The families of the victims—including those in Iran—must have answers, and must know the truth. The UK is also working with the Canadian-led International Coordination and Response Group, consisting of countries with nationals killed in the plane crash. The group will help with the issuing of visas and the repatriation of the bodies of the victims.
Separately, Her Majesty’s ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, was arrested over the weekend, and was illegally held for three hours. On 11 January, the ambassador attended a public vigil to pay his respects to the victims of flight 752. He left shortly afterwards, when there were signs that the vigil might turn into a protest. Let me be very clear about this: he was not attending or recording a political protest or demonstration. His arrest later that day, without grounds or explanation, was a flagrant violation of international law. Today, in response, we will summon the Iranian ambassador to demand an apology, and to seek full assurances that this will not happen again.
Given the treatment of the ambassador, we are keeping security measures for the embassy under review, and, as I am sure the House would expect, we updated our travel advice on 10 January. We currently recommend that British nationals should not travel to Iran or take any flights to, from or within Iran. On the diplomatic front, in the past week I have met our international partners in Brussels, Washington and Montreal, and I attended an E3 meeting yesterday in Paris. I spoke to Foreign Minister Zarif on 6 January, and the Prime Minister spoke to President Rouhani on 9 January. We welcome the overwhelming international support for Her Majesty’s ambassador to Iran, and for the rights to which all diplomats are entitled under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. The regime in Tehran is at a crossroads, and it can slip further and further into political and economic isolation, but there is an alternative. The regime does have a choice. The diplomatic door remains open, and now is the time for Iran to engage in diplomacy and chart a peaceful way forward. I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Tensions have clearly ratcheted up since the drone strike that killed General Soleimani and the Iranian reprisals. The Iranian President and the United States President have momentarily checked any further military aggression, but the wider issues relating to Iran’s destabilising foreign policy ambitions remain. It still wants to advance its sectarian regional influence by funding, training and arming paramilitaries and militias right across the middle east, it has already restarted its nuclear programme, and it shamelessly attempted to cover up the missile strike against flight 752. This weekend, as the Secretary of State has just confirmed, it breached the Vienna convention by arresting our own ambassador in Tehran. I believe that these irresponsible actions are out of sync with the views of the people of Iran, who have once again bravely taken to the streets to vent their fury against the regime, the failing economy and the regime’s international adventurism.
May I ask the Secretary of State to update the House on whether calls for full transparency in the crash investigation will be met? Will he also update us on the welfare and security of our ambassador, our diplomatic staff and their dependants in Tehran, and on how recent events will affect efforts to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?
I commend the Prime Minister’s efforts and those of the Foreign Secretary not to lose sight of the nuclear deal, but, as the former Foreign Minister responsible for the area, I should say that the last deal failed because no international investment could head Tehran’s way due to the legacy sanctions connected to missile procurement, which prevented any bank, particularly those with US ties, from aiding economic reform. So Iran gained little from the deal, and the release of frozen assets worth $150 billion plus new oil revenues were used not to support the ailing economy but to advance Iran’s proxy wars. For a fresh deal to succeed, any new talks must cover missile sanctions and conditional economic reform.
Finally, may I ask what talks the UK has had with the US and other allies to ensure that we remain united and engaged? I believe that there is a leading role for the UK to play in resetting our middle east strategy towards Iran, first, by being more assertive in tackling proxy interference and weapons proliferation and, secondly, by being more proactive in offering conditional but genuine economic rehabilitation for Iran.
My right hon. Friend makes a range of powerful points, and I pay tribute to him for his experience in this area. He is right to say that there is a pattern of behaviour by the regime in Iran, which is flouting the basic rules of international law and not living up to the kind of conduct we would expect from any Government who want to be a responsible member of the international community. We have seen that on the nuclear side and with the announcement in the first week of January of further non-compliance in relation to some centrifuges. We have seen it in the destabilising activity for which General Soleimani was in large part responsible when he was alive, and we have seen it in the treatment of dual nationals—in particular, but not limited to, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We have seen it not just in the treatment of our ambassador in Iran but, more importantly, in the downing of the Ukrainian flight.
There must be some accountability for that wrongdoing. We welcome Iran’s first step in acknowledging responsibility, but there must now be a full, thorough investigation into what happened, with an international component so that people can have faith and confidence in that process. At the same time, while we keep up the pressure and insist on accountability on the nuclear front and in relation to the airline, we also want to be clear that the diplomatic door is ajar. This is something that the US President and the French President have made clear, and this Government certainly fully support a diplomatic way through to de-escalating the tensions and seeking a long-term diplomatic resolution of all the outstanding issues.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran has now systematically failed to comply with the JCPOA. We are clear that we still support it. We have not signed up for the doctrine of maximum pressure. At the same time, the JCPOA has effectively been left a shell of an agreement because of systematic steps by Iran, taking it out of compliance. For it to be made to work, Iran must make a choice that it wants to come back to compliance and to the diplomatic negotiating table.
Finally, my right hon. Friend asked about the conversations we have had with our partners. I have spoken to Foreign Minister Zarif and I was in Brussels last week for meetings with the E3 and High Representative Josep Borrell. Indeed, I also saw them last night in Paris for further discussion. I was also in the US last week to talk to Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. It is very important that we maintain transatlantic unity, because while we leave the diplomatic door ajar to the regime in Iran, we want to be absolutely crystal clear that the message it receives from the UK, the Europeans and the US is the same—namely, that there is a route forward for the Iranian Government and, most importantly, the Iranian people, if Iran takes steps to comply with the basic tenets of international law.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and may I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing it?
The events in Iran and Iraq that have followed the assassination of General Soleimani have been utterly appalling. They include the missile attacks on US bases in Iraq; Iran’s decisions to remove all limits on uranium enrichment; the recent attacks, in the past few days, on protesters on the streets of Tehran; the detention, as has been mentioned, of our excellent ambassador, Rob Macaire; and, of course, the unforgivable shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 innocent civilians, including four Britons, all of whose deaths we mourn today.
These are sure signs not only that the hardliners in Tehran are firmly back in the ascendancy in the Iranian regime, but that their actions are out of control. Nothing and no one can excuse those acts of violence. Like all of us, I fear not just for the Iranian people and the stability of the region, but especially for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals who are languishing in Iranian jails. I hope that the Foreign Secretary can comment on their current health and safety. Like him, I will be raising those concerns when I meet the Iranian ambassador to London tomorrow.
The question we must all ask, and which I ask the Foreign Secretary today, is: where do we go from here? Ever since Donald Trump started to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal, we have been on a path to this point. With the strategy of engagement from the so-called moderates in Iran now discredited and abandoned, and with the hardliners firmly back in charge in Tehran and an equally unpredictable, trigger-happy President in the White House, we are just one more mistake or miscalculation away from brinkmanship tipping over into war. What action is the Foreign Secretary taking to ensure a permanent de-escalation of the tension, rather than an inexorable drift towards war?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome his condemnation of the conduct of the Government of Iran, including their non-compliance with the JCPOA and their treatment of our ambassador in Tehran. As I have said, it is important to maintain transatlantic unity and solidarity, and this House must also give the regime in Iran a very clear signal that we stand together on these important issues.
As I have said, I raised the issue of dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with Foreign Minister Zarif when I spoke to him. They remain at the centre and forefront of our thinking on Iran. We constantly, consistently and at every level raise both their welfare and the need for them to be released without conditions. They should not be held. They should be back home with their families.
The hon. Gentleman asked the obvious exam question: where do we go from here? He is right to say that we need to try to defuse the situation. We have been working with our international partners in Europe, the US and, crucially, in the region, to emphasise the absolute importance of de-escalating the tensions, particularly to avoid military conflagration. That would only benefit Daesh and the other terrorist groups in the region, and I think there is consistency of agreement on that point. There must be accountability where there is wrongdoing, whether that relates to the treatment of foreign nationals or ensuring that the JCPOA is complied with, if the JCPOA is to be a credible means of dealing with the nuclear issue. We must work with all our international partners and show unity of purpose so that, given the political climate in Tehran that the hon. Gentleman described, there is no doubt about the international community’s approach to Iran’s current behaviour.
Notwithstanding all that, the diplomatic door must be left open, because the only way to de-escalate permanently, which I think was the phrase the hon. Gentleman used, is to find a diplomatic solution to all the issues, from nuclear activity to Iran’s destabilising actions in the region and, of course, the dual nationals and the many other bilateral issues. We have been clear and consistent that that choice is there for the Iranian regime to make. It can slip further into isolation, with all the ensuing consequences for the people of Iran, or it can choose to come through the diplomatic door and sit at the negotiating table, which is the only way that all the issues will be resolved over the long term.
When Iran faces a fork in the road, it chooses time and again not to take the opportunity to be a responsible member of the international community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is not the time to ease that pressure? One practical step that we can take here in the UK would be to proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation, which is exactly what it is.
My right hon. Friend speaks powerfully about the importance of ensuring that a consistent message is sent not just from London but from all our international partners about the wrongdoing that has been taking place in Iran, and of ensuring some accountability. While maintaining that pressure consistently and with all the means available to us—I am happy to consider his point about proscription—we must also be clear that the choice is Iran’s to make, that there is an alternative, and that we are not blindly seeking confrontation: quite the opposite. We seek de-escalation, and we want Iran to live up to the basic norms of the international community, and there is a diplomatic way through to a negotiated solution.
I commend the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for his question and the Foreign Secretary for his answers. There is a great deal of cross-party unity in the House, and he can rest assured of the SNP’s support, particularly for efforts towards co-operation in the E3 format, which must be encouraged and promoted. Will he update the House on his discussions with the US authorities, particularly with a view to encouraging dialogue to persuade them to lift their apparently still in force ban on the Iranian Foreign Minister getting to the United Nations for discussions?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for our diplomatic efforts. I was in Washington last week and had various conversations with the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Notwithstanding that we do not agree with the US on maximum pressure, for example, the US has always been clear that there is a diplomatic way forward and that the door remains open. President Trump has said that, President Macron has said it, and the Prime Minister has said it. Again, the choice is for Iran to make.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the visa. I understand that it was not refused but, in any event, it is important throughout the process to ensure that we keep open the opportunity for dialogue and a diplomatic path forward to a negotiated solution.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this moment marks the beginning of an opportunity, if Iran wishes to take it, for Iran to co-operate with the international community on the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines aircraft? Several nationalities were involved, including, unfortunately, a number of Britons and, indeed, many more Iranians. Will my right hon. Friend therefore tell the House precisely what discussions have been had about a proper international investigation into the downing of the aircraft, including the handing over of the flight recorders to proper international investigators?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, I was speaking with my Canadian counterpart in Montreal on Thursday. The Canadians suffered an appalling loss of life, and they are leading some work on visas and the repatriation of bodies. We are working together with them, all those affected and, indeed, our wider partners to ensure a credible, full and transparent investigation, because although we understand that Iran has accepted responsibility, we still do not know why the incident happened and all the details of how it happened. For the British victims, the Canadian victims, the Ukrainian victims and, above all, the Iranian victims, we deserve to know the answers to the questions and the truth behind why this appalling avoidable tragedy happened.
I have previously raised with Ministers in the House the harassment of BBC Persian staff and their families by the Iranian regime. I understand the regime is now citing BBC Persian Television’s alleged encouragement of unrest and violence in Iran as justification for further bullying. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to support the staff who work in this field, and their families in Iran, to make sure they are safe and secure?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in this regard. It is important we send a clear message that BBC journalists—any journalists, and specifically British journalists—cannot be bullied in this way any more than our diplomatic staff. In fact, when I was in Canada with my Canadian opposite number, we launched a new award for those who champion and protect media freedom. Not only are we looking at this individual case, but there is an international campaign to make sure that we provide protection for journalists around the world who, in very difficult circumstances, are willing to speak truth to power.
Will my right hon. Friend work closely with Ministers from the other countries that lost citizens on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752? Will he perhaps attend the joint investigation group meeting in London on Thursday, which will be attended by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister? Does he agree it is essential that Iran not only allows full investigation of what happened but organises the repatriation of the bodies and pays full compensation to the families of those who were lost?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we will be fully plugged in and, indeed, a driving force in the international effort to make sure we get the right answers in terms of the investigation. This point is even stronger now that the Government of Iran have accepted at least a measure of responsibility, but it is crucial that the investigation is fully independent and has an international component so that people can feel confidence in the outcome and the answers. We will work with all our international partners on all the issues he raises, and I certainly want to see justice for the incredible number of people who are still mourning and grieving this terrible loss.
The Foreign Secretary will have seen reports of the demonstrations across Iran this weekend, illustrating the profound and widespread unhappiness among the people of Iran about the recent actions of their Government. That may in itself be the start of an opportunity to see a shift in Iran’s foreign policy, but if we are to maximise that opportunity, we need to engage those interlocutors in the Gulf and the wider middle east with whom we have good relations in order to see that shift executed in Iran.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that watching the change in the public mood in Tehran and more broadly in Iran is very striking. He is also right to say that we need to work with all our partners. In fact, I would go further and say that, beyond our partners in the middle east, we also need to work with China, Russia and those closest to them to enhance and reinforce the solidarity and clarity of the message that we are sending to the regime in Tehran.
The malign influence of the IRGC extends from the strait of Hormuz through Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen and almost anywhere, and now into Europe. Is it not time that we sent a very strong signal by proscribing the IRGC, freezing its assets and saying, “We will give you an opportunity to unfreeze them once you restore proper, normal diplomatic actions and behaviours across the world”?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point about the pernicious behaviour of not just the IGRC but the Quds force, of which General Soleimani was the head. The Quds force is the element, the component or the wing of the regime that is responsible for working with the militias, the proxies and the terrorist groups from Lebanon through to Iraq and Syria. It is absolutely right to make that point. On proscription more generally, they are subject to sanctions, but we will obviously keep the issue under very careful review.
There is now a real sense of chaos, emergency and crisis in the region. What assessment has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made of the increased risk from IS/Daesh, both in the region and here at home? What actions are being taken to counter any dangers?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The reality is that unless we can pursue a path to de-escalation, the risk of war would benefit the terrorist groups, particularly Daesh. We are keeping the risk assessment under constant review, although we do not talk about the operational side of that. One clear aspect of all this that we have in common, whether with our European partners and our American partners or with the Iranian Government, is the desire not to allow the hard-fought and hard-won gains against Daesh to be reversed. We are working with all our partners in the middle east to make sure that we do not lose the gains that we made, or indeed allow the actions and tensions in the middle east to fuel the fire of Daesh and other terrorist groups.
The Foreign Secretary will have seen pictures of the Israeli flag being tied to the British flag and both being set alight. That hardly speaks of de-escalation. How is the attempt at de-escalation working throughout the region? What particular factors are being taken into account to protect Israel?
We work closely with all our international partners and we are engaged with Israel on the issues that we have in common with it. On de-escalation so far, after the death of General Soleimani we saw an Iranian response that was dangerous and reckless, but none the less we have not seen any major military intervention from Iran since then. Our message to all sides in the region is that we need to take baby steps towards de-escalating over time, and then, gradually, as the situation defuses, think about what positive measures can be put in place to build up confidence in the region. Until we get on that train and on that track, it is difficult to see how the wider diplomatic initiatives can bear fruit.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that although any sensible person does not want the pressure on Iran to cease, nobody sensible wants another war in the middle east, either? He mentioned the door being slightly open; is it not a fact that if we want peace, we have to carry on speaking to the Iranians? All of us who have been campaigning for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other prisoners believe that perhaps speaking at a level of faith, with an all-faith delegation going to Iran to speak to the faith leaders there, might help. I spoke to the Archbishop of Canterbury at a service only this time last week, and he seems to think that if the delegation was welcome—if Iran was open to a delegation—it could take place. Would the Secretary of State support such a delegation to visit Iran?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s premise: we need to keep the diplomatic lines of communication open. I have made it clear to Foreign Minister Zarif that for our part we wish to do that and to start to see how measures can be taken on all aspects, but particularly to see the Iranians come back to full compliance with the JCPOA. I sympathise very much with the spirit of the idea of an all-faith diplomatic initiative. The hon. Gentleman he will have seen that for the moment, through our Foreign Office travel advice, we advise against travel to Iran. That is probably the safest bet for the moment.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for asking this urgent question and to the Secretary of State for his response.
The tensions in the region are clearly incredibly high at the moment, but one of the best ways for the Iranians to help would be for them to recommit to their 2015 commitments to the nuclear deal. What practical steps can the Government take to ensure that they can roll back from the position they are in now and de-escalate the situation?
We are looking very carefully at this. As someone said from the Opposition Benches, it is about balance. On the one hand, we need to have some accountability for the systematic non-compliance, which well predates the death of General Soleimani; on the other hand, we want to make sure it is very clear that there is always a diplomatic route back. We are looking at it very carefully. One reason why I was in Paris yesterday evening was to make sure that we are co-ordinating and engaging closely with our E3 partners as well as our American friends.
Given that the shooting down of flight 752 is, sadly, the latest instance of civilian airliners being shot down in regions of conflict apparently by mistake, may I urge the Foreign Secretary, with colleagues, to see what more might be done to enable defence forces properly to distinguish between civilian aircraft and potential military threats in order to ensure that such deaths are avoided in future?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. That is incredibly important. It is not clear to me whether that is what caused the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner in this case, but I am very willing to hear his points on that and on any initiative related to it.
I welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in going to Amman this weekend to express condolences for the death of our partner and friend Sultan Qaboos. Does he agree that, reaching out through friends in the region, particularly Qatar, Kuwait and, of course, the new Sultan Haitham in Oman, would be a good avenue for making sure that Iran not only comes back into the fold and frees its people from this awful tyranny, but perhaps gives up the policy of hostage-taking that has taken not just Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe away from her daughter, but many, many others from their families, too?
Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the Sultan of Oman for his incredible track record of service to his country, and we look forward to working with the new Sultan and the Government of Oman on all those issues. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to condemn the taking of dual nationals into detention. The taking of Nazanin and of all the UK dual nationals is groundless. Their treatment has been well below the standards that we would expect. Fundamentally, they should all be released without condition. This is part of the pattern of unlawful behaviour that Iran needs to correct if it wants to come in from the international cold.
In his conversations with his Iranian counterparts about the detention of the UK ambassador, what assurances has the Secretary of State sought about the rights of other peaceful protesters across Iran who do not have the luxury of diplomatic immunity to protect them?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She raises a very important point. The reality is that the international norms that reflect, recognise and call for the safeguarding of peaceful protest apply across the board. We do make those points to our Iranian partners, but, of course, there is a very clear obligation under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations about the way that ambassadors and diplomatic staff are treated. This is crucial, not least because if we cannot have confidence that our diplomatic staff and missions are respected, we cannot engage in the kind of diplomacy that we need to charter a peaceful way forward.
Sorry, I did not hear you, Mr Speaker. I will not give up that opportunity.
First, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing this urgent question, and my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box on his calm and reassuring manner throughout this period? Notwithstanding that, I would like to ask a question. From the moment that we negotiated that deal and the west offered an olive branch to Iran, our expectations have never really been met. Iran shows the face that it wishes to show to the west, but underneath it, it has gone on not de-escalating, but escalating the violence. Whether it is in Syria, all the way down to the Houthis, it has done nothing else but use its money to provoke violence and escalate trouble and war. My question to my right hon. Friend is this: at which point do we really get the idea that this regime is not displaying a peaceful nature and is not going to give up on any of its opportunities and that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, like many others, is being held as a hostage? When do we decide that, actually, the people of Iran do not want this organisation any more and that we want to support them?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He makes a range of important points. The reality is that we still view the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as the best means of restraining those in the regime who wish to pursue a nuclear weapon, and that is a top priority—our overriding priority—for this Government. In relation to the wider nefarious conduct of the Government of Iran, I share all of his concerns and then some. The reality is that that is why we have always supported the Macron and Trump initiatives to try to bring Iran back to the diplomatic table and deal with all of those issues in the round—if there is a choice to be made by the regime. We will continue to hold Iran accountable for its actions, while leaving the diplomatic door ajar. Ultimately, this will have to be resolved through a negotiated diplomatic route. Who knows what will happen given the current constellation of factors and the change of circumstances in Iran, but, at some point, it will have to come to the negotiating table.
Given the parallels between the ruthless and reckless behaviour of Iran, and the way in which the late and unlamented Soviet Union used to behave, does the Foreign Secretary accept that a policy of long-term containment, as worked in the one case, is probably most likely to work in the other? If he does accept that, is he satisfied that our American allies are now communicating with us to the extent that they need to so that our troops, who are their partners, are not unduly affected by sudden, dramatic initiatives without warning?
My right hon. Friend makes a series of important points, including about close consultation with our American partners. Of course, I discuss these issues regularly with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I am not entirely sure that the analogy with the Soviet Union is quite right. There is at least the semblance of regular elections in Iran.
In fairness, not on the same level as in Iran. I think the question is the balance between containing the nefarious behaviour and ensuring—while holding Iran to account in the way in which my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members have mentioned—that there is still a route back to the negotiating table, and that is what we are seeking to pursue.
I concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis); I also believe that Iran is the Soviet Union of the middle east, given what it does and the extent of its reach. My question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is simply this: the United Kingdom and the allies supported dissidents and pro-democracy protesters in the Soviet Union at that time, so what are we doing specifically to support democracy protesters and dissidents in Iran?
We make it clear in international forums—we have done so in the UN, for example—that we support the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression in Iran. My right hon. Friend will know of the already febrile state in Tehran, which would point to interference in domestic affairs and attempts to usurp the regime. We track a careful balance between standing up for the norms, values and human rights that he and I share, and ensuring that we do not play into the hands of the hardliners. Ultimately, we want Tehran to make the choice to take responsibility for its actions, and we have seen at least a semblance of that with its acknowledgment that it was responsible for the downing of the airliner. We then want the country to take it a step further by reversing the path towards political and economic isolation, and that will only happen if Iran comes back to the negotiating table through the diplomatic channel.
May I commend what the Secretary of State said about Sultan Qaboos, and indeed what my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat)—the other former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—said about the potential role of Oman in the future? During this crisis, it was the Iranian Supreme Leader who talked about the corrupting influence of American troops stationed in the region, but what has been revealed over the past few days is the corrupting influence of the IRG on Iran itself. It is holding in place a regime that is frankly illegitimate, as we have seen through the eyes of the demonstrators on the streets against it. Will we continue to de-escalate the violence, and to escalate the competition of values in which most Iranian people are on our side?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can see the anger in Tehran and more generally about this state of affairs, which is why the transparency in relation to the downing of the airliner is so important—not just for the British individuals who lost their lives or the wider international victims, but also for the people of Iran, who were the biggest victims when that airliner went down. We need to ensure that there is transparency and answers to questions for all the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined.
Might my right hon. Friend, and his colleagues in the G7 and other countries, consider looking at freezing the assets of the children and families of ayatollahs and Government Ministers in Iran who put so much—billions of dollars—into the west? Could we not take some action in that regard?
One of the things that we are doing and on which we will be collaborating with our international partners—indeed, I spoke to the US and the Canadians about this—is shortly introducing a new sanctions regime, following the Sergei Magnitsky model, which makes sure, as we leave the EU, that we have an autonomous sanctions regime that can impose asset freezes and visa bans for those responsible for gross human rights abuses.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his continual calls for de-escalation, for his support for the families of the victims of the aircraft, and for his standing up for British diplomats around the world? Given that the situation would be so much more challenging were Iran to have nuclear weapons, may I also thank him for his work with France and Germany to reboot the JCPOA? Given that Brexit will happen at the end of this month, can he confirm how he sees that relationship with the E3 continuing post 1 February?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the various points that she made. She poses a good question, but we are absolutely clear: we are leaving the EU; we are not leaving Europe. This is a good example of where we can engage just as intensively, if not more so, with our E3 partners. I know, having spoken to my French and German opposite numbers, and indeed to Josep Borrell, that that feeling is shared on all sides. So we plan to regularise the meetings that we have on the issue of Iran but also on the wider range of foreign policy challenges that we all share.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House as to the assistance that is being given to the families of the victims of the Ukrainian International Airlines flight and give an assurance that the Government are doing all they possibly can to help and assist them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our hearts go out to anyone who has come into this new year and has to face up to the loss of life of a close friend or member of their family. We are doing everything that we can, working with our international partners, to be able to repatriate the victims so that the families can have that solace of paying their last respects. We are also making sure that we work more generally to get an independent investigation with credibility, transparency and an international component so that those families get the answers to the questions that they must be going over in their heads over and over again.
Following up on the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is no longer in his place, is there a case for the Foreign Office to do some useful and valuable work on updating the Geneva conventions or, working with others, updating the rules around civilian airliners to do more to ensure that civilian airliners are not, on a semi-regular basis, being shot out of the sky using, often very improperly, poorly made Russian kit? We have had hundreds of people killed, including Britons but also from many other countries, in the past few years.
I thank my hon. Friend, but the reality is that this not about a lack of clarity around the law. Targeting a civilian airliner is clearly unlawful. There is no absence or lack of legal basis for making that point; the question is compliance. The first thing we need, which is having Iran acknowledge responsibility for this, is to get the full details—the full facts—of how it could have happened. If it is being suggested that it is a mistake, we need to know how a mistake like that could have happened and then learn the appropriate lessons from it. That is what we are absolutely committed to.
The demonstrations on the streets of Tehran in which the British ambassador was inadvertently caught up follow a large amount of similar activity across the country towards the end of last year when several hundred Iranians lost their lives. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when considering with his international colleagues the proper response to the events of last week, he and they will be mindful of the fact that large numbers of the Iranian people deplore the actions of the regime under which they live and want nothing more than freedom and the facility to live in peace with their neighbours?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course the aftermath, with the scenes that we are seeing playing out in Tehran, is testament to that. What is important is that we allow the transparency for people to come to apply the pressure that they need to apply on the regime to change its course and to adopt a course that will lead the Government out of political and economic isolation. The first and foremost beneficiaries of that will be the people of Iran.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an extremely serious issue we now face is the safety of our armed forces, who have been described quite disgracefully by a senior commander in the Quds force as potentially “collateral damage” in attacks on the US military?
Yes, and it is good to see my hon. Friend in his place. I remember competing with him in an open primary in Esher back in 2009; I think I have aged more than he has over the last nine years in the last week. He is absolutely right. Crucially, our first priority is to ensure that UK personnel in the region are safe and that our diplomats are safe. We have changed our travel advice, because we need to protect the safety of our wider citizens too.
There has been a pattern of misinformation campaigns coming from Iran to seek to subvert the extent of its actions in the past. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the conflicting accounts that have come out of Tehran about this and other recent incidents?
The short and honest answer is that it is difficult to tell, but my hon. Friend asks the right question. There is clearly a range of different views, not only in Iranian society but in the Government and, indeed, around the senior leadership. As I said at the outset, there is clearly a choice, and I think Iranians are conscious of it: do they continue to contravene the basic principles of international law and the basic tenets that we expect respectable members of the international community to live up to, or do they take the path out of economic and political isolation, which would be in the best interests of the people of Iran, let alone the region and, indeed, the international community?
I want to make a quick statement to remind Members who may not be aware that, when a Member visits another Member’s constituency, except on a purely private visit, they should take reasonable steps in advance to tell the Member in whose constituency the visit is taking place. The guidance also states that
“failing to do so is regarded by colleagues as very discourteous.”
I have had examples from both sides of the House. I just want to remind everybody that we ought to ensure that we give notice.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 19 December 2019).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Britain in the World
On 12 December, the British people had their say. They delivered a clear majority for this Government and a mandate to take Britain forward. That mandate, set out in the Queen’s Speech, marks a bold new chapter for our country, ambitious, self-confident and global in its international outlook. We are leaving the EU in 18 days’ time, but we vow to be the strongest of European neighbours and allies. We are taking back control of our laws, but we are also expanding our global horizons to grasp the enormous opportunities of free trade. While we will always serve the interests of the small businesses and the citizens of this country, we will also look to reinforce our national mission as a force for good in the world.
The UK will leave the EU at the end of this month because the House passed the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill’s Third Reading with a majority of 99, which is the strongest signal to the EU and the world about our ambition and resolve as we chart the course ahead. That clarity of purpose now gives us the opportunity to be masters of our destiny and chart our course independently but working very closely with our international partners. We will strive with our European friends to secure the best possible arrangements for our future relationship by the end of 2020—a new relationship that honours the will of the people in the 2016 referendum but cherishes the co-operation we have in trade, security and all the other fields with our European friends.
As we enter this decade of renewal, the Government will engage in a thorough and careful review of the United Kingdom’s place in the world, including through the integrated security, defence and foreign policy review. It is an opportunity for us to reassess the ways in which we engage on the global stage, including in defence, diplomacy and our approach to development, to ensure that we have a fully integrated strategy. As we conduct that review, our guiding lights will remain the values of free trade, democracy, human rights and the international rule of law.
This is a very wide-ranging review. I think everybody would agree with that. How is the Foreign Secretary going to ensure that there is sufficient parliamentary scrutiny of the review as it is undertaken?
We will look at all the mechanisms—whether debates in this Chamber, or the operation and scrutiny of the Select Committees—and, indeed, we already welcome the input of individual MPs, caucuses and Select Committees in the normal way. We will make sure that there is proper scrutiny and that we can bring as many people together as possible in charting the course for the UK as we go forward.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree with me that there have been many security and defence reviews over the years and they have all been hampered by one thing in particular, which is that they happened at precisely the same moment as a comprehensive spending review? I very much welcome his announcement of this very extensive review—it is the right time to do it—but does he not agree that it must be done independently of the Treasury? We must decide what Britain is for and what assets we need to achieve that, and then only subsequently—a year later—should the Treasury become involved.
I am not sure it is likely to work exactly as my hon. Friend suggests, but I do take his point. We need to be very clear in our minds about the strategy we are charting and then reconcile our means, including our financial means, to those ends, so he makes an important point.
In support of what my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) has said, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that, in 2017-18, we had a national security capability review that sought to look at both security and defence together, but it was so limited by having to be financially or fiscally neutral that it meant that extra resources for, for example, cyber-warfare would be granted only at the cost of making cuts in, for example, the Royal Marines? That is no way to conduct a review—to play off one necessary part, say security, against another necessary part, such as defence.
I think my right hon. Friend makes an important point, although at the same time we need to be mindful of the overarching financial parameters that any Government—any responsible Government—are going to be within if we are to make credible investment decisions. Certainly, on the issue of cyber and its being somehow nudged out of focus or set up as a zero-sum game with troops, I can assure him that that will not be the case. Cyber increasingly plays an important role not just in our security, but in our ability to project our foreign policy.
This is on the same theme. It is my right hon. Friend’s Department that has suffered the worst cuts over the last period because it has been an unprotected Department. What we must do if we are to direct defence, development and the intelligent services in the right direction is to have the capacity within his Department to do that. Will he ensure that he fights very hard for the necessary resources to be able to recreate the capacity of a Rolls-Royce Department of State?
I will, indeed, given that a comparison across all Departments shows that the Foreign Office has been cut back at least as badly as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. May I urge, in any review of finance, that we look carefully at the ability for human rights to be at the forefront of what the Foreign Office does? Traditionally, that has been strong; it is less so now.
I thank the hon. Lady and I think, given what I am about to say, that I will be able to give her the kind of reassurance she needs. I look forward to working with her in the weeks and months ahead to make sure that we never lose sight of our values, and human rights is a key component of that.
We will strengthen our historical trading ties as we leave the EU, while boosting British competitiveness by tapping wider global markets. We want strong trade with our existing EU partners. They are important and valuable to us as a market; I do not think anyone doubts that. At the same time, we are making good progress in paving the way for our first round of future free trade agreements with the rest of the world. When I was out in the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told me in Washington that the US is poised
“at the doorstep, pen in hand”,
ready to sign a deal. A free trade deal with the US would boost businesses, create jobs, reduce the cost of living and expand consumer choice on both sides of the Atlantic, so there is a huge opportunity for a win-win deal.
I want to make some progress but will be happy to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman shortly.
It is also at the same time important that we broaden our horizons to embrace the huge opportunities in the rising economies of the future from Asia to Latin America, and set out our stall as a global champion of free trade not just bilaterally but in the WTO as well.
Of course, a truly global Britain is about more than just trade and investment, important though those things are for our prosperity and the quality of life we have in this country; global Britain is also about continuing to uphold our values of liberal democracy and our heartfelt commitment to the international rule of law—values for which we are respected the world over.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that nowhere in the world at the moment are these values under greater attack than in Hong Kong, and will he join me in condemning the refusal of the Hong Kong authorities to allow the director of Human Rights Watch entry at the weekend?
I do join with the right hon. Gentleman in making the following point. The international principles and norms and the rule of law in relation to freedom of peaceful protest and freedom of expression apply as a matter of customary international law; it also applies directly because of the joint Sino-UK declaration in relation to Hong Kong. Of course we want China as a leading member of the international community to live up to those responsibilities, and the case the right hon. Gentleman highlights is a very good example of that.
We will continue to be standing up for those values. We will continue to be a leading member of NATO, ensuring that that alliance can rise to the new challenges ahead. We will hold Iran accountable for its destabilising and dangerous actions in the region, but we will also, as we made clear in the response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) earlier, encourage it to de-escalate and to seek a path to an alternative future through diplomatic dialogue.
We will call out those who flout international law, like the Russian Government, from its illegal annexation in Crimea and its chemical weapons attack in Salisbury to its cyber-attacks and its propensity for spreading fake news.
On Russia, and indeed to go back to what the Foreign Secretary said on the US, the United States has been vocal in its opposition to Nord Stream 2, correctly in my view, and the United Kingdom Government have taken the view that it has little to nothing to do with the United Kingdom. Can he assure me that that will be looked at properly in the integrated review he mentions, because it very much is in our interests that Nord Stream 2 does not go ahead?
Let me make a little progress as I have been generous, but I will be happy to give way again in the future.
We will call out those who flout international law. We will live up to our responsibilities, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) asked, in relation to the people of Hong Kong. That means supporting their right to peaceful protest and encouraging dialogue on all sides within the one country, two systems framework that China itself has consistently advocated since the Sino-British joint declaration in 1984, a treaty which has and holds international obligations on all sides.
We will use our moral compass to champion the causes that know no borders. This year we have the opportunity—and the honour and privilege—to host the UN climate change summit COP26 in Glasgow, and that is the UK’s chance to demonstrate global leadership on climate change. Under the Conservatives, we are the first country to legislate to end our contribution to global warming, and this Government know that we must leave the environment in a better state for our children.