House of Commons
Monday 3 February 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Armed Forces Personnel: Vexatious Claims
My thoughts are with the injured victims of the Streatham attack and their families, and I express my sympathy and support on the Government’s behalf. I also pay tribute to the brave police officers who so speedily confronted and dealt with the attacker and to the other emergency services who assisted the victims and others.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces, who perform exceptional feats to protect this country in incredibly difficult circumstances. While our servicemen and women are rightly held to the highest standards of behaviour, we must ensure that the law is applied consistently, promptly and fairly.
With Combermere barracks and Victoria barracks in the Windsor constituency, we are proud to be home to the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards and the Household Cavalry. Following their many years of service to our nation, I want them to feel safe and secure in the knowledge that they will not be hounded and harassed by vexatious litigation for decades to come. How soon will our veterans be able to stand at ease?
As Her Majesty said in the Gracious Speech, the Government will shortly introduce a legislative package to ensure that our service personnel and veterans have access to the legal protections they deserve. That will build on the consultation held last summer on proposed legal protections and measures for armed forces personnel and veterans who have served in operations outside the UK. We expect those measures to be brought forward soon.
We owe an immense debt of gratitude to our armed forces, who should never face malicious or unfair treatment after their service when there is no reason to do so. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on all Members to back our troops and get behind our plans to tackle vexatious claims?
Many Members of this House support our troops, and I hope that they will be able to support all the measures that we bring forward to protect personnel from vexatious claims and inquests.
What action is being taken to halt the prosecutions currently under way in Northern Ireland of those who served in our armed forces and in the police during the troubles while a review is being undertaken?
My hon. Friend will know that it is obviously not for the Executive or the Government to interfere once a prosecution is under way. Prosecutions are a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions, either here or in Northern Ireland. However, no one must be above the law where there is genuine evidence of wrongdoing, but when the process is abused for vexatious purposes, it is right that the Government step forward with measures to stop that happening.
Protecting veterans is a priority for this Government, but their families are just as important. Changes to the war widows’ pension scheme mean that, while the majority of war widows receive a pension for life, a small group, some of whom live in my constituency, whose husbands died after 1973 and who themselves remarried before 2005, fall outside the scheme. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address that injustice?
The Government recognise the unique commitment that service families make to our country and remain sympathetic to the circumstances of those widows who remarried and cohabited before 1 April 2015. However, the Government currently have no plans to reinstate war widows’ pensions for war widows who remarried between 1973 and 2005—before the 2015 changes took effect. However, I hear my hon. Friend’s call, and my colleague the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has already met representatives from the War Widows’ Association, and we are examining alternative methods to see whether we can mitigate the impact.
The Opposition’s thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by yesterday’s attack in Streatham, and I pay tribute to the police and emergency services for all their heroic work.
The Government have repeatedly promised to take action on vexatious claims against personnel and veterans, but we are yet to see any concrete plans. I heard what the Secretary of State said today, but will he give us the exact date on which the Government will introduce legislation?
The Government made a commitment in our manifesto and in other statements to bring forward measures within 100 days to deal with vexatious claims against our veterans. That 100-day period ends towards the end of March, which is when the timetable will be in place.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment regarding our armed services personnel and look forward to that working out in the fullness of time. Will he ensure that other Cabinet colleagues are aware of the implications of vexatious claims for police officers who served in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. I served alongside RUC Special Branch in my time, and I have the highest regard for the RUC officers, many of whom lost their lives in fighting during the troubles. Obviously, we will look at what we can do around other Crown servants to make sure that they are protected from that same vexatious industry that is going on at the moment in Northern Ireland.
Frigates and Destroyers
The Prime Minister has announced that the Government will undertake the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the cold war. We remain committed to ensuring that the Royal Navy will have the ships required to fulfil its defence commitments.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. While I welcome that commitment, may I raise concerns that many are bringing to me—that at the minute we simply do not have enough ships to protect our two new aircraft carriers should they ever have to go to sea at the same time? Is it still the commitment of the Government to have two wholly UK sovereign deployable carrier groups to deploy at the same time, should we ever have to, while maintaining our other commitments overseas?
Although that has never been the policy of the Government, both aircraft carriers have been brought into service to ensure that one is always available 100% of the time. Although the precise number and mix of vessels deployed within a maritime task group would depend on operational circumstances, we will be able to draw from a range of highly capable vessels, such as Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 frigates, and the Astute class submarines—and, in the near future, Type 26 frigates as well.
I associate myself with the words of the Secretary of State about what happened yesterday; our thoughts and prayers are with the emergency services and those involved. I also congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on an excellent question.
The Secretary of State will not know that I am the son of a coppersmith in what was the greatest yard in the Clyde, John Brown’s—my own constituency office now occupies that land. I am very much aware of the vagaries of shipbuilding and the skills involved in it across the UK. I am heartened to hear what the Minister said to his hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, but I want to ask about Fleet Solid Support Ships—
How long is this going to go on?
Order. Questions should be sharp and punchy, because there are people further down the Order Paper.
Unless the Minister starts baying at me.
The Fleet Solid Support Ships have the ability to use skills and create work across yards not currently involved in the Type 26 or 31. Will the Under-Secretary assure me that he will maximise that public delivery by taking it across and then keeping it within the UK?
In November, the Secretary of State agreed that the Fleet Solid Support Ship competition should be stopped as it had become clear that a value-for-money solution could not be reached. The Department is now considering the most appropriate way forward.
Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), does the Minister agree that it would be an unwise inefficiency for there to be too little protection for our aircraft carriers? Given that we have taken this important decision to project airpower, we must have adequate surface ships to keep those aircraft carriers safe.
Of course these assets of huge national importance must be properly protected. The Royal Navy will make sure that the required number of ships are available for exactly that purpose.
The issue is not just about the number of ships that the Royal Navy possesses, but whether they are operationally effective or not. From July 2018 to July 2019, two of the six Type 45 destroyers did not put to sea, and a third spent fewer than 100 days at sea. What will the Minister be doing to ensure that the existing ships are operationally ready?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and very much share the sentiment in it. Since being appointed in December, I have been more concerned by the number of ships tied up against walls in Plymouth and Portsmouth than by those at sea. The Secretary of State has made the delivery of more ships for the fleet his priority for the Navy.
In the financial year 2018-19, expenditure across the UK was £19.2 billion, supporting around 119,000 jobs. In my hon. Friend’s region of the north- west, we spent just under £2 billion supporting around 12,500 jobs, many of which were in Barrow.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, almost one in five of my constituents works either in the delivery of the national endeavour of the nuclear deterrent or in the supply chain businesses in Barrow; the economic impact is therefore huge. The proposed marina village development in Barrow would help to ensure that money spent there serves our local economy. Will he agree to meet me and back this endeavour, and to meet my local council to support that initiative?
My hon. Friend has certainly hit the ground running. I have been in post for less than two months, and he has been here for the same time, yet this is the second time he has lobbied me on this important development. He will be pleased to know that as a consequence of his formidable advocacy for Barrow, I have already raised this matter directly with the chief executive of BAE Systems. My Department will do all it can to support his campaign, and I know my hon. Friend has also secured towns fund money from my colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
I welcome the new defence procurement Minister to his place. Several of his predecessors promised to factor in wider socioeconomic value when awarding contracts for defence manufacturing. When will the MOD actually start doing that for every contract? Given that the Department can no longer hide behind EU procurement rules, will he now award the contract for the Fleet Solid Support Ships to a UK firm?
On the Fleet Solid Support Ships, the competition has not yet been restarted. May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the Type 31, where there is a requirement that it should be built in the United Kingdom? That is a model we should be looking to emulate as much as possible.
Support for Veterans
The strategy for our veterans outlines a 10-year vision. The MOD has launched a new holistic transition policy, broadening the support offered to our people. Resettlement policy and the career transition partnership provide this employment support.
Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking businesses in my constituency, such as Iggesund, James Walker & Co and TSP Engineering, among others, that have actively recruited veterans? Will he pledge his support for companies like them to help veterans after their valued service?
I certainly pay tribute to my hon. Friend and the company he mentions. Veterans in this country are a significant untapped resource, and one primary objective of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is to re-evaluate what the perception of veterans is in this country. They bring so much to so many companies across the land, including the one he mentions.
An area where we can do more to tackle disadvantage that families face is in helping bereaved services children in the education system. Will my hon. Friend therefore look favourably at proposals from Scotty’s Little Soldiers, an excellent charity based in King’s Lynn, in my constituency, to track and support 1,000 bereaved services children in our schools?
Absolutely. I pay tribute to those at Scotty’s Little Soldiers, who have done a remarkable job over the years, and I am seeing them tomorrow. Data is an area where the Government are determined to do their work to make sure that all of our policies are evidence-based and that they reach the people who need them tracking service families, particularly bereaved families, through schools is an important part of that work.
Since 2013, four men have been lost to their families following their deaths during Army training in the Brecon area. The parents of one of these men, Craig Roberts, are in the Gallery today. At the latest inquest, the coroner criticised the Minister’s Department, saying that lessons were not being learnt from these tragedies. She has already granted one extension to respond—when will the Minister respond?
I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives on these exercises. Indeed, on the Select Committee, I worked on a report that was determined to make sure that every question the parents will have about these tragic accidents is investigated. The report is being gone over at the moment, and I want to make sure it is right and that it applies the lessons that have been learned. No child should die in training in our UK armed forces, although we must remain cognisant of the fact that it needs to remain as aggressive and warlike as we can make it. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents to find out what more we can do to narrow that delta in training.
Too many times in the past five years, I have met veterans in my constituency office who have been unable to access the mental health support they need. The Minister has mentioned a holistic approach to transition. Will he give mental healthcare a top priority in that?
One of my primary duties in this role is to ensure that no veteran does not know where to turn in this country for help, and that is particularly pertinent to mental health. We have some brilliant services across the country. A reconfiguration is going on at the moment, from third sectors into the NHS, but I am looking to launch a veterans’ mental health strategy later on this year. I am determined that within six to 12 months there will be no veteran in this country who will not know where to turn to for help.
Veterans who served in Northern Ireland on Operation Banner will, along with many of their families, I am sure, welcome the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive—but not at the price of selling our veterans down the river to appease Sinn Féin. When the Prime Minister stood for the leadership of the Conservative party, he said clearly in writing in The Sun that he would legislate to protect veterans, including Northern Ireland veterans, from vexatious prosecution. Will the Minister absolutely reiterate that promise today and assure us all that we will defend those who defended us?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s question. Let me be absolutely clear: no Government in history have done more to talk about or to try to deliver protection for our servicemen and women from vexatious claims and inquests. This Government are committed to resolving the issue, the Prime Minister has promised to do so, and my right hon. Friend has heard from the Secretary of State this afternoon that it will be done within 100 days.
First, I echo the comments of others in the Chamber about yesterday’s tragic events in Streatham.
In North East Fife, there is a fantastic military co-working scheme at Leuchars that helps veterans, spouses of serving personnel and other non-serving members of the armed forces community. It helps people to find work, to access support and to make friends. May I invite the Minister to visit the co-working hub in Leuchars and, as a former career transition partnership employee, ask what plans he has to promote similar schemes throughout the country?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and the team at Leuchars, who do a fantastic job. I am currently carrying out a programme of visits to a lot of bases. CTP is a huge part of what we offer for people transitioning from the military into civilian life, and more money is going into it than ever before, but I am determined to learn from best practice, which is what it sounds like the hon. Lady has in Leuchars, so I would be delighted to visit her in due course.
Defence Relationships: South East Asia
The UK continues to have a strong defence relationship with south-east Asia. We maintain a garrison in Brunei and have kept a persistent naval presence in the region since 2018. We work with many countries in the region to help to improve regional security and build capacity. This is done both bilaterally and multilaterally, including through the five power defence arrangements, the only formal defence agreement in the whole region.
Given the importance of the South China sea, not only as a major navigation route but as a source of a growing number of intra-nation disputes, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK has a vital role to play in ensuring freedom of navigation, providing defence and cyber solutions to south-east Asia, and boosting that five-nation power arrangement, as part of our deepening relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If any part of the world is a place where the international rules-based system is being threatened, it is in Asia and across the Pacific and the South China sea. That is why we want to strengthen and continue to work with the five power defence arrangements, to work with many of the countries in the region, and to deepen our bilateral relationship with ASEAN member states.
On the one hand, the Government have rightly been challenging China’s aggressive military actions in the seas around south-east Asia, yet on the other hand, despite the Secretary of State himself having reportedly branded China a “friend of no one”, the Government have granted Huawei significant access to the superhighways of our cyber and telecoms systems. Will the Secretary of State clarify exactly what his Government’s strategy in relation to China is?
The Government’s strategy towards China is that we treat it in a way that befits its actions but measure our response when China does things that we do not like. For example, we test freedom of navigation in the Pacific but also seek to listen to the experts when it comes to issues such as Huawei. That is why the Government made the choice last week to allow Huawei to have a limited amount of the 5G market. Our policy towards Huawei is to cap it, to ban it in other parts of the network, and to reduce over time our dependency on that company and others like it.
The Ministry of Defence regularly scrutinises the quality of service provided by all contractors. It is good commercial practice to routinely monitor performance against contract targets and we will not hesitate to take appropriate action when quality standards are not met.
I am not sure that that is happening. Latest figures show that the Army is currently more than 10% under strength and that the full-time trade-trained strength is well below the Government’s stated target. It beggars belief that Capita still holds the recruitment contract. Despite what the Minister says, have the Government just given up trying to hold them to account, or will they actually sack them?
Since resetting their relationship in 2018, the Army and Capita have worked on improving all aspects of the recruiting pipeline. Halfway through the recruiting year, two thirds of the Army’s regular soldier requirement have either started training or are due to do so.
On behalf of the Prime Minister, I chair the defence, security and exports working group, which is attended by the International Trade Secretary. Ministers from Defence and International Trade support regular overseas trade missions and attend a wide range of international exhibitions, most notably last year’s Defence and Security Equipment International, where we jointly hosted 58 international delegations, demonstrating the best of British defence exports.
The Secretary of State will know how much of our defence equipment pipeline is coming from the US. He will also know how much our excellent UK defence industry sells into the US. Will he make sure that, as we start the US-UK free trade agreement discussions, the defence sector is one of the sectors that is prioritised?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The US defence market is incredibly important for both the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of my honourable colleagues in this House and I lobbied for the original UK-US defence tech trade treaty in 2006. I can see the right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Warley (John Spellar) sitting on the back row of the Labour Benches—we went together. We believe that it is so important. The reality is that, yes, we have more work to do. These trade deals will be incredibly important to make sure that we secure British jobs in order to sell aerospace and partner in aerospace across both countries.
Can the Secretary of State indicate when his Government plan to introduce the excellent recommendations in the report by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne)?
A number of those recommendations have already been implemented. I will meet, and regularly do meet, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) to discuss the matter. It is incredibly important that we make sure not only that we link prosperity to our defence industry through the products that we commission for our services, but that, overseas, we secure prosperity for our jobs.
The Secretary of State and his team are doing valuable work looking at defence manufacturing for the UK and externally. Will he reassure me that radar is part of that? As I am sure that he remembers, radar was built in the Isle of Wight for the Royal Navy ships.
It will not surprise you to know, Mr Speaker, that Britain builds pretty much the best of everything in the world when it comes to aerospace. As a former aerospace worker, and a Member of Parliament who represents a good few thousand aerospace workers, I know at first hand how much the international community needs and wants our products. The trick is to make sure that we sell them, and the best way to sell them is for us to buy British and show that the best armed forces in the world use British kit.
If the Minister really wants to see the best of what Britain can do in manufacturing, a long-term partner in defence procurement and in making the turbines and gears for the armed services is David Brown Gears in Huddersfield. Will he visit that company? It is a brilliant company. It manufactures for our armed services and it exports. May I invite him to visit to see how excellent it is?
I would be absolutely delighted to visit.
Armed Forces: Capabilities
As announced in last year’s Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister has committed to undertake the deepest review of Britain’s foreign policy, defence, security and development since the cold war. It will consider all aspects of our defence and security capabilities, including our approach to procurement and maintaining our technological edge against current and future threats.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and for this Government’s ongoing commitment to our security. Now that we have left the EU, our ongoing relationship on security with the EU will inevitably change, so what steps is he taking to strengthen our role within NATO for the future?
The United Kingdom is a full member of NATO and completely committed to ensuring that that alliance has a long-term future. The announcements that we made at the NATO summit in December set NATO on the right path of expanding into areas of hybrid threat and cyber. I am confident that, with Britain and our partners working to ensure NATO’s success, NATO will have a long and fruitful future.
But military capability also depends on industrial defence capability, which depends on a steady workstream. As a number of Members have said, now that we have come out of the EU, why will the Secretary of State not back our shipbuilding industry, start the new contract and specify that support ships should be built in British yards by British firms? Here is the opportunity—why will he not do it?
The right hon. Member will have heard that we stopped the competition for the future solid support vessels. We will look at why that competition could not proceed but, like shipbuilders, I have a lot of faith in the British shipbuilding industry, which is why we have the Type 31 and the Type 26—excellent aircraft carriers that were delivered on time and on budget—and we will continue to invest in the yards. It is also important to make sure that this SDSR and everything else are budgeted for. No SDSR that I can remember, going back to the early ’90s, has been properly funded to back up the ambitions.
Can I welcome the defence, security and foreign policy review—or the integrated review, as I understand it is to be called? It is a fantastic opportunity to upgrade our defence posture, given the threats that we face. Previous reviews have been hampered by limitations imposed by spending reviews, which, coincidentally, happened at the very same time. So could the Secretary of State spell out the context, the timeframe and the parliamentary engagement for the forthcoming review?
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. Perhaps, given his time in the Department, he will enjoy being able to scrutinise some of his own decisions, and I look forward to his questioning me.
We will publish the details of the review in very quick time as we go forward. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that, if these reviews are to be worth anything, they have to be properly funded. That requires honesty from the Department, wider Government, and the Treasury, and for the ambitions for what we want our country to do and be around the world. If we match our appetites with stomachs, it will have a long-lasting legacy.
We have had as many defence reviews as you have had hot dinners, Mr Speaker, and I am beginning to think that I have got to the point where I have heard so many Defence Ministers tell us that it is going to be different this time. There have been repeated reviews, and as the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said, too often there is a mismatch between the money and the plans. What, realistically, will the Secretary of State do that is different, because every delay in this costs money and every tough decision ducked does no service to our armed services or the security of our country?
The hon. Lady makes very genuine and good observations about these defence reviews. I was a soldier serving under defence reviews that never translated into either money or the funding. The first thing that we can do is be honest with the men and women of our armed forces about what we can afford and what we will give them, and at the same time be honest with the public about what our ambitions are globally, and make that honesty not hunkered in sentimentality but based on financial reality, making sure that the whole Government buy into that, and that we explain that fully across the House and to all Members, including the hon. Lady’s Committee.
The MOD is committed to supporting the UK defence manufacturing industry. Since 2015, we have published a national shipbuilding strategy, launched the combat air strategy and refreshed our defence industrial policy. Through the defence prosperity programme, we are working to sustain and develop an internationally competitive and productive UK defence sector.
The help that the Government give to our indigenous exporting firms is of huge value. I thank the Minister for the Department’s help with exports of the Leonardo AW159 Wildcat helicopter, and I note that the Republic of Korea has an opportunity to increase its world-leading Wildcat capability, built in Yeovil, to give its people maximum protection and forge an increasingly significant and dynamic relationship with the United Kingdom.
The Wildcat, designed and built in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and with the sweat of my own constituents, has been tried and tested on operations with the Royal Navy. The Government will continue to do all that we can to support the export of Wildcat to South Korea, including making a Royal Navy Wildcat available for it to test and evaluate in the coming months.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The combat air strategy has led to Team Tempest, a world-leading programme providing not only fast jet capability to replace the Typhoon for the Royal Air Force, but real STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—inspiration by employing 1,000 people directly. Can the Minister assure me that its position will be secure in the upcoming defence review?
The Government will undertake the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the cold war. The terms of reference will be announced in due course, but the UK combat air strategy that was published in July 2018 will be used to inform the review.
It is mostly French and Swedish steel that has been used to build our ships recently. Does the Minister agree that it is time to factor in the economic value of awarding defence contracts to UK steel suppliers when making procurement decisions in the future?
I have already had the opportunity to visit Barrow, which is a shipyard full of British boats. I understand that the order books on the Clyde and at Rosyth are similarly full.
Talking about the order book for the Clyde, will the Minister give us an assurance that there will be a continuous drumbeat and no delays for future Type 26 frigates that are ordered?
The commitment to building Type 26 frigates is absolute. In fact, defence spending in Scotland secures 10,200 jobs; that is the Royal Navy supporting 10,200 jobs in Scotland.
Safety of Personnel Overseas
The Ministry of Defence constantly reviews the security of its personnel, sites and capabilities to ensure that they remain safe and secure, and that the measures in place remain proportionate, including in response to any changes in threat or risk.
I think we would all agree on the importance of protecting our servicemen and women from threats abroad. However, harmful drinking is more common than post-traumatic stress disorder in the armed forces, and double that of the general population. What is the Minister doing to support the health and wellbeing of our armed forces, to whom we all owe so much?
My hon. Friend will know that there are specific areas where the armed forces have challenges when it comes to drinking, including alcohol abuse and so on. There are a number of programmes running throughout the military. We have a good record on this matter, but there is more to do. I am aware that this issue is baked into some of the culture of previous years. We are doing much better now, but there is work to do on that front.
Last week, three rockets struck the US embassy compound in Baghdad, leaving one person injured. In the light of increased tensions following the US action against Qasem Soleimani, will the Minister tell us what measures are being taken to reduce the risk to our troops in the region, and will he update us on progress in relation to our counter-Daesh programme?
I am clearly not going to go into operational security from the Dispatch Box, but the hon. Member can rest assured that all the correct measures have been taken to ensure that our service personnel are protected abroad, whether it be in Baghdad or the other places where our troops are deployed. The Secretary of State will be providing a formal update on our counter-Daesh programme in due course.
MOD expenditure with UK industry and commerce supported 119,000 jobs in the UK in the financial year 2018-19, including more than 10,000 jobs in the midlands engine.
Many businesses across Amber Valley benefit from MOD contracts, but there are many more that could. What more can the Department do to work alongside businesses to help spread out these contracts and jobs around the country?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue. Since taking on this brief, I have been interested to discover how the MOD might broaden access for small and medium-sized enterprises, and he represents exactly the sort of constituency where such opportunities are greatest. There will be businesses in his area that can contribute directly to the MOD supply chain, but with Rolls-Royce in Derby immediately to the south of his constituency, we can work with our prime contractors to ensure that they can also access those supply chains.
Armed Forces: Social Mobility
The armed forces aim to attract talent from the widest possible base across the United Kingdom, regardless of socioeconomic background, educational status or ethnicity. The skills, education and training provided enable recruits to progress and benefit from promotion based on merit.
The Minister will be aware that the armed forces recruit heavily in areas like mine in Hull. However, a recent Sutton Trust report showed that people from private schools are seven times more likely to reach the top of the armed forces. What steps is his Department taking to ensure that there is equality of opportunity for all and that our talented people starting on the lowest rungs get the same chance to reach the top?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. For me, the military remains the single fastest accelerant of life chances in this country for those from slightly more challenging backgrounds. The figure she refers to regarding public school and reaching the top is a challenge that has been there for a while, but our figures for Sandhurst are now very different from what they were 10 years ago. Certainly, in my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, socioeconomic background has absolutely nothing to do with someone’s ability to prevail in the military.
With the cost of university going up, many would-be graduates will look at the armed forces as being an alternative career path. However, it is still extremely difficult for someone to gain a commission if they do not have a university degree, particularly an Oxbridge degree, with 18% of commissioned officers having an Oxbridge degree. How will the Minister change things to ensure that people who go into the forces without a degree can gain a commission in future?
I and many of my colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Defence, did not have a degree. The military has been more accessible than ever before for people without a degree. This is something we consistently work on. However, I come back to my point: every applicant is judged on what they can bring and add to the organisation of the UK armed forces, irrespective of their background and conscious of the fact that we must always do more to make sure that it is equal.
A constituent of mine was serving in a UK base in Cyprus and his children have special educational needs. The school is operated by the Ministry of Defence, which was unable to offer them adequate support. They therefore had to relocate back to the UK. Will my hon. Friend work with his Department to make sure that children of our brave armed forces have the support they need and that those serving have all the instruments needed to progress their careers?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I have a specific team within the MOD dedicated to SEND children. I am more than happy to look at her case. We are bringing in legislation for the armed forces covenant. The Prime Minister is absolutely clear that no one should suffer any disadvantage as a result of their military service. That will become law during this Parliament and we will see fewer of these cases going forward.
Work on previously announced potential basing options is ongoing. No final decisions have yet been made.
I am most grateful to the Minister for those comments. We in North West Cambridgeshire firmly believe that RAF Wittering would be the ideal new home for the Red Arrows. With that in mind, will he kindly agree to stay in close contact with me throughout this process in case he or his officials require any further information? Of course, I would be happy to have another ministerial meeting if it would help to press our case further.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s offer of assistance. I assure him that all three potential basing options are still being considered. I would welcome the opportunity to meet him and other interested colleagues in the very near future.
Our approach to procurement recognises the need to assure the UK’s operational advantage and freedom of action in relation to certain capabilities.
What about Cobham?
In addition to measures to protect national security, the Government have secured legally binding commitments that there will be significant protection of jobs in the UK, that Cobham’s headquarters will remain in the UK, and that there will be guaranteed spend on research and development. Of course, this is not just a one-way street. I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the acquisition by BAE Systems of two very high-tech and interesting companies in America last week.
Armed Forces: Recruitment and Retention
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces. There is a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention, and these are kept under constant review.
Can the Minister assure me that his Department intends to keep the present number of Marines, not decrease it, bearing in mind that they are such a vital force to protect this country?
I can confirm that we have no plans to reduce the size of the Royal Marines. They are an extremely important part of this country’s defence. They contribute 47% of individuals who go off to our UK special forces group. They are evolving and developing; the future commando force concept is very exciting. There are no plans to reduce the number of Royal Marines at this stage.
Strait of Hormuz: UK Shipping
The UK is part of the International Maritime Security Construct, which is safeguarding freedom of navigation in the Gulf. It is now under the command of a Royal Navy officer. The Ministry of Defence, with the Department for Transport, is monitoring the situation closely and stands ready to counter threats, should the need arise.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal, Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles, finance terror groups, harass shipping in the strait of Hormuz and generally act as a bad influence in the region. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the strategic threat to both the UK and our allies in the region, including Israel and the Gulf states?
Iran’s interference in the region is a strategic threat to its near neighbours and, indeed, to UK interests and her allies. The use of proxy forces, terrorists and the constant incursion against our ships in the strait pose a real problem, which was why we joined the International Maritime Security Construct and will continue to be part of it.
Armed Forces Personnel
I call the Minister.
I am not very well, Mr Speaker. It is not coronavirus; it is worse—it is man flu. It would have seen the Secretary of State in bed for a week.
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, and a range of measures to improve recruitment and retention is under way. Those measures are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
Independent analysis by the House of Commons Library has found that Army numbers could fall to just 65,000 by the end of this Parliament if the current rate of decline continues. Instead of giving us more warm words, can the Minister tell us what specific steps his Department is taking to avoid that?
On recruitment, we are at just under 100% of our year-long target, which comes round in April. More people are looking to join the Army than we have seen since 2010. There is a massively positive story to tell. There are no plans to reduce the number of armed forces personnel. It is a fantastic time to join up.
The MOD has provided extensive support to the cross-government response to the outbreak of coronavirus to ensure the safety of British nationals abroad. That has included medical support on the repatriation flight from Wuhan, the use of RAF Brize Norton and contingencies for handling evacuees in the UK. The Department continues to support planning across Whitehall.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Does he agree that, after facing implacable foes armed with guns and RPGs, it is entirely wrong that our service personnel come home only to face foes armed with subpoenas and LLBs? Will he reiterate the Government’s reassurance that they will not be pursued for historical convictions when no new evidence is found?
I assure my hon. Friend of the importance that we attach to this area, given the stress under which it puts members of the armed forces. This is the first time in my living memory that all the Front-Bench team served on operations and were members of the regular armed forces. That is why we feel it personally, as do the Government. We are determined to deal with this vexatious issue for our armed forces, which is why we will introduce measures in the next 100 days.
Our armed forces were due to have access to Galileo’s encrypted system when it becomes fully operational in 2026, but now we have left the EU, that will not be the case. Can the Secretary of State tell the House when the UK’s own global navigation satellite system will be fully up and running? Given that the first satellites may only be launched by 2025, and the system will not be operational until 2030, what will fill the gap in capabilities that this presents?
The hon. Lady will be aware that all our systems currently run under GPS—the global positioning system—and it is not necessary for us to operate under any other system. This is about resilience and whether we need an alternative system. What happens in our negotiations with Europe between now and the end of the year will obviously be a matter for the negotiators, but I am confident that we will continue to work alongside the United States on GPS or, indeed, that we will provide further details to the House on what we plan to increase resilience.
The Government have actually said that the cost of any system could be up to £5 billion. If the plan is to have this UK option, what assurance has the Secretary of State received that the money will not have to come out of the existing defence budget, which is already under strain, leading to more cuts in other areas?
As I said in my first answer, we are currently dependent on using GPS with the United States. We will keep any alternatives that we need under review. I will of course make representations to the Treasury, as will the wider parts of Government that also rely on satellite navigation—it is not just Defence—to make sure that, if any funding is required, that is taken from across Government or indeed from the Treasury.
Ynys Môn is an incredibly important island and, indeed, RAF Valley is incredibly important for our RAF and our pilot training. I know that at first hand, in that I have spent a large part of my year at the end of a runway at RAF Valley—literally, although not as an air spotter, I have to say. I go on my holidays to Anglesey, and I know how important RAF Valley is to both the economy and the community. The Government continue to invest in RAF Valley. I greatly look forward to working with my hon. Friend to make sure that voices about the needs of that airport are heard. I am delighted that only recently a new runway was completed to make sure that it has a long-term future in providing our fighter pilot training.
Will the Secretary of State comment on what he makes of the European Commission’s vision of structural consultation on defence and security, and will he be advising the Prime Minister to establish a framework to allow us to continue the excellent work we do with our fellow Europeans?
On a number of deployments with the European Union, we do excellent work, such as in Kosovo and so on. We will make sure that, where there is a requirement for us to work together and there is a mutual need for our security, we will of course enter into such working relationships. However, one of the conditions will be that we can unilaterally enter and unilaterally leave—we will not be tied in. Of course, the security of Europe is always important to the United Kingdom, and we will continue to uphold that policy.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. These aircraft carriers are bought and paid for: they have been committed to. One is only on sea trials, and I would urge him to give it a chance—we will finish the sea trials. The aircraft carriers are really important to our strategic reach. We will design them so that we always have one available in a carrier strike group around the world, to be delivered should we need to do so. There are absolutely no plans whatsoever to get rid of them.
I have had meetings with the Minister for School Standards to make sure that the process is a lot smoother and that people who can access the service pupil premium can do so further in advance of their posting. Again, this issue comes under the armed forces covenant. I am confident that, when this Government do legislate to make sure that no individual is disadvantaged because of their service, such incidents will be no more.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and to the men and women of Blyth Valley who have contributed so much to this nation’s defence. We are acutely aware that although we are now doing pretty well in recruitment, we have a challenge with retention, and for the first time a Secretary of State has come into role and started talking about how we can better look after our people. I am confident that with wraparound childcare, and all the other things we are doing, we will improve the offer and tackle retention, and that the men and women of Blyth Valley will continue to serve well in our armed forces.
I will write to the hon. Member.
My hon. Friend is right to be proud of the Army and RAF units in her constituency. We attach the very highest priority to ensuring that all three services have what they need to protect our country and its interests around the world. Our manifesto was perfectly clear: we are proud of our armed forces and will fund them properly.
There should be no waiting time whatsoever for medical records that are going from regular regiments to a local GP. We are looking at ways of improving the system, and incentivising, to ensure that the gap is much smaller. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about his constituent, I will find out what is going on in that case and ensure it is sorted out.
Absolutely. The first winner of that competition was Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, which was in my former constituency—it is now in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). It is brilliant that so many girls are entering that sphere. Cyber-security is a real future career, as are other cyber measures, such as cyber-espionage—very good—and I want more and more women to do it. I think it is fantastic. The competition has my full support, and I hope it is won again in Lancashire.
Sergeant Michael Rowley served his country for 25 years. As a result of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, he started drinking heavily and gambling—not an uncommon story. The charity Help a Squaddie helped Michael to get his life back together, but many are not so fortunate. What are the Government doing specifically to help victims who are at risk of or struggling with those issues?
The Government are funding the NHS to bring in the veterans mental health transition, intervention and liaison service, and the veterans’ mental health complex treatment service. We are bringing in a high-intensity service, and those measures will be brought together to bring forward a coherent veterans strategy for mental health. We are determined that by the end of this year, no veteran will not know where to turn when they need such support.
The Ministry of Defence continues to work closely with colleagues in DFID and across the Government to ensure that activity is co-ordinated and mutually reinforced in support of our national security objectives. The Government have announced that they will undertake the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the cold war, and that will cover all aspects from defence to diplomacy and development.
Given Capita’s lamentable track record—it was referred to earlier—is there any chance that the Minister will guarantee that it will not get its hands on the MOD fire and rescue service?
There is fair competition in that area, as there always will be. What happened with Capita has been roundly acknowledged by the Ministry of Defence and we have gripped those issues. However, there will be an open and fair competition for that contract.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the announcement he made on Armistice Day last year, at the start of the election campaign, about service personnel not being repeatedly reinvestigated without compelling new evidence broadly corresponds to the recommendations of the 17th report of the last Parliament’s Select Committee on Defence, and does he have a reply to that report ready to give to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), my successor as Chair of the Defence Committee, as soon as the new Committee is formed?
I stand by the statements I made. I apologise for the time taken to respond to the Committee. The reason is that the original draft reply did not reflect the policy commitment and does not reflect the result of the general election. I am determined that all my Department’s replies to Committees are correct, accurate and answer the questions put to them. I hope that when my right hon. Friend reads the reply, he will be happy that it responds to some of the very good recommendations in his Committee’s report.
The Veterans Minister and I finally get to meet next week, at a meeting originally promised with his predecessor about my constituent Tony Pitt, who was worried about funding life-saving treatment for a rare condition he contracted in the Army and feared he had only six months to live. It will just be me and his widow at the meeting. Does the Minister accept that the armed forces covenant promise to fund advanced medical care is just not working, given that my constituent died while waiting to meet him?
Of course we will look at that issue again. It comes under the armed forces covenant: no individual should suffer disadvantage because of the time they served. I look forward to meeting the hon. Lady next week.
A key factor in retaining members of our armed forces is the state of their accommodation. As a former Guards officer based at Wellington barracks, I hear rumours that they are not good. Is the Minister happy that accommodation generally throughout the armed forces meets the required standard?
This Government are putting more money than ever before into armed forces accommodation. I am clear that some of the accommodation we ask our personnel to live in is nowhere near good enough. We have a new programme of inspections and we are determined to get a grip on the issue. I am confident that in the next 12 to 24 months, servicemen and women in this country will see a significant uplift in the standard of their accommodation.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on global Britain, following the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement today.
Last Friday, 31 January, the United Kingdom left the European Union. Before then, for three long years, we had debated the European question. Members on both sides of the Chamber were weary and people out in the country were tired of the wrangling, so I think there is relief on all sides that the question is now settled. I know that the point of departure is difficult for many people—decent people who love their country and who did not want us to leave—so it is incumbent on this Government to show that leaving marks not an ending, but a bold new beginning. We take that responsibility very seriously.
When we ratified the withdrawal agreement, this Government and this Parliament finally delivered on the promise made to the British people over three years ago. We did that as a matter of democratic principle. We did it to keep faith with and to retain the confidence of the British people. In doing so, we sent a strong signal to the EU and to the world about our ambition and our resolve as we chart the course ahead. As one United Kingdom, we are now free to determine our own future as masters of our own destiny. We are free to reinvigorate our ties with old allies. We are free to forge new friendships around the world. As we seek those new relationships with friends and partners, the interests of the British people and the integrity of our Union will be the foundation stone of everything we do.
The Prime Minister’s speech this morning and the written statement to the House start us on that journey by setting out the Government’s proposed approach to our relations with the EU in 2020. The most important thing about 2020 is that having left the EU at the start of it, at the end of it we will fully and with absolute certainty regain complete economic and political independence. That is when the transition period ends, and it will not be extended.
We will have a new relationship with the EU, as sovereign equals, based on free trade. Between now and the end of the year, we will work with the EU to try to negotiate a free trade agreement, drawing on other recent agreements, such as the one between the EU and Canada. That should be the core of our future relationship. We will look to reach agreements on other priorities, including fisheries, internal security and aviation. These will be backed up by governance and dispute settlement arrangements appropriate to a free trade agreement, with no alignment and no role for the European Court of Justice, respectful of our democratic prerogatives. We hope we can agree. If we cannot, we will of course carry on trading with the EU in the same way as Australia and many other countries around the world—as a free country, collaborating where we can, and setting our own rules that work for us.
Of course, the EU is not our only trading partner, and at the same time we will be seeking to get agreements with other great trading countries around the world. We are delighted—in the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when he was here last week—that the UK is now front of the queue for a free trade deal with the United States. We expect to open negotiations with the US and other countries very soon—in that way we can broaden our horizons to embrace the huge opportunities in the rising economies of the future, where 90% of the world’s growth comes from. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade will set out more detail in a written statement later this week, and I will visit Australia, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia over the next two weeks.
At such a crossroads moment, it is fitting and timely that this 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. This review is an opportunity for us to reassess the ways we engage on the global stage—including in defence, diplomacy and our approach to development—to ensure we have a fully integrated approach, because now is the moment to look ahead with confidence and ambition, to signal to our future partners the outward-facing, trailblazing country that we intend to be.
We have a vision of a truly global Britain. The first pillar of our global Britain strategy will be to continue to prove that we are the best possible allies, partners and friends with our European neighbours. We are working closely with our European partners to find a political solution in Libya. We will continue to stand together to hold Iran to account for its systemic non-compliance with the joint comprehensive plan of action, the nuclear deal. We will work together to tackle shared threats and global challenges, whether it is Russia’s aggression, terrorism, rising authoritarianism, climate change or, indeed, health crises such as the coronavirus. It was our honour on Friday to bring home 29 other Europeans on the UK-commissioned charter flight from Wuhan, along with the 97 Britons, because we will always look out for our European friends, with whom we share so many interests. I am grateful to the Spanish Foreign Minister for Spain’s help in co-ordinating that effort and to the French Foreign Minister in relation to the flight that came home on Sunday.[Official Report, 5 February 2020, Vol. 671, c. 6MC.]
The next pillar of our global Britain strategy will be the UK’s role as an energetic champion of free and open trade—to boost small businesses, cut the cost of living, create the well-paid jobs of the future for the next generation, provide more consumer choice and to raise UK productivity, which is so important for our “levelling up” agenda right across the country. The pursuit of shared prosperity has an essential role to play in our approach to development policy, too. As we maintain our 0.7% commitment on development spending, we need to find better ways of making sure it contributes to long-term and sustainable economic growth. As we demonstrated at the UK-Africa Investment Summit, we believe the UK has a unique and competitive offer to tackle poverty and help poorer nations benefit in a way that benefits us all over the longer term.
Finally, the third pillar of our global Britain will be the UK as an even stronger force for good in the world. Our guiding lights will remain the values of democracy, human rights and the international rule of law, and we will lead on global issues that really matter, such as climate change. That is why this year we will host the UN climate change summit, COP26, in Glasgow. We will lead by example and rise to the challenge by harnessing all the British talents in tech, innovation and entrepreneurialism to find creative solutions to global problems. We will champion the great causes of our day, as through our campaign to give every girl access to 12 years of quality education. We will defend journalists from attack, stand up for freedom of religion and conscience, and develop our own independent sanctions regime to tackle human rights abusers head on. Together, united, we can show that this country is so much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Did Dominic Cummings write this rubbish?
I know the hon. Gentleman does not like that commitment, but it is what the Scottish people voted for.
The 31st of January was a day that will be etched in our history. It has been hard going, and I know that many good people on both sides of the House and all sides of this totemic debate still bear the scars of the last three years, but now is the time to put our differences aside and come together, so together let us embrace a new chapter for our country, let us move forward united and unleash the enormous potential of the British people, and let us show the world that our finest achievements and our greatest contributions lie ahead. I commend this statement to the House.
Order. I expect to run questions for 45 minutes. I call Paul Blomfield.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement.
The Foreign Secretary is right that the last three years have been difficult and divisive for our country. He is also right that leaving the EU does not mark an ending. We have left the EU, but Brexit is far from done. As he knows, the next stage is more difficult—agreeing our future relationship in all the areas he set out, and in more besides—and we will continue to be dogged by the central dilemma that was at the heart of much of the wrangling over the last three years: will the new relationship be determined by the economic interests of our country or by the ideological commitment to break with the European social model that drove so many of the Brexit enthusiasts? I am sorry to see that today’s statement and the Prime Minister’s comments over the weekend suggest that ideology has trumped common sense.
Difficult decisions lie ahead for our country, and if the Government are serious about bringing people together we need reassurance that they will conduct the next stage of negotiations in an open and accountable way—and not by banning journalists from their political briefings, as they apparently did earlier this afternoon. The Government stripped Parliament’s role in providing accountability from the withdrawal agreement Act, so will the Foreign Secretary at least commit to publishing all negotiating texts and proposals and reporting to Parliament on each round of negotiations? [Interruption.] I want to see this Parliament in no less a place than the European Parliament, as the EU negotiators will. Will he also set out exactly how the three devolved nations will be consulted at every stage of the process?
The country is faced with two options—two opposite destinations: we can either form a new and close relationship with our biggest trading partners, or open the door and lower our standards by pursuing the damaging trade deal with Donald Trump that the Foreign Secretary welcomed in his comments. [Interruption.] I see the faces of some Government Members. They may change when the farmers whom many of them represent respond to Trump’s ambitions for that trade deal, which would damage not only farming but manufacturing, lower standards and expose our public services to real risks. As Government Members might have noticed, this weekend the UK’s former ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, made it clear that Trump would aim to force the NHS to pay higher prices for pharmaceuticals. The NHS itself has expressed concern about that.
The reckless pursuit of a Trump trade deal is limiting the Government’s aims in their negotiations with the EU. We started with a commitment to the “exact same benefits” as we currently enjoy with the EU. That was scaled back to “frictionless trade”. Now it is either a damaging Canada-style deal or leaving without a deal—rebranded as an Australia-style deal. Do the Government still recognise their own analysis from 2018—the Foreign Secretary will note that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), is sitting behind him—which shows that a Canada-style deal would lead to a 6.7% reduction in our GDP, while a WTO-style deal would lead to a 9.3% hit, hurting every region and nation of our country?
Business will be alarmed by the casual way in which the Foreign Secretary talks about leaving without an agreement, and other sectors—such as universities, which are critical to our future—will be concerned about the fact that they were not mentioned at all in his statement, or in the written statement from the Prime Minister. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government will press for association with Horizon Europe and continued participation in Erasmus?
Labour will continue to press for a relationship with our European partners based on common regulation and a level playing field, for a new place in the world based on internationalist values, and for a future with equality and social justice at its heart.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks about the importance of moving beyond the divisions of the referendum. However, I think I am right in saying that not one member of the shadow Cabinet is here to address these issues. [Interruption.] I apologise. There is one. However, the shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Brexit Secretary are busy debating the Labour leadership, although this is an important moment for Members in all parts of the House to look at the future direction of this country.
The hon. Gentleman talked about parliamentary scrutiny. We have made it absolutely clear—the Prime Minister made this point on Second Reading of the Bill that became the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020—that Parliament will be kept fully informed about the progress of the negotiations. Both Houses will have access to all their usual arrangements for scrutinising the actions of the Executive, and the Government are confident that Parliament will take full advantage of those opportunities. We will also ensure that there is full engagement with the devolved Administrations.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of other points, and I have been listening to his more recent remarks, including those made since the election. He has said that the Labour party should have organised an out-and-out campaign for Remain during the election campaign. That suggests to me that the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the Labour party, have still not quite “got it” that there is a referendum result, a democratic will, that must be respected. We will not move on from this debate, let alone grasp the opportunities of Brexit, if the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party stay stuck in that rut.
It was not clear to me whether his attack on our proposals and ambition for free trade agreements was just the tired, old anti-Americanism that is harboured in the Labour party, or whether he is actually against free trade in itself, but he does not seem to believe in democracy and he does not seem to believe in free trade, and at points during his remarks he did not seem to believe in the potential of this country.
Let me now turn to the hon. Gentleman’s specific points about a free trade agreement with the United States. Let us be absolutely clear, as we have already been: the national health service is not on the table during those negotiations. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is pointing and asking about pharmaceutical companies. The pricing of UK medicine is not up for negotiation. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that that is not what the ambassador says. It is what this Government and this Prime Minister say.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the free trade agreement with the United States, but he made no mention of the prospects for an ambitious FTA with Japan, Australia or New Zealand, or of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Is he against those as well? It seems to me that he is pitting himself against a huge opportunity for this country to grow its trade, boost its small businesses and ease the cost of living for consumers, and that is a step back, not forward, for the United Kingdom. He also mentioned forecasts. I think that there is a degree of healthy scepticism about some of those forecasts.
The United Kingdom and the Government are not passive observers. It is incumbent on us—through our approach to the economy, through an ambitious approach to free trade and through getting the right immigration policy—to ensure that we grasp the opportunities, and we on this side of the House are absolutely committed to grasping those opportunities and making a full success of Britain in every quarter of the Union.
The hon. Gentleman referred to business sentiment. We have seen purchasing managers index data on manufacturing today, which was positive at 50 points. The EY ITEM Club has identified an increase in business confidence, and the International Monetary Fund has increased its forecast for the UK. We are confident that we can make a success of Brexit. I am only sorry that the Labour party is still looking over its shoulder.
My right hon. Friend’s statement made only a passing reference to the agreement on internal security for the future. Unlike the Labour party, I do not expect the Government to publish their full negotiating mandate, but will they publicly make much clearer their intentions for that treaty in regard to key instruments that keep us safe, such as PNR—passenger name records—the Prüm convention and Schengen information system II? What is the final date on which that treaty can be agreed, such that it will become operational on 1 January 2021?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that she has done in this area. For more detail, I can point her in the direction of the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement. She will know from her own experience of negotiating with the EU that there are difficulties because it claims that access to some of the instruments will be conditional on accepting free movement. I know that she will agree that we must bring an end to free movement. However, I accept that data sharing, extradition and our relationship with Europol and Eurojust are important elements of our law enforcement co-operation, and we will be looking forward to securing appropriate relations with the EU.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of his statement. He said that the UK would “look ahead with confidence” and “signal to future partners” that we were “outward-facing”. May I disagree? I think that all these plans risk making the UK a smaller, more insular and more isolated place. He also spoke about a “truly global Britain” and about being the “best possible allies” with the EU, but I fear that that was rather contradicted when the Prime Minister said in his written statement today that there would not be “any regulatory alignment” at all, even on the efficacy of medicines.
The Prime Minister also said that there would be no
“supranational control in any area”
of UK policy. The World Trade Organisation has an appellate body—a dispute resolution body—the European Free Trade Association has a court to deal with disputes, and even the much-vaunted CPTPP has an investor-state dispute resolution mechanism. Unless the English language has changed, every single one of those bodies and mechanisms has supernatural effect—[Laughter.] It may well be supernatural as well! Every one of those bodies has supranational effect. Does the Secretary of State not understand that if our putative trading partners insist on formal dispute resolution mechanisms or institutions, our saying no might risk the UK being seen as abandoning the international rules-based system? Does he not understand that rejecting formal dispute resolution mechanisms or institutions when our partners insist on them will make it harder, not easier, to strike deals? Does he not understand that if the UK reverts to WTO rules—the UK’s favoured option outside any real agreements—the WTO has an appellate body, a dispute resolution body, that is supranational in its effect, thus rendering the red lines laid out by the Prime Minister this morning utterly useless before the ink is even dry on them?
The hon. Gentleman referred at the outset of his question to an approach that was smaller, insular and isolated, but I am afraid that that sounds like the Scottish National party’s recipe for the people of Scotland. The Conservatives want one United Kingdom proceeding forward and ready to grasp any opportunities, including for the Scottish people, and including ensuring that we have full control over our fisheries as an independent coastal state—one thing that he would clearly be willing to sacrifice at the drop of a hat. Although it is understandable that the SNP, given the views of its leadership, calls for more and more powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is astonishing that it wants to give up power to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels through what he calls dynamic legislative alignment. There is a total contradiction in his position.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the dispute resolution mechanism. The UK Government will approach the negotiations in the same way we did for the withdrawal agreement—although this will be tailored to free trade and areas of security co-operation—and will ensure that there is a track for negotiated diplomacy to resolve problems through political resolution. As for arbitration, where it is necessary, the common practice is that both sides appoint arbitrators and appoint a chair. What we will never do—the EU calls for this and the SNP seems to endorse it—is allow one side’s judicial institutions to have control over the dispute resolution mechanism for both sides. That would be entirely lopsided and a fundamental abdication of responsibility by any responsible Government, and we will not go down that path.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman will continue to make in his own way the blinkered arguments for a second referendum in Scotland. In the meantime, we will continue to work in the full interests of the whole United Kingdom and take this country forward together and united.
My right hon. Friend will have welcomed how our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister handled the recent Iran emergency and will agree that his work in bringing together two other European powers into the E3 was extremely impressive. Does my right hon. Friend have any views on a few more of the institutional tie-ups that Lord Hague recommended to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament? Although global Britain works beautifully in reaching out, perhaps we could look at and grow some of our more immediate bilateral partnerships.
My hon. Friend makes some good points. Of course, the E3 co-operation lies outside the formal structures of the EU, but it worked effectively in the recent Berlin conference on Libya, and we also worked closely on triggering the DRM under the joint comprehensive plan of action. By working in co-operation with our French and Spanish partners on the coronavirus evacuations and chartered flights, we have shown that bilateral relations provide ample opportunity to prove that we will be even stronger neighbours, partners and allies in the years ahead.
In the Prime Minister’s other written ministerial statement this morning on the closure of the Department for Exiting the European Union, he said:
“Those of its functions which are still required have been transferred to relevant government departments.”
Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House to which Department and which Minister responsibility for the negotiations on our future relationship with the EU has been transferred? The Exiting the European Union Committee will be keen to hear from him or her as soon as they are identified.
Of course, people from a range of Departments were siphoned into DExEU when it was created. We have taken back a significant number of DExEU officials into the Foreign Office, and the Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), talked to them earlier today. They will be integrated into the wider functions of Government in the usual way.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and the Prime Minister on his.
Looking at the service sector, given that the EU has made next to no effort in most of the trade deal arrangements that they have negotiated to put any special pressure for a regulatory position for the UK in financial services, does my right hon. Friend now think that the EU will reference enhanced equivalence, as in the paper written by the lawyer Barnabas Reynolds, which the Treasury accepted? Will my right hon. Friend be proposing that to the EU as the way forward when it comes to regulation?
Our ambition is to include comprehensive obligations on market access and fair competition in relation to—
Who is going to be leading it?
The Prime Minister’s adviser, David Frost, is leading the negotiations. If the hon. Gentleman was paying attention, he would know that already. As for financial services, we are willing to look at regulatory and supervisory co-operation arrangements as long as they can be done on the basis of equivalence. I am aware of the paper to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) refers, but the matter is already in the political declaration. Obviously, as we proceed with the second phase of the negotiations on the future relationship, we will want to ensure that the EU lives up to its side of the bargain in that area.
As the Foreign Secretary embarks on his review of the world, will he remember individual cases affected by our foreign policy—including that of my constituent Luke Symons, who, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is being held captive by the Houthis in Sana’a? The family have been in touch with the Foreign Office about concerns for his welfare and mental health. Can the Foreign Secretary assure me that maximum efforts are being made to secure Luke’s release?
I can, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless efforts on behalf of his constituent. It is a difficult case, but we will continue to do as much as we can to support the family and to secure release. The consular teams in the Foreign Office, as well as the missions and the geographic departments, work very hard on this. A lot of the consular work takes place beneath the surface, privately; the exercise of diplomacy has to be done out of the public limelight, almost by definition. But I assure the hon. Gentleman that we work tirelessly to secure release in cases such as this.
Will the Foreign Secretary give a cast-iron guarantee that under no circumstances will the territorial sovereignty of Gibraltar be part of any type of negotiation as part of the trade agreement? Will he also confirm that any free trade agreement with the EU—and, indeed, the rest of the world—in future will include benefits for all our overseas territories and the Crown dependencies?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a tireless champion of not just Gibraltar but all the overseas territories. We are absolutely clear: the UK will not exclude Gibraltar from our negotiations with the EU. We will negotiate on behalf of the whole United Kingdom family, and that includes Gibraltar.
If the concept of a global Britain is to have any meaning and value, surely it must have respect for human rights and an international rules-based order at its heart. With that in mind, will the Foreign Secretary reconsider the unqualified support he gave to President Trump last week in respect of the so-called peace plan for Palestine? Will the right hon. Gentleman repudiate the proposed annexation of the west bank and at long last support the recognition of a Palestinian state?
I gently say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not think he has read the detail of this. Whatever else he may disagree with, the one thing that the plan put forward by the US included was a recognition of and commitment to a two-state solution. We have been absolutely clear that that is the only way in which the conflict can be resolved.
We support a plan and a mechanism to get the parties out of the destabilising vacuum and void that there has been of late, and around the table. The plan is only the point of departure. I share some of the concerns expressed around settlements; I think there is also a question around the status of Jerusalem. But above all, rather than just rejecting the plan, it is important that we try to bring the parties together around the negotiating table. That is the only path to peace and to a two-state solution.
The Prime Minister’s speech was really clear in giving examples of how far above the level playing field the UK already is. In seeking a Canada-style free trade agreement, along the lines of what I think is chapter 15 on financial services equivalence, will the Foreign Secretary tell us a little more about what is mentioned in the written ministerial statement—the structured withdrawal of equivalence for financial services and who would arbitrate on that?
We have said not only in the written statement but in the political declaration that we want financial services to proceed on the basis of the kind of co-operation that involves recognition of the equivalence of regulation. We think that is the best approach for the UK but also for the relationship with the EU.
The dispute resolution mechanism will be tailored to the different fields and sectors covered by the FTA and the broader areas of co-operation. However, in the case of binding resolution, we have been clear that that would involve arbitration with both parties contributing. Typically, a chair is selected by the arbitrators who have been nominated, and that does not involve the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
If the 15-year damage to our economy is not to be the 6.7% or 9.3% respectively for the so-called Canada deal or no deal, which the Government are now trying to rebadge as an “Australian deal”, what is it? And why have the Government changed their mind?
We are absolutely confident that the approach we are taking allows us to grasp the opportunities, including in relation to free trade and in making sure we have full control over our own laws and are fully economically and politically independent.
Around the world protectionism is growing, and the UK has a duty to be a vocal advocate for free trade across the globe. So what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give businesses and manufacturers in my constituency that we will do just that and that free trade will become the backbone of British foreign policy?
My hon. Friend will have heard the Prime Minister’s speech this morning, and I am sure it will repay reading. He is clear that at a time when there is protectionism around the world, there is a real case and place—and this would be a real unique selling point for us—for the United Kingdom being a champion of liberal, global free trade. That will have advantages not only for the businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency but for the low-income and middle-income families who appreciate and feel the cost of living pressures, because of the way this increases choice and reduces prices at home.
Hosting the global climate conference COP26 is a huge opportunity for Britain to tackle the climate emergency and play an international leadership role. So why is this mired in chaos and confusion? The Prime Minister has failed to chair a single meeting of the climate Cabinet Committee and now he has sacked the conference president. Why is that? What are the Government going to do to play that leadership role that we all need to see?
The leadership role is seen, first, in the actions we are taking in decarbonising the UK economy; secondly, in being the first major economy to commit to net zero by 2030; and thirdly, in showing the international leadership. We do not just want the country together; we want to bring other countries together, and that is why we are hosting COP26. I pay tribute to the work Claire Perry did. As we move forward to this more intense lead-up to COP26, it is right that there is full ministerial responsibility over the negotiations and over the leadership of the COP.
Trade is important, but so are our values. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to ensuring that our values of freedom of speech, a free press, an independent judiciary, and paying great attention to tackling modern slavery and other such international crimes, are front and centre in all that this country does in the coming months and years?
I can reassure my hon. Friend, and not just with the campaign for media freedom, which we are leading along with our Canadian friends; we have that emphasis on protecting journalists and whistleblowers, who shine a light on the worst injustices in the bleakest corners of the world. I do not know whether he is in the Chamber, but I pay tribute to the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and we will be taking that work forward. We are also introducing a separate new autonomous sanctions regime to make sure that the worst human rights abusers in the world can be held to account, through visa bans and asset freezes.
Tackling the climate emergency must be core to trade policy, yet the lack of specific Government proposals looks miserably weak compared with the European Commission work on carbon border tariffs and the European Parliament ruling out trade deals with countries not signed up to the Paris agreement. The Foreign Secretary keeps going on about how Britain is going to be leading the world in tackling climate change, so let us prove it: can he say whether or not the Government will commit to going at least as far as those two EU proposals? No more waffle, no more rhetoric—will he or will he not?
We have set out our proposals, and we are committed to that ambition: reducing to net zero by 2050; continuing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; and bringing together innovation, technology and entrepreneurs to provide British answers to the climate change challenge. Of course, with our Italian co-hosts, we are also leading the COP26 conference in November.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as an independent coastal state, our UK fishermen will be given priority over catching any fish stocks in our 200-mile to median line limit?
We automatically take back control of our waters and others’ right to fish in them at the end of 2020. We will be leaving the common fisheries policy, so we will be an independent coastal state. In line with the practice of other such states, the agreement we do with the EU will provide a framework for annual negotiations on access and quotas. I hope that gives my hon. Friend and her constituents the reassurance they need.
In aerospace, aviation, engineering, food, farming and ceramics, the organisations that represent those who employ millions of workers have expressed serious concern over what happens if the Government get it wrong. Will the Secretary of State undertake that the Government will, in the next stages, fully engage those industrial organisations and the unions that represent the workers concerned, not least because if the Government get it wrong—there is a real risk of that—tens of thousands of workers will pay the price with their jobs?
I do not share the hon Gentleman’s pessimistic outlook, but it is important that all areas of civil society, including the unions, are engaged and can feed in their views on all the different sectoral aspects he mentioned. The hon. Gentleman talked in particular about aviation; we believe that there is mutual benefit in an air-transport agreement that covers market access to air services, aviation safety and security. That is just one of the wider areas of co-operation that we will look to take forward with our EU partners.
Will the Government confirm that the European Union has misjudged the mettle of this Government and country in thinking that we are going to give away our fish again and accept all the EU’s laws in return for a free trade agreement that it needs more than us? I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, and say no more concessions.
I think I agree with all my right hon. Friend’s points. We were asked by the EU to make a choice and we have chosen a Canada-style agreement. It seems to many of us that the EU would like to cherry-pick by giving us the level of access of a Canada-style agreement while wanting the level of alignment of a Norwegian-style agreement. That is not on the table.
If we diverge from EU standards to secure a US trade deal, that will have huge consequences for Northern Ireland. Many in the US Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have said that they will never ratify any infringements of the Good Friday agreement, and they have said so publicly. Will the Secretary of State explain how the situation will be resolved?
It has already been materially resolved. When I was out in Washington, I met many members on the hill from all sides of Congress, including Richie Neal, who chairs the Friends of Ireland caucus. We were able to show that, with the changes we have made to the withdrawal agreement and the protections and safeguards for the Good Friday agreement, we are protecting the situation in Northern Ireland. We have strong support on both sides of the aisle in the US for the approach we have taken and, indeed, for US-UK free trade agreement. I hope that the hon. Lady will now get behind it.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House in clear, explicit terms that under no circumstances will there be any role for the European Court of Justice, that there will be no acceptance of EU rules, and that there will be no weakening in our resolve to impose tariffs if the EU will not conduct a fair and free negotiation? In the words of our former Prime Minister, “No. No. No.”—and this time we will back the Prime Minister.
We of course enter the negotiations with a spirit of optimism, ambition and good will, but we also want to be clear. I think a question was asked earlier about the EU side not understanding what is and is not up for negotiation. We are not going to allow the European Court of Justice to adjudicate disputes that affect the United Kingdom. That is not global practice and it would be totally lopsided. Equally, in relation to a level playing field or other areas of high alignment, we have been absolutely clear—the Prime Minister was this morning—that we will have full economic and political independence and full control over our laws.
The Foreign Secretary says that he wants a Canada-style free trade agreement and claims that FTAs never include level-playing-field obligations, but article 23.4 of the EU-Canada FTA clearly states that
“it is inappropriate to encourage trade or investment by weakening or reducing…labour law and standards.”
Will the Foreign Secretary be honest with the British people and state clearly that free trade agreements always include level-playing-field obligations?
I know that the hon. Gentleman follows these things carefully. Of course, the article in the EU-Canada agreement to which he refers is a hortatory recognition of the importance of strong labour laws; it is not legislative high alignment. That is precisely the kind of approach that the UK would take.
What I hope we can still call the Prime Minister’s tour de force this morning laid out clearly that he did not believe we needed any further treaties or institutions to cover security, foreign and defence issues, but to avoid any misunderstanding will the Foreign Secretary confirm that agreement on data protection is going to be vital, not only for security issues but for wider service export interests? We currently have a considerable service surplus in our trade with the EU.
My hon. Friend is right that data is important. We are, of course, looking at the data adequacy process. Given the high level and high standards of UK regulation and laws in this regard, we are confident that, whatever approach we agree on in relation to the deal, we will be able to secure it in order to safeguard data-sharing both among businesses and individuals, but also, as he says quite rightly, in relation to law enforcement and wider areas of security.
The Foreign Secretary knows that the WTO and its dispute resolution system are operationally dysfunctional, because the US will not appoint appellant judges. Does he accept that, if we drift away from the protection of the laws, the rules and the courts of the EU, our jobs will be put at risk and our financial services, in particular, will disperse? We are already seeing the currency down 1%. Will he focus on keeping us aligned, rather than moving to a system that does not work?
I certainly agree that there is a case for WTO reform and for making sure that it can be an effective mechanism for resolving disputes. We want the WTO to work effectively. We want to be a champion of reform and liberalisation within the WTO. The answer though is not then to abdicate our responsibility through legislative high alignment with the EU.
Every one of the Nobel prizes in the sciences awarded this year was awarded not to an individual, but to a group of people from different countries and different institutions. It is clear that creative genius is international. Will my right hon. Friend tell us how British scientists can continue to operate in international, global and European networks?
The issue of 5G and high-risk vendors has raised the importance of making sure that the UK has the right fiscal regulatory approach to encouraging tech investment in this country so that, for both the present and the future, it is an area of competitive advantage. When we co-operate and collaborate with our North American friends, our Five Eyes friends and our European friends, it is important to ensure that we have the collaborative approach and the mobility arrangements through the tax and the research and development incentives to boost tech nationally. It is important that we work with our like-minded friends and partners.
Does the Secretary of State agree that sensible deals such as lowering the bourbon tariff from the US to facilitate lowering the whisky tariff for all the United Kingdom, including for my own Echlinville Distillery in Kircubbin in Strangford, is the way to make the most of what we can achieve on the global market?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is just one area where a free trade agreement with the US and, indeed, with other countries around the world—particularly with the markets of the future and the growth opportunities of the future, in the Asia Pacific area—can create benefits for all quarters and for all nations of the United Kingdom.
After three years of Brexit distraction, it is wonderful to hear a Foreign Secretary who is determined to see Britain play a more influential role on the international stage. To that end, does he agree that the forthcoming security review will prove to be an inflection point in determining the impact of the growing threats that we face, the aspirational role that the UK aspires to play, and the subsequent hard and soft power upgrade that we will require to fulfil that ambition?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and congratulate him on his recent election to the Select Committee. I agree with all the aspects that he raised. We want to make sure that we look at foreign policy and all its elements in the round, from security to development. We want to make sure that, as we move forward—leaving the European Union is a point of departure, not the point of arrival—we are global champions of free trade, good strong allies and neighbours not just with our American allies and friends, but with our European friends, and, above all, an even stronger force for good in the world.
When did the European Union reach a trade agreement with Australia?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the economic framework partnership agreement 2008.
Given that 10p in every pound that this Government spend comes from the financial services sector, will my right hon. Friend ensure that that sector is a key priority in trade negotiations ahead?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—financial services are a critical part of the UK economy. In the political declaration, clear arrangements are envisaged to make sure that we can strengthen financial services, both in the UK and into the European Union, and in particular I hope that the arrangements that we will pursue around equivalence will give effect to that.
Those of us on the SNP Benches are told continually that we are privileged to be part of the world’s most successful union of nations, yet I could detect no reference whatsoever to the devolved Administrations in the Secretary of State’s speech. What will his negotiating strategy be with the devolved Administrations as he seeks to take forward his vision of global Britain?
I am glad to say that, beneath all the political froth, in my time as Brexit Secretary and from what I have observed since, the devolved Administrations have played a vital role in feeding in their priorities, making sure that the Government can update them on the process, the trade-offs and the competing interests that inevitably inform an international negotiation. I know that that will continue as we move forward.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there seem to have been hints from the Government that they will put more effort into the United Nations in future as part of global Britain, and in particular that we should put more effort into peacekeeping and that sort of activity in the United Nations? That will increase our soft power within a great organisation.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, not for his role in the House, but for his experience and role in peacekeeping operations. I particularly remember him giving evidence to the Yugoslavia tribunal, in my time in The Hague, as an expert witness. He is absolutely right, and as we leave the European Union, while we want to maintain strong relations with our European friends and partners, we also want to make sure that NATO is fit for the future, and is strengthened and reinforced, given the changing threats that it faces. As he so rightly says, there is also an increasing role for an even more ambitious approach in the United Nations on human rights, but also on peacekeeping.
Successive Prime Ministers have come back from the European Council and boasted, quite rightly in many cases, how well they have done persuading the whole of the EU to adopt sanctions in relation to Russia. How are we going to do that when we are no longer sitting in the room?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We will have the freedom to have a more autonomous approach to sanctions. [Interruption.] It is not quite true, if he looks at the competence of the EU. In relation to human rights abuses, we will set out our proposals shortly, but we have an interesting opportunity, working with our Canadian and wider Five Eyes partners, as well as with our bilateral partners who are closest to us on human rights issues, to provide, cement and reinforce an even broader coalition of like-minded countries that will hold dictators and despots to account for the worst abuses.
For those whose questions have not been taken, we will certainly try to get you in in a future statement. I call the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the right hon. Nick Hancock.
Nick? It is not “Room 101”, Mr Speaker.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the ongoing situation with the Wuhan coronavirus. On Friday, the chief medical officer announced that two patients in England who are members of the same family tested positive for coronavirus. They were transferred to a specialist unit in Newcastle, where they are being cared for by expert staff. Public Health England is now contacting people who had close contact with these two confirmed cases. Close contacts will be given health advice about symptoms and emergency contact details to use, should they become unwell in the next 14 days. These tried and tested methods of infection control will ensure that we minimise the risk to the public.
On Friday, a Foreign Office-chartered aircraft carrying 83 British nationals left Wuhan for the UK, and I want to thank all those involved in that operation, including staff at my own Department, the Foreign Office, Border Force, the Ministry of Defence and military medics, as well as all the NHS staff, officials at Public Health England and many more who have worked 24/7 on our response so far.
Yesterday, we brought back a further 11 people via France, and returned UK nationals have been transferred to off-site NHS accommodation at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral, where they will spend 14 days in supported quarantine as a precautionary measure. I thank all the staff there who have done so much to make that possible. There, they will have access to a specialist medical team who will regularly assess their symptoms. In addition, one British national has been taken to a separate NHS facility for testing.
We will take a belt-and-braces approach that makes public protection the absolute top priority, from a virus that is increasingly spreading across the world. As of today, there are more than 17,000 diagnosed cases in mainland China, with a further 185 in other countries, including France, Germany and the United States. There have been 362 fatalities so far. The World Health Organisation has now declared the situation a public health emergency of international concern, and the UK chief medical officers have raised the risk level to the UK from low to moderate. We are working closely with the WHO and international partners to ensure that we are ready for all eventualities.
Health Ministers from G7 countries spoke this afternoon, and agreed to co-ordinate our evidence and response wherever possible. The number of cases is currently doubling around every five days, and it is clear that the virus will be with us for at least some months to come; this is a marathon, not a sprint. On existing evidence, most cases are mild and most people recover. Nevertheless, anyone who has travelled from Wuhan or Hubei province in the last 14 days should immediately contact NHS 111 to inform the health service of their recent travel, and should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people just as they would with the flu—even if there are no symptoms. Anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China in the past 14 days and is experiencing a cough, fever or shortness of breath should self-isolate and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.
We will do all we can to tackle this virus. We are one of the first countries in the world to develop a new test for it. Testing worldwide is being done on equipment designed in Oxford, and today I am making £20 million available to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to speed up the development of a vaccine. I can announce that Public Health England has sequenced the viral genome from the first two positive cases in the UK, and is today making that sequence available to the scientific community. Its findings suggest that the virus has not evolved in the last month. We have also launched a public information campaign, setting out how every member of the public, including Members of this House, can help by taking simple steps to minimise the risk to themselves and their families: washing hands and using tissues when they sneeze, just as they would with flu. That goes for all of us.
We remain vigilant and determined to tackle this virus with well-developed plans in place. I commend this statement to the House.
I expect questions on the statement to run for up to 45 minutes.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, for the way in which he has kept the House updated, and for making arrangements for the chief medical officer, NHS England officials and Public Health England officials to keep me updated.
Our thoughts are naturally with those who have lost their lives and those who have contracted the virus, including the two cases mentioned by the Secretary of State. I thank our NHS staff, who once again show themselves to be exceptional and dedicated. I pay tribute to our world-leading expertise at Public Health England and NHS England. I also join the Secretary of State in putting on record our thanks to all those involved in returning British nationals from Wuhan. Will he tell the House whether it is the Government’s intention to return all remaining British nationals in China, and whether there will be more Foreign and Commonwealth Office chartered flights in the coming days?
I agree with the Secretary of State that we must remain vigilant and alert, and not succumb to alarmism or scaremongering. As things stand, the virus has a mortality rate of around 2%. That is certainly significant but, as he says, most people will recover. However, the virus is highly infectious. The pathogen appears to be easily transmitted. Cases have now been reported in over 20 countries. The epidemic has grown at a pace quite unprecedented in recent history, with the official case count more than tripling in the past week.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s remarks about the G7. He will be aware, of course, that we have seen cases in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal and the Philippines that have weaker health systems than ours. What work is he carrying out with the Secretary of State for International Development to support countries around the world that will need extra help at this time?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s £20 million for vaccine research, but we have to recognise that, even if a vaccine is produced, it is probably some months away. Therefore, slowing down the virus spread while that vaccine is developed is absolutely crucial. So how many people has Public Health England now contacted who have been in touch with the two people who were infected? Is he able to share those figures with the House?
I understand, and indeed endorse, the precaution of NHS England in quarantining evacuees from Wuhan at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral. I must mention my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), who is the local MP and who has been in touch regularly with Ministers, her constituents and the hospital since the news broke last Thursday. I have been contacted by a patient in quarantine who has told me that evacuees are tested for the virus only if they display symptoms because risk of virus transmission is considered low. It would help to reassure the House if the Secretary of State could clarify why, if risk of transmission among non-symptomatic evacuees is low, there is no option for evacuees to self-quarantine at home. I understand that Japan and the Netherlands are allowing such quarantine. As I say, I endorse the precautions that Ministers are taking, but it would be helpful if he could offer greater clarity and those reassurances. Indeed, what would be the response of the Government and the NHS if evacuees wanted to leave Arrowe Park and self-quarantine at home? Could he update the House on that?
I welcome the public information campaign. Will the Secretary of State update us on what discussions he has had with local authority public health officials and local authorities’ social care providers and social care staff, who are obviously caring for people who are especially vulnerable to the respiratory problems associated with coronavirus?
This is a time of considerable strain on the NHS. I know the Secretary of State and I disagree on why that is, but he will accept that it is a time of huge pressure. How many specialist beds are available across the system to deal with more cases of coronavirus should we need them, and what is the capacity of trusts to flex up extra specialist beds if needed? If we do succumb to the epidemic in the UK, that will start to affect the wider NHS workforce as well. What plans are in place to ensure that NHS staff are protected over the coming months—because, as he rightly says, this is a marathon, not a sprint?
I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that we should have no truck with the racism and insensitivity shown towards Chinese and east Asian people that we have sadly seen in some quarters, with wrongly attributed videos showing wild animals being eaten and crass cartoons in the Evening Standard. Indeed, the French media are digging up old racist tropes as well. None of these attempts to dehumanise an entire ethnicity should be allowed to prevail.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today and hope he will continue to keep the House updated in the coming days and weeks.
I will try to answer all the shadow Secretary of State’s questions, not least because I want to pay tribute to him for his balanced and reasonable approach in tackling what is ultimately a very significant public health challenge.
I entirely share with the shadow Secretary of State, and perhaps should have put in my initial statement, the rejection, which the whole House demonstrates, of any racism and insensitivity towards the Chinese community here or visitors here of Chinese origin. That will not help us to tackle this disease. We will do everything we can to tackle the disease, but racism will not help anybody, so I share his comments entirely.
We have no plans to evacuate all remaining UK nationals in China. There are an estimated 30,000 UK nationals in China, and the proportion of the population who have the virus outside Wuhan is much lower than in Wuhan. Of course, there are continued flights—not by British Airways and Virgin, which have suspended flights, but by Chinese airlines. We have appropriate measures in place at the airports, as advised by Public Health England, to ensure that those coming from the rest of China also get the appropriate advice, which includes to self-isolate if they have symptoms. We are clear that this evidence-led approach is the right way to take things forward. Of course, if the evidence and the clinical advice change, we will update policy, and I will come to the House at the first available opportunity to explain that. We are trying to take a science-led approach at all times.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the challenge of the virus getting out to other countries, and especially developing countries. I am working closely with the Department for International Development and have spoken to the Secretary of State on a number of occasions about this. Of course, the WHO represents the whole world. The Global Health Security Initiative is chaired by the UK and had a call this weekend. We are leading efforts around the world to ensure that we can help all countries, no matter the calibre of their health systems, to get a grip. I have authorised a team of British experts to go to the Philippines to support their work.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the goal is to slow down the spread of the virus, and we will take all actions that are proportionate and scientifically appropriate to do that. In the case that the epidemic here gets much more serious, we have 50 highly specialist beds, and a further 500 beds are available in order to isolate people, but of course, we are working on further plans should there need to be more.
Public Health England’s contact tracing is ongoing. We will explain how far it has gone when we are ready to, and when we have managed to get in contact with all the people we need to get in contact with. I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking his colleagues from the Wirral, several of whom I have spoken to, for their support of the rational and sensible approach that we have been trying to take.
The hon. Gentleman asked about self-quarantine at home. The truth is that it is belt and braces to have full-blown quarantine. All those who are in quarantine have signed a contract agreeing to go into quarantine in return for getting on the flight. That is a good deal, because the flight was provided by the UK Government so that they could come back from an area that we deemed did not support their health. In return for coming back, they agreed to quarantine.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary China group, I extend on behalf of all Members our sympathies to the people of China in their hour of need. I thank the crisis team in the Foreign Office, all those in the Department of Health and Social Care and everyone who has been doing their best to help our nationals in China at this difficult time and treat those who have come back with the virus.
I think we all strongly approve of the Secretary of State’s decision to deploy extra money to develop vaccine capabilities through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—a group that some of us did not know about before the coronavirus came to be. Is China involved in that coalition, and to what extent are we working closely with it on that? I welcome the work being done across Departments. Will he do all he can to publicise the right number at the Foreign Office crisis team for those whose relations in Hubei or neighbouring provinces have so far been unable to get out?
I join my hon. Friend in thanking all those who are doing important work. We are of course working with the Chinese Government and we offer all support that they need. This is best done at a global level; hence it is going through the coalition, the World Health Organisation and the GHSI. With G7 partners, we are happy to respond to any demands or requests from countries around the world, not just from China, should that be needed. That includes countries whose health systems may not be as advanced as those of others, but which need support to make sure that they can tackle the virus.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families affected in what is truly a global health emergency. I have three quick questions for him. First, can he tell us what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations, and will he commit to ensuring that they are updated in real time on any developments in order for them to react immediately in advance of any new announcements? Secondly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued an urgent request for medical masks, protective suits and safety goggles. Is this something the Government will be looking to provide? Finally, what assessment has he made of the conflicting advice on closing borders—some voices are saying that this could inadvertently lead to an increase in the number of affected persons—and how has that impacted on any advice that he and his departmental officials have chosen to give?
The engagement with the devolved Administrations has been incredibly important in this so far, and will continue to be. Each of the devolved nations has a chief medical officer, and the team of the four CMOs is an incredibly important forum for making sure that the advice going to all four nations is clinically justified and correct. That has been working very well. Personally, I have spoken to the Ministers involved as well. We have a principle that we share information and publications before they go public, and thus far that has worked well. The hon. Member is right about the requests for equipment. We have sent out equipment to China, and we of course stand ready to respond to any further requests it has.
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that learning about the decision on quarantine from BBC News, rather than being told about it by his Department, which is what happened to me and most of my colleagues on the Wirral, was an error? That meant we were inundated with emails and phone calls from very worried constituents, and we had been given no briefings from which we could get any reassurance. Will he undertake to this House that such a thing will not happen again? When health emergencies like this happen, we are all in the same boat. We have to be able to reassure our constituents, and we cannot do that if we have not been briefed ourselves. Will he thank his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), and the chief medical officer for the briefings that we have received subsequently, but will he please learn that lesson?
I called the hon. Member whose constituency includes Arrowe Park. This was a very fast-moving situation, so being in contact with the local MP was incredibly important. Subsequently, as we were able to, we were also in contact with all Wirral MPs. However, I absolutely take the point: the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) would have preferred a briefing in advance; her colleague in whose constituency the hospital is got such a briefing. I apologise that that did not manage to get done in what was, as she will understand, a fast-moving circumstance, when our first priority was the protection of the public and of course those being evacuated.
I very much welcome the Health Secretary confirming that he has granted £20 million to seek a vaccine to combat the coronavirus, which I think is commensurate with Britain being a global health power. May I have assurances—I am sure he will give me these—that the UK will continue to play the most international role in combating both this virus and other global health threats that exist?
My hon. Friend is right, and I am sure we can do yet more. Today, we put an extra £20 million into the global effort, and the UK is playing a huge international role. As I said in my statement, the main testing equipment was developed in Oxford and is now used around the world, and Public Health England’s work at Porton Down is globally leading. Developments in the science around the vaccine are a global effort in which Britain is taking the lead.
Merseyside is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, so I certainly associate myself with the remarks of the shadow Secretary of State. While some in the Wirral were surprised by the news, many of my constituents have been in touch to say that their first thoughts are with those currently experiencing quarantine, in what must be a distressing situation for them. Given that we will have many lessons learnt, will the Secretary of State commit to visiting the Wirral, so that he can thank Merseyside police and NHS staff, and all those who have helped, and understand the experience so that we can improve as necessary? No doubt at some point this will happen again.
Yes, I would be happy to make that commitment. As the hon. Member may know, I was born and brought up in Chester; the Wirral is but a stone’s throw away. I wish to add Wirral Council to her list. It has done a great job in difficult circumstances, and worked closely with us to ensure the best support for those evacuees currently at Arrowe Park and for everybody on the Wirral, so that they get the support they need.
Can my right hon. Friend point people to a resource where they could look up the symptoms they might have, what symptoms are indicative of the coronavirus and what they might do if they think they are infected?
The first thing people can do is ring 111, or look on the Public Health England website and the NHS website, which includes links. Critically, people should not go to A& E or to their GP without first calling 111 because they may inadvertently contribute to the spread of the virus, rather than contain it.
I agree with the Secretary of State that a co-ordinated global response is extremely important, because we know that delaying responses could hasten the spread of the disease. Does he share my concern about reports in The New York Times yesterday, which referred to countries where China holds sway? For example, Cambodia is a magnet for Chinese tourists and workers. Its Prime Minister, Hun Sen, told a news conference that anybody wearing a mask would be kicked out of that conference because it would create a climate of fear. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that that does not bode well for trying to slow down the spread of this disease?
I have not seen that report, but I will look into it.
I commend the response by the Secretary of State and his Department, but without wishing to appear a conspiracy theorist, serious questions are going round about the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which incorporates the National Bio-safety Laboratory in China, and about whether there has been under-reporting of the level of fatalities and the number of people affected by this issue. Is the Secretary of State absolutely happy that the Chinese authorities have been completely transparent with the details of this virus and its impact?
When a virus such as this strikes, it causes a series of difficulties, especially in the epicentre, and it is clear that the health system in Wuhan is struggling to cope. Collecting the information is therefore necessarily difficult, even with the best of intentions. I understand that there is a lot of noise about this issue on the internet. The most important thing is to try to get the best information we can, analyse it, respond and follow the science wherever possible.
I particularly thank Public Health England for the advice it has provided throughout the weekend, but levels of concern remain high in York. Not only is that impacting on the local economy, but people are concerned. That concern could be alleviated by better communication and if the statutory bodies—including the local authority, the university, the police and other authorities—are kept better informed about what is happening. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss what has happened in York and learn from that so that it can be repeated in a better way elsewhere?
I agree with the hon. Lady that through experiencing a challenge such as this, when things are moving fast and information flows very quickly, we can always improve the way in which those flows occur. The Minister leading on this will be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss these matters because, as she rightly identifies, we must constantly seek improvement. I pay tribute to the approach she has taken, given that the two cases identified in England so far involve residents of her constituency.
I thank the Health Secretary for updating the House today. As one who has worked on the frontline in primary care, I know that the people working there often bear the brunt of these events, dealing with both the people who are scared when they come in to talk and those who actually suffer from the virus. My colleagues back in practice will be pleased that my right hon. Friend has directed people towards the 111 service, but what has he done to tell colleagues in GP practices or health centres where they should signpost people who turn up in those locations? If the situation worsens and becomes more sinister and widespread, will any funding be made available?
We have clearly communicated advice to all GPs and published it. I will not repeat it here, because what matters is that people follow the precise clinical guidelines set out by the medical leaders of the NHS and the chief medical officer.
I thank the Secretary of State for his update to the House. It was reported in the Liverpool Echo that if anyone in quarantine at Arrowe Park falls ill—we hope that no one does—they will be treated at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital. I am sure that that is right and correct, but as a consequence many constituents have asked what that means and put safety questions to me. I have had no communication from Public Health England, Ministers or anyone else, so it is hard for me to reassure my constituents. Will he make sure that MPs from a broader range of places near the Wirral can get information from Public Health England and Ministers, so we can be in the frontline of reassuring our constituents?
Yes, absolutely. We are to hold a briefing with the lead Minister and the chief medical officer that is open to all MPs from across the House, so they can put questions directly to the chief medical officer and get the clinical evidence behind the decisions we are taking.
Specifically on the hon. Lady’s question, the Royal Liverpool is one of the best hospitals in the world for dealing with these sorts of disease. It is one of the hospitals that we identified in advance as a place where people with coronavirus would be taken. One of the advantages of using the facilities at Arrowe Park was its proximity. Transit from A to B will of course be in secure conditions, so that no one is affected on the way. People can rest assured that if a case emerges in the isolation area at Arrowe Park, we have plans in place to get those affected to Liverpool and into the hospital in a way that does not affect nearby residents. To be frank, local residents should be very proud of their hospital.
Apparently, there have been 361 deaths from coronavirus in China, with many more infected. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in the worst-case scenario—if it does get into this country—and people develop symptoms, their chances of dying are not that great?
One part of that is true and another is sadly not, in that it is no longer “if” it comes to this country—it is here. However, the thrust of what my hon. Friend says is absolutely right: the current rate of mortality—those who die having contracted the disease—is around 2%, which is significantly lower than other recent diseases of this type, such as SARS, and a lot lower than Ebola. However, as the shadow Secretary of State said, the rate of transmission appears to be higher, and the number of cases appears to be doubling around every five days. We have the challenge of a disease that is transmitting relatively quickly, but the vast majority of people who have it survive.
In answer to my written question from 27 January, the Government said that funding is in place to deal with this public health challenge. Will the Secretary of State outline exactly how much contingency funding has been allocated, further to the £20 million in his statement, and is that just to the Department of Health and Social Care or across Government?
Currently, there is no further need for the draw-down of funding. However, conversations with the Treasury have taken place to ensure that all the funding that is necessary will be available, if it is needed outside existing departmental budgets.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for keeping us updated on the situation in York. I appreciate that Public Health England says that it is making good progress in identifying everyone in York who has had close contact with the two patients, but it would be reassuring for my constituents and residents in York to have a precise timeline of how long the process will take and when it expects that to be concluded. Can the Secretary of State give us that information?
The process of contacting those who have been in contact with the two people who have so far tested positive for the virus is rapid and ongoing—it is a matter of days to complete and get in contact with all those people. This is an ongoing operation and it will be concluded soon. I will let him, the House and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) know as soon as we can make that information public.
I put on record my thanks to all the officials who supported my 81-year-old constituent Veronica Theobald to make the journey from Wuhan to the Wirral. What lessons have been learned about the repatriation of older citizens or citizens with additional needs, who might be more vulnerable?
We have worked hard to try to make sure that the repatriation takes into account other health problems that some people had, and to make sure, frankly, that the accommodation takes that into account—we have tried our level best to make the accommodation as comfortable as possible. I have read some of the stories in the newspapers about the lengths that NHS staff have gone to. The Minister responsible went to Arrowe Park to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make the facilities not only safe—of course, both to the public and those who are quarantined there—but comfortable for the two weeks.
With any infectious disease control, it is very important that members of the public play a role by saying, “Yes, I think I may have been affected,” and being subjected to quarantine. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute not only to them but to the members of staff? I understand that they drove across two counties to pick up one new patient’s wife’s birthday present, which they then drove all the way back to Arrowe Park, because playing by the rules and doing right by the country is the right thing to do.
That is absolutely right. We have tried to go above and beyond to help those who are currently in Arrowe Park. I did not know about the example that my hon. Friend gave, but there have been several others, including some of the biscuits that were given to people who were quarantined at Arrowe Park, which had apparently gone down very well.
The Secretary of State will recall that during his last statement to the House on the Wuhan coronavirus I raised the importance of vaccination. At the time, he said that
“it is unlikely that a vaccine is going to be available—there is not one now—so that is not the route we should be looking at”—[Official Report, 23 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 436.]
He has since announced that the Government are investing £20 million in speeding up development of a vaccine. Of course this is welcome, but what has happened in the last 10 days to change his mind and his assessment, and what is the realistic timeframe in which the public can expect to see a vaccine developed?
That is a very good question. We need to be cautious on the timings for the development of a vaccine, but I am pushing it as hard as possible. It is true that the science has developed in the last 10 days—scientists working around the world to understand the virus have made some progress—and I was convinced enough to put £20 million into that global effort; and we may well put more in. I was impressed by the science, as reported to me by the chief medical officer, so my assessment is now slightly more promising than when the hon. Lady last asked me this question.
One of my constituents is currently in quarantine, having been evacuated from Wuhan. Having spent most of last week talking to the Foreign Office, I want to put on the record my thanks to the Foreign Office staff, both here and in China, and to staff in the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS for their brilliant work. Can my right hon. Friend give more information on the social media campaign the Government are running to get information and advice out to people as quickly as possible?
We have put £500,000 towards an immediate communications campaign—not just on social media, although there is a lot there, but in newspapers and on radio—to make sure people get the message that there is something everybody can do: vigilantly wash your hands and if you have a cough or a sneeze, use a tissue and throw it away. These sound like simple things, but they matter, and they also protect you from the flu.
Do face masks work?
There are circumstances in which they work, but we are not recommending that people wear them generally—but of course it’s a free country.
I commend my right hon. Friend, as well as his team and all his staff, for their work on what is a moving feast. Given that things could deteriorate in this country, what steps can local government, directors of public health and health and wellbeing boards take, particularly around prevention?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important point. Local authorities and local resilience forums have a critical role to play in resolving this, as Wirral Council has demonstrated with its efforts thus far to support people at Arrowe Park, and I pay tribute to the work local authorities have done so far. Local authorities across the country should be familiarising themselves with their plans in case the coronavirus comes to them.
Constituents of mine who returned from mainland China were told to self-isolate, even though they showed no symptoms, and that if they developed symptoms they should go to accident and emergency or their GP. This is the opposite of the advice the Secretary of State set out in his statement and in answer to another hon. Member. It cannot be right, in terms of both public health and reassuring the public, to have contradictory advice. Will he make sure that the correct advice is given from now on, as far and as widely as possible?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have published clear advice. All the advice from central Government, the NHS and public health organisations is exactly the same, and has been scientifically derived and communicated outwards as much as possible, but if he has details of where different advice has been given, I would love to know, because it is a constant effort to get the correct advice out there. We are working with social media companies to ensure that if people go on Twitter, for instance, and search for “coronavirus” they get proper advice, rather than non-valid advice. But there is a lot to do.
On Friday, when I was driving around my constituency, I heard on BBC Radio Humberside that the two people from York had been brought to one of the hospitals in Hull. They had then gone on to Newcastle. A press release was issued by the chief executive of the Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. I wonder whether some thought should be given to how we communicate with the public, and whether more needs to be said about the role of local hospitals that are being used to deal with issues like this.
A lot of thought is being put into how we communicate with the public. We need to win both the battle against this disease and the battle for public confidence. This is a bit like my answer to the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), and, indeed, my answer to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who asked about masks. Washing one’s hands is much better than wearing a mask. That is the correct advice, and we are trying to get the correct, straight communications out whenever we possibly can.
And the prize for perseverance and patience goes to Geraint Davies.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Figures issued yesterday—I appreciate that the Secretary of State has updated them today—showed that, out of 14,500 people diagnosed, 304 had died and 342 had recovered. What is of concern is the similarity of the number of people dying to the number of people recovering.
The Secretary of State has already mentioned that the transmission rate is doubling every five days. He will also know that, as well as introducing flight blocks, China has introduced road blocks, and has prevented people from going to work for 14 days in districts where there is no transmission at all. What does the Secretary of State plan to do if a number of cases emerge in cities up and down Britain? Has he any plans to reduce people’s movements, for instance, to contain the virus?
Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not recognise, and the Government do not recognise, the figure that the hon. Gentleman has given for the number of people who have recovered. The mortality rate is estimated to be about 2%. Of course we will revise that figure as more information comes to light, but the figure that he gave for the number who have recovered from the disease appears to be very low in comparison with the information that we have.
Of course we have plans in case the disease becomes widespread globally and widespread here, and we are constantly working on those plans to ensure that we are as ready as possible. We have plans in place, and we had them before the virus arrived here. We are working through those plans, and I will endeavour to update the House whenever I possibly can.
I began by paying tribute to the shadow Secretary of State. Normally when I am nice about the shadow Secretary of State, he thinks that I am doing it to damage his political career. There may be some truth in that, but in this case he is acting in the most responsible and high-minded way, and I think that the whole House should pay tribute to him.
We now come to the statement on the Government’s response to the Streatham incident. I will just allow Members who need to leave to do so swiftly and quietly so that I can call the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Robert Buckland.
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the senseless and horrific terror attack in Streatham yesterday afternoon.
Two members of the public were brutally stabbed as they went about their business on the busy high street. Another was injured as our brave police stepped in before even more harm could be done. I am sure that Members will join me in sending our thoughts and prayers to the victims, their families, and all those affected by this appalling attack. I would also like to pay tribute to our outstanding emergency services, who once again ran towards untold danger to protect the public: the police who shot the offender to save others, and the ambulance staff who fearlessly tended the wounded, despite the risk to their own lives.
Protecting the public has to be the No. 1 priority for this Government. The Streatham incident is subject to an ongoing police investigation, and I am therefore limited in what I can say at this time, but I would like to share what details I am able to with the House. A known terrorist senselessly stabbed a man and a woman on Streatham High Road at about 2 pm yesterday. The attacker has yet to be formally identified but the police are confident that it was 20-year-old Sudesh Amman. In December 2018, he was imprisoned for three years and four months for 16 counts of distributing extremist material and for the possession of material likely to be useful for the purposes of preparing a terrorist act. The sentence he received was a standard determinate sentence, and that meant that one week ago he was automatically released halfway through that term. The Parole Board had no involvement in the matter. The law required automatic unconditional release at the halfway point.
Amman was being followed by armed police officers when he made his attack, and they immediately shot him dead before he could harm any others. They stepped in despite the fact that he appeared to be wearing an explosive device, which has now been confirmed as fake. A female member of the public in her 20s was hurt by broken glass as shots were fired to end the threat. She remains in hospital, as does the male victim, who is in his 40s. I am pleased to say that he is now recovering after initially fighting for his life. The other female victim, who is in her 50s, has since been discharged. Our thoughts are with them all. As this is an ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the case while the full facts are being established, but I would like to reassure hon. Members that our outstanding security services and the police have the full support of the Government as they investigate this atrocity.
I also want to talk about our security services, police, and prison and probation officers, and about their joint response. All these operational agencies are truly first-class. They are the epitome of public duty. The swift response to yesterday’s attack, monitoring the threat and responding quickly when it escalated, can give us confidence that the police and security services are doing all they can to keep the public safe. Our Prison Service and probation service have robust measures in place to deal with terrorist offenders, and we are at the forefront of international efforts to counter this threat.
All terrorist prisoners and individuals who are considered to be an extremist risk are managed through a specialist case management process. Most can be dealt with as part of the mainstream prison population, but where necessary, a small number of the highest-risk offenders are now managed in separation centres. The time an offender spends in prison is an opportunity for us to do our best to rehabilitate them, while recognising that this is no simple challenge. Psychological, theological and mental health interventions are all used, and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service psychologists supply two formal counter-radicalisation programmes, used both in custody and in the community. In addition, the desistance and disengagement programme was rolled out in prisons in 2018. It provides a range of intensive tailored interventions designed to address the root causes of terrorism. I want to pay tribute to the work of our prison and probation staff. They are dedicated to keeping the public safe, and they work tirelessly to try to turn lives around, even in the face of such a deep-seated ideology.
The tragic events at Fishmongers’ Hall in November last year showed that we need to look carefully at the way we deal with terrorist offenders, and I have long been clear, as has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that automatic halfway release is simply not right in all cases. After the London Bridge attack, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I immediately promised a major shake-up of our response to terrorism and, two weeks ago, the Home Secretary and I announced clear measures, a tough new approach, and a new commitment to crack down on offenders and to keep people safe.
First, we will introduce longer and tougher sentences for serious terrorist offenders, ending release before the end of their custodial term, and opening up longer licence periods while keeping the worst offenders locked up for a mandatory minimum 14-year term. Secondly, we will overhaul prisons and probation, with tougher monitoring conditions, including lie detector tests to assess risk. Thirdly, we will double the number of counter-terrorism probation officers and invest in counter-terrorism police, providing an increase in funding of £90 million from this April. Finally, we will put victims first by reviewing the support available to them, including an immediate £500,000 boost for the victims of terrorism unit.
We have also announced an independent review of our multi-agency public protection arrangements, to be led by Jonathan Hall, QC. The review will look at pre-release planning and the management of offenders upon release into the community. Many of the measures will be included in a new counter-terrorism, sentencing and release Bill to be introduced in the first 100 days of this re-elected Government.
Yesterday’s appalling incident plainly makes the case for immediate action. We cannot have a situation, as we saw tragically yesterday, in which an offender—a known risk to innocent members of the public—is released early by automatic process of law without any oversight by the Parole Board. We will be doing everything we can to protect the public. That is our primary duty. We will therefore introduce emergency legislation to ensure an end to terrorist offenders getting released automatically with no check or review having served half their sentence. The underlying principle must be that offenders will no longer be released early automatically and that anyone released before the end of their sentence will be dependent on a risk assessment by the Parole Board.
We face an unprecedented situation of severe gravity and, as such, it demands that the Government response immediately, and that this legislation will therefore also apply to serving prisoners. The earliest point at which these offenders will now be considered for release will be once they have served two thirds of their sentence, and crucially, we will introduce a requirement that no terrorist offender will be released before the end of their full custodial term unless the Parole Board agrees. We will ensure that the functions of the Parole Board are strengthened to deal even more effectively with the specific risk that terrorists pose to public safety. For example, we will ensure that the appropriate specialisms are in place. That work is in train, and we will take steps to implement it as soon as possible.
When terrorist offenders are released, we will always ensure that they are subject to the most robust safeguards, and we will consider whether new legislation is required to provide additional assurance. We will also review whether the current maximum penalties and sentencing framework for terrorist offences is sufficient or comprehensive, on the underlying principle that terrorist offenders should no longer be released until the Parole Board is satisfied that they are no longer a risk to the public.
As I said, Madam Deputy Speaker, keeping our streets and our people safe is our first duty. We face a threat from an ideology that takes no heed of others, and we must use every tool we can to make sure that that threat is neutralised. The British public have a proud history of coming together in times of adversity against those who seek to divide us, and it is together that we can make sure that the terrorists who seek to threaten our way of life will never win. The Government will do everything in our power to defeat them and to ensure that the public are protected. I commend this statement to the House.
I had sight of the Secretary of State’s statement only 20 minutes before he started speaking. That left me in the unacceptable position of having to prepare my statement about such a serious matter on the basis of press briefings.
I begin by saying that my thoughts are with the people attacked yesterday, their families and the people of Streatham, who witnessed this absolutely horrific attack. I also pay tribute to our police and emergency services for the professionalism and courage that they demonstrated in their swift response to the attack.
The first responsibility of a Government is to keep their citizens safe. Tragically, cuts over the past decade across our justice system—to the police, prisons, probation and the Crown Prosecution Service—have left our communities less safe. That is why our justice system is in crisis.
It will take time, of course, for the full facts about yesterday’s terrible attack to come out. We owe it to those affected to carefully assess what happened and take the action necessary to reduce the risk of similar attacks happening again. Experts have raised serious concerns about the impact of austerity on the Government’s programmes for dealing with terrorism offenders. A former CPS chief prosecutor for north-west England described those programmes today as “largely underfunded” and “poorly executed”. Does the Secretary of State agree with that assessment? What is being done to address the situation?
I turn to prisons. This is the second such attack carried out by a recently released prisoner in recent months. How many of the recommendations from the 2016 review into extremism in prisons have been implemented? Huge cuts to prison budgets have not only left our prisons with more than 2,000 fewer officers than in 2010; they have also led to an exodus of experienced staff, involving the loss of tens of thousands of years of experience. That experience is vital in maintaining safety and order in prisons and, crucially, in identifying and dealing with radicalisation.
Figures that I obtained last year show that the picture in high-security prisons is even worse, with over 400 fewer prison officers in such prisons compared with the figure for 2010. Does the Secretary of State believe that those cuts to staffing levels have made it more difficult to monitor people convicted of terror offences in prisons? The same figures revealed that Belmarsh, where the Streatham attacker was held until his release last week, has a staggering 100 fewer prison officers than it did back in 2010. By what date will the Government return all high-security prison staffing numbers to 2010 levels?
Sadly, the problems in our criminal justice system are not limited to prisons. Probation manages hundreds of thousands of offenders released from prison. All but a handful of the most dangerous prisoners will at some point leave prison. Probation has a vital role to play in keeping our communities safe. The Government’s decision to break up our probation system, alongside the decision to outsource the monitoring of some of the most dangerous offenders in bail hostels, has left the public at higher risk. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the consequences of the failed probation reforms for the monitoring of those convicted of terror offences?
Finally, I turn to sentencing. Judges can ensure that the most dangerous offenders are not released halfway through their sentence and that instead they serve a minimum of two thirds, and are released then only if the Parole Board determines that it is safe for that to happen. We will look at the proposals referred to in the Secretary of State’s statement, because our priority must be to keep the public safe. But to be clear, the Government cannot use sentencing as a way of distracting from their record of bringing the criminal justice system to breaking point.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points, and I will do my very best to answer them all. On his last point, about sentencing, he is right to make reference to the extended determinate sentence system—but that, of course, depends on the learned judge making a finding of dangerousness. In this particular case, that option was open to the court, but the court decided not to take it, which is why the term was a standard determinate one. More needs to be done on the framework, to make sure that it does not depend on the need to make such a finding and that we can end automaticity when it comes to early release. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party would support that approach when it comes to the necessary legislation.
The hon. Gentleman makes observations more generally about the justice system. I remind him that the responsibility for the supervision of serious offenders has always lain with the National Probation Service, which remained within the hands of the state. I reassure him that the reforms to probation that I am driving forward mean we will bring together all the arms of the probation service in a way that will leader to greater co-ordination, a better spread of casework for probation officers and improved purchase on the regime, which needs to be applied. We are actively recruiting more probation officers.
Ian Acheson made his report in 2016, and eight of the 11 consolidated recommendations were adopted, with disagreement on three of them. I commend the work that he and others did. Things have moved on considerably since that point, and it is right for me to emphasise the joint working the Home Office, my Department and the security services do to make sure we are all working together to monitor not just offenders of this nature in the community, but terrorist offenders in prison. Other countries are learning from that experience.
The hon. Gentleman made the general remarks about the justice system that we hear from him regularly, so I simply remind him of the choices we had to make at the beginning of the last decade, the difficulty we were placed in and the fact that we are increasing counter-terrorism funding and bearing down on the risk we face. There has never been any question, at any time during the Conservative Government’s period in power, that we have prioritised resources over the need to protect the public. We will continue to put public protection at the centre of our deliberations, irrespective of the cost.
Order. It will be obvious that a great many people wish to take part in this statement. For the benefit of new Members and others, let me say that a statement is not an occasion for making a speech. I must insist on brief questions. Each Member has the chance to ask one question, not to give a preamble and then ask an “Oh, and also” question. We must have just one question, otherwise we will not get through everyone and those who are not called could be angry with those who have been called and taken too long.
I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s approach to this, because most of us recognise that the exceptional nature of this threat may require exceptional measures. However, can he help us as to precisely which rehabilitation measures the perpetrator of this attack was subject to while in prison? Will he consider again the remaining aspects of the Acheson review regarding much more assertive management of these particularly complex and dangerous prisoners within the system, from the start of their sentence?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice. It would perhaps be wrong of me to go into specific detail as to the regimen that applied in prison to this offender. I would make the general observation that the terrorist cohort is complex and difficult to assess, and if there is not engagement by individuals with the programmes on offer, the assessment of risk becomes a much more complicated exercise. I simply say that bearing in mind the exceptional nature of the terrorist cohort, exceptional approaches are needed.
May I start by extending my sympathies and those of the Scottish National party to those injured and terrorised by yesterday’s events, and by praising the security and emergency services? I am pleased that the UK Government are following the Scottish Government’s lead in ending automatic early release for the most serious offenders. The Lord Chancellor has said that he intends to introduce emergency legislation, making retrospective provision in relation to those sentenced before the law was changed. Will he assure me that the usual legal difficulties with retrospective legislation have been addressed to his satisfaction?
Sentencing is only a small part of the answer to terrorism, and what happens during the sentence is what matters. To date, deradicalisation and disengagement programmes have been largely “unfunded and poorly executed”. Those are not my views, but the views of Nazir Afzal, the former chief Crown prosecutor for the north-west of England, an experienced lawyer and a prosecutor worth listening to. He says that that has happened as a direct consequence of the decision by successive Tory Governments to cut funding to probation and other rehabilitation programmes. Of course, the costs of the sort of post-release police surveillance that we saw yesterday far outweigh the costs of adequate funding for preventive measures and deradicalisation. Does the Lord Chancellor agree with me and Nazir Afzal on that? Will he assure the House that in future sufficient funds and resources will be made available to deal with preventive and deradicalisation programmes in prison?
Finally, it was reported earlier today that an anonymous No. 10 source told Sky News that the system for dealing with terrorism has significant problems because of
“the shocking influence of lawyers on policy”.
I imagine that the Lord Chancellor does not share that view—[Laughter.] This is important. Will he join me in condemning those sorts of anonymous briefings? Does he agree that there is plenty of room to introduce robust anti-terrorism policies that are rule-of-law compliant?
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her remarks about the solidarity that we have across these islands with regard to terrorism.
Let me deal with her last point first. It is important to remember that we in this country stand for the rule of law and due process. That is what marks us out as different from those who rely on the bullet and the bomb—those who use indiscriminate and arbitrary means and methods to impose their will on us. If we stand for nothing else, we have to stand for the rule of law. That makes us better than them, it makes us different and it means that we have something worth defending. I hope that answers the hon. and learned Lady’s latter question.
On the first issue that the hon. and learned Lady raised, as I said, this is an exceptional situation. The issue of retrospective effect is of course a key factor. The important point is that we are talking about the administration of a sentence—the way it is dealt with, as opposed to its length or type. For that reason, it is entirely appropriate to look at the administration of a sentence and I would regard that as a reasonable approach.
The hon. and learned Lady asked about resources. I am happy to tell her that in the past several years, counter-terrorism funding has increased year on year. I repeat the point that I made to the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon): resources will never get in the way of our dealing properly and robustly with those who pose a threat to us. The way in which we deal with terrorism continues to evolve, and programmes change and adapt according to the knowledge that we accrue. I will not pretend that we are in a state of grace when it comes to these things, because we are still learning, but make no mistake about it: this country is a world leader and many other states look to us as a beacon because of the way we deal with counter-terrorism and the particular threat that it poses.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right to underline the fact that the thoughts of the House remain with those affected by this shocking incident, and to commend the work of our police and security services. He has underlined the decisive action that he intends to take in respect of the halfway-point issue, and I commend him on that. Will he look at the issue firmly post the release of offenders and the potential availability of measures such as terrorism prevention and investigation measures to provide the level of safeguard and control necessary to assure the public that if there is risk, it can be managed effectively?
My right hon. Friend served with distinction as the Security Minister. Indeed, I remember sitting with him in the Bill Committee on the TPIMs legislation some years ago. He and I understand that a distinction is to be drawn between the sentencing process and that particular mechanism, but there is no doubt that there is merit in what he says about the way in which we need to make sure that those who pose a continuing risk are adequately monitored. I will consider his remarks very carefully indeed.