House of Commons
Tuesday 4 February 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Issues raised by Paterson, dated 4 February 2020.—[Rebecca Harris.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
NATO protects nearly 1 billion people across 30 countries. It is the most successful alliance in history, and we are proud to be a leading member.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that NATO is the cornerstone of UK and Euro-Atlantic security? Will he support all efforts to increase burden sharing across the alliance?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Non-US defence investment has increased by £130 billion between 2016 and 2020. It is expected to rise further, by £400 billion, by 2024, and that is progress, but allies need to increase their defence spending in the way that he described. Of course, the UK is one of nine NATO allies meeting its 2% commitment, including a 20% increase in investment in new capabilities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that NATO is the cornerstone not only of UK security, but of Euro-Atlantic security? Will he prioritise it—I ask on behalf of Montgomeryshire constituents who have been asking me—to strengthen that alliance, to deal with the malign Russian threat?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to use NATO, and it will require reform to adapt to meet new threats. The way to do that is to strengthen and reinforce NATO, so that it can deal with state actors, including Russia, cyber, and all the modern threats. We are absolutely committed to doing that, and bringing our European and north American allies together.
With the American primary season upon us, political tensions both within and between our NATO allies seem to be higher than ever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that means we have a greater responsibility than ever, here in the UK, to promote diplomacy between our allies, and to speak judiciously when commenting on their internal politics?
My hon. Friend is right. He knows, from the last NATO leaders’ meeting, which the Prime Minister hosted and chaired, that we take that very seriously. We contribute to every NATO mission. We are the top defence spender in Europe, the second-largest in NATO as a whole, and the leading contributor to the NATO readiness initiative.
Philip Dunne—not here.
During the recent NATO summit, there was a concerted effort by President Erdoğan of Turkey to block progress unless fellow NATO members agreed to label our Kurdish heroes in northern Syria as terrorists. After my last visit to Syria, the Secretary of State dismissed me and my concerns to try and reach out on that point. So maybe, if he refused to take advice from me and other members of the Opposition—and his two colleagues who came with me on that trip—he might take a lead from the Belgian court case that said that the Kurds were not a terrorist force; or the French, who objected publicly at the NATO council, as did Poland, the Baltic states, and even Donald Trump. I ask the Foreign Secretary: why did our own Prime Minister say nothing to defend the British interest and our Kurdish allies?
The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. We have raised our concerns in relation to Turkey’s incursion into Syria, which obviously has affected some of our Kurdish partners in the region. We had a very successful NATO summit, precisely because the Prime Minister and the UK Government are focused on making NATO work, bringing all our allies together and making sure that our foes cannot exploit weaknesses or divisions between us.
Turkey’s relationship with its NATO allies is becoming ever more strained. Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, which we have just heard about, and an increasingly close relationship with Russia are two clear examples of how tension is being created within the alliance by Turkey. As we are a leading member of NATO, how do the Government think NATO should respond to the situation?
As with all strong partnerships within NATO, if we have issues we raise them candidly and clearly, and the relationship has the depth and the maturity to enable us to do so. We have expressed our disappointment, for example, that Turkey chose to acquire Russian S-400 air defence systems. None the less, Turkey remains a valued NATO ally, on the frontline of some of our most difficult security challenges, and I raised with the Turkish Foreign Minister on 5 January the positives and our concerns.
The Minister rightly speaks of the success of NATO as an international peacekeeping force. Does he agree that part of the problem is that it does not get the international recognition for being that successful alliance? What more can we do to ensure that that is the case?
The hon. Gentleman is right: a lot of the solid, steady work that NATO is doing, and the work in bringing our allies together, goes unnoticed, as is often the case in security. The most important thing the UK can do is continue to lead by example. We contribute to every NATO mission. This includes: leading the enhanced forward presence battle group in Estonia; contributing to the US battle group in Poland; and working with our NATO allies on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will continue to do all those things.
Following the protocol at international meetings to make sure that the UK is asserting its voice confidently, and in tandem with but independently of our allies, is absolutely the right thing. That is what the referendum required and that is what we are doing.
The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and President Zelensky’s commitment to reform and fighting corruption. We have provided financial support to the tune of £38 million this year, across multiple areas, and we lead robust sanctions on Russia for its attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty. We look forward to welcoming President Zelensky to the UK as soon as a date can be found.
Will my right hon. Friend welcome President Zelensky’s decision to extend the visa-free regime for UK citizens for another year? Does my right hon. Friend share his ambition for Britain and Ukraine to conclude a new framework agreement as soon as possible, including possible liberalisation of the visa regime for Ukrainian citizens?
My right hon. Friend is a doughty champion of Ukraine’s determination to look westward and be a modern European country. We will certainly welcome, as soon as we can, the ratification of such an arrangement, and I congratulate the President on his announcement on visa-free access for UK nationals. That will certainly help trade with the UK, which we want to ensure is successful, but we also need to protect our own borders. The Home Secretary is responsible for border control, but we keep our border policy under constant review, and visas to and from Ukraine is something I discuss with her regularly.
On political development and the importance of having human rights protected, including in Ukraine, I am aware of a number of examples where Christians have been persecuted, injured and politically challenged for their beliefs. What has been done in discussions with Ukraine to ensure that human rights are protected and people have the right to express themselves?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. We of course discuss these matters with Ukraine. I am particularly concerned about the repression of fundamental human rights—the right to speak the Crimean language—in Crimea by the annexing forces, and I raised that issue when I went to Kiev last year. We will always place these issues, be they in Ukraine or elsewhere, high on the agenda.
Climate change is not a distant threat. We must act together to accelerate action. The UK has already doubled its international climate finance funding from £5.6 billion to £11.6 billion, and is investing £220 million in a new international biodiversity fund.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that increasing the UK’s climate diplomacy capabilities is important for a successful COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year, so that we can be more successful than last year’s conference in Madrid?
The UK was disappointed at the lack of progress made at COP25 in Madrid. The UK and Italian diplomatic efforts will be squarely focused on achieving a successful COP26. COP is about more than negotiations; it is about real change happening across countries, civil society and the private sector. These broader elements will be a primary focus of COP26.
At the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a Stroud Greenpeace exhibition about climate change and protecting our oceans. Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continue to advocate for international agreement on climate change at the United Nations? Will the Minister tell us more about the Government’s commitment to protecting our oceans and the work on the UN global treaty negotiations?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. This is the first time I have answered a question from her, so I welcome her to her place.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s view on international oceans. We are looking for a maximum ambition on oceans to protect them for future generations, and I am working hard with Lord Goldsmith on that ambitious project.
Both the councils in the Sedgefield constituency—Darlington and Durham—have declared climate change emergencies, but given the relatively low impact of the UK on climate change compared with places such as China, how do we convince our constituents to engage? Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that we not only challenge other countries to make progress but share the efforts that our international colleagues are making, in order to motivate and share good practice?
I hope my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to his place, will excuse my having my back to him as I speak to the Chair.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that climate change is one of the most urgent and pressing challenges we face today, so no country can solve the problem alone. COP26 in November will bring together more than 300,000 delegates from around the world to tackle climate change. It is vital that all countries come together and come forward with increased pledges and nationally determined contributions in the coming months. The UK has committed to increasing our international climate ambition and NDCs before COP26.
We meet today on the 75th anniversary of the Yalta conference, at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin carved up post-war Europe, and in doing so unwittingly created the conditions for half a century of cold war between east and west. Their mistakes were eventually fixed, but when we have conferences that affect the climate emergency today, we have to realise that it is too late to fix any more mistakes as we rapidly approach the point of no return on global warming, so let me ask a specific question. When the Prime Minister hosted the UK-Africa trade summit just a fortnight ago, he told its delegates that
“we all suffer when carbon emissions rise and the planet warms.”
Will the Minister tell us what percentage of the energy deals that were struck at that summit were based on the mining of fossil fuels?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that question. She always puts her questions so perfectly; her diction is superb for the House. Everybody was clear about what she said.
We are weaning all the world off coal. The Powering Past Coal Alliance, which is clearing away from coal, is very important. We are leading on that and my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa, who led at the Africa conference, has managed to secure an amazing deal on that. We are looking towards the bright future that that Prime Minister has been talking about today.
The hon. Lady focuses on coal and boasts about the announcement on coal, but according to the Environmental Audit Committee, UK Export Finance has not supported a single coal project since 2002. I do not know whether she is uncertain about the answer or just too embarrassed to answer, but the reality is that more than 90% of the £2 billion of investment in energy deals that was agreed at the UK-Africa trade summit was committed to new drilling for oil and gas—more fossil fuels. None of that was mentioned in the Government press release, which focused instead on the paltry figures for investment in solar power. Does the Minister accept that she is part of a Government who talk the talk on climate change but never walk the walk? They make symbolic moves on the domestic front but will never take any global lead. Worst of all, they refuse to stand up to the climate denier—
Order. We have to get to the question; we cannot keep reading out a statement. A quick question, please.
Worst of all, the Government refuse to stand up to the climate denier-in-chief, Donald Trump. Does the Minister not realise that in the face of this climate emergency we no longer have time for cowardice?
Shall I be succinct, Mr Speaker? We recognise that countries will continue to need to use a mixture of energy sources, including renewable energy and lower-carbon fossil fuels such as natural gas, as part of the transition towards a low-carbon, sustainable economy. I am afraid the right hon. Lady is making too much hot air today.
What evidence does the Minister have that the Government’s diplomacy is having an impact on the biggest polluters, such as China and United States, in that those countries are prepared to do something more than they are doing now?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are working very closely with countries around the world. I have been to five of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations so far, and, at every opportunity I have asked them to have more ambitious targets for reducing their carbon emissions, and that is exactly what will happen when our Secretary of State meets representatives in China very soon.
Wuhan: UK Nationals
I spoke to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 28 January about the evacuation of UK nationals from Wuhan and also about UK medical supplies to help the Chinese authorities tackle the coronavirus.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his reply, but does he agree that the safety and security of British nationals must be our primary concern, and will he therefore press the Chinese authorities to co-operate in granting any assistance necessary to ensure that our nationals are looked after while they remain in China?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and those are precisely the issues that I raised with the Chinese Foreign Minister. In fairness, we have seen 83 British nationals repatriated on Friday, and another seven British nationals and four dependants evacuated on a French flight that returned to the UK on Sunday. I can also tell him that we have been allocated 14 places on an Air New Zealand flight today for UK nationals and their dependants.
The evacuation of British nationals and their families from Wuhan has been nothing short of a shambles, given the delays, the lack of information and the terrible cases of family separation that have occurred. Why on earth does the Foreign Office not have protocols and plans in place to manage these crises when they occur?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong on everything that he has just said. I visited the crisis centre yesterday. We have an excellent cross-Whitehall team, including the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care working with our consular officers. There are challenges dealing with the Chinese authorities in relation to the permissions to get the charter flight in and to get people to the muster points. We hired four coaches for the first flight that arrived on Friday, and we delayed the flight for three hours on the tarmac to ensure that all the people who needed to get on could get on, and of course we will continue working with our international partners and the Chinese to get those who need to come home out of the country.
Prosperity in Africa
Increased trade and investment in Africa will improve African Government revenues, and support job creation and economic growth, which is beneficial for African states and the United Kingdom. On 20 January, the Government hosted the UK-Africa investment summit, where £6.5 billion-worth of commercial deals and £1.5 billion-worth of Government funding initiatives were announced. Commitments announced at the AIS will help to drive prosperity across the continent.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and everyone involved in the very successful Africa investment summit. Will there be another one and, if so, what would the African countries that were not invited to this one need to do to get an invite to the next one?
I start by paying tribute to my predecessor for the work that she did in the early preparations for the summit. The summit achieved its objectives of laying the foundations for a new, stronger relationship between the United Kingdom and Africa, based on mutually beneficial trade and investment. Following our departure from the European Union, the Government will build further on those foundations in a range of ways, and we are currently looking at the feedback from the summit.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on the Africa investment summit. Too often, Britain’s interests when it comes to Africa are piecemeal and we are not good enough when it comes to sustained engagement, so what plans does the Minister have to engage with the African Union on a regular basis?
Excellent. I very much welcome that question. The African Union is justifiably seen internationally as a strong and influential partner, able to bring African countries together. During the Africa investment summit, chairperson Faki met the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. To support the development of the African continental free trade area, the Secretary of State for International Trade announced a £200 million southern African regional trading connectivity programme and a £20 million trade connect programme at the summit, which will further and deepen our partnership with the African Union.
May I ask the Minister how much time during the UK- Africa investment summit last month was dedicated to discussing the elimination of corruption and the protection of human rights, as two of the key preconditions of any new trade deals, especially given the presence of a notorious human rights abuser such as Egypt’s President Sisi?
The subject of human rights was raised by the Foreign Secretary in every single one of his bilateral meetings. Corruption is a barrier to business and growth, which is why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, through the prosperity fund, is investing in extensive anti-corruption projects in Africa, including legal reforms, policy reforms and transparency reforms, and operational work to recover the billions that have been stolen from the African people over the years.
As trade negotiations progress with Africa, there will be conflicting pressures with our trade negotiations with the US and South American states. What reassurance can the Minister give me that he will put pressure on the Department for International Trade to ensure that Africa is prioritised when it comes to trade deals, and does not lose out as a result of US or South American deals?
The very fact that we have hosted an Africa investment summit indicates the Government’s strategic priority towards Africa. We are opening five new missions in Africa, and are increasing the number of our staff—including Department for International Trade staff—across the continent by 400. Africa is a key trading partner, and UK-Africa trade increased by 7.5% last year to £36 billion.
UK Nationals: Consular Support
Our consular staff help more than 20,000 British people abroad every year. The support is tailored to the individual circumstances of each case, and prioritises those who are most in need. We constantly strive to improve our support, and use customer feedback to improve our services and staff skills.
I very much welcome the assurances that this Government have given to the 3 million EU nationals who will continue living in the UK after the transition period, but we have heard far less about the rights of the 1 million UK citizens living in the EU post Brexit. What work is the Department doing to help preserve those UK citizens’ futures?
Protecting citizens’ rights in the EU is absolutely a priority for the Government. The withdrawal agreement provides certainty for UK nationals living in the EU about their rights going forward. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is proactively engaging with EU member states to ensure full and timely implementation of the withdrawal agreement.
Do the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Government believe that UK citizens deserve the right to consular services and support enshrined in law?
There is currently no legal right to consular assistance. Domestic law would not improve the outcomes for our most complex cases. Even if there was a right to assistance, the Government’s ability to provide it would remain dependent on other states respecting that.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but with respect I disagree. In December last year, the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services and assistance—which I founded and chair, and of which many of the Minister’s colleagues have been members—published its report, with 92 recommendations. We took evidence from more than 60 families from across the UK whose loved ones died abroad in suspicious circumstances or are being incarcerated against their will, and they said that they feel they are being let down by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. With Brexit set to make international co-operation harder and this Government’s cuts resulting in the reduction of more than 1,000 diplomatic staff, UK citizens deserve better. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister meet me to discuss enshrining into law—
Order. We must have short questions. I call the Minister to respond.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have already agreed to meet her, as did my predecessor, but neither offer has been taken up. On 23 January, the consular murder and manslaughter team held a workshop bringing together key stakeholders, including Murdered Abroad, the Help for Victims homicide service, the Ministry of Justice, the Metropolitan police and the Chief Coroner’s Office to focus on always improving our support for bereaved families. I participated in that meeting. We will always strive to improve the service that we provide to those who have loved ones murdered abroad.
One of the consular cases most on the minds of people in this House is that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Does the Minister agree that western countries need to work together to call out the vile practice of hostage-taking by countries such as Iran? Article 4 of the NATO treaty says if that one country is invaded, all have to treat it as if they have been invaded. Should we not do the same when our innocent citizens are taken hostage?
I applaud my right hon. Friend for his question and the work that he did on this case when he was Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister met Richard Ratcliffe on 23 January. We continue to make strong representations to send a clear signal in this case that Iran’s behaviour is totally wrong and unacceptable.
Middle East Peace Plan
We welcome the US proposals for peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on recognition of the two-state solution. We support this initiative to get both sides around the negotiating table.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the United States’ “Peace to Prosperity” plan is a set of serious and constructive proposals that deserves more than instant rejection, and that whatever the pros and cons of the plan, if we are to secure a lasting peace, the only way to do so is through direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis?
I thank my hon. Friend. This is a first step on the road back to negotiations. The absence of dialogue creates a vacuum that only fuels instability and leads to the drifting of the two sides further and further apart, so whatever the different views, we want both sides to get around the negotiating table to work to improve the plan and to get peace in the middle east.
A peace plan without Palestinian participation is not a peace plan—it is an annexation plan. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government will not accept either this plan or any unilateral annexation plan, and perhaps take the step now to recognise an independent Palestinian state before there is no state left to recognise?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that any annexation unilaterally would be contrary to international law, damaging to peace efforts, and cannot go unchallenged, but the answer is to get both sides around the negotiating table. That is why not only the UK but the French, the Italians, EU High Representative Josep Borrell, Japan, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Oman have all called for the parties, based on this initiative, to come back to talks.
I am sure that the Secretary of State considers himself a friend of the people of Israel, as I do, and of America, and, I hope, of Palestine. Does he agree that it is the duty of real friends to speak the truth at difficult times? The truth is that this is no peace plan: worse, by making the Palestinians spectators in their own land, annexing illegal settlements and destroying hopes, it paves the way for further conflict. Will he speak that truth to Israel and America?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to speak candidly on all sides of this debate. I have spoken to the Americans. I also spoke to President Abbas on 27 January. The reality is that whatever concerns any side has about this set of proposals, they will get resolved and improved only with both sides around the negotiating table. Rejectionism—the current vacuum—is only making matters worse. We would like to see peaceful dialogue and a negotiated solution, and that must be based on the two-state solution and the principles of international law.
The 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Co-operation have both rejected the so-called Trump peace plan, because they recognise that it has no benefit for the Palestinian people, so why do the British Government continue to support it?
We support it along with—the hon. Gentleman failed to mention this—the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Omanis and Qatar. They have all given statements saying that it is a first step on the road to negotiations that can resolve the conflict. [Interruption.] They put out two statements. I heard the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) chuntering from a sedentary position. The reality is that rejectionism—the vacuum that currently exists—will only make matters worse. We want to see a negotiated two-state solution. That will happen only if both parties come to the negotiating table.
Libya: Peace Process
The Berlin conference attended by the Prime Minister on 19 January showed wide international support for a ceasefire, resumption of UN-led political talks and an end to external interference. International actors agreed to freeze military activity on the ground, not to send reinforcements and to respect the UN arms embargo. All parties must honour their Berlin commitments and demonstrate their support for the UN-led political process.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Libya seems to have drifted out of the headlines somewhat, and this war has been going on for 11 years. The Russo-Turkish Libyan initiative has now failed, and we must not take our eyes off the ball. Are we sure that we are not being short-sighted and piecemeal, when what Libya really needs is long-term international efforts diplomatically and on the ground?
My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a very busy region indeed. However, I disagree that the international community is taking its eye off the ball—witness the Berlin process and activities at the United Nations. I shall be going to Ankara tonight, and I will of course be talking about Libya, among other things, with my Turkish interlocuters tomorrow.
I call Toby Perkins—not here.
Gambia: Arrests of Protestors
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are concerned that the political protests on 26 January turned violent. We are monitoring the investigations into that incident closely through our high commission. The UK is clear that the right to peaceful protest and media freedom must be upheld without recourse to violence and intimidation.
Leaving the EU: Human Rights
Now that we have left the EU and regained control of our sanctions rules, we will be bringing into force our own global human rights Magnitsky-style sanctions regime, which will give us a powerful new tool to hold the world’s human rights abusers to account.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any new Magnitsky legislation must be targeted at the worst human rights abusers, including those perpetrating terror against minorities in China, most notably the Uighurs and the Tibetans? To that end, will he support my Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill, mirroring legislation passed in the US which is throwing a spotlight on some of the worst human rights abuses against the Tibetans within China?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to his tenacious efforts in this regard. When I was in Washington, on the hill, I had a number of conversations about US legislation and the approach it is taking. He is right to say that our regime should target the worst human rights abusers. He will see the individuals designated in due course, but I can reassure him that our approach will be universal in its scope.
The 6,500 children fleeing Idlib in Syria daily, where barrel bombs are being used on hospitals and schools, must wonder where on earth the protectors of their human rights are. Unfortunately, in this House we have all but forgotten them. What is the Foreign Secretary’s plan to ensure that those children know that their human rights are protected?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the situation in Syria. We encourage all the actors—whether it is the Russians, the Turks or, indeed, the Assad regime itself—to find a peaceful way through. We support the UN efforts to find a peaceful solution and, in particular, the humanitarian relief, which will provide relief to the children and other vulnerable people suffering in that terrible conflict.
The security situation in Iraq is deeply worrying. The threat from Daesh remains, and the recent attacks by Shi’a military groups on diplomatic premises are unacceptable, as is the use of disproportionate force against demonstrators. We are committed to supporting the Government of Iraq to face its profound security challenges. The Prime Minister reaffirmed that with his Iraqi counterpart on 5 January, and we stand ready to work with the new Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi.
Members of the Kurdish community in Newport have contacted me as they are very concerned that the recent vote in the Iraqi Parliament on expelling foreign forces will leave the Kurdish people, scarred by war over many years, even more vulnerable. What will Ministers do to act on their behalf?
I thank the hon. Lady for her supplementary question. I spoke to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Masrour Barzani, recently—last month—and we discussed this issue, among others. She is right to say that the security of the region is of vital importance, and we will do all we can to work with our friends to assure that, including helping to train the peshmerga.
As I said on 14 January, our strategic aims remain to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, constrain Iran’s nuclear development and hold Iran to account for destabilising activity in the middle east. We remain fully committed to the joint comprehensive plan of action. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and I have all spoken to counterparts in the United States, Iran and across the region to underline the need for de-escalation on all sides.
Any unified and prosperous Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel is unrealistic as long as the Hamas terror group continues to be committed to the destruction of Israel. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for renewed international pressure on Hamas to renounce violence and to disarm?
My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. The renunciation of violence and the return to the political process are of crucial importance in trying to get towards what I think we all want in this House, which is a peaceful and amicable settlement that respects the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and in particular a deal that gives refugees, of whom there are a huge number in the region, a proper future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the ways we can help to secure a long-lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is by working with our allies to support initiatives that promote dialogue and co-existence, such as the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, as well as ensuring that UK taxpayers’ money is not misdirected or misused but goes to the people who actually need it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are of course a large number of projects and initiatives, many of them funded by the United Kingdom, that are aimed at promoting peace. He will be aware that we are one of the major contributors to the humanitarian situation—we hope, of course, pro tem—before we get a definitive political process that enables a viable Palestinian state to live alongside the state of Israel.
In relation to de-escalating tensions, may I thank the Minister for having met my constituent Mr Robert Cummings, the grandfather of Luke Symons, who is being held by Houthis in Sana’a? May I convey, through him, a request for an opportunity to meet the Foreign Secretary himself to discuss the case further?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We have discussed the case of Luke Symons at some length, and of course my door always remains open. We continue to do what we can in a very difficult and challenging situation with our interlocutors and partners to secure the outcome that I know the hon. Gentleman wants for Mr Cummings.
The UK deployed a team of experts on 8 January to assess what support Australia needs, and we are working with Australia to establish where we can work together on this issue.
I welcome the Government’s pledge to create 500 new hectares of vibrant ecosystems here, but Australia’s ecosystems are facing unprecedented threats following these bushfires. What steps is the Department taking to assist the Australian Government in the recovery of these precious habitats?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. One of the pieces of work we are doing with Australia, I hope, is on biodiversity and specifically on seeds. We are hoping to work with Kew so that the re-energising of that biodiversity area, which has been so badly affected, will come to fruition, if I can use that word. It is excellent that our experts will be working completely hand in hand with the Australian authorities.
What discussions have the Government had with the Australian Government about the link between the bushfires and climate change to make sure that the Australian Government get serious about tackling carbon emissions in their country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Australia is a signatory to the Paris agreement, and a number of Australian states have already committed to net zero by 2050. Ahead of COP26 we look forward to working with Australia to increase its climate ambition, in line with principles that it has already agreed to.
Last week we left the European Union to become an independent country, delivering on the promise made by politicians to the British people. Later today I will be departing for Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, to deliver on this Government’s vision of a truly global Britain.
Yesterday the World Health Organisation evacuated 30 patients from Yemen who needed urgent medical treatment, including several children, but those are very much the lucky exceptions. What is the Foreign Secretary doing, together with his international counterparts, to negotiate peace in Yemen, so that all its people can receive medical assistance when they need it?
The hon. Lady raises a conflict that I, and the whole Government, are very concerned about. We work with all our international partners, and in the past week I met the Saudi Foreign Minister to consider how we can pursue dialogue and get a peaceful resolution to that conflict, not only for the parties and the region, but also for the vulnerable people affected.
What an excellent question, particularly bearing in mind how important soft power is to our standing in the world. We are proud to host the best league in the world, showcasing the greatest talent in the world, and this year we will welcome our European friends to Glasgow and London for Euro 2020—yes, my hon. Friend can be assured about that.
That is exactly what we would like to happen. The Foreign Secretary has already underwritten financial arrangements between Interserve and the employees, and we would like everybody to go back to ACAS and get this settled.
My hon. Friend is right, and she will be aware of the support that we give for health and education in the occupied Palestinian territories, pending the definitive political solution that we would like to see in the not-too-distant future, which remains a huge priority. She will also be aware of concerns about things such as teaching materials in schools, and of the active role that we have taken to ensure that no inappropriate material is used. I spoke recently to the Palestinian Education Minister. I know that this issue is at the top of his agenda, and in advance of the academic year in September, changes will be made.
I think the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the UK position. There is a proposal for peace talks, which would require a two-state solution, based on both sides agreeing. We have made it clear that we would disagree with and challenge any unilateral annexation on the basis of settlements.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very interesting question. He is quite right: the BBC World Service does reach 319 million people weekly. It is incredibly important that that carries on. We have the 2020 agreement between the BBC and Her Majesty’s Government to invest huge amounts of money and we want that to continue.
The National Federation of Indian Women estimates that 13,000 teenage boys from Jammu-Kashmir have been detained following the revocation of article 370 on 5 August. Will the Secretary of State support a fact-finding delegation from the all-party group on Kashmir to the region, given that so many of the UK’s Kashmiri diaspora still have family members there?
The Foreign Secretary raised this issue with the Foreign Minister for India. Perhaps I could write to the hon. Lady afterwards.
I appreciate my hon. Friend raising this very important issue. There are huge challenges in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. We are working collaboratively with the Chinese. There is clearly a tension between the desire from our point of view to ensure that UK nationals and their dependants, whatever their nationality, can return to the UK, and the legitimate desire of the Chinese to prevent the spread of the virus. I have spoken to the Chinese Foreign Minister and received reassurances that no UK-national-related families who want to return to the UK will find themselves divided on the basis of dual or split nationality among their families.
Does the Minister agree, with regard to the Trump so-called peace deal, that since no Palestinians were involved in negotiating it, it is not a negotiation or a deal but an imposition and that therefore an imposition is no basis for a lasting peace?
The hon. Gentleman is putting the cart before the horse. He is right that both sides will need to agree a two-state solution based on coherent, credible states on both sides and with the security considerations without any lateral annexation—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is again speaking from a sedentary position. There will need to be the resolution of all the key final status issues, including Jerusalem and refugees. But we have to get out of this vacuum and the only way we will do that is if both sides come to the negotiating table.
My hon. Friend is right to tirelessly champion freedom across the world. I met interim President Guaidó. We continue to want a peaceful resolution of the situation in Venezuela and a transition to free elections which are credible for the people of Venezuela.
This morning, the now-sacked President of COP26 said that the Prime Minister has shown,
“a huge lack of leadership and engagement”
and “doesn’t really understand” climate change, which has led to the UK being “miles off” globally from where we need to be. Now rumours are flying around suggesting that the Government are planning to shift COP26 from Glasgow to an English location. What on earth are the public supposed to make of this shambles?
The hon. Lady will not need to wait long, because today, with Sir Richard Attenborough, the Prime Minister is launching and setting out the detail of our approach to COP26, where we will lead in bringing the world together to tackle one of the global challenges of our age.
The BNO passport holders have, by definition, a bespoke status. They have Chinese and British nationality, but they are not British citizens. They hold a BNO passport, which entitles them to consular support when travelling away from home. It also entitles them to six months entry clearance into the UK. That, as I think my hon. Friend will know, was agreed as part of the arrangements around the joint declaration in 1984. We support that. We want to see one country-two systems upheld, precisely because it is the best way of ensuring the freedoms and the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong.
My constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, has been incarcerated in the Republic of India for 830 days. Will the Foreign Secretary consider meeting me and Jagtar’s family to assure them that while he is pursuing a free trade British agenda, he will not sacrifice our commitment to openness, transparency and due process in any future free trade agreement?
We take allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously and we raise them with the Indian authorities. I know that the hon. Gentleman recently met Lord Ahmad on 23 October and 19 December. I am happy to arrange another meeting with Lord Ahmad or to have a meeting with him myself.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has touched on the COP26 preparations. Will he talk a bit about the strategy that the FCO will take on the Kunming biodiversity conference and the UN ocean conference in Lisbon, because clearly, climate change diplomacy will be absolutely front and centre of his agenda?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that in all those conferences, we want to lead with an ambitious approach to tackling climate change. The Prime Minister is setting out with Sir Richard Attenborough today the approach to COP26, and if my hon. Friend would like any more detail, I would be very happy to write to him.
With the rights of indigenous peoples in danger around the world—particularly from the Bolsonaro Government in Brazil—does the Minister agree that the rights of indigenous peoples should be embedded in the proposed international treaty on human rights and transnational corporations?
I think the hon. Gentleman was present at a Westminster Hall debate last year when I made clear the work that the British Government are doing to help indigenous peoples in places such as Brazil. We have to make sure that we support such people. I think the point was made by the former Member for Bishop Auckland that tariffs are a good thing. Tariffs hurt the poorest and tariffs on food hurt the very poorest. We will make sure that we support indigenous peoples wherever they are, and particularly in Brazil.
I note the Minister’s earlier remarks about the Iran nuclear deal, but does he accept that since it was signed in 2015, Iran has launched major cyber-attacks against the UK, including on this Parliament? It has used its warships to harass our fleets in the Gulf and it has supported a huge arms build-up in the middle east. Where is the evidence that Iran can be a trusted partner for peace?
My right hon. Friend is right to point out not only the systematic Iranian non-compliance on the nuclear front, but its wider destabilising activities in the region and its use of covert cyber-attacks against western interests. The reality is that we want to hold Iran to account every time it steps beyond the international pale, but we also want to leave the door ajar for it to take the confidence-building steps—when the regime in Tehran makes that decision, as only it can—to come in from the international cold.
Can the Minister outline the discussions that he has had with our Commonwealth ally, India, about its industry and climate change and how we can help it to be sustainable, environmentally friendly and reduce emissions while carrying on with its industry?
My hon. Friend is right not just to ask that specific question, but to do so in that tone. As COP26 beckons, we want to see increased ambition right across the world in terms of nationally determined contributions to get emissions down. We also want to work with big developing countries such as India and China, with the technology and the innovation that the UK is particularly adept at providing, to help them to transition to a greener economy.
Following the acquisition by Turkey of certain key military equipment from Russia, what is my right hon. Friend doing to try to maintain strong bilateral relations with Turkey as a key NATO ally?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—we have, as I mentioned, expressed our concern to Turkey about its acquisition of Russian-made weapons. That is against not just the letter, but the spirit of NATO. Equally, we value Turkey as a trusted NATO ally. It is often on the frontline of some of the greatest challenges that the alliance faces, so we are working with Turkey and all the European and North American partners to try to bring it into the fold and make sure that it is focused on NATO’s priorities.
I think the Foreign Secretary inadvertently said that the Prime Minister was launching the COP26 plans with Richard Attenborough today, but of course he is no longer with us. He might want to take the opportunity to correct the record.
Will the Foreign Secretary consider the request I made earlier through his colleague to meet my constituent, Robert Cummings, in relation to the case of Luke Symons in Yemen?
I am happy to correct the record as to which Attenborough I meant. We are lucky to have had so many fantastic Attenboroughs in this country. I also repeat that we are ambitious for COP26.
Of course, I will look carefully at the case the hon. Member raises. In all these consular cases, we want to provide the most effective representation to secure people’s release and to provide the reassurance they need and comfort to the family.
What proposals has the Minister for the Wilton Park conference on Nigeria later this month as regards reducing the persecution of Christians in that country?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we take freedom of religion and belief extremely seriously, and the Prime Minister’s envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), is working closely with me on the plans for that conference.
Universal Credit: Delayed Roll-Out
We now come to the first urgent question, which I expect to run for 45 minutes.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement regarding the delay to the full roll-out of universal credit.
The Secretary of State and I informed Parliament yesterday that we had revisited our forecast for universal credit and were extending its completion date to 2024. Our planning for universal credit relies on assumptions about the number of people whose circumstances will change each day, thereby naturally migrating. Our forecasts to date have relied on 50,000 households experiencing a change in circumstances each month. Based on this, we had predicted that the process of natural migration to universal credit would be completed by December 2023.
Information collected on changes to people’s circumstances suggests that natural migration is happening less frequently than we expected. This suggests broad stability in people’s lives and can be attributed to a number of reasons, including the robustness of the labour market. We now estimate that 900,000 fewer households will naturally migrate between now and December 2023 than we had forecast. Given that we expect to manage about 100,000 households to universal credit each month, it necessarily follows that if we are to protect the interests of claimants and move them to universal credit safely it will take a further nine months to complete the implementation of universal credit.
I can assure colleagues that claimants will not lose money from their universal credit award owing to this forecasting change. We will always put the best interests of our claimants first, and as we move into the managed migration phase protecting the vulnerable will be our utmost concern.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which I believe is the first to be granted to the SNP under your speakership.
The UK Government still have no respect for the House. They let the BBC announce this delay as part of a news trail for the documentary being aired tonight, without a written ministerial statement—I have not seen one, so can the Minister tell the House where it is?
I feel for the Minister, being forced to stand here today, because I know it was not his decision to withhold that information from colleagues. Where is the Secretary of State? This should have been an oral ministerial statement.
Quotes from the documentary seem to suggest that this decision was taken by a senior official, not the Secretary of State. Has she abandoned decision-making oversight? When did she sanction this decision? Perhaps there was no oral ministerial statement because she found out only last night, like the rest of us—what an absolute shambles.
Universal credit was supposed to have been fully rolled out by 2017. This further delay means that it will have been delayed by a further seven years at a potential cost of £500 million. It highlights how far universal credit is from getting it right, as does the fact that this delay is needed to avoid further hardship to those in receipt of the benefit.
Ministers say, as the Minister said again just now, that the delay is needed because people are scared to go on universal credit. They say it like they are actually surprised. The great irony is that if this Tory Government were to listen and do what expert charities and those actually in receipt of universal credit were saying, these delays would not be needed.
Will the UK Government use this delay productively by making a meaningful investment in universal credit to see it fixed, scrapping the two-child cap and rape clause, ending the debt and poverty-inducing five-week wait and making work pay by fully restoring work allowances?
Finally, will the Minister confirm that this delay means that more people will be part of the natural rather than the managed migration process, which in turn will mean that those recipients will lose out on transitional payments, thus saving the Government more money at the expense of people who actually need it?
I have not yet seen the BBC documentary, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not done so either, because it is due to be aired shortly. However, it is important to stress that officials discussed advice to be sent to Ministers late in 2019, and the final discussions were held with Ministers in 2020. Parliament was then informed. This relates to the back end of the timetable, which concerns people moving to universal credit in 2024-25, so the change was communicated in good time.
The hon. Gentleman referred to cost, and it is important to put that in context. This is additional money that will go into the pockets of our claimants, some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our country. About 900,000 people could now receive transitional protection who would not have been able to receive it through natural migration.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s clarification of the need for this reforecasting. May I invite him to restate the Government’s total commitment to a universal credit arrangement that simplifies the system? It means dealing with one Department rather than three, it combines six benefits into one, it helps people to get into work more quickly, and it smooths their transition into work thereafter.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and for all the work that he did in our Department. He is absolutely right: universal credit is a modern, flexible, personalised benefit that reflects the rapidly changing world of work. Conservative Members believe that work should always pay, and that we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help, and is fair to everyone who pays for it.
Yesterday the BBC reported that the Government had decided to delay the roll-out of universal credit until September 2024, adding £500 million to its overall cost. That is hugely embarrassing for the Government: yet again, they have had to delay what is meant to be their flagship social security policy. Last week the Minister told the House that they had managed to process fewer than 80 households since July, as part of what was meant to be a pilot of up to 10,000 households in Harrogate, and that only about 13 of those households had transferred to universal credit. At that rate, it would take the Government more than 380 years to complete their managed migration pilot.
Universal credit was supposed to make work pay, but instead it has caused misery for thousands across the country. It seems from yesterday’s report that senior civil servants think people are too scared to transfer to it. Can the Minister tell us why so many people are scared? Is it because of the five-week wait that is pushing so many families into debt and rent arrears, and making them turn to food banks to survive? Is it because of the two-child limit, which the Child Poverty Action Group has described as
“a policy designed to increase child poverty”?
Is it because of the sanctions regime that has made some of the most vulnerable people in our society destitute? Or is it down to the fact that, according to the Government’s own research, nearly 50% of claimants were not able to make a claim online unassisted?
It is clear that the Government have been forced to delay universal credit yet again because people do not have confidence in the system. Can the Minister tell us what they intend to do with the extra time? Will they get rid of the five-week wait? Will they scrap the two-child limit? Will they call a halt to the sanctions regime that is pushing people into destitution? And will they now apologise to all the people whom they have pushed into hardship through universal credit, and create a social security system that protects people from poverty and treats them with respect?
The hon. Lady says that I should be embarrassed. I will never be embarrassed about putting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society first, and neither will the Government. She talked about cost. As I have said, this is up to £500 million of additional money that will go into the pockets of our claimants. When she referred to the pilot, she was conflating two very separate issues. She also said that people were scared. Perhaps if members of the Labour party desisted from their scaremongering and spent more time in our jobcentres speaking to work coaches, they would have a better understanding of universal credit and how well it is working.
I am certainly no fan of the Department for Work and Pensions and its campaign to improve universal credit, but I do know that this Minister cares about making universal credit work, and this Minister has my full backing to make it work—and I have worked with many Ministers over the last 10 years. Will he tell me clearly, however, whether my constituents will be better off or worse off because of the way in which the migration works?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his kind words. The answer is a categorical yes: his constituents will be better off. Under our forecasting, around 900,000 people will now be eligible for transitional protection, and as a result they will be better off.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this urgent question. Claimants are extremely reluctant to be moved on to universal credit. It has a dreadful reputation, largely because for the first five weeks that they are on it the only help they can get is a loan. Claimants on universal credit are two and a half times more likely to need a food bank than those on the previous benefits. Will Ministers look urgently at drastically cutting that five-week delay?
First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his election as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. I take all issues around policy in my Department, in the areas in which I have control, very seriously and I am happy to work with him. Are there improvements that we can make to universal credit? Yes, of course there are, and I look forward to working with him find some of those solutions.
Is the Minister as surprised as I am that, when questions about universal credit come up, people have a clear tendency to forget that the legacy benefits system leaves a lot to be desired and traps people in jobs where they cannot work more hours? Universal credit is a massive improvement. Of course there are going to be issues, but I for one am pleased that the Minister is taking this cautiously and carefully. Universal credit helps people to get into work and makes work pay, and he should not be embarrassed about it at all.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The previous system has been described as clunky and confusing, as leading to overpayments and therefore ongoing deductions, as acting as a disincentive to work through cliff edges at 16, 24 and 30 hours, and in some cases as a marginal tax rate of 90p in the pound. Labour was content to have people trapped in a life on benefits. What did that mean for the life chances of people and their children? Under universal credit, it always pays to work and increase your hours.
The final delivery of universal credit seems to be even later than a Northern train. It is a demonstration of the incompetence of this Government that they have wrecked the benefits system in this way. When universal credit was rolled out in my constituency as one of the experiments—they never do experiments in their own constituencies—it caused a tenfold increase in food bank usage and huge hardship—[Interruption.] The Minister can pretend all he likes that that did not happen, but I know from my own advice surgery that this benefit causes misery.
Let us instead look at the facts. Universal credit will give claimants an extra £2.1 billion a year, once it has been fully rolled out, compared with the system that it replaces. Around 1 million disabled house- holds will receive an average of around £100 more a month, and 700,000 families will get the extra money that they are entitled to—around £285 a month—under universal credit. Claimants will have access to around £2.4 billion of previously unclaimed benefits—benefits that they did not receive under the legacy benefits system of the previous Labour Government.
I simply do not understand why Opposition Members are so against this system, which is helping people into work. I have visited my jobcentre in Poole, where work coaches are so positive about the universal credit system because it gives them the tools to get people into work. It is not just Conservative Members who support universal credit; it is also those who have been helped into work by our work coaches.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for visiting his jobcentre. If more Members across the House did so, they would have a better understanding of the system and of how our work coaches feel about it. They would find that, as my hon. Friend rightly says, it is a valuable tool to help people to get into work and to progress in work. We should all be proud of it.
In a written answer to me, the Secretary of State has conceded:
“As the two-child limit policy was introduced in April 2017 there is insufficient data to assess any impacts of the policy on low income.”
Almost three years on, we still do not have sufficient data to assess the impacts. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister take the opportunity provided by this period of grace that they have granted themselves to get proper statistics on the effect of the two-child rule on people of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and at local authority and parliamentary constituency level?
I am not entirely sure about the correlation between that question and this urgent question but, nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman can write to me, or I would be happy to meet him to discuss the issue further. I cannot guarantee that we will agree, but I will be happy to listen to him to understand the issues he raises.
When I visited my jobcentre in Redditch, which, contrary to some suggestions from the Opposition, has had full roll-out of universal credit since October 2017, I found work coaches to be incredibly positive about the transformational help being given to their clients. Does the Minister agree that the constant scaremongering and muddling from Opposition Members is the problem? First they want to scrap universal credit, then they want to pause it—who knows what they would do? We need to be on the side of the people, and I am glad that this Government are.
My hon. Friend is quite right. At every single jobcentre that I visit—I visit one every week on average —I get that same feedback, and the one thing that staff would like to change is the reputation. It would be helpful if Opposition Members visited their jobcentres, spoke with work coaches, got that understanding, and desisted with the unhelpful scaremongering.
My constituent, a mature student with a wife and child, claimed UC and provided all the information that was required. The DWP later announced that it had made an error and asked my constituent to pay back £2,416. He has had to give up his studies, and his family is now in hardship. Does that incompetence not demonstrate why people are so scared to make a UC claim? While the Minister for deep-fried Mars bars is at the Dispatch Box, will he explain why he still has not apologised to me and my colleagues?
I hope you recall, Mr Speaker, that I did make a full, frank and unreserved apology in this Chamber. As for the case that the hon. Lady raises, if she would like to write to me with the details, I will happily look into it. There are strict Treasury rules about errors and deductions, but I will be happy to look at them.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that today’s announcement does not change the fundamental course of our policy, which is to move away from a perverse legacy system that incentivised claimants to minimise the number of hours worked to one that incentivises them to maximise their hours and gives them a chance to move away from long-term benefit dependency?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for his support for universal credit and, indeed, his local jobcentre. We believe that work should always pay, and we need a welfare system that helps people into work, supports those who need help, and is fair to the taxpayers who pay for it. It is important to stress—my hon. Friend is right about this—that it always pays to work and increase one’s hours under universal credit. That was not the case under the legacy benefit system.
Overwhelming evidence from the pilot areas such as Wigan and debt charities such as StepChange shows that the five-week wait is causing further debt problems. Will the Minister use this delay to rescind and reconsider this policy urgently?
I have huge respect for the hon. Lady, and I would be happy to visit her constituency to meet some of the organisations she references. It is important to state that nobody has to wait five weeks for an initial payment, which can be done on day one. It is repayable over 12 months but, as of next year, that will be extended to 16 months. We also have additional measures such as the two-week housing run-on and, as of July this year, a further two-week run-on of other legacy benefits. Are there further improvements that I would like to make? Yes, of course there are. They would all require Treasury approval, but I would be happy to work with hon. Lady to look at them in further detail.
I, too, have visited my jobcentre and its staff universally welcome universal credit—there is no doubt about that—but there have been one or two hiccups. When an employer tends to pay early, say at Christmas, that does tend to muck up the next month’s universal credit payment. Are we trying to resolve that issue?
My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question that was raised by six separate colleagues at oral questions only last week. I am looking closely at this area and intend to organise a roundtable with interested colleagues and officials to explore how we can tackle the issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on his urgent question. Policy in Practice analysis shows that disabled people lose an average of £3,000 a year, but they are not the only group to lose money under universal credit. In addition to considering the five-week wait, about which so many of my colleagues have raised issues, will the Minister examine increased support for disabled people? Disabled people and children are being plunged into poverty as a result of this benefit.
I think I have already answered this question. Around 1 million disabled households will receive an average of £100 more per month under universal credit. Importantly, the claimants will have access to around £2.4 billion of previously unclaimed benefits that, for all sorts of reasons, they did not claim under the legacy benefit system.
Harrogate and Knaresborough has been a trial area for universal credit since it started, including being the location for the legacy migration. I have therefore followed universal credit for many years and I have spoken with claimants, employers and the team at Harrogate jobcentre who have done a great job. They all report positive feedback. There are obviously some problems, but there were problems with the previous system. Universal credit is helping people to get into work and to make work pay. Will the Minister continue the focus on making work pay?
I thank my hon. Friend for his very helpful question and for his support of universal credit and his local jobcentre. I am full of praise for those staff working in the jobcentre at Harrogate and the work that they are doing on the pilot. That is hugely important work, because it sets the scene and gives us the all important data and learnings we need to move out universal credit at scale and pace.
In the last 18 months, a food bank in my constituency has seen an increase of two thirds in people using it. Will the Government accept that more people in the UK—including those in employment—are using food banks than ever before, as a direct result of policies such as universal credit, the five-week wait and the two-child limit?
I do not want anyone in our country to have no choice but to use or visit a food bank. I visit food banks regularly, and I want to get a clear understanding of food insecurity in our country. That is why we have commissioned questions for the Family Resources Survey, which started in April last year. I am also working with food banks and other organisations that tackle food insecurity to better understand the issue. If we better understand the issue, we will know how to tackle it.
Does my hon. Friend recognise as I do that the opening of the food banks that serve my constituency in 2009 was a response to the deep-seated problems at the height of Labour welfare spending? Does he agree that the feedback from local authority areas where universal credit has been rolled out has been that it is a much more supportive system than the legacy system?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right: it is a far better system than the previous legacy benefit system. We know it is working better at helping people to get into jobs and stay in them. Is it any surprise that under this Government the number of people in work is up more than 3.8 million since 2010, and the employment rate is 76.3%, a record high?
Given this latest delay, which follows endless repeated delays over the last few years, can the Minister assure the House that sufficient investment is being made to maintain the legacy systems, which will now have to last an additional seven and a half years longer than originally envisaged?
I can of course give that commitment, but I stress that this is a change in policy based on forecasts. Forecasts do change, and it is responsible of Ministers to look at them and change policy accordingly. If the forecast changes, I will of course look at it, as will the Secretary of State, and where necessary, act accordingly.
We hear a lot from the Opposition, and we certainly did during the election, about scrapping universal credit or sections of it, but I and many people in this Chamber would much rather have a change of forecast than a change to the entire system, and certainly the jobcentres would agree with that. Will the Minister tell us what, if anything, claimants will notice on the ground from the change in forecasts?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I welcome her to her place and indeed to her position on the Select Committee. Most claimants will not notice any difference whatever, other than that an extra 900,000 will be eligible for transitional protection. She raises an important point. The IFS slammed Labour’s pledge to scrap universal credit as uncosted and
“unwise…expensive, disruptive and unnecessary.”
It is important to point out that no Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they started.
The Minister is correct that he apologised to Glasgow MPs, but he told us he would write to us that day and we are still waiting. Delays seem to be an important part of his stewardship.
On the five-week wait and given that we now know from parliamentary answers that the Department receives £50 million a month in repayments from advances, surely that now tells us to scrap the five-week wait and make sure the first payment is not a loan or an advance payment, but a first payment for universal credit.
It is a system based on arrears, not on advances, unlike the legacy benefit system. The hon. Gentleman knows that people are able to access an advance on day one repayable over 12 months. That will extend to 16 months next year and I am looking at whether we can explore options to extend that further. We have made further changes—scrapping the seven-day wait, the additional two-week run-on, the two-week run-on starting in July of legacy benefits—and, where there are further changes we can make, I am of course willing to look at them and act where appropriate.
I commend the Government for delaying the roll-out of universal credit and, indeed, for the changes that they have made to the system over the last four years or so, but may I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to getting rid of the five-week wait, notwithstanding the answer he gave to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue)? In my experience, it is causing very serious challenges for my constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and the constructive way in which he put it, but I must respectfully disagree with him. There is no five-week wait. People are able to access their advance on day one.
Can the Minister tell us whether we can now expect to see an improvement to the kind of delays that many applicants are experiencing in their applications being processed? Will the Minister commit himself to publishing some statistics so that we can see whether the impact of this delay has resulted in an improvement to those kinds of delays?
I am a little confused, because my understanding is that those performance stats are indeed available. The Department has a very good record on payments and payment timeliness. Can we improve? Of course we can, and I meet with officials on at least a weekly basis to discuss that. In many cases, it is down not just to the Department but to how the claimant provides information. We are putting in additional resource, where appropriate, to help people to help themselves to get us that important information that we need to process the claims.
Will the Minister confirm that one solution to this would be to get more uptake for the excellent help to claim service through Citizens Advice? Will he confirm that service will be extended so that it is there for the whole period through to the end of the roll-out?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for his work on the Select Committee. He is right: help to claim, commissioned via the Department and run by Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, is working really well. We are now in detailed discussions in relation to a second year, but I want to go further and in April we will launch a £10 million transitional fund for UC, in particular to support disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. It will also help Members, because organisations in their constituencies will be able to bid for that funding.
The Public Accounts Committee is not in the business of scaremongering, but from the very beginning we have raised concerns about the pace and the over-ambitious nature of this policy. Only today, the Minister listed so many changes that have taken place since it was rolled out that it shows there is a problem. In our last session on this issue, we heard from local authorities about the millions of pounds they are having to put aside to help people. With this extra time, will he look at what support he can give local authorities who are having to backfill mistakes by his Department?
Universal credit is an evolving system and it is a relatively new system. I meet with stakeholders and Members from both sides of the House on a regular basis, and where there are improvements that we can make quickly, I will of course look at them and make them. Where there are changes that can take a longer period of time, I can start setting those in train. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and discuss the issue she raises in further detail.
One of the very first constituency visits I made as a new MP was to Aylesbury jobcentre. Does my hon. Friend agree with me, and with the work coaches and claimants I met there, that universal credit is a much better system than what went before because it positively incentivises people to find a job?
My hon. Friend is right for all the reasons that he points out, but I would go further and say that it is the personal relationship with a work coach that makes it so very different to the legacy benefits system. Work coaches will work with people to help them get work ready, to get into work and then to progress into the job that they want and that suits their family.
My constituency was one of the trials for universal credit, and all we have seen since its introduction is debt, poverty, hunger and homelessness. How is that putting the claimant first?
I do not recognise those statistics, or indeed the correlation. I do not know when the hon. Gentleman last visited his jobcentre, but I would strongly recommend he does so to discuss with work coaches the difference that universal credit is making in his constituency. If he has specific concerns, I invite him to write to me and I will look at them in detail.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if people out there are scared, the blame, at least in part, is with the Opposition parties, whose reckless, irresponsible scaremongering paints a picture wholly at odds with the picture on the ground in jobcentres across the UK?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. When I speak to and visit jobcentres and work coaches, they always tell me that the one thing they want to change is reputation. While Opposition Members continually talk down universal credit and say they would scrap it—against the advice and guidance from organisations such as the IFS and many charities—they are not helping the situation a jot.
If I accept that part of the Minister’s motivation is to protect the interests of those on legacy benefits, will he equally accept that those who are wrongly transferred to universal credit because of erroneous advice from a jobcentre, should have their interests protected by an automatic right to at least have their legacy benefits restored?
The hon. Gentleman raises a pertinent point. I am looking at that very issue. I would be happy to meet him to discuss it further; it does concern me. On his first point, I will always put disadvantaged and vulnerable residents at the forefront of my mind in any decision making that I undertake while in this role.
The Minister is exactly right in the careful, pragmatic approach that he is taking to roll-out; it is what responsible Ministers do. However, may I encourage my hon. Friend to follow his instincts and, in his discussions with the Treasury, make the case for improving universal credit? The truth is that if we are to improve this good policy further, it will require resource.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his helpful question and for all the work that he did while at the Department. He, like me, believes that work should always pay, and that we need a welfare system that helps people into work. My mind is full of ideas on how we can improve universal credit, and if he would like to help me in persuading the Treasury to get behind those, I would very much welcome that.
Barnsley food bank gave out over 4,000 food parcels to people in crisis in a year. The Minister appears to be in complete denial. Why will the Government not accept that the increase in food bank use has a direct link to policies such as universal credit, and that it is about time it was scrapped?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I could not disagree more, but I do agree with her that I do not want to see anybody feeling that they have no choice but to visit a food bank. I want to better understand this issue, which is why I visit food banks. I meet food bank organisations and other organisations that help to tackle food insecurity. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this further. There is a huge amount of ongoing work.
I very much welcome the approach that the Minister and his predecessors have taken on this issue, keeping universal credit under review and making changes where appropriate, but can he assure me that some things about universal credit will not change—that it will always be a system that is fair to claimants and the taxpayer, and that being in work will always pay?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Under universal credit, it will always pay to work and it will always pay to do more hours. That is the principle that we stand by, and we will stick by it.
My constituency was the guinea pig for universal credit, and we had no protection over our transition. By 2024, Inverness will have endured 10 years of chaos, delays and hardship. What will the Minister do to compensate those claimants who have already been through this mill, and will he do something about repaying the £3 million in additional administration costs that Highland Council has incurred in order to operate universal credit?
First, I do not recognise the statistics and figures that the hon. Gentleman raises. I feel that he has a permanent prejudice against universal credit in principle. If he would like to write to me with any statistics or figures that support his claims, I would be happy to look at them.
The Minister accuses charities of scaremongering, but are not people right to fear the debt, poverty, food bank reliance, homelessness and even survival sex work that universal credit and the five-week wait have been evidenced to create—even seen by the Work and Pensions Committee?
I have worked very closely with the hon. Gentleman on issues such as homelessness. He knows that I share his passion to ensure that our welfare system works, and supports the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. However, it is important to point out that we spend £95 billion a year on benefits for working-age people, so we will continue to reform our welfare system so that it encourages work while supporting those who need help—an approach that is based on the clear evidence that work offers families the best opportunity to get out of poverty.
On Friday I visited Coventry food bank, where demand has shot up in the past few years. I asked the staff why. Their answer was immediate and unequivocal—universal credit. Will the Government finally accept that many more people than ever before, many of whom are in employment, are using food banks as a direct result of universal credit, the five-week wait and the two-child limit?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question but do not accept the anecdotal points that she makes. Governments and Ministers make and take decisions based on evidence. I am building the evidence base within the Department based on the family resource survey and the questions in it in relation to food insecurity, and working with food bank providers—the Trussell Trust being one, but there are around 800 independent food bank providers—to better understand the issues and how we can tackle food insecurity in the round and for good.
This Government need to take a long, hard look at themselves and the pressures they are placing on hard-working, low-income families and individuals. I do not trust the Minister’s pledges. For a hard-working, loving parent, it is absolutely, gut-wrenchingly worrying—which is no doubt beyond the comprehension of many of the privileged folk of this place—to find out that the moneys they are depending on, and entitled to, will not be coming. I do not need to visit a jobcentre to know that; I speak with some authority on the matter, because until my election to this place, I was a universal credit claimant, as a single parent. I ask the Minister to scrap the five-week wait and stop plunging hard-working families and individuals into further debt by making it necessary for them to avail themselves of a loan from the DWP.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I would suggest very strongly that he should visit his local jobcentre, because he would have a better understanding. [Interruption.]
Order. Peter Grant.
Will the Minister reconsider the ill-advised and, frankly, insulting use of the word “scaremongering”? It is not scaremongering when food banks talk about a massive increase in demand, and when local authorities report huge increases in rent arrears; nor is it scaremongering for local authorities to report having to spend a lot of their scarce resources to make up for the shortfalls of universal credit. If the Minister wants to insult me by accusing me of scare- mongering, that is fair enough; when he insults me for raising the concerns of my constituents, he insults my constituents. Will he apologise for that, and will he reconsider the inflammatory language he has used?
I meet stakeholders in relation to the Department every single week, and I take the concerns and issues they raise very seriously because they are largely based on evidence. When I refer to scaremongering, I refer to the tone and language and rhetoric so often used by Opposition Members.
I did not quite get to answer the question by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) and in fairness, I should. He mentioned hard-working people. It is important to stress that income inequality has been falling under this Government in real terms. The national living wage will rise to £8.72 in April, and to £10.50 by 2024. Our tax changes will make a basic rate taxpayer more than £1,200 better off. We have doubled the free childcare available to working parents. We are doing a huge amount to tackle the cost of living and to support working parents.
I think the Minister is quite a fair-minded man, but does he agree that the best policies for our welfare state are evidence-based? That means not just visiting constituencies and looking at jobcentres, but looking at the health sector. Ask GPs; ask the people running our hospitals and healthcare. They will tell us, and him, the real impact on people’s health up and down the country as one of the side effects of this silly, misguided policy.
I meet all sorts of organisations up and down the country, and they often raise some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. Where there are issues with our system that I can make changes to quickly, I look at them, and if they do not have a huge fiscal impact, I will make them. Otherwise, we have to look to fiscal events. However, universal credit is an evolving process. If there are improvements that we can make—and I believe that there are—we should make them. I am looking at those very closely; if the hon. Gentleman has ideas, I would be happy to hear them.
The National Audit Office has said there is no evidence that universal credit gets people into work, and that there is no way of measuring it from the Government’s perspective. The roll-out of universal credit in my constituency has caused council housing rent arrears to double, so that is putting a burden on local rent payers. In November 2018, income assessment period deductions for people getting two pay packets were found to be illegal. The Minister says he has lots of ideas to improve universal credit; can he give us an idea to improve at least one of those aspects?
Let us look at some facts: the number of people in work has increased by more than 3.8 million since 2010; the employment rate is 76.3%, which is a record high; the unemployment rate is 3.8%, having gone down by more than half since 2010; and 80% of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work. We are very proud of our record, but we are not complacent and our ambition is to go much, much further.
Perhaps if the Tory MPs had my case load, they would recognise the misery and poverty that their policies caused. This week, another constituent contacted me because she had been denied the vital UC cash she needs, as she is paid four-weekly and this last month she received two payments from her employers. When will this anomaly be sorted out and people not be left unable to pay their bills?
I believe I answered this question a little earlier today. I am looking at the issue, and I will invite the hon. Gentleman, along with other colleagues who have an interest in this area, to the Department to raise it with officials. We are looking at solutions. It is not potentially an easy or quick fix, but if we can address this, of course we will.
I see the delay as a wise step by government to reassess, and I congratulate the Minister on not enforcing a transfer to UC on people, who know it will see them in a five-week freeze. Will he use this delay to introduce a smoother, more workable transition period, to prevent people from getting into debt?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The important point here is that when we talk about the £500 million cost, we are talking about £500 million that will go into the pockets of claimants up and down the country, including some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our country, who previously would not have received that transitional protection under the legacy benefits system or in their transfer over under natural migration.
Although I would visit jobcentres in my constituency on a more regular basis, it does not help when the Department shuts them, as it did the one in the Vale of Leven. Given a substantial increase in the uptake of support through the two food banks, Food for Thought and West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare, although we may disagree on the implementation, I hope the Minister takes the opportunity to agree with me that with this extension and additional moneys going into the process there is an opportunity to reflect on what has gone on before, especially for those Members, such as myself, whose constituents do not feel as though they have been treated properly.
We have more than 630 jobcentres up and down our country, so there will be a jobcentre within reach of the hon. Gentleman. He raises a number of points. We are always looking at how we can improve UC, and if he has ideas, he can either write to me or come to see me, because I am very approachable—we could even share a deep fried Mars bar together.
No one should agree an embargo with the BBC and expect it to be kept, should they?
It is probably best that I do not comment on this. We had intended to come to this House this week to announce this. Unfortunately, we got this done yesterday via a letter to the Work and Pensions Committee Chair and indeed a “Dear colleague” letter to myself, and I am here today to answer Members’ questions, which I hope has been valuable.
Lobby and Media Briefings: Journalists' Access
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the barring of certain journalists from official civil servant media briefings at the direction of special advisers and the arrangements for future lobby and media briefings.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to clarify this situation. This Government are committed to being open in their dealings with the press and to the principles of media freedom, and the events of yesterday were a good example of that. The Prime Minister delivered a speech on the future of the UK-EU relationship. He also took extensive questions from journalists. Following that, there was a further briefing for journalists by the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, which was made available to any journalist who wanted it directly after the speech and was all on the record.
Lobby briefings typically take place twice a day. All those with a Press Gallery pass are able to attend these briefings and to question the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson however they wish. No journalists are barred from official media briefings hosted by the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson. It is entirely standard practice for the Government to host additional technical, specialist briefings, as was the case yesterday. This particular briefing, which the media have reported on, was an additional, smaller meeting due to be held by a special adviser in order to improve the understanding of the Government’s negotiating aims for the future relationship. I am delighted that there are so many right hon. and hon. Members here today who would also like to improve their understanding of such things.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this timely and important urgent question. The ability of the lobby to have access to briefings without favour is a long-standing tradition, and one vital to the health of a functioning democracy. Yesterday, certain publications were barred from a briefing on future trade deals with David Frost, the Prime Minister’s adviser on Europe. According to reports, when journalists from other news outlets arrived, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, a special adviser, said:
“Those invited to the briefing can stay—everyone else, I’m afraid, will have to leave.”
When challenged, he added:
“We’re welcome to brief whoever we like, whenever we like.”
The code of conduct for special advisers states that
“special advisers must not: ask civil servants to do anything which is inconsistent with their obligations under the Civil Service Code”.
On the David Frost briefing yesterday, will the Minister tell us who decided which journalists could attend and what the selection criteria were? If that decision was made by a special adviser, are they in violation of both the code of conduct for special advisers and the civil service code? Can she confirm whether civil servants were in attendance?
Sadly, yesterday was not an isolated incident; the Huawei briefing last week was exactly the same. I understand that that was given by Ciaran Martin of the National Cyber Security Centre, plus civil servants from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. So will the Minister tell us who decided which journalists could attend and what the selection criteria were? If that decision was made by a special adviser, are they in violation of both the code of conduct for special advisers and the civil service code? In addition, where is the reply to the letter to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill reported in The Times, as, apparently, he does not have “a problem” with this? Can the Minister confirm what the Cabinet Secretary’s advice is and whether he believes there have been breaches of the special adviser code of conduct in either case?
Finally, on 13 January the editors of those national newspapers, with the Society of Editors, wrote to the Prime Minister, but we still do not have the reply. When was it sent? Has it been written? The Government’s behaviour in these matters threatens the civil service’s core values of impartiality and objectivity. It also brings into question the integrity of future Government media briefings and the conduct of their special advisers, and it damages a free and vibrant press, which is central to this parliamentary democracy.
I am more than willing to repeat the points I made, which were that this briefing was additional to normal lobby handlings. Those lobby handlings are entirely normal, standard and routine, and have been so over successive Governments. I am not taking any further lectures from the Labour party, which needs to look in the mirror a little on this. The hon. Lady is part of a shadow Government who wish to regulate and introduce Soviet-style licensing of newspapers; and whose leader and shadow Chancellor take money from media organisations, such as Press TV, which are owned by foreign, hostile Governments. Under that culture, a BBC editor had to have protection at the Labour party conference, and the shadow Chancellor encourages direct action against journalists who do not write what he likes. Conservative Members strongly support the free press. I have set out the ways in which we do that. In addition to the briefings and the very normal routine operation of the lobby, the Prime Minister has a huge amount of further appointments and engagements on a range of channels. For example, he did more than 120 media engagements during the election. Senior members of the Government come to this House to answer those questions again, and we intend to continue doing those things. That choice is absolutely clear, and we on this side of the House stand up for a free and vibrant press. The hon. Lady needs to ask herself and her colleagues the same questions.
I do not think that anything has happened so far that matches what Alastair Campbell did in trying to get political editors sacked and saying that the then Government would not co-operate at all. It would be sensible for the Government to consider talking to the senior political editors who walked out, to see whether there is a way of getting over this problem and resolving it. Much of what my hon. Friend has said is fine, but the last bit leaves unresolved problems. There is no greater competition for an MP trying to get themselves into the media than from media people trying to get themselves reported and on air, but they walked away from it, so there is a problem and it needs solving.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Father of the House for his wisdom and long sight on this issue. He shares with us exactly what these things looked like over successive Governments, which is to say that it is quite routine for there to be lobby briefings on a regular basis—we run them twice daily—and in addition to that some specialist and technical briefings. I understand the point that my hon. Friend closed his contribution with and am sure that that will be correctly considered. It is so valuable that we hear from him, given his long sight on this issue, which reminds us how these things look over history.
What the hon. Lady said is woeful and desperate. It makes Comical Ali look like a Pulitzer prize winner. Yesterday was a black day for press freedom and no amount of sleekit, self-justifying nonsense from the hon. Lady is going to get her off the Trumpian hook. The next thing will be the Prime Minister talking about fake news and banning broadcasters—oh, wait: he already has. Just how sinister can it get? The names of journalists were read out and groups assembled on either side of a rug before it was announced who would have access and who would be excluded. No Scottish media outlets were even told about the briefing. I congratulate all the journalists involved yesterday for showing solidarity with their colleagues and refusing to participate in that circus. We know that the Prime Minister dislikes scrutiny and actively hides from the press; we know that Dominic Cummings and his henchmen have their own agenda and are actively trying to bypass and diminish the media; and we all know that the Prime Minister looks like a prize buffoon under the hard questioning that he does not like. Is that not the real reason why we have this particular agenda, Minister?
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no. The longer answer is that he, too, should be careful about what he says. If he wants to hand out prizes, perhaps he might look back to the days when Alex Salmond, formerly of this parish, used to routinely exclude journalists from his briefings. There is a tinge here, Mr Speaker, of people who are not willing to look at their own record before they come here and prance around with a few too many adjectives.
The other thing I would add is that we on the Government Benches, like others in other parties, are proud Unionists. We recognise that there are national broadcasters that deal with all parts of our country. Long may that last.
There clearly do need to be better arrangements for lobby briefings than was the case yesterday, but I detect the faint air of fake outrage. When I was a journalist, I regarded it as my job to talk to the people who could tell me what I needed to do to provide the story. Indeed, when I was a Minister, if I wanted to talk to individual journalists, there were ways of doing so that might be useful to me and to the individual journalists. I agree with the Father of the House that there need to be improvements in the system, but does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that what we are seeing here is some fake outrage and a mass outbreak of snowflakery?
I am grateful for that view from a senior Member of the House. My right hon. Friend is correct: what we are seeing here is a very normal operation whereby a specialist briefing is offered. That is a good thing, and we are doing that to support the other ways in which we are already an extremely open and accessible Government, providing briefing and access through a range of channels so that people can be well-informed.
“Attacks on media freedom are attacks on human rights…Too often, it is governments who are the source of threats to media freedom. Governments—which are responsible for protecting human rights—instead are the ones to violate them.”
Those are not my words, but words taken directly from the global pledge on media freedom that was signed last July by the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). The Minister clearly does not understand what media freedom means; does she understand what hypocrisy means?
I do not think the hon. Lady understands that her party has been the worst of all on this point. Her party is the one that has offered to open up journalists’ tax returns and has had to provide bodyguards to journalists. All that is because the leader of her party is of the kind of bent that looks down a camera and says, “Change is coming.” Well, the British people ensured that he was the one who was changed. The hon. Lady should heed that.
Will the Minister confirm two things for the House—first, that the Government will of course look at making sure that briefings are done in a sensible way, with the agreement of all members of the lobby over the longer term; and secondly, that this Government and, indeed, this House should always be committed to there being no political interference in our media, because that is a foundation of our democracy?
My hon. Friend is right on that point. As I have said, the Government are upholders of freedom and accessibility for Government briefings. We take it as a matter of pride that we are an extremely open Government, ensuring that there are briefings available across a range of channels. As I have already said, what has been happening recently, and the subject of today’s question, is in fact the perfectly normal operation of the lobby: twice daily briefings and, in addition to that, the offer of further specialist briefings. There is clearly the ability to hold the Government to account, and that is how we intend to continue to work.
Does the Minister agree that, unlike what happened in the US, it was brilliant to see our journalists showing solidarity with those journalists who were barred from the briefing and staging a joint walk-out? On another note, does the Minister think that the Prime Minister and his advisers are merely trying to copy President Trump’s tactics and trying to stifle our free press?
No, I do not.
Does the Minister agree that it is ridiculous for the Labour party to pose as champions of press freedom when, as mentioned earlier, the BBC’s political editor has to be assigned a bodyguard to attend the Labour party conference? Does she agree that that is unacceptable and that our press should be able to report without fear?
The press certainly should be able to report without fear. We are strongly in support of there being a free press. Let me point to another example, which is that of the Cairncross review. The Government are pressing forward with ways to support our media to adapt to the digital age, and that is in addition to what I have been saying about the way the Government are ensuring that lobby briefings are available.
I congratulate the Minister on the Orwellian double-speak of her opening remarks. I am sure she will go far in this Government.
Those of us who support independent press regulation have, over the years, received a number of lectures on press freedom from those on the Government Benches, so it ill behoves the Minister to dodge our reasonable questions today. She has mentioned how important the Union is to her. I spoke to members of the Scottish lobby about this issue this morning and it is well established that the Scottish media outlets were excluded from the briefing yesterday. Will the Minister clarify a very simple question—was that an oversight or was it deliberate?
I have already explained that this particular briefing was arranged to provide further specialist briefing. It was not in itself a matter for the kind of questioning that the hon. and learned Lady is putting about around whether it should be for Scotland or the United Kingdom. That question is rightly subject to a far greater debate on which, I gently point out, she is on the wrong side. The point is that the British people have asked for a clear resolution of our relationship with the European Union. We got Brexit done last weekend and we now move on to the next stage of the negotiation. We all want the lobby to be able to benefit from a good understanding of the negotiating objectives of the UK Government. The UK Government speak for all parts of the UK in that, so such matters are not really the subject of the kind of questioning the hon. and learned Lady is asking after.
Given that the Labour party called for the resignation of BBC journalists who had the courage to report on antisemitism, does the Minister agree that it is the Conservative party that stands up for a healthy, vibrant and independent press?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution. He is absolutely right that what we are talking about here today is how the Government are, ought to be and will be, committed to being open in their dealings with the press and to the principles of media freedom. That is something that we stick by firmly as a matter of principle and of practice.
I am really puzzled by what the Minister says, because lobby journalists walked out in solidarity with each other, and they said that there was no precedent for this, so either they are wrong, or she is wrong. I want to know why she is saying, as she seems to be, that the lobby journalists are wrong, that the National Union of Journalists is wrong, that everybody else is wrong and that this Government are not trying to hide from scrutiny, which is how it appears.
I cannot account for the hon. Lady’s understanding, but what I can say is that this Government are making themselves available across a range of briefings and across a range of channels—I have already covered that point—including social media, broadcast channels and innovations such as the people’s Prime Minister’s questions, which is a very good thing. What I can add is that the standard practice of the lobby is that all members with a press pass are able to attend and ask all questions that they would wish to ask. That is how the lobby functions, and we absolutely uphold that. That is happening twice daily and, in addition to that, we are offering further specialist briefings, which is what we are talking about here today.
I declare an interest as a former special adviser, most recently in No. 10. I endorse the comments that my hon. Friend has made: there is nothing unusual in providing specialist briefings. Indeed, I was there when we provided one on the Prime Minister’s excellent Brexit deal, which has happily now passed through this House. Is it not important that we keep perspective? In my experience, lobby journalists are well able to look after themselves.
I welcome that glimpse of experience. It is important to say again that what we are discussing here today are the normal operations of the lobby. We are making sure that that is supplemented by these additional briefings.
These are the words of the Prime Minister in 2017 when he was Foreign Secretary:
“Where governments fear freedom of expression they often try to shut down media and civil society, or clip their wings.”
He also said:
“A free media is vital to creating a vibrant, informed and engaged population and helps to support a safer, more prosperous and progressive world.”
Why does he now think that freedom of the press is important everywhere except Downing Street?
Because the hon. Lady is wrongly describing the situation. The Prime Minister stands by those words, as do I.
While the Labour party, true to form these days it seems, is obsessing about the London bubble, will my hon. Friend confirm that the Treasury is looking at how best it can support the media across the country? What impact does she believe that the recently announced business rates relief for local newspaper offices will have, particularly on great Bishop Auckland organisations, such as the Teesdale Mercury and The Northern Echo?
My hon. Friend makes a helpful wider point, which is how we, as a Government, can use policy and indeed scrutinise it here in this place—I say this as the Budget and other such vehicles come up—to look at ways to support the vibrancy of our press and media across the country. I referenced the Cairncross review earlier. These things, together with fiscal measures, are important in that debate.
I confess that there is one journalist I would quite like to keep out of Downing Street, but he is the Prime Minister and, unfortunately, he won the general election.
There is a serious issue here: every political generation in government want to try to avoid scrutiny if possible, and it is the job of this House to try to ensure that they do not get away with it. So, all the whataboutery in the world will not stop us complaining when we see a clear pattern of the Prime Minister running his leadership campaign, running his general election campaign and now running the Government in a way that is trying to avoid scrutiny. I am sure that, in private, the Minister would agree.
This is simply barking up the wrong tree again. The Government are ensuring that they are open for scrutiny. The Foreign Secretary stood here yesterday and took scores of questions on the very same subject matter. He was again on television shows on Sunday. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury was on a number of programmes yesterday. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was out this morning; the Home Secretary was out this morning. The Prime Minister himself took many questions on the subject matter in hand yesterday. Nobody is hiding from scrutiny.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this very much has the flavour of a storm in a Westminster bubble? Will she outline what further steps she might be taking to improve the ability of our regional and local newspapers to hold all of us as politicians to account, outside of that bubble?
This is an important point. As we have already discussed, there are ways to do that, and this Government are committed to them. We have mentioned some points of policy, and we have looked at the business rates point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison). To that, I add the way that this Government are making sure that they are available on social media, which, by its very nature, does not require to be inside any Westminster bubble. That is a way for people rightly to be able to hold this Government to account. It is that kind of principle that we hold very highly, and what I have been able to outline today are all the ways in which we are doing that.
Clearly, the Minister cannot defend what has happened and therefore she is providing a master class in whataboutery. Yesterday, Downing Street announced that there was a new show in town and that it was doing it simply because it can. It was deliberately sinister and knowingly provocative. I am sure that those involved are celebrating the fact that they have an urgent question out of it. What happened yesterday was out of President Trump’s playbook for bullies, and I am sure that those involved are feeling pretty smug about it. Did the Minister and her colleagues know that this was the type of Government they were voting for when they so enthusiastically backed Boris?
The type of Government we are talking about is the type that has just won a resounding majority at a general election and has the support of the people. I think that is a pretty good answer to his question.
This does smack of either a deliberate decision to make sure that the mainstream press is being discussed in this way in this House today, or it was just an almighty mistake. Will the Minister, who is a reasonable woman, not use this opportunity to say sorry and that it will not happen again?
The hon. Lady takes us on to very, very sober ground, and rightly so. She has great experience as a scrutiniser in this House, but the fact is that that is the wrong characterisation of what has happened. I have set out what the facts of the matter are: what we are dealing with is standard lobby procedures supplemented by an additional specialist briefing. There is nothing more sinister than that, and I think that even she, who is also a very reasonable Member of this Chamber, is just going a little too far.
It is quite extraordinary that the Government say that there is effectively nothing to see here, when the News Media Association and the National Union of Journalists have both said that this potentially represents a threat to the freedom of the press, and both have asked for the Government to consult them on the changes. Once again, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Prime Minister are missing in action in this House, but I wonder whether the Minister could tell us what action she thinks they would have taken, as former journalists, if they had found themselves excluded from a No. 10 lobby briefing.
I think the hon. Lady knows—or she should know, or she will come to know—that, as a Minister at the Dispatch Box, I speak for myself and I do not need to speak for two more senior colleagues. I speak for myself as part of the Government—as part of collective responsibility. Therefore, all Ministers are part of the same message, and that message is absolutely clear here today. It is that we run routine lobby procedures that are more than adequate for ensuring that, if they wish to, everybody with a press pass can ask any question of the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson. That is how that operates, and we are supplementing that with the additional briefings, which I have now mentioned many times. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, if this is coming across as boring to some opposition Members, but it is the fact.
The Prime Minister’s head of communications, who is a political appointee, tried to fix access to a briefing by David Frost, who is a civil service appointee. That is such a breach of protocol that the entire press lobby refused to attend that little soiree. Can the Minister confirm that Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, will be investigating this matter?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman has his facts wrong. Mr David Frost is a political appointee.
The Scotsman journalist Paris Gourtsoyannis tweeted that Downing Street did not tell Scottish or regional journalists about the briefing. Can the Minister tell me why she does not value Scottish media? Does she agree that is difficult to report outside the Westminster bubble if the Government do not invite Scottish journalists?
I have already answered that point a few times. Again, the answer is that, under the lobby arrangements, any member of the lobby with a press pass is more than welcome to put any question to the Government. That goes for journalists from any corner of our United Kingdom. We on the Government Benches are a Unionist party, and we think that that it should be more than possible to run that kind of practice across the nations of our wonderful country. We welcome close co-operation between the people and the press of Scotland and every other part of our United Kingdom, which I hope will stay united. Again, all of that is supplemented by what we are offering as technical briefings, which I hope can be read as spreading across the Union in that way.
I was interested to hear the Minister refer to the people’s PMQs on Facebook and engagement on social media as some sort of alternative to proper scrutiny of the Government’s decisions by the press lobby. The Prime Minister cannot even answer what shampoo he uses in the people’s PMQs on Facebook. Why is he running scared?
I use Dove shampoo.
The Minister has the unenviable task of coming to the House to answer this urgent question, and implying that something that resulted in journalists walking out en masse is perfectly ordinary and nothing to be concerned about. One of her critical defences is, “Well, everybody else did it before we did it, but there’s nothing wrong with it anyway”, which is concerning in and of itself. As a former civil servant, will the Minister tell the House emphatically whether the civil service code was left intact after yesterday’s decision —yes or no?
I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not know whether he thinks I am a former civil servant, but I am happy to make it clear that I am not. Forgive me, I do not know his biography—[Interruption.] He is a former civil servant; I see. In that case, I am delighted to hear from him given his experience. The only thing I can say is what I have already said—that the person who was providing the briefing was a political appointee, David Frost, and that it is not uncommon for senior civil servants to brief the media on a range of technical issues. The rest of his point goes to questions about codes that are not relevant because of my clarification as to Mr Frost’s status.
From the Minister’s previous role in the Northern Ireland Office, she will be aware that a major public inquiry will report shortly, covering—among other things—the role, conduct and behaviour of special advisers. In terms of Whitehall, what can the Minister say to reassure the House that special advisers cannot give directions to civil servants, and that there is a culture in which civil servants can safely resist inappropriate instructions that they are given by special advisers?
I am grateful for that question. As the hon. Member notes, there is much road ahead in Northern Ireland in the restoration of the institutions and the work that goes alongside that. All the codes that buttress our public work—whether for the civil service or special advisers—remain as they were and will be upheld.
May I advise the Minister that if she is trying to come across as representing a Government who are in favour of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it is not a particularly good look for each question to be preceded by somebody from the Whips Office scurrying along the green Benches, desperately handing out crib sheets to tell Government Back Benchers what questions to ask and not to ask?
This is the Government who responded to critical coverage on Channel 4 by suggesting that Channel 4 should be closed down, and who responded to critical coverage from the BBC by suggesting scrapping the licence fee—effectively closing down the BBC—so the media have good cause to be concerned. As far as I can tell, the Minister’s excuses are twofold. The first is that it was a specialist briefing; so, presumably the journalists who were thrown out were not clever enough or specialist enough to understand it. The second is that somehow only certain newspaper readers would be interested in what was to be reported. Who decides what the press are interested in reporting? Surely freedom of the press means that the editor decides what the readership are interested in, not the Prime Minister.
And that is why we have lobby arrangements whereby every editor—any journalist—with a press pass is more than able to ask any question they like of the Government.
The briefing that took place was on our future relationship with the European Union. My constituency is in Aberdeen, which is projected to be the hardest-hit city in the entire UK as a result of Brexit, yet the Westminster correspondent for the Aberdeen’s local Press and Journal was not invited. Indeed, no Scottish lobbyists were invited to that briefing. Does the contempt that this Government show to Scotland now extend to our press corps too?
No, it does not, because we are proudly serving the people of Scotland in ensuring our future prosperity and opportunity through the negotiations on our future relationship that we are conducting with the European Union. I have every hope that the outcome will be as good for the hon. Member’s constituents as it is for my constituents and constituents represented across the Chamber. It is right and proper that it is the United Kingdom Government who do this on behalf of the whole country, and can be held fully to account here in the Chamber and through the very many channels that I have spoken about throughout this urgent question.
This morning the independent inquiry into the issues raised by the disgraced surgeon, Ian Paterson, published its report. The inquiry was tasked with reviewing the circumstances surrounding the jailed surgeon’s malpractice that affected so many patients in the most appalling way. As the report states, between 1997 and 2011, Paterson saw 6,617 patients, of whom 4,077 underwent a surgical procedure in the independent sector. Between 1998 and 2011, Paterson saw 4,424 patients at the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, of whom 1,207 underwent mastectomy.
The report contains a shocking and sobering analysis of the circumstances surrounding Ian Paterson’s malpractice. It sets out the failures in the NHS, the independent sector, and the regulatory and indemnity systems. As a result of these failures, patients suffered unnecessary harm. Their testimony in the report makes harrowing and appalling reading. As such, it is with deep regret that we acknowledge the failure of the entire healthcare system to protect patients from Ian Paterson’s malpractice and to remedy the harms.
Nothing I can say today can lessen the horrendous suffering that patients and their families experienced and continue to go through. I can only start to imagine the sense of violation and betrayal of patients who put their trust in Ian Paterson when they were at their most vulnerable. That the inquiry reports today—World Cancer Day—makes this all the more poignant. I apologise on behalf of the Government and the NHS for what happened, not least that Ian Paterson was able to practise unchecked for so long. I pay tribute to the bravery of all the former patients who came forward to tell their stories to the inquiry, and whose anonymised accounts have been recorded in the report. The report will make for difficult reading, as it highlights the human cost of our failure to detect and put a stop to Ian Paterson’s malpractice.
There was a catalogue of failings that resulted in harm to thousands of patients, causing devastation to countless lives. Some of these patients were let down several times, not least by the providers and the regulatory system that should have protected them, and by the failure of the medical indemnity system to provide any kind of redress at the first time of asking. From the outset, Bishop Graham wanted patients and their families to be central to the inquiry’s work and to be heard. It was right, therefore, that patients and their families saw the report first, early this morning, shortly before it was presented to Parliament.
Two aspects of the report are particularly striking to me: that the various regulatory bodies failed in their main tasks; and the absence of curiosity by those in positions of authority in the healthcare providers in the face of concerns voiced by other healthcare professionals. The report presents a tangled set of processes. Accountability was not exercised when it should have been. Some of the problems arose from not following through on established procedures, as opposed to insufficient procedures being in place.
We must take full responsibility for what happened in the past if we are to provide reassurance to patients about their protection in the future. I am therefore very grateful that the suite of recommendations, based on the patient journey, presents a route map for Government. The recommendations are extremely sensible and we will study them in detail. I can promise the House a full response in a few months’ time. That response will need to consider the answer to some very important questions that cut right across the healthcare sector. Unequivocally, regardless of where patients are treated and regardless of how their care is funded, all patients should be confident that the care they receive is safe, that it meets the highest standards with appropriate protections, and that they are supported by clinicians to make informed decisions about the most appropriate course of care.
I am very aware that this is not the first time that regulatory failure has been highlighted in an inquiry report. We have done much to make the NHS a safer system in recent years: revalidation, a reformed Care Quality Commission, and work by the Independent Healthcare Providers Network to establish the medical practitioners assurance framework to oversee medical practitioners in the independent acute sector. In the case of Ian Paterson, the system did not work for patients. Recent events at Spire Healthcare show that there are still serious problems to address. Patient safety is a continual process of vigilance and improvement. The inquiry does not jump to a demand for the NHS and the independent sector to invent multiple new processes; it says that they must get the basics right, implement existing processes, and ensure that all professional people behave better and take responsibility.
Last summer, NHS Improvement and I published a new patient safety strategy, led by the national patient safety director, Dr Aidan Fowler. It focused on better culture, systems and regulation—very sensible and familiar words, yet all things that this inquiry says were not delivered. What we need now is action across the NHS and its regulatory bodies, and the same determination to change in the independent sector.
We are absolutely committed to ensuring that lessons are learned and acted on from the findings of this shocking inquiry, in the interests of enhancing patient protection and safety both in the NHS and the independent sector. For today, I apologise again on behalf of the Government and the NHS, and send my heartfelt sympathy to the patients and their families for the suffering they have endured.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. I welcome her apology on behalf of the Government and the national health service. I agree that the issues raised in this report are, as she says, shocking, serious and harrowing. Our thoughts are naturally with all the innocent victims of Ian Paterson. As the Minister rightly acknowledged, today is indeed World Cancer Day. We all know that a cancer diagnosis is frightening. When we hand ourselves, or a loved one, over to the care of a medical professional, we are literally trusting them with our lives. For that trust to be callously betrayed for financial gain is unforgivable, and indeed, as it has been found, criminal. I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks in paying tribute to all the patients—all the victims—for their bravery in speaking out. I thank all those who have represented them, including the various legal firms such as Thompsons, and thank Bishop Graham for putting together this report.
The findings from the inquiry were published at 12 noon today, so the House will want time to fully digest and reflect on the recommendations. However, I think we all agree that while we cannot undo the awful harm that Paterson’s criminal action has caused to so many, lessons must be learned and changes made so that something so heinous does not happen again. This report must not remain on a shelf to be forgotten, because it is clear that this was not just the action of one rogue lone surgeon; systemic organisational failures were at fault as well.
Fundamentally, it is time that we addressed the question of safety in private healthcare providers and the way in which clinicians are able to operate in private providers with little oversight. Paterson worked under the so-called practising privileges model, effectively as a self-employed contractor whereby people get a fee on top of their NHS salary for each funded NHS operation carried out in the private sector. Moreover, private hospitals would often, and still often, incentivise referrals from consultants by giving them, for example, shares in those private hospitals. This model creates financial incentives to distort clinical decision making and can lead to over-treatment, as we saw in the Paterson case. Indeed, as the Minister said, earlier this month something similar happened at Spire Healthcare when it was forced to recall hundreds of patients amid concerns over operations carried out by another surgeon.
The inquiry makes a number of recommendations and it is right that we reflect on them, but what is clear is that we need full transparency and accountability. I hope the Government mandate health bodies to quickly implement many of these recommendations. The fight that patients had to go through for compensation is, quite frankly, shameful. Surely it is time that private hospitals employed surgeons directly and required them to be fully liable for their actions. In that way, we would resolve the liability loophole.
About a third of all private hospital income now comes from the NHS for hip replacements, hernia procedures, cataract procedures and so on. Yet safety standards in the private sector leave much to be desired. Unlike in an NHS hospital where there are multi-disciplinary teams on standby to deal with potential complications post-op, in the private sector, post-operative care for patients is often left in the hands of a single junior doctor—a resident medical officer often working many hours, 24/7. In private hospitals there are few critical care facilities available if something goes wrong. Indeed, many patients are often referred back to an NHS hospital when complications occur. In 2018, the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), wrote to the private hospital sector telling it to get its house in order on patient safety.
Patient safety must always be a priority. If this demands legislation to change the regulation of private hospitals, I hope the Minister can bring such legislation forward. We would work with her constructively to ensure that it finds its way on to the statute book. It is time to take these issues in the private sector seriously, and we will be happy to work with the Government on that front.
The hon. Gentleman raises many issues that we can agree on. I am not here to defend the private sector, but I would like to reiterate that women were affected both in the national health service and in the private sector. It does not take into consideration the suffering of those women in the NHS if we just focus on one particular area.
The CQC has had a duty with regard to the private sector since 2015. These cases took place between 1997 and 2011. In 2012, the CQC introduced the revalidation system for doctors, with responsible officers attached to each organisation and an appraisal process that consultants and doctors go through to assess their performance. That happened in 2012 and was introduced by the General Medical Council.
In 2014, we instructed the CQC to appraise the private sector in the same way and hold the private sector to the same standards as the NHS. As I said, I am not here to defend the private sector, but in the CQC examination it came out as good, and I believe that Spire scored 85%.
The hon. Gentleman is right—this is about patient safety and all providers raising their game. As I said, healthcare providers and healthcare professionals have a responsibility to speak out. The time that it took from complaints being made about Paterson to action being taken was too long. We need people in the NHS and the private sector to speak up, to listen and to act more quickly. That is one issue we want to take forward. I will take all his points on board. There is much we agree on. As I said, I am not here to defend the private sector, but women in the NHS suffered as well.
I thank the Minister and shadow Minister for the tone and content of their comments.
Scores of women and their families in Solihull have been dramatically affected by Paterson, who chose—for want of a better word—to experiment on his patients, seemingly for personal profit, ruining and shortening lives. They want to know that this can never happen again, with proper measures taken and recommendations followed. Does the Minister have confidence in the new whistleblowing procedure at Spire Healthcare? Is she, like me, disquieted to hear that the same hospital is currently reviewing 217 cases regarding another doctor, Habib Rahman, who is under suspension?
My hon. Friend is right; Rahman has been suspended. He is not practising at the Spire group. However, he is still in a non-patient facing role at the trust, and we are querying that.
My hon. Friend is right to say that this has been harrowing, and many women were affected. I do not think I can give him a guarantee that this would never happen again, because for that to happen we would have to have somebody reviewing every single appointment, operation and case that any doctor undertook. We have a process in place now that was not in place then. The CQC was not inspecting the private sector then, and it was not inspecting the NHS robustly enough. That has now changed. We also have the revalidation system, brought in by the General Medical Council in 2012 after Paterson. It is really important to point out that Paterson is in jail and has been for some time. This inquiry came after Paterson had gone to jail, and the purpose of the inquiry is learning, so that we can look at the recommendations and improve our service to patients in both the NHS and the private sector as a result.
Having been a breast cancer surgeon for 33 years, I find this case heartbreaking, and I can only apologise on behalf of the profession. The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) highlighted that the way in which women were treated after the event and the fact that they had to fight for help and compensation added insult to injury.
As the Minister said, this was not a failure of processes not existing; it was a failure of processes that were not enforced. This scandal went on for 14 years, which highlights a failure to listen to people who raised concerns early on and the fact that there was a power differential between Paterson and people who were raising concerns. It should have been striking that his rate of surgery was so much higher among his private patients than his NHS patients. His practice was not being looked at within NHS quality audits, which might have shown that up. What will the Government do to ensure that all units are taking part in national audits, which faded away over the last decade, and in Getting it Right First Time, so that units cannot just opt out? Will that be rolled out to the independent sector, to ensure that units take part in national audits?
Breast cancer is a multidisciplinary team specialty, but we have to do a 360° appraisal only every five years. To me, that is the most telling and most important part of appraisal, and the Government should look at that part of appraisal being made more frequent and, again, being extended to private hospitals.
The Health Service Safety Investigations Body is currently envisaged as working only in NHS hospitals and for NHS patients treated in independent hospitals. Surely the Government recognise that the Bill legislating for that will need to be amended, to ensure that the HSSIB can investigate across the piece.
Once again, we come back to whistleblowers who have raised concerns, have not been listened to and have been suffering detriment, and an opportunity to stop Paterson many years earlier has been missed. What reforms are the Government planning genuinely to support whistleblowers? I am presenting a private Member’s Bill tomorrow, because we need a root-and-branch reform of how whistleblowers are treated.
The hon. Lady raises a wide range of issues, which I will try to go through. First, I reassure her that, at the time Paterson was practising, the CQC was not investigating or assessing the private sector; that was introduced in 2015. Whistleblowing was in an entirely different place from where it is now. We now have 500 lanyard-wearing national guardians across the NHS, and we encourage people to raise their concerns with those national guardians, the guardians to listen and the trust to act quickly on the concerns raised. I think it is fair to say, that since 2012, when the CQC introduced revalidation, a number of regulatory processes have been put in place. There was shockingly little at the time that Paterson was practising. The system is now much more robust—and yet, I completely take her point; much more still needs to be done.
We are learning the lessons from Getting it Right First Time. In fact, that is a subject of discussion within the Department. We are looking at how the lessons have been applied and what we can learn.
The hon. Lady is right about revalidation and 365° appraisal every five years. As she will know, the CQC is an independent body. It introduced revalidation and appraisal. Our job is now to ask the CQC to make that system more robust and look at how to improve it, because that is an important part of the equation, ensuring that something like this does not happen again. I say here and now at the Dispatch Box that I would like the CQC, as a matter of urgency, to look at how it can make that system more robust and effective, so that we can quickly identify doctors—not those like the hon. Lady—who are not up to standard, who are outliers and who should not be practising.
We will look at the hon. Lady’s point about the HSSIB. I do not think that there is a role for the HSSIB in the private sector. The private sector is a matter of personal choice. It is our job to ensure that healthcare reaches the same standard across the board, whether it is in the private sector or the NHS. The CQC does that, and that is how we hold the private sector to account. Then it is down to patients to make the choice about where they wish to be treated; that is their independent choice. That is a matter of consent, which is something else we need to look at—how do conversations about consent take place? Does the patient have the capacity to take in the information being given to them? Are they making an informed choice? Do they have enough information about the surgeon they are seeing to make the right choice? Those are the issues we need to focus on.
If patients are to be kept safe, several things need to be true. First, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said, medical professionals who have concerns about the practice of other medical professionals need to have their concerns properly listened to. Is it not therefore a matter of serious concern that four of the six whistleblowers in this case—one of whom I have the privilege to represent in this place—found themselves subject to fitness-to-practise reviews after reporting their concerns?
Secondly, is it not right that medical organisations—public or private—need to act on those concerns? It is profoundly troubling that concerns were reported to the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust in 2003, but it did not suspend Paterson until 2011.
Thirdly, is it not important that regulators do what they need to do? It is also profoundly troubling that concerns about Paterson’s malpractice were reported to the GMC in 2007, and his suspension by the GMC came only in 2012.
I would like to make an apology. I mentioned the CQC in response to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford)—the acronyms!—but it was the GMC.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. I reiterate that Paterson is in jail, and that the processes now in the regulatory framework did not exist at the time Paterson was practising. The culture towards whistleblowers is very different now from what it was then, as demonstrated by the roll-out of the national guardians scheme. The national guardians are there for whistleblowers to go to. We want—we absolutely want—people to report when they think somebody is acting inappropriately, or a surgeon or doctor is not practising to the standards they should be. We want to know that as soon as possible. There will be no investigations of whistleblowers’ fitness to practise; that will apply to the people they are reporting. I do not think the national guardians scheme has had enough press or that people are aware enough of it. It is about speaking up, listening and then the trust acting on the information it has. One of the outcomes of this report will be that we can reassure both healthcare professionals and the public that we want them to speak up. We actually want them to be a whistleblower because only by doing that can we guarantee patient safety.